- Recently I saw this story on the online version of the New York Times.
How to Live a Happy Life, From a Leading Atheist
“I want people to see what a meaningful, happy life I’ve had with these beliefs,” says philosopher Daniel C. Dennett. “I don’t need mystery.”
I was certainly curious and eager to read this story which seems to be a kind of review of a new book by Daniel Dennett. However, I needed to pay the New York Times for the privilege of reading it, and that I was not going to do. But I could still ponder these words just as they are.
Daniel Dennett is a well-known philosopher of science, very much admired by the bigwigs of Silicon Valley, a militant atheist, and a person whose writings I would generally avoid. Here I am intrigued by his choice of words: “meaningful,” “happy,” “need,” “mystery.” The first two words are easy to dispose of. Consider two iconic figures of the 20th century: Hugh Hefner and Karl Rahner. They were diametrical opposites in life. The former espoused a philosophy of hedonism; the latter was a humble but brilliant Jesuit theologian. But both could have said they were living a “meaningful, happy life” within the context of their values and world view. So these two words are rather vacuous until given a clear semantic context.
The next two words, “need” and “mystery,” are much more puzzling. It does seem that his statement amounts to saying that “I don’t need the notion of God.” Mystery = God. Ok, understood, but I suspect that his understanding and use of the word “mystery” is of the common notion which would be applicable in science also. Mystery here is a problem, enigma, riddle, puzzle; it’s something which baffles or perplexes. So, “mystery” simply means a certain lack of knowledge, which lack can or will be supplied sooner or later. The reality in front of us is a mystery to us because of some current limitation to our knowledge, our understanding, our vision. And this limitation can potentially be overcome at some future point when we apply more resources, etc. Mystery is a provisional state; given enough time, enough resources, enough research, it will dissipate. What seemed like a mystery in 1750 is now explained by science. The murder of so-and-so remains a mystery until more evidence solves it. Etc. So I think Dennett relegates the notion of God to this level of mystery and he feels he has “solved” that and it turns out he can live without it.
Now theology and authentic mysticism have a very different understanding of “mystery” as it applies to that Ultimate Reality which we call God. In the Catholic tradition we have the likes of Gregory of Nyssa, Pseudo-Dionysius, Thomas Aquinas, and the modern Karl Rahner, all of whom have emphatically pointed to God’s absolute incomprehensibility, meaning this is not something due to OUR limitations in this life but that this is the very nature of God. In Rahner’s language, God is the Holy Mystery which is infinite, inexpressible, absolutely incomprehensible; but which yet draws near to us personally in self-communication deep within our being, our personhood, and deep within history in the person of Jesus Christ. This self-communication unfolds as Love, as forgiveness, as truth, as beauty, as absolute goodness. And when we die this self-communication of God continues for all eternity as we never exhaust the divine fullness. God’s infinite Love fills our hearts with an infinite capacity to receive the endless ecstasy of the Divine Life. This is Catholic theology at its best as it opens the door to an authentic mysticism.
Returning to Prof. Dennett’s statement, the “mystery” that Christian thought and mysticism speak of is not something that you need…like some extraneous element “outside” you….like something that you can choose. Yes, there is a profound choice to face, but this is not it. This Mystery is like the air you breathe…it surrounds you…you live within it…and you encounter it in all you see, whether a tiny leaf falling from a tree, a far-off galaxy whirling with millions of stars, a tear on a sad face…. This Mystery is also the fabric of your deepest personhood; it is that into which you are invited to lose yourselves in order to be constituted as persons. Human beings are essentially oriented to mystery. So, no, I don’t “need” mystery also, as if I were lacking something; it is the “givenness” of my existence, of my life.
- Two very different visions of the “good life.”
Also something that I saw in the news recently: examples of some strikingly different choices in what one might call the “good life.” The first is a seemingly harmless version of hedonism, what I would call “escapist hedonism,” a kind of beach bum life. This was espoused in the songs of Jimmy Buffett, musician, song writer, and super rich. He recently died so he was in the news, and his songs peppered You Tube. His top hit and a key to his “message” is “Margaritaville.” A very catchy tune which you can hear and see the lyrics here:
Actually Buffett was very hard working at pushing and selling this beach bum vision of life and made millions. It’s a daydream kind of life which really amounts to nothing, but amazingly hordes of fans bought into this daydream.
The next choice is also another variant of hedonism, what I would call “engaged hedonism”: the Burning Man Phenomenon. Every year just before Labor Day some 80,000 or so people gather on the playa of the Black Rock Desert 90 miles north of Reno, and set up a temporary encampment of sorts for a week of “activities.” It is quite a phenomenon to say the least with people coming from all over the world. This year it was a bit of a mess due to unexpected rain!
It is actually difficult to say what this is all about, but they do emphasize words like “participation,” “engagement,” “spontaneity,” “creativity,” etc. The fact that sex and drugs are part of the picture is simply assumed, no need to talk about it. People from various walks of life come (the ones I’ve met were very nice), but mostly they are well-off and many are very rich…I’ve heard of talk of some bringing a chef….some tents had chandeliers and portable showers….. Actually it costs several thousand dollars just to be there, so you better have money.
There’s a pretense that this is some kind of alternative society. People leave the “constraints” of their regular life and are given the space to “cut loose” for a week. That makes you wonder what their regular experience of life is like, what’s it all about! The whole week’s experience culminates on the final night when an effigy of a human being, a totem of sorts, is burned in a huge display of fire and fireworks. Again, not sure what this means; certainly this fire is not the fire of the Burning Bush, nor is it the fire in which heretics were burned, nor is it a warm quiet camp fire. It seems to represent human creativity, spontaneity, or something like that. But it is all, more or less, ego self-expression; and all the distortions of the ego get projected out into the beauty and night of the desert….which by the way the participants do not notice….such is the self-absorption. It’s such an historical irony that in the past the desert was where the first monks went out….to transcend the ego and encounter God.
Here’s a brief You Tube video where you get to see a bit inside and meet some of the people:
And the next version of the “good life” ….”and now for something completely different”—to borrow from Monty Python!
Recently I saw a story on CNN about a family that hiked the three great trails of North America. Mother and father are both doctors, and they have 5 children….and all went! First they did the Appalachian Trail; the experience was so positive that nobody wanted to stop! So next they did the Continental Trail in the Rockies; and this year they did the incredible Pacific Crest Trail. What a story! They “homeschooled” their kids even out on the trail. Looking at the photos of the family out in the wilderness, you can see the healthy faces of the kids; I mean healthy in a deep human way. This experience will shape their minds and hearts for life. It opens up an awareness that no amount of money can buy. And mom and dad sure do seem to have a good sense of what a “good life” entails.
Here is a link to that story:
And for a different take on Burning Man, try this from The Onion:
- A few easy steps!
I am not a fan of spiritual methods, Christian or Buddhist or whatever. But this set of instructions speaks to me! It is an excerpt from a poem by my favorite modern poet, W. S. Merwin…..the poem is called “Exercise.”
First forget what time it is
for an hour
do it regularly every day
then forget what day of the week it is
do this regularly for a week
then forget what country you are in
and practice doing it in company
for a week
then do them together
for a week
with as few breaks as possible
follow these by forgetting how to add
or to subtract
it makes no difference
you can change them around
after a week
both will help you later
to forget how to count
forget how to count
starting with your own age
starting with how to count backward
starting with even numbers
starting with Roman numerals
starting with fractions of Roman numerals
starting with the old calendar
going on to the old alphabet
going on to the alphabet
until everything is continuous again
Reminds of a couple of old zen/tao masters….one said to forget the self…the other said he wanted to meet the sage who had forgotten words!
When everything is continuous again…..!