Without a Net

By Robert Jensen

Published in Texas Observer · October, 2013

It’s not easy being a human in the 21st century, knowing so much. The more we learn about how the world works, the more we realize how many ways we are destroying that world. Despite all that knowledge piling up, humans continue to treat the only home we have like a mine from which we can endlessly extract and a landfill into which we can endlessly dump.

No surprise that we’re just a bit anxious, deep down in a place Xanax can’t reach. Where do we find comfort and hope when all seems so hopeless?

Some seek divine deliverance or forgiveness, while others assert that we can think our way out of the problems we have created. We have long sought solace in faith or facts, but what options remain when faith and facts are revealed as dead ends? Neither God nor reason can save us, because God and reason (as conventionally understood) don’t exist. But rather than abandon those terms, we can explore unconventional understandings.

Two new books point in the right direction. In Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Reza Aslan sets Jesus’ life in historical context, helping remind us that we need not accept supernatural claims about God in order to tell stories about God that can help us make sense of our lives. In The Self Beyond Itself: An Alternative History of Ethics, the New Brain Sciences, and the Myth of Free Will, Heidi M. Ravven draws on yesterday’s philosophers and today’s scientists to demonstrate why simplistic stories about human reason are unreasonable.

Aslan doesn’t break new ground about the historical Jesus, but instead provides what the best theological/political/moral writing offers: great storytelling that challenges us to rethink conventional wisdom in search of a deeper wisdom. The strength of Zealot is Aslan’s explanation of the world in which Jesus lived and, just as important, the post-Jesus world in which people struggled over what his life meant. That context—the Jewish resistance to Roman rule while Jesus lived, and the Roman destruction of the temple in Jerusalem after Jesus’ death—is crucial.

Aslan argues that the evidence suggests Jesus was a revolutionary zealot in a time when he had competition to lead the Jews against Roman rule. All these aspirants met the same fate: execution by the imperial state for treason. That left Jesus’ followers with a problem; everyone expected a true messiah to triumph, not get crucified. A resurrection story solved that problem, and the apostle Paul got busy creating a theology that had less to do with Jesus the failed revolutionary and more to do with Jesus the Christ—not just a messiah, but fully divine. Paul replaced Jesus’ call for “the kingdom of God”—understood by contemporaries as a revolution on earth—with the notion of salvation in the afterlife, and what had been merely a sect within Judaism became a brand-new religion.

Though this analysis is not new, Zealot briefly became controversial because the Iranian-born Aslan is a Muslim (with a brief evangelical Christian period as a young man), leading some on the right-wing fringe to question his ability to write fairly about Christianity’s founding figure. (A clip of Aslan being grilled on FOX News was so strange, even by FOX standards, that it went viral.)

Aslan comes not to bury Jesus but to praise him, to lament not belief in Christ, but what people don’t know about Jesus. Although the book will likely prove unsatisfying to readers who believe that Jesus’ resurrection and divinity are necessary to give Christianity meaning, Aslan ends his book with an endorsement:

Two thousand years later, the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history. The memory of the revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, the magnetic preacher who defied the authority of the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, the radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost, has been almost completely lost to history. That is a shame. Because the one thing any comprehensive study of the historical Jesus should hopefully reveal is that Jesus of Nazareth—Jesus the man—is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in.

For those who believe that knowledge trumps faith, talk of God—whether theological or historical, supernatural or symbolic—is diversionary. The secularly inclined typically put their money not on God but on reason; they entrust science, not religion, with the keys to the kingdom.

The bad news for disciples of reason is contemporary neuroscience’s suggestion that humans are hardly reasonable beings. Heidi M. Ravven’s book demonstrates in great detail that this irony—rational science demonstrating the basic irrationality of humans, presumably including scientists—should be not ignored but explored.

Nitty-gritty neuroscience and psychology make Ravven’s book a more difficult read than Aslan’s vivid accounts of temple intrigue and revolutionary scheming in Jerusalem. But The Self Beyond Itself does an admirable job making sense of the latest developments in brain science in the context of Western philosophy, starting with St. Augustine, whose fifth-century Christian theology emphasized the free will of autonomous individuals. Modern secular philosophy has ditched the God-talk but remains stuck in the Augustinian mode, Ravven says. Why is that a problem? Because free will and individual autonomy are illusions.

Do humans have the ability to exercise control over our conduct in such a way that makes it reasonable to hold us morally responsible for our actions? Most people would answer yes—we make what seem like free-willed choices all the time. But most of us also accept that we live in a material world determined by scientific laws not of our creation or control. If we belong to a world shaped by forces we can’t control, just exactly where does our free will come in?

A detailed exploration of the longstanding free will-versus-determinism debate is beyond the scope of this review (which is another way of saying I’m not sure I really understand it myself). People stake out positions at both ends, alongside various types of what philosophers call compatibilists, who say something like this: We experience ourselves deciding among options and making choices that originate our actions. But our actions are the result of complex interactions of biological, psychological, social, cultural, historical, quantum, and cosmological systems we don’t control. Both statements are true; deal with it.

Ravven points out that new research complicates even this common-sense understanding of how we “make” choices. It turns out that we become consciously aware of our decisions only after we have made them and begun enacting them. And this “decision-making” process has a lot more to do with what we call “emotion” than what we call “reason”:

We act from emotion, but we fool ourselves that we are acting entirely or principally from rational considerations alone. We falsely believe that we act upon the reasons we come up with ex post facto to explain and justify our actions.

But while free will and the self-contained self may be illusions, Ravven argues that we’re stuck with these concepts and have to make the best of them, redefining the self not as an entity but as the mess that emerges from a complex adaptive system, and free will not as self-control but as a flexible set of feedback loops. She suggests that we can understand our minds better by thinking of them as embodied (not brains in a vat, but complex organisms), embedded (in a complex environment), extended (our cognition extending beyond the boundaries of our physical selves), and enacted (our perception and cognition influenced by our interaction with the world).

In short: Most talk of “the self” in contemporary culture leads us inward; Ravven focuses outward. Most talk about ethics focuses on individual choices; Ravven considers the systems that structure those choices. For those keeping philosophical score, Ravven concludes that Augustine, Descartes and Kant got it mostly wrong, while Aristotle, Maimonides and Spinoza were on the right track.

Rejecting free will has a tendency to turn some folks nihilistic, but Ravven believes that giving up the myth can allow us “to accept ourselves and others for who we and they are.” The result? “Compassion (as well as reasonable self-protection) would then replace punitive moral outrage as the resulting emotion and motivation,” leading us to a more ecological and universal perspective on human behavior.

These books remind us that rather than feeling perpetually anxious about the comforts and assurances that we know God and reason can’t provide, we can redefine the terms. Instead of a supernatural God, “god” could simply refer to the world’s mystery, another way of saying, “We don’t know about that, and we never will.” Instead of insisting on reason uncontaminated by emotion, we can accept a messier process over which we have less control than we might wish, another way of saying, “We think we have good reasons to know, but we’re aware that we don’t think with reason only.”

These philosophical moves might lessen the pain of uncertainty with the realization that we don’t need certainty. Some would say that religion untethered from supernatural claims carries no more authority than any earthbound ethical or political system. That’s fine with me; instead of “the truth,” we get ancient narratives that help us explore the world’s mysteries. If science has to become more cautious in light of the finding that we’re largely irrational beings, that’s fine with me, too; the hubris of science and technology has created a lot of problems in the world, and more humility is welcome.

Back to our anxiety. The most vexing aspects of modern life aren’t about what we don’t know. They’re about what we do know—just how much damage we have done and can do. In a hierarchical world of obscene inequalities based on race, gender and economic status, we know that we have not done right by each other. In an industrial world that is fundamentally unsustainable, we know that we are not doing right by the larger living world.

Rather than remain stuck in anxiety, we would be better off embracing the unavoidable anguish that comes with this awareness. Anxiety tends to get in the way of action. Anguish helps us come to terms with who and where we are, without illusions about God or reason.

If that seems too much to bear, we can at least know that we aren’t the first people who have faced an apparent dead end, which is where those ancient stories come in handy. In the Hebrew Bible, Jeremiah laments, “My grief is beyond healing, my heart is sick within me.” Why? “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.”

Our task is to face that anguish, to do our best to lessen inequality and stop the destruction. There are no guarantees that we will succeed. Our season may be truly over, and that may well define what it means to be human in the 21st century: the determination to act, knowing we cannot be saved.