“Where Is God?”

"First Meeting of Dante and Beatrice" Raffaele Giannetti, 1877

“First Meeting of Dante and Beatrice” Raffaele Giannetti, 1877

“Where Is God?”

We flew to Southern California this week, to look in on my father-in-law. He lives in a town near San Bernadino, the now-famous site of the latest mass murders.

Over the four-day period of our trip, while attending to one task or another, a number of people we encountered talked about how kids nowadays lack

RE-SPECT.

We heard it from a reticent lady bank officer of Swedish origin, from a pure-hearted Columbian care-giver, and I overheard it from two young American guys chatting on the shuttle bus to the airline, one black and one white, both in training to become pilots, both now elementary school teachers. They complained that, when a kid acts up, using profanity and making it impossible for the other kids to learn anything, they can’t throw him out because the administrators will send him right back into the classroom he was disrupting.

There is a saying that Good Orderly Direction is another name for God.

If that saying is true, then four strangers we met at random on our trip, were murmuring,

Where is God?

With the advent of violent jihadis in our midst, our settled habits of live-and-let-live jostle uneasily against a sudden concern with naked physical survival.  As we boarded the airbus to Phoenix, Arizona and then to Ontario, California, I found myself scanning the faces of the other travelers to see if any had murder in his or her eye. An American first — for me at least.

Meanwhile, en route, I was reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Wow! What a writer! The original pirate story, with bad buccaneers, good seaman and civilians – some shrewd and capable, on shore and on the bounding main, some naïve but well-intentioned – and Jim, a boy of twelve or so years, who is the book’s hero. Jim is adroit, brave, adventuresome, not above breaking the rules but always able to win through to improbable victory. Though things look dark for a while, in the end, the pirate chief and mutineers who joined him are overthrown, triumph is snatched from defeat and the good guys carry home the booty from Treasure Island.

Here is the upshot, as a now-mature Jim recollects it:

“All of us had an ample share of the treasure and used it wisely or   foolishly, according to our natures.”

No philosopher could do a better job of describing the mixed blessings of success.

When one of the loyal crewmen lies fatally wounded, he asks,

“Be I going, doctor?”

“Tom, my man’” comes the reply, “you’re going home.” That’s it, the answer: candid, swift and sure.

So it goes in Treasure Island. The world of that book is a great sphere with a top half and a bottom. The characters inhabit the lower half, but none of them doubts the durability of the upper dome — nor the brevity of any triumph enjoyed by those who abuse their time here below. The book has Good Orderly Direction.

No one writes like that nowadays, though it might make for greater realism if they did. Rough, salt-in-your-nostrils adventure – not impotent, artsy-cutesy “magic,” plus labored “symbolism.” Don’t lard your tale with symbolism. If you’ve got something to say, say it.

The Australian lawyer Victor Zammit has a blog where he collects evidences of the afterlife. They include out-of-body experiences, police reports about helpful psychics, and occasional lectures by scientific researchers. It’s an interesting site. On November 19 of this year, it included an out-of-body report by Jurgen Ziewe, described in his book, Vistas of Infinity. Ziewe had been curious about the fate of suicide killers. Where are they now?

Not where they expected to be. You can take his report the way modern readers take Dante’s Inferno, as a psychological description of guilty states of mind. Or you can take it as an explorer’s encounter with the actual conditions that the perpetrators of such deeds are now enduring. Either way, his description was harrowing!

I finally discovered that the evil billowing smoke came from piles of slowly burning human bodies who were wriggling in agony. In the very first pile I encountered, these twisted, charred and convulsing bodies were stretching their hands and clamoring towards a person who was trapped in the center of the pile, who himself reached toward the bleak sky, desperately praying for help. The person was surrounded by the very real thought forms of his victims and the representation of their pain. … I quickly realized that this impenetrable layer was made of regret and the realization that the fate of his victims and their suffering would never ever be reversed or erased.

As Ziewe wanders along, he meets a figure in tattered clothing who implores him to pray for the release of these souls or – failing that – at least to warn others similarly tempted.

If we really cared about our brothers and sisters on this planet, we would care less about their alleged “otherness” and more about what we have in common. I spent two years in a Portuguese fishing village and later read an anthropologist’s account of a similar village. I found his description accurate except for one small quibble:

these were real people, not features of an anthropologist’s report!

Like all the members of our peculiar species, we are animals who can speak. Which is to say that we live and die by our speeches. By ideas, in other words. Not every idea is as true as every other idea. No kidding! Sans blague! as the French would say. Duh.

Some ideas are not so good.

Does no one care — about the spiritual fate of the victimizers? Where is God? God lives in the neighbor who cares that her brother or sister is planning to act on a profoundly mistaken idea yielding a bad outcome – in this world or any other.

How about caring enough to point out that this idea, of killing unbelievers, is a profoundly mistaken idea?

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, soon to appear in a revised second edition. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Her next book project will be Conversations with My Father. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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