Sunday, May 16, 2010

Doubt: The Introduction. First Impressions

I mentioned receiving Jennifer Hecht's book Doubt from a friend. I have just started it, but already have puzzlement about it.

Jennifer Hecht brilliantly describes some aspects of the Great Schism between the meaningfulness and purposefulness of the world as we contemplate it from within our minds and the seeming meaninglessness of the universe when we sit farther back from ourselves and observe the actions of humans. If the universe is so meaningless, how do we come to have a concept of meaning at all? Yet if it is meaningful, why is its general pattern one of random, pointless events that do not correspond to our ideas of justice and meaning?
The universe is more powerful than we, but when it comes to demonstration of sentience and will, we find ourselves in the the uncomfortable position of being the smartest, most powerful creatures around. There is no one to help us. Thus there is a rupture between daily life, in which individuals are rarely the highest authority, and the larger picture, the macro-reality of humankind, in which we as a group are the authority on everything.

In describing the differences (and some similarities) between how nonbelievers and believers view the world, she seems spot on when describing the split in general. I found myself nodding "Yes. That's it exactly." Yet whenever she gets more specific about what Christians believe, I furrow my brow, and eventually shake my head. No, that's not quite it. That's not how we see things and describe them. It's something like, but there is some veering wide of the mark at the end. I doubt that I am expecting her to match my own idiosyncratic way of putting things; I was at adult Sunday School this morning, and so have the thinking of some Christians about these same questions quite fresh in my mind. (We are discussing such basic doctrines as the nature of God and the design of creation.) I don't think Hecht accurately describes what any one of us believes, nor any Christian I have read or met. There is a wall, an opacity which she can't see through. She will write that Jesus resolves the schism by teaching this, and gets it about half right, or that Augustine was beseiged by doubts in such-and-such a way, getting that half right.

This is not just because she might disagree with us. Ms. Hecht seems quite willing to bend over backwards to see things as the various groups do and present them as positively as she can. She constrasts the general monotheistic belief with rational materialism and other atheisms, with agnosticisms and Eastern perceptions. She tries to be genuinely fair, and I have little doubt that she would describe honestly if she could. This makes the book a little thrilling, as that is a courtesy that strongly opposing philosophies rarely extend to each other.

I will have a try at describing what she misses. Perhaps a clearer description will occur to me as I read further. She repeats several times that belief is a comforting state - a mistake nonbelievers often make. I don't know if this drives part of her understanding. To enter belief is to enter a more dangerous and puzzling world, not exit into a comfortable one. (That is not an argument for the truth of Christianity or any other belief, but is a mere description of what happens.) Second, she looks suspiciously likely to be seeing only the positives that result from doubt per se. That freedom from some doctrines has resulted in death, injustice, and poverty does not seem to occur to her. Like a parent watching her kid's soccer game, she sees only the fouls against, not fouls committed. That is very natural, but not very helpful.

But most importantly, she relates religion and experience of the trancendent to feeling or impression, with reason more properly applied to science and inquiry. I suspect she is moving in the direction of finding both necessary, or even marrying them in some way, but at the beginning, she clearly assigns these to two realms. I think this is unfair to both religion and science. The former may make more use of feeling and impression, the latter more use of reason, but neither is pure in that regard. Nor should they be.

The wall of non-perception that she comes up against is similar to the not-quite-getting-it that believers have about each other. Catholics understanding much but missing the point of Protestantism. Protestants perceiving and even admiring the beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox but still not fully grasping them. More strongly, I note this same not-grasping in Jewish understanding of Christians, and as well as I can understand it from the outside, Christian perceptions of Jewish beliefs. Hecht shows this same type of missing essential points, but at an even farther remove. It is not a misunderstanding because of hostility, it is just, well, misunderstanding.

It may be that there are things about belief (and even disbelief) that can only be understood from the inside, or in retrospect after belief is accepted or rejected.

I can't comment on whether she describes the types of nonbelief, and the experience of unbelief, accurately. She may descibe them better, or she may lose the thread with them as well.

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