Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Innovative the Borderzone

Early astronomers developed not-quite-accurate cosmologies because they imagined that the cosmos would display perfection. That out there was God’s domain, after all. Planets therefore had perfectly circular orbits, no doubt about it, because the circle is the perfect form. Close, but no cigar. Creation has a peculiar characteristic; in my own private lingo I say that it is “naturalistic,” meaning that it escapes pure geometry while, at the same time, employing geometry—but as a servant. We find law and order out there, but we cannot quite exploit it. We always overlook some aspect of the situation that later comes to bite us. Humility, therefore, turns out to be a practical virtue. Be humble—or else.

One of our geometrical conceptions is that human life is a test. Be virtuous, die in a state of grace, and you go to heaven. Die in a state of mortal sin, and you go to hell. In the intermediate state—and we have experts who can precisely define which sins are venial and which are not—you undergo purgation and then are admitted to the state of bliss. You can also forearm yourself (or so it was once taught) by piling up indulgences. We might think of indulgences as liquid assets that could be turned into the currency of Purgatory to purchase shorter sentences. To be sure I am now describing a period of corruption in Christendom when innovative products, but of a spiritual kind, were introduced into the market and turned into ordinary cash.

We had a kind of financial revamping that swept all this away. It was called the Reformation. But our talent for simplification was not exactly rooted out. A new product came on the market under which faith without works was now the ticket to heaven. Yet other marvelous inventions surfaced. Among these was the belief that you were either saved or doomed even before your mother gave you birth. The art of salvation then became discerning from various tell-tale signs whether or not you belonged to the chosen or not. A fairly reliable indicator was thought to be whether or not you were well off.

But innovation did not end there. The most recent product is a kind of hedge-fund guaranteed to keep you hale provided only that you have the means to keep healthy until the last moment and, in the final days, well supplied with pain-killing drugs. This new product is called “You Only Go Round Once”; it’s also offered by the folk who bring us “Grab All the Gusto That You Can.” Both offer iron-clad guarantees that no claims will be made against your accounts after death because you will have disappeared.

Ah, yes. We’re a creative kind. But I shy from all of these products because observation tells me that reality is naturalistic, meaning that it's hard and lawful, to be sure, but with a strange twist that makes it ultimately unpredictable. It requires a much more comprehensive approach than these simple algorithms promise to deliver. You can’t purchase a winning ticket just by joining this or that group and acquiring all of its good habits. There is more to it than that. Knowledge alone is insufficient. We are not, repeat not, in control. To trust the Merrill Lynches of spirituality—trusting in their size, name, might—is not a sure guarantee of fat portfolios in heaven. Sometimes, indeed always, it is best to mind our own knitting. And a certain amount of holy dread is perfectly appropriate.

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