Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Belief on the back burner

Can you deny that there are supernatural beings and not be an atheist?

The New York Times ran the transcript of an interview conducted for “The Stone” by Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, with Howard Wettstein, his counterpart at the University of California. Wettstein is a practicing Jew who prays regularly, and he is proof, I suppose, that one can have a rich religious life without necessarily believing in God – or, in his words, taking “a theoretical stance on God’s existence.” As Wettstein sees it (I think), belief is irrelevant to faith, and even irrelevant altogether. To paraphrase another philosopher with a similar name (Wittgenstein), what we can’t put into words we must pass over in silence.

Wettstein takes an unhelpful detour at the beginning, comparing theorizing about God to theorizing about numbers. “Even an advanced and creative mathematician,” he says, “need not have views about, say, the metaphysical status of numbers.” He cites the physicist Richard Feynman, who was supposed to have said about himself that he “lived among the numbers,” but who was unconcerned with whether they “actually” existed. But when we think about numbers we are able to describe how they work, in the form of proofs.  No such thinking can be done about God to yield results that are anything but highly subjective and abstract.

Wettstein talks about a rabbi friend of his who held that “God’s reality went without saying,” but that “God’s reality as a supernatural being was quite another thing.” (Wettstein’s words.) To watch his friend praying was to be overwhelmed, he says, by the intimacy of the pray-er and the pray-ee: “God was almost tangible.”

Gutting asks, quite reasonably, how one can pray to something that doesn’t exist. Wettstein says that “’existence’ is, pro or con, the wrong idea for God.”    

“My relation to God has come to be a pillar of my life, in prayer, in experience of the wonders and the awfulness of our world,” Wettstein says. “And concepts like the supernatural and transcendence have application here. But (speaking in a theoretical mode) I understand such terms as directing attention to the sublime rather than referring to some nonphysical domain. To see God as existing in such a domain is to speak as if he had substance, just not a natural or physical substance. As if he were composed of the stuff of spirit, as are, perhaps, human souls. Such talk is unintelligible to me. I don’t get it.”
In other words, we can’t talk about whether God exists, we can only talk about what His existence means to us. An argument like this gives sophistry a good name.

“So what is the real question?” Gutting asks, a little wearily it seems.

“The real question is one’s relation to God, the role God plays in one’s life, the character of one’s spiritual life,” Wettstein answers. These aren’t questions, they are sidestepping the question.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Death: DIY

My great idea is finally catching on, and as usual I don’t get any credit for it. Maybe because I kept it to myself. “Selfie obits” are now to die for, as reported in “USA Today.”
Writing your own obituary was a brainstorm that came to me six or seven years ago, when my former best friend died and no one had much to say at his funeral. My pal had been brilliant and creative and eloquent, as well as never shy about self-promotion, and a self-crafted obit would have been right down his alley. As it was, his family/friends could barely muster the resources to run even a small notice of his death in the newspaper.
Look what Grandma did!
It is just such cruel happenstances of fate that we can take arms against with an “auto-obituary.” Why leave it to someone else to sum up your life, even a loved one? Or particularly a loved one, who may be prostrate with grief, preoccupied with other details of your final disposition, or otherwise without the wherewithal to give you a proper written send-off?
To paraphrase Big Daddy in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” most people don’t get in the paper until they die. When they do, it’s often, well, disappointing. One or two lines about the deceased, who more than likely never met a stranger, and the rest of the space given over to a listing of the survivors. Composing your own obituary just might reassure you that you’ll escape a fate worse than death: Irrelevance.
The “USA” article references Susan Soper of Atlanta, who offers the “Obitkit” as a guide to help people take control of their deaths, including writing their own obituaries. Just perusing her site, it seems to me there’s one major element lacking: Obitwit.

Since death can come at any time, it’s never too early to start working on your obit. (You can always update it, like your resume.) Give it enough thought and effort, and who knows, maybe you’ll help contribute to a whole new genre: Obitlit.