Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Rage against the dying of the light


I took part in an interesting debate recently, causing something of a minor storm, all in the best possible fun, the kind of cut and thrust I love. It centred on one simple problem: why do bad things happen to good people?

It was put from a Christian perspective, of course, the dilemma that emerges from the belief that a benign and loving deity governs human destiny. The paradox, though, seems to me to be very modern - that somehow God exists to eliminate the possibility of mishap and chance. In times past Christians would be more inclined to see that life offers no guarantees, that suffering and mischance were part of the human condition.

My response was really quite simple, opening with my favourite passage from Ecclesiastes;

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.


The point is, surely, that life is all chance: bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people; there is no necessary reward in being good, no returns for goodness. Virtue may very well be its own reward, for it rarely brings anything more tangible.

One also has to consider the possibility that that God is not good, or if he is good he is not great. One also has to consider that God is indifferent to suffering, or he is entirely arbitrary in his choices, solicitous to some and indifferent to others, a God of lotteries. The final leap here is the possibility that God is no more than a comforting fiction; that he does not exist.

I followed this up by saying that if I were perplexed by this problem, the problem of injustice, suffering and the wholly arbitrary nature of life, I might very well be tempted by Manichaeism, the belief that the universe is a battlefield between the forces of light and the forces of dark; that the material world, the place where ‘bad things’ happen, is the creation not of a benign but a malignant spirit; the creation of Satan.

Reference was made in the discussion to Epicurus, to his view that the gods pay no heed at all to human fate. But there is much more here. I found this passage in The Essential Epicurus which seems to sum up his view, and mine, in a perfectly succinct fashion;

For the assertions of the many concerning the gods are conceptions grounded not in experience but in false assumptions, according to which the greatest misfortunes are brought upon the evil by the gods and the greatest benefits upon the good.

Yes, false assumptions, false assumptions about divinity and goodness. Christians should expect bad things to happen; for Christianity is based at root on the recognition of suffering as part of the human condition; that in suffering there is a path to redemption, the symbol of the cross. For most of history that was the message; it would have been well understood as the message.

Now in the less than spiritual world, the world of iPods, Blackberry and Botox, where no one ever grows old or dies, people are more perplexed when God ‘allows’ bad things to happen to ‘good’ people; perplexed, in other words, by chance. This seems to me to be an unusual state of innocence, born of a na├»ve theology and a wholly material view of existence, with God simply appended as a kind of celestial warranty.

I’m material, too, a material girl, but I am not deluded, at least I comfort myself with that thought. I hope to do what is right in the course of my life. I don't believe in a personal afterlife, I don't believe in rewards and punishments. Above all suffering for me is not a virtue but a vice. We have one life on this plain and no other. Celebrate it as it is and accept that mishap may happen at any time. Always rage against the dying of the- earthly - light.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

38 comments:

  1. Shit happens :) happenstance.

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  2. glad to hear you were talking sense to the religomites.

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  3. Anthony, it surely does. I hope you've managed to get beyond the particular problem that you faced. :-)

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  4. E, I do my best to talk sense to everybody, not always sucessfully. :-))

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  5. good thought on this ana!
    i do not believe in purposefully suffering. i do believe that fate goes its own routine regardless good or bad. but a wise/intelligent/courageous person can take "advantage" of any kind of experiences.

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  6. Hi, Ana. Anthony's first comment got it right. Another truism from the 'Nam, usually uttered after "Shit happens": "It don't mean nuthin'."

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  7. I killed the Bitch!!! No, I settled it, not worth the aggravation, all is well.

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  8. Then there is the concept of Karma, the law of returns, equal but opposite reaction, what goes around comes around and so forth.

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  9. Those old Christians who believed in a personal afterlife could see earthly suffering as part of a grand plan. The randomness was there but God was also there in a way we just couldn't understand but somehow in that grand scheme of things all would be well. Julian of Norwich had this beautiful and (I think) utterly false view.

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  10. Bob, absolutely! I'll come and catch up with your new happenings this evening.

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  11. Anthony, yes but that's just another artificial construct; it may go around and it may come around; but there again it may not.

    I'm glad to hear that you settled...without violence. :-)

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  12. Yes, it's all time and chance, as the old preacher sayeth. I love Thomas' poem, but it's something only a young person could write. I've seen enough people die to know that at that point there's very little will or energy left to rage, rage against the dying of the light.

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  13. It always does, but the circumstances are different for everyone and you do not always get to see or realize the manifestation upon another. There is no escaping fate (karma).

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  14. No point in thinking about justice when we have our eyes on Eros, granted we know where to look for it. Outside of that arguing about universal justice sounds too much like a legal game, which, I don't know about anyone else, but I'd never wish to impose THAT upon a lover, as long as we're still attracted to one another. As far as the botox goes, Orwell argued it was inhuman to expect perfection out of anything... Keep 'em running Ana.

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  15. From energy to matter, from matter to energy to manifest again. Energy is neither created or destroyed, it just changes forms, the same applies to the life force in you.

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  16. @ E: There is a profound difference between religion and spirituality. organized religion is the invention of man for social interaction and controll etc. and spirituality is your connection with all things seen and unseen.

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  17. Hi Ana,

    This discussion takes my memory back to my college years where my pre-med Philosophy major roommate and I cobbled together our own belief system regarding existence in general. It was encapsulated in our motto: "Anything can happen - and often does."

    -Jay

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  18. Anthony, it's easy to take one's fate and define it as destiny, when it's nothing of the kind, nothing beyond time and chance.

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  19. Evidently my post was subject to divine intervention . . .

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  20. "Our normal waking consciousness, rational consciousness as we call it, is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the flimsiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different."

    William James.

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  21. Calvin, I think I'm missing something here, or are you being more than usually subtle? :-)

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  22. Ana, If 'Man can alter his life by altering his thinking' then, yes, it is pragmatic.

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  23. Somehow, my original comment was lost in cyberspace. Now I wonder if that constitutes a bad thing happening to me, or a good one for those spared sight of it? The spark flared and vanished, and no one witnessed its brief, bold defiance against the cold indifference of chaos. Those electrons, by design or chance, are scattered for eternity unless some alchemy could somehow redefine the unique void left by their vanishing.

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  24. Calvin, sometimes comments get dumped into the spam box for no apparent reason. I've checked; there is nothing there. Please repost it if you wish. Be assured - I will always publish your comments.

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  25. I think the problem is likely all at my end, Ana.

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  26. We have surely created man to face hardships.

    (The Holy Quran. Al Balad [The Town]: 5).

    The fourth Caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community took up 'The Question of Suffering' in his magnum opus Revelation, Rationality, Knowledge & Truth.

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  27. Indeed so, Rehan, something the Christian world, in its materialism, has rather lost sight of.

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