An Adequate Idea

By Doug Bruns

Essay

I was recently engaged in a conversation that ended with the phrase, “The difference between us, Doug, is that I am a man of faith and you have no faith.” It was delivered with shrugged shoulders, a slightly tilted head and the nervous hint of a smile. It was not mean-spirited, just a declaration, yet it seemed to carry the impress of righteousness. I found it a curious thing, this conversation-stopping declaration. But I am getting ahead of myself.

There is a pizzeria in Pokhara, Nepal, called unimaginatively, Pizzeria and Jazz Club. It sports long wooden tables and outdoor dining and is a great place to watch people. It is a refuge for the traveler, a place where acceptable pizza is served and pints of ice-cold Everest beer can be consumed with complete abandon. A handful of fellow travelers and I, hungry for something other than the Nepalese cuisine we dubbed Goat Knuckle Curry, were settling down to serious eating, American style, when the conversation turned, first to history, then writers of history, then Josephus specifically, the first century historian of the Roman empire. In that context, my friend Neal brought up the Gospels.“You are aware that Josephus mentioned Jesus twice?” I said, looking over my beer at Neal. “Once in reference to his brother and the second time to his career as King of the Jews, though the second reference is probably not authentic.”

“James. His brother was James,” he replied. He peered back at me. Neal was a religious man. It was not an overt attribute. He was not doctrinaire, but having known him for several years, I’d observed his faith on occasion as it was released into the atmosphere. He was, as he would later in the evening declare, A Follower of Jesus. I, on the other hand, was not a follower of anything so much as my own mercurial whim, but he did not know this definitively, though I think he had a hunch.

It has been my experience that a conversation such as this progresses in one of two fashions. It either falls into stark partisanship: You are going to hell and I am not. Or, it becomes a tactful dance through a mine field. One either suits up for war or puts on dancing shoes. There is not much middle ground.
“Neal,” I said. “I learned Hellenistic Greek as an undergrad in order to read the Gospels in the original.” Although this sounds like stark braggadocio, that was not my motive. Rather, I offered it up as a warning to a friend: We have a decision to make before we go further. Do we war? Or do we dance? I am prepared for either. This is what one does with friends. We reveal. I left it up to him, which is my usual course in such matters.

“Wow, cool. Greek–that’s really something,” he said. We were going to dance. Let the orchestra tune up, I recall thinking.

 

We consumed vast quantities of Everest beer and pizza. The evening was warm and the company good–though an abundance of flies spent the evening repelling down the neck of my beer bottle. Despite the name, “Pizzeria and Jazz Club,” there was no jazz club, unless you count the CD player trumpeting elevator music from the kitchen nook. For some, travel is one of life’s basic pleasures. Eating can be another. Warm evenings with friends and good conversation yet another–preferably, for me, conversation with weight and laden with ideas. Ideas can be as tangible and enjoyable as mozzarella melted in sweet tomato sauce, and they last longer. It is something altogether different–enlightenment-like, even–when it all converges, when the universe is queued up to deliver a semblance of harmony and order, when food and friends and energy and spirit combine. Before you are aware of it you are brushing star dust off your shoulders. It’s the sort of experience that takes my edge off and puts me at ease. Such moments set me to thinking that I can be a reasonable and perhaps even decent human being. I am, though, usually disabused of the notion soon enough.

We danced, Neal and I. The Q document? Yes, he knew the theory. No, I was not familiar with C.S. Lewis’s writings beyond Narnia, nor did I care. For me original texts matter, not metaphysics. Yes, he acknowledged knowledge of the absence of a virgin birth and resurrection in the original texts. And yes, I acknowledged the attributes of the righteous. And so on. As the evening worn on, undoubtedly more chips were stacking on my side of the table. If we had been playing poker, he was losing. And it was all so polite.  Occasionally, his wife leaned into the conversation with an odd and wrong-headed comment, something typically dismissive about evolution or some far-fetched eschatology crazy talk. But she seemed tentative and uneasy on our turf and backed off soon enough. As the evening wound down, so did we.

There are two things about that conversation I found particularly interesting. I mentioned one, the conversation stopper: the line of faith and those on one side of it and those on the other. The second is the implication of faith and what it means to what I call the infinity of ideas.

The meal completed, our entourage walked into the night. The mountains were silhouetted over our shoulder. Neal and I shuffled along as we finished up, each of us attempting to put a nice tight bow on our argument. Our friends trailed behind in various states of inebriation. Finally, he turned to me. “I sense, Doug, that you are a seeker,” he said. “I believe you will eventually find what you are seeking.” I have heard this before. I find that people who think they can discern a thing as subtile as the intent of my motivation irritating. I frankly can’t do that myself most of the time.  It was the only annoying thing he’d said all night and it squarely pissed me off. He delivered his pronouncement as if he had secret knowledge; that in spite of everything I had said, in spite of loosing the argument of the table, he was informed that I would eventually find my way onto his turf.

“No, Neal. I am not a seeker,” I said, suppressing my umbrage. “I am a curious man. They are not the same thing. The curious believe in the infinity of ideas. Conversely, the seeker longs for the end of ideas.” I don’t know where it came from, but it resonated of truth, so I continued. “The man of faith is a seeker who has set aside his curiosity, assuming he ever had it. He believes in the end of ideas, that ideas stop and something else picks up, faith. He seeks this end, and when that happens everything is different. It all changes once faith is discovered. That is you.” I can’t recall any particular profound ideas I’ve had in the past. My mind too often is shallow and barren, this one exception not withstanding. I pondered what I had declared: That ideas are infinite and that faith renders them otherwise. The thought was intriguing. “I will not accept the end of curiosity,” I declared, “even if faith were compelling, which it is not. That is me.”

Neal looked at me. It was dark and I couldn’t see his features well. I thought I had  offended him. He is an intelligent and well-read man, an experienced traveler. I had accused him of lacking curiosity and perhaps being devoid of ideas. He didn’t respond. I don’t know if I upset and offended him or if I had spoken a profound truth that he could not dismiss. Perhaps both. That was when he delivered the demarcation, despite my pronouncement: he had faith, I did not. And that settles it. Of course he was right, that is, correct in his assessment. We departed into the night. All was fine the next morning. We breakfasted in the shadow of Annapurna, though the mountain, ironically, soon grew shrouded in mist.

I should point out that I, to Descartes’ observation, do not have an “adequate idea” of the meaning of the infinite. Nor am I trained to figure it out. I’m not a philosopher, not a physicist, nor a mathematician, nor an astronomer. Nor am I a theologian who can knowledgeably discuss faith, though at one time I fancied myself a pilgrim on that path. I am just a simple man who struggles to plum the shallows of my being. I fall back on analogy and metaphor rather than critical thinking for that which I most seek: clarity. But I am a cynic. For instance, I look at my dog and see faith in her eyes, though that is a banality. I peer into the night sky and discern infinity, though I know that to be a simple romantic notion. So what am I (avoiding the loaded question, Who am I?) and what’s one to make of the notion that faith is at odds with curiosity? If ideas are infinite, can faith, and its implied limitations, be defended in the universe of ideas? I don’t know, but again I find the question intriguing–and that alone is worth something to me. Something important.

A few days later our group stumbled into a village ceremony which included animal sacrifice. A guide told me that, though outlawed, in some parts of Nepal and India even child sacrifice is still practiced. I obviously have no idea if this is true. He showed me a small tattoo, more like a blemish, on his leg. This, he declared, “is the tattoo my parents gave me at birth to avoid me being kidnapped for sacrifice. Only perfect babies are sacrificed.” In this village a goat and a chicken had already been killed. Their headless carcasses where pushed up against the wall. A wild-eyed black calf was being led to the bloody stone before the alter and a lamb was waiting in the offing. The lamb was calm and quiet in its ignorance. Neal’s wife, as if still attempting to make her point, said to me, “If only they knew the lamb of God made all this unnecessary.”  I had to turn away before the calf was slaughtered. I cannot stand to see animals in pain.

Henry James said of the novel that its only obligation was to be interesting. It is the interesting that sustains the life flame, though our tendency is to settle for and accept the uninteresting, as if it were inevitable–an idea I firmly resist. We put down the difficult novel. We switch channels and grow easily bored. We tragically disengage from the vapid life. Curiosity evaporates and can even disappear from memory. In Buddhist philosophy Effort is the fourth paramita, after Generosity, Self-discipline and Patience. In this context effort is a virtue. (The late novelist Roberto Bolaño wrote that virtue lives in a dark cave, “amid cave dwellers, some dangerous indeed.”)  I like to think that the effort to maintain curiosity is its own reward. It fulfills the obligation of the life-novel project to be interesting. (I am making the assumption of a life-novel and not a life-short story, essay or poem.) As you see, no critical path for me. I easily slip into the stream of analogy, not generating a ripple. It is at once a weakness and a strength I simultaneously possess.

So is that it? Is anything settled? Or rather have I simply cooked up a stew of curiosity, faith, ideas and infinity, a meditation without the requisite singled-minded concentration, a melody without resolution? I am comfortable with the unsettled nature of things. And that is the lesson for me, teased out amongst all this rambling–calmness amongst the unsettled. I think that is more akin to what life is in truth–maybe even Truth. In tonal music there is a need, in theory, to resolve from dissonance. The ear longs to move from dissonance to consonance. As moderns our ears have evolved to accept something other than harmonic resolution. The debut of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps famously broke out in riot at its 1913 premier, it was so foreign and discordant. (Does the unsettled nature of music resolve to violence? Does dissonance somehow explain why we war?) Today we find nothing unusual in a listening to Stravinsky, so conditioned we have become to that which was previously cacophonous. Yet, for some, the longing for resolution is deeply ingrained. I put faith in this context–faith as a longing for resolution. This is not to be mistaken for wishful thinking. Resolution solves something. It makes us feel better for starters, putting an end to that which was disturbing. But wishful thinking can only hope–it is transitive at best. Regardless, longing for resolution does not make finding it, if it is to be found, truth or Truth or even a convenient necessity. Nor does it make it wrong. Nietzsche said that “Every true faith is infallible, it accomplishes what the person holding the faith hopes to find in it.”

I have a friend who many years ago lost a child. She asked me if I believe in an afterlife. Compassion dictated that she hear I believe and that is how I answered her. But a gentle agnosticism is what allowed me to answer her as she needed. An idea that will not be extinguished, no matter how contested and to what length, should perhaps not be dismissed out of hand. Long-standing ideas, even possibly wrong-headed ones, deserve at minimum a curious respect, if not honest inquiry. Curiosity gives ground. Almost everything else, in my experience, takes it. (That is not so iconoclastic of me, I notice.) The metaphysical is the playground of fast and loose thought and one might occasionally want to speed down the slide in that playground, enjoying the rush. But it is not a place to spend purposeful time. Life and death more often warrant a spirit of playfulness than I think we can understand, but finally the devices of the playground cease to resolve an honest inquiry. The imperative for elegance is found in nature and it is, ironically, a brutal simplicity–further it can only be discovered from an origin placed in curiosity. Auden said “To ask the hard question is simple.” The balance of nature finds life at the fulcrum. In the frenetic quest for stability faith moves the fulcrum. That will ultimately, I think, disorient. Curiosity puts it again, square and center.

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DOUG BRUNS: Husband, father, son, thinker, reader, writer, Mainer (application pending), photographer, walker, traveler, recluse, gadfly & cook. He confesses: to having problems with details; needing more quiet time than most; confusing wisdom and knowledge; missing the summer lakes of his youth and loving the smell of a pine grove. He flosses every night. He is currently at work on a book tracing the history of the idea that the unexamined life is not worth living. His blog can be found at: "...the house I live in..."

11 responses to “An Adequate Idea”

  1. […] a link to the full essay. Regardless of my contributions, I hope you find The Nervous Breakdown of interest. It is, I think, […]

  2. Joe Daly says:

    Welcome aboard, Doug. Very meditative peace. Reminds me a great deal of “Beside Still Waters,” by Gregg Easterbrook, in which he discusses the dance between science and faith.

    I was very happy to read your comment about reading ancient Greek. As a Classics major back in the day, I too had to read the New Testament (at least Luke) in its original tongue. I was horrible in my Classics courses and struggled mightily through that exercise. Still, I have on many occasion, dusted off the same declaration as you when faced with someone who favors a literal/fundamental interpretation of the Bible.

    “Well, I read it in the original language, so I’m pretty well aware of what that quote may or may not mean.”

    I’ve found that academic arrogance can really piss some people off.

    Anyway, good debut. I look forward to more!

  3. Dana says:

    “The curious believe in the infinity of ideas. Conversely, the seeker longs for the end of ideas.”

    Wow – that’s wonderful!

  4. Judy Prince says:

    A tidy appetiser to one of the Great Issues, Doug.

    I warmed quickly to your humour: “Goat Knuckle Curry” . . . and “It has been my experience that a conversation such as this progresses in one of two fashions. It either falls into stark partisanship: You are going to hell and I am not. Or, it becomes a tactful dance through a mine field. One either suits up for war or puts on dancing shoes.”

    I find the word “faith” too connotated to handle neutrally in discussions. Possibly this is because of my USAmerican backgrounding in several kinds of Christianity in which the word “faith”, like so many other words, seemed coded and reserved for people who felt they were favoured by the deity.

    It seems more straightforward to say: I *believe* —————–.

    For example, I *believe* that reincarnation sounds reasonable and logical.

    I *believe* that I and all others are somehow part of something nifty and cooler than each of us happens to be.

    I *believe* that what I tell myself to think determines how I feel.

    I *believe* that I draw strength, most of the time, from leaning on the positive sides of people, events and issues.

    And here is where the debate, for me, BEGINS, not ends: I *believe* these aforementioned things because I have experienced them. Thus, I’m pretty much pleased to winnow, as I like, through others’ beliefs in order to broaden my own experiential beliefs.

  5. dwoz says:

    First, I need to let my dilettante pedant stand up and get his exercise…It is mostly accepted that Nijinsky’s choreography was the spark for the Sacre du Printemps riot, rather than the score.

    But the non-pedant in me has to rebut that this in no way modulates your point.

    I like to think of faith as being “the deep and heartfelt commitment to discern God in the phenomenal sphere,” rather than a release from the duty of ideas.

    But I would share that opinion with a tiny fraction of a percent of most devout adherents of Abrahamic faiths. Your friend’s wife being perhaps the exemplar.

    Our capacity to understand God is likely analogous to the understanding of the body and mind that a blood corpuscle is capable of. Thus any resemblance of god, to God, will at best be coincidental and spectacularly narrow and incomplete. Not recognizing the inevitability of this is the root of ignorance.

    The phrase “as above, so below” is absolutely correct and true, but not if mis-applied to phenomenal AFFECTS, and therein lies the key to sorting the whole mess out.

  6. Doug Bruns says:

    dwoz, Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Very interesting, indeed. And as to the pedant getting his exercise, keep the dilettante dancing! I appreciate the correction/adjustment. I recall reading that later in his career, when things started to careen out of control for him, Nijinsky made gestures (and masturbated, I seem recall–you probably know…) from the stage. I don’t think I appreciated the choreography of Sacre du Printemps properly. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.
    D

  7. Matt says:

    I am not a seeker,” I said, suppressing my umbrage. “I am a curious man. They are not the same thing. The curious believe in the infinity of ideas. Conversely, the seeker longs for the end of ideas.” I don’t know where it came from, but it resonated of truth, so I continued. “The man of faith is a seeker who has set aside his curiosity, assuming he ever had it. He believes in the end of ideas, that ideas stop and something else picks up, faith. He seeks this end, and when that happens everything is different. It all changes once faith is discovered…..I will not accept the end of curiosity, even if faith were compelling, which it is not. That is me.”

    I’m gonna print that one out and put it on my wall.

  8. Andrew Nonadetti says:

    Sorry for the late comment and, Doug, thank you for directing me here. Excellent piece, dwoz’s objections notwithstanding ;). My classless ignorance thankfully shields me from noticing such points as he raised. Like Matt, I nodded along with “the seeker longs for the end of ideas” though I think some concepts do deserve a definitive, be-all, end-all answer and I have been a seeker for those. But in the whole existential realm…? I’m actually quite ambivalent.

    I am here, now. Whether I was someone else, somewhere else “before” or whether there is an “after” or whether there’s some grand judge presiding – none of it affects my being here, now. I love to delve, to scratch beneath the surface, to swallow rivers of knowledge because I am thrilled by discovery and live for answers. But I have come to accept that sometimes the answer is not so much “unknowable” as beyond my personal capacity to know. To me, this is where faith – not dogma – kicks in. And there are no religious connotations when I say “faith”. I ascribe no otherworldy qualities to – there may very well be a “God” but it is just as likely that “he” is a more evolved form of life that doesn’t notice us any more than we notice insects in the fields. And what if we can communicate with “Him” and find out he has a “God” at the end of his knowledge?

    To me, it’s irrelevant. I am here, now. I have things to do. If there is a deity, I hope to meet him/her/it some day. I have some questions. But….

    Sigh. I just deleted something like four more paras. This is absurd for a comment. Doug, thank you for – again! – making me think. I will now counteract that with a full three days of meetings…..

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