Saturday, December 26, 2009

Flesh and Spirit

I was reading this morning in 'The Calendar of Wisdom' Tolstoy's reflection that life takes on meaning only as we begin to convert the physical into the spiritual. This is the same sentiment expressed by Kazantzakis in his spiritual exercises, 'The Saviors of God,' when he said that the purpose of life is to convert flesh into spirit. As a proposition, this seems to me indisputable.

Tolstoy also wrote that so long as we continue to view life only as a physical phenomenon, we will find ourselves in the midst of contradictions that cannot be resolved. Escape from meaninglessness, then, lies in our ability to perceive and to grasp the spiritual essence of existence. The older I get, the clearer this idea becomes to me, and the more urgency with which it presses itself upon me. To remain in the physical realm to the very end is, I think, to condemn oneself not only to insignificance, but to extinction. The longing for some form of survival after death is thus embedded in the very nature of our existence as corporeal beings, and it begins to assert itself more and more powerfully as we approach the end of our physical lives.

But there is another dimension to life; one that is not confined to the physical realm, and, therefore, which offers the hope not only of meaning but of survival. What form that survival may take is, of course, shrouded from our view. But if the two concepts - meaning and survival - are linked, as I think they are, then some sense of the nature of survival may be found in the meaning with which we invest life. This is the essential insight of Beckett's great play, 'Waiting for Godot,' when Vladimir declares, against the bleak backdrop of empty time and space, that life does have meaning with which we have the power to invest it. Even Beckett, aesthetic and moral anarchist that he was, could not restrain this insight. And I reach out for it, as do his characters, desperately, as a form of lifeline.

That lifeline ought to lead us past life itself into some other state of meaning and life which lies beyond time and space. That much is clear to me. Yet I see every day everywhere around me people who have no such thought, no such expectation. They are devoted to the physical realm, and apparently see or feel no possibility of transcending it. Religion, of course, offers some comfort, but this is a sort of pre-fabricated comfort, designed and built by others, in which the souls of the faithful huddle, protected from the winds and storms of fundamental questions such as How should I live? and What follows death? I sometimes think that religions were created precisely to prevent people from asking such questions in their hearts, or to help them avoid doing so. 'Give me a patent answer, and I need never confront the question.' Such is the motto of the religionist.

But some of us cannot content ourselves with other people's solutions to the questions that contain and consume our lives. We must devise or discover the answers for ourselves, and first that means facing the questions squarely and with a clear mind. This is what religion teaches us not to do, and in this way, it stands as an impediment to discovering the truth. To my mind, most religion is not a path to truth, but an obstacle on that path. Shove it aside, and though you may experience fear and trembling, at least the pathway will be open, whether or not you choose to take it.

All this is not by way of saying that people should simply reject religion. As I have written elsewhere here, religion is a necessity for most people, and, on balance, its presence does more good than its absence in the life of humanity. But once you have perceived that religion leads inevitably to contradictions that cannot be resolved - that it is directed at the physical and not the spiritual - then it is necessary to move beyond it, and its concept of god, and seek the truth where it lies: not in the church, but in the individual human soul.