Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Gauguin’s Questions

Paul Gauguin (1848-1931), the French impressionist painter, once entitled one of his large Tahitian paintings: "Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going?" Back when I first saw a print in the 1960s—I was in the Army then, in Europe—his questions struck me sharply because they are, after all, the questions we all sometimes ask. I'd been asking the same questions ever since my consciousness reached a certain point in childhood. Yes, I was that sort of child.

Formulating my own answers has therefore been a lifelong enterprise. Humanity's answers are encased in religious doctrines, philosophy, and science. Now, of course, I have a certain kind of temperament. Mine inclined to draw me into hopeless quests. I don't view the answers on offer as commodities—choose this one, choose that. I'm inclined to go into things on my own—boldly to go where (alas!) all sorts of people have gone before. Just because.

I was raised a Catholic and managed to become an atheist by age 14 or so. That lasted until I was about 19 or thereabouts. At that point my perspectives expanded. It had dawned on me that modern theories offered no nutrition. They lack content. By content I mean meaning. That word itself is a big subject. What I have in mind here is ultimate meaning rather than the "stands for" sort of thing. Modernity, derived from a narrow scientific view of reality, ultimately offers none. All is matter. Matter may have emergent properties, as the happy phrasing has it, meaning that it can bubble into life. It may be viewed as ordinary stuff or as electromagnetic radiation, energy. In any case the story may be told in a sentence. Life is matter, matter chemistry, chemistry is elements, elements are built of sub-atomic particles, and these, examined further, dissolve into mysterious probability waves that, under certain circumstances, may behave like particles. And the meaning is…? Nothing there. No content.

Religious beliefs are filled with meanings. My reconciliation to the phenomenon of religion came in my early adulthood when I realized the difference between religion as a creative intuition and religion as a doctrine, thus as an authoritarian ideology. In my own lexicon "myth" has a positive connotation. I think of myths as carriers of truth accessible to the human intuition. The difference between a great work of art—say Dante's Divine Comedy—and a great myth is one merely of degree. And in that sense I came not only to accept humanity's religious universes but greatly to value them. At the same time I continued to distance myself from religion as institutional regimentation. That sort of thing—the institutionalization and reification of great poetic or mystical insight—I consider a deterioration, decadence, and ossification of something once alive. There is a Sufi saying that "the channel doesn't drink." Religious institutions may carry a living message without actually embodying it. The living stream I value, not the structure of commands. Morality arises from within, cannot be imposed from without. When it is, it is but conditioning.

The real truth of things and spirits interests me above all. Thus I value science because it has a truth about reality at some level—but by no means all the truth. There are ranges of reality that fall within the purview of science but are excluded from it because they're on the strange border between matter and something else. That area interests me a great deal as indicative of something beyond. So do phenomena that seem to arise in the Beyond and sweep into our realm from time to time mysteriously. The least of these phenomena, to give an example, are meaningful coincidences. At the more energetic end are mystical experiences and vast phenomena like the rise of new religious visions that, for millennia, sometimes, shape our very culture.

This much will serve as sketching the outlines of my interests.

No comments:

Post a Comment