Belief, unbelief can be debilitating if we lack humility

January 09, 2002|By Stephen Vicchio

IN ONE of the most poetic and chilling of his narratives, Elie Wiesel tells the story of a small group of Jews gathered together to pray in an underground synagogue during the Nazi occupation.

In the middle of the service, the small door burst open to reveal what could only be described as a half-crazed Jew.

The man, with that unblinking stare that only accompanies religious fervor and certain kinds of insanity, put both his index fingers to his lips and said, "Shh, don't pray so loudly. God will hear you, and then there will be no Jews left at all."

I thought about Mr. Wiesel's story one morning last week. While drinking my first cup of coffee, I turned to this op-ed page to discover a heartfelt essay written by a local philosophy professor.

The mind is so often like a loosely organized set of dominoes. Intention, habit or something from the outside world pushes over one of the spotted pieces, starting a chain reaction.

One thought leads to another, and a few moments later one has gone through a series of secret associations.

The piece, headlined "How can anyone possibly believe in God?" was brimming with the passion and insight of a tale by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who also told the story of a half-crazed man bursting on the scene to proclaim in no uncertain terms that "God is dead." In Nietzsche's tale, there is horror because God is dead; in Wiesel's, because he is not. Nietzsche wishes to act as God's executioner; Wiesel's nameless Jew, as a spokesman for His victims.

While sitting at the breakfast table that morning, the local philosopher's essay led me to Nietzsche, which led to Wiesel, who in turn handed the baton to a third, more personal image.

Many years ago, while interviewing Italian Jews who had been hidden by their gentile countrymen during World War II, I came across the name of a German army sergeant who had been relatively benign in his treatment of prisoners in one of the camps.

Eventually, I located the former sergeant in a beer hall in Germany. He told me the story of a small rabbi, a man touched with fire, as the German had described him, who was shot in the head at close range by the camp's commandant because he refused to wipe the smile off his face. Right before the single bullet pierced his skull, the rabbi answered the commandant's interrogatory by saying, "I will continue to smile because that's what God wishes me to do this morning."

These three images have two important things in common: madness, and a certain point of view about what suffering means. Nietzsche's madman sees religion as a kind of crutch that keeps us from exercising our freedom and thus from confronting suffering head-on. Wiesel's madman holds God responsible for suffering. The unnamed Jew sees God as the worst kind of Divine Sadist. The old rabbi in the death camp saw Divine light where others could only find darkness.

A moment ago, these three images have given way to a fourth: The Cambridge philosopher John Wisdom many years ago told the story of a couple who had hired a gardener to attend to their roses while they were on holiday. When they returned a few months later, they rushed out to the garden to discover that the plot was full of weeds that accompanied, unarguably, the best roses they had ever seen.

These facts immediately led the husband to the conclusion that the gardener had not attended to the plot, while the wife assumes, with equal vigor, that the gardener had indeed done his job.

Professor Wisdom points out that the couple's disagreement is not over which entities are roses and which are weeds. The husband and wife do not argue over the facts. Rather, they disagree about how to knit the facts together in a coherent view of the world. One is not easily persuaded by the other's picturing of things.

Perhaps, this side of death, this is the best we can do. Maybe any knitting together of the world requires a kind of madness, but knit we must.

Certainly whatever conclusions we draw about the relationship between God and suffering should also come with a large helping of epistemological humility.

Those without it - whether Islamic suicide bombers or unflinching secularists - often suffer from the most debilitating kinds of madness.

Stephen Vicchio teaches philosophy at the College of Notre Dame in Baltimore.

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