We make choices in our lives, or at least we think we make choices. But do the choices, real or not, end up making much of a difference for us and for others? Do they end up making any difference for GSOT, for the Grand Scheme Of Things? Is there a place in GSOT for human decision?
I have wondered about GSOT as long as I can remember. Some people look for answers in relationships; others seek meaning in action or in accomplishment. I have shared those paths, but my left brain wants to add something more. On many a Friday night, like a brief personal sabbath before family activities on Saturday and church on Sunday, I’ve found a few hours to think and write.
Time and again I keep tracing my steps back to seek a starting point. The starting point is critical. In a previous blog, taking a cue from Charles Peirce, I proposed that we should start from where we are.
We examined how positivism, the dominant philosophy among leading scientific thinkers during most of the 20th century, starts with the dictum that truth pertains only to that which can be tested scientifically. Because of the requirement for reproducibility and interchangeability in science, truth so defined must be timeless and anonymous, aiming for universality. Positivism regards everything else as meaningless, thereby expressing a selective nihilism.
Yet most of what seems meaningful in life is personal, less than all, and tied to a moment or to a finite story in time. The starting point of positivism fails, because it puts all of that into an inferior, ephemeral category of reality. Positivism does not start from where we are.
Now I want to turn to the other widely subscribed philosophy in the U.S. over the past century, competing for dominance with positivism. I call it a philosophy, although I guess few others would give evangelical fundamentalism such a name. But it is a chosen path of ultimate truth for many millions, and we can rightly consider it a philosophy and part of GSOT. Evangelical fundamentalism rose to prominence only in the early 20th century, somewhat later than positivism. Today fundamentalism remains strong politically and culturally, as positivism crumbles.
Through childhood and early adolescence I lived with the tension of my mother’s religious belief and my father’s nonbelief. He was regardless an available, loving father and also an inspiring medical scientist. An early aptitude for mathematics and science seemed to mark me to take my father’s path. But my mother was also intellectually engaged, and she strongly encouraged my first attempts at writing outside of schoolwork. Her faith was strong though curiously flexible, owing perhaps to her upbringing in a Christian tradition liberal by early 20th century American standards.
My mother’s father taught and held leadership positions in a divinity school. As a young professor of philosophy at Carleton College, he had published in 1911 a book titled The Pupil and the Teacher. It was a handbook for Sunday School teachers that blended the new science of psychology from William James with traditional Victorian notions of character and will. The book sold over a million copies before it went out of print in the 1940s.
Mama took the young children to Sunday School, but did not insist if any of us decided to stop going around age 12. I continued to go. How did it happen that Christianity began to stick with me? Mama’s example must have been important, but I didn’t give her credit at the time. Instead I looked mostly toward Sunday School teachers and ministers and, especially, friends at church. A Methodist pastor, Eugene Dyess, convinced me that I did not need to leave my intellect behind in considering religious belief. I accepted enough traditional doctrine to keep going to Sunday School beyond that accountable age of 12. When I made a decision for Christ at age 14, the greatest influence for me by far had been the witness of friends at church, who met my dire need for companionship and connection, and whose faith was palpable.
This complex of heritage and experience was my Peircean starting point for thinking about religion. Yet when I went to college, I met new friends, who generally had a different kind of starting point. In a dorm room at Ole Miss, Bud Clarkson expressed what I would later identify as a fundamentalist starting point.
Bud was smart, a prime rush candidate for our fraternity, later to become a university professor. One day when I enthusiastically presented some thoughts about heaven, he responded that I was too speculative, that my ideas drew more from Disneyland than from biblical authority. Retaliating, I expressed some doubts about the Bible – and that hit a nerve with Bud. We must start with the Bible, he insisted. I asked why. “We find truth in the Bible,” he answered. “How do you know that?” I asked.
“I can’t prove that the Bible is true,” he admitted, “but I am certain of this – unless we have the Bible to rely on, we have nothing.” That stopped me in my tracks. We are to believe the Bible, I heard him say, because it is better than nothing.
After college I moved to Boston to go to medical school. At a Christian meeting there I met a quiet fellow student, the son of parents who started a Bible church in Arizona. My new friend seemed by word and action a model for faith. I subsequently asked him to join me in promoting some activity of the Christian Medical Society, but his reply was long in coming. After 2 weeks, I questioned him directly.
He was not a Christian, he said. He had lost his faith. The very idea of a spiritual life had become meaningless to him. He occasionally went to meetings, where he found familiarity but no renewal. How is it meaningless, I asked? “The deeper I look,” the young man said, “the more convinced I am that there is nothing there.” Nothing there – the same words I would hear from the philosopher Daniel Dennett, discussing the brains of worms, frogs, and humans.
Here were two young adults, both intelligent, both nurtured in religious homes, each contemplating nothingness – nihilism – and moving on toward decision, each to a different conclusion. But their modes of thinking, and especially their starting points, were perhaps not so different.
Somehow the apprehension that “nothing makes sense, nothing matters” has not affected me much. Here I give both my parents credit, my mother for her faith and relentless optimism, my father for his kindness and his joy in work and learning. I am not at home with nihilism, and I don’t live there. Nihilism, I hope, won’t play much of a role in my basic idea of GSOT.
Next post: Fundamentalism II. What Does the Bible say?
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 The Pupil and the Teacher. Weigle, L.A. Hodder & Stoughton, New York, 1911.