Sunday, January 27, 2008

Towards A Solution 2


Asymptotes always intrigued me when I was studying mathematics, not that I managed to go any further than a tolerable pass degree in the subject. What intrigued me was the idea of the graph stretching outwards forever and ever towards the X and Y-axes but never actually touching them. A simple mathematical definition is that when f(x) = 1/x is graphed on the Cartesian Plane, the X and Y-axes are called the asymptotes. There is, of course, a far more complex statement of this phenomenon but I simply cannot grasp it. However, the beauty of the asymptotic mathematical illustration intrigues and captivates my mind. The late Dr Brian McNamara, S.J. who was the first director of my Master’s thesis in philosophical theology many years ago always adverted to the fact that we can approach mysteries and problems asymptotically. I loved this metaphorical use of language.

We never really reach a full solution, according to Brian, but we reach near enough as makes no difference. Brian, as a Jesuit priest was a convinced Catholic and would have subscribed to the traditional theodicies advanced by St Augustine, St Irenaeus or St Thomas Aquinas. Be that as it may, I loved his metaphorical use of language.

I have already mentioned in previous posts that suffering increases where the person’s expectations from life are unreasonably high and where he/she desires to live in the best of all possible worlds and where they possibly might subscribe to the dream of ultimate perfection and continual perfectibility. A person who has such unrealistic goals will be disappointed and will suffer. Indeed, anyone who has an unrealistic take on life will undoubtedly be disappointed and will suffer.

Without a doubt also, religion meets the needs of certain people. It provides them with social supports (obviously religion is a social phenomenon) and not a little personal and spiritual sustenance through communal worship and prayer. For example, take a fairly recent study that involved over 160,000 people in Europe. Among weekly churchgoers, 85% reported being "very satisfied" with life, but this number reduced to 77% among those who never went to church (Inglehart, 1990). This kind of pattern is typical - religious involvement is associated with modest increases in happiness. Fair enough, but most of the countries in Europe have a low attendance rate at church, as indeed does Ireland. Obviously, we could argue that religion is not now meeting the needs of the majority of our population. One might, therefore, conclude that people are somewhat less happy or less content. Judging by the high crime rates, the growing levels of anger and violence in society, not to mention the rise in murder and suicide rates, the high stress levels and the preponderance of depressive illnesses in general, I would venture to advance the hypothesis that people today are far less happy than they were fifty years ago in the more rural and agrarian society that Ireland then was.

When researchers have examined how religious experiences relate to happiness and general contentment, they find the same sort of pattern as with church attendance. Religious experiences, particularly when they happen during prayer, have been the most powerful indicator of happiness in some studies. (For more information, see Beit-Hallahmi and Argyle, 1997). This relationship also seems to be stronger among older people as might be expected. It is patently obvious also that happiness and life satisfaction increase when we have a sense of where we are going and what is important in life, and religion offers such a clear direction to its followers. This might also be related to the rise of 'strict' or conservative churches, which offer more certitude than do more liberal churches., e.g., the Mormon Church or the Church of Latter day Saints would be good examples here.

Then more personal religious experiences are very significant for a person’s happiness. They offer a person a feeling of being in contact with God (also known as "transcendence" or “the transcendent”) and contact with others. These are usually positive things and, of course, if someone is more involved in positive things, they will tend to feel happier than someone who is less involved in those things.

However, when Religion ceases to meet people's needs, they will move on to a variety of other sustainers as it were.  Many will take refuge in some New Age Movement therapy, or better still will, if they have the wherewithal, attend for psychoanalysis, psychotherapy or counselling under the various licensed bodies world-wide.  Here, they will have their needs met.  In a way, I suppose, I'm essentially arguing for a "reductio ad psychologiam" if I may coin a neologism - that is, I'm fundamentally arguing that humankind's problems are fundamentally psychological, that our problems with evil and suffering are fundamentally "in the mind."  Now, in advancing this argument, I am in no sense denying the actuality of evil as it acts in and upon our world, nor indeed am I gainsaying the horrific nature of pain which some of us have to suffer in life.  As readers of these pages will have noted, I have referred many times to my own suffering from endogenous depression of the unipolar variety.  In other words, I am no stranger at all to the reality of mental pain and suffering.  I have also referred in many posts to the many examples of evil and suffering with which this oftentimes sad world is afflicted.  But, existentially, here and now in my life, I feel and believe that I can deal with, assuage and control, though, of course, never fully cure, the presence of suffering in my own life.  How?  Well, quite simply by changing my attitude to life, by lowering my expectations of self and others and life in general, by contextualizing evil and suffering within wider parameters than my own limited mind can ever possibly allow.  In this way, the psychological lessons of Buddhism can help me to cope, and not alone to cope but to cope very well; to develop not a fatalism but an acceptance of things that cannot be denied or fought or turned around.  Such an acceptance is a realistic stance and it certainly is no blind acceptance of fate.  Like all Eastern philosophies and techniques it thrives by going with the flow of things; not ceasing to swim as it were, but rather to swim with the tide; to use the energy of the enemy by way of fighting whatever it is with which we are contending.  In this way, we become more accepting of life; more co-operative with life in working with it in the correct direction; more willing to fight not in denial of something but in acceptance of it while at one and same time fighting whatever disease it is on its own terms.  Words are patently failing me here, but I hope the reader will sense my drift, while I work further towards a possible albeit limited and partial solution to the problems posed by the Mystery of Evil and Suffering.

Above I have uploaded a picture I took recently in Paris at the Rodin Museum. The above photograph shows one of the Burghers of Calais. Rodin was superb at showing suffering in the human features!

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