It’s been a long time since I last posted an entry here. A number of things have been percolating inside my head during that time, but the brewing process keeps getting interrupted … Not really “writer’s block”, as I don’t consider myself a ‘writer’, and I haven’t really been ‘blocked’. In any case, here are some current thoughts …
Let’s consider a question: What is a belfry?
By this I mean, what is the ‘essential nature’ of a bell tower? What is its essence? What is it that makes a belfry a belfry, and how is a belfry different from other tall or rooftop structures such as towers, domes, parapets, cupolas, etc.?
The true nature of bell towers is, undoubtedly, a subject upon which many people spend hours and hours meditating, so this is likely not a novel question for you all. Of course, the obvious characteristic that sets belfries apart from other similar structures is the presence of a bell, as none of those other listed architectural features typically have bells hanging within. But is there more to the answer than simply the bell?
As a shrink who likes to, from time to time, think of myself as dwelling within a belfry, how would I describe the nature of a belfry? First, I think of the walls of the belfry. A belfry cannot exist without walls … else there would be nothing to support the roof and rafters, from which to hang the bell! And all belfries’ walls must have openings, in the form of windows or louvered shutters, through which emanates the sound of the bells when they are being rung. Wouldn’t be worth much as a bell tower if you couldn’t hear the bells!
The walls are placed atop either a tower or the roof of a building, usually a church, sometimes a municipal building or courthouse. A belfry therefore sits in an elevated position. Then, obviously, I think of the roof of the bell tower, including its rafters, from which hangs the bell, or bells. Most belfries would also have some kind of a floor, a set of stairs by which to access the tower, a rope with which to pull the bell(s) back and forth, and probably some bats hanging from the ceiling!
All of the features highlighted above are characteristic of bell towers. They all, together, are belfries. But, once again as we come full circle, the one thing that differentiates a belfry from every other tower around is the presence of the bell itself. Without the bell, you cannot call it a belfry. I think we can all agree on this point. Again, though, back to the original questions, can we say that the bell IS the essential nature of a belfry? Or, is the essence of a belfry better defined by both the bell AND the rest of the total structure? If you leave out, or take away, any single part, would it still be a “belfry”? To me, this is interesting to ponder …
About three months ago I came across a quote by famous British author C.S. Lewis (of The Chronicles of Narnia fame) which has triggered a lot of reflection for me. The quote reads:
“You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”
Lewis’ premise is that we as human beings are first and foremost spiritual beings. That our true, original, core essence is “soul”, a spiritual entity, and that our bodies, along with our brains and our minds, are layers of “housing” that clothe our soul, and allow it to interact with the physical, visible world and the people and things in it. At first glance, I can’t say that I disagree with Lewis, but I can say that I don’t fully understand this idea, or know how to think about it in clear terms, let alone discuss it using our limited language.
Of course, his thesis, and this entire discussion I’m about to enter into, are based entirely on a view of “truth” that is rooted in a belief, or faith, that there does exist a spiritual world which underlies our entire human experience. I am not intelligent enough to formulate a testable, scientific hypothesis regarding the existence of a spiritual realm. And if someone were to lay out such a(n) hypothesis, how could an experiment be designed to test it out?
Lewis himself, in his book Mere Christianity, bypassed scientific experimentation, and instead appealed to logical and philosophical arguments for the existence of God and soul. He pointed out in significant detail how the basic moral value that all known races, tribes, and cultures seem to have in common – the seemingly innate belief that we must treat fellow humans and the world around us with care, respect, compassion, and fairness – proves that a single, common Mind must have designed and created it all; that such consistency running through all of human history, with all of the widespread migrations people have made, into every corner of the planet, through hundreds of generations, over thousands upon thousands of years, “proves” that all of us come from and possess the same “moral genetics”, rooted in and descended from that common Designer/Creator Mind. And since we have yet to locate that Creator anywhere in the physical universe, it must be of a “spiritual” domain that remains invisible and intangible to our biological senses.
In contrast to that line of thought, there is a view of life based on the notion that all there is, both within ourselves and “out there”, is the physical, tangible, measureable world. Other than conceptual notions such as emotions or dreams or values or thoughts, nothing exists unless it can be touched, seen, weighed, or measured. All that is came into being in unknown ways, through random events over billions of uncountable years, for no real purpose, and will continue evolving, or devolving, as we all hurtle through space until some unforeseen and “random” event leads to the destruction of our sun or our planet … who knows? The only important value in this view of life then becomes the need to ensure our species’, or our nation’s, or our race’s, or our family’s, or our own individual, survival. Everything else becomes subservient to that value.
However, this belief system (and yes, it is as much a matter of belief, or faith, as the view espoused by Lewis) cannot explain the remarkable consistency of moral values across almost all known cultures down through human history. Even within violent and warlike tribes and cultural groups, the rule of being good to one another is central and maintained, and acts of unfairness frowned upon or sanctioned.
When those, often referred to as “humanists”, who hold this view try to explain the central moral value noted above – the rule of fairness and kindness (or, “justice and mercy”, as the book of Micah calls it), they do so in some variation of the following: humans adopted this value because they learned that looking after one another and treating each other well helped to keep families, nomadic groups, or villages bonded together, and thus this value was maintained solely as a means of protecting the species. That sounds well and good on the surface, but this kind of world/life-view also possesses a central contradiction: that is, when it becomes necessary to aggress against other humans in order for me or my group to survive, then it’s ok to set aside this basic value. Huh?!!? That doesn’t sound either moral or consistent to me.
To illustrate, if we consider the extreme atheistic beliefs undergirding the Marxist views of Stalin, Pol Pot, or Mao, among other genocidal autocrats, we see that such a reductionist view of life cannot help but to violate that consistent moral value of thousands of years of human life to which Lewis refers. Such a view sees the killing of millions of humans as not only acceptable to them, but as necessary to help humans “move forward”. It makes some humans more necessary than many, many others, and those less necessary as thus expendable. This is terrible, ridiculous, and universally seen as evil (that is, in “violent violation” of all commonly held rules of decency) by anyone and everyone else, whether ‘theistic’, ‘atheistic’, or ‘agnostic’, even by those within those tyrants’ own cultural groups, even their own families.
Not only this, but as Lewis points out, those who study child development often comment on the fact that infants and toddlers, long before they could have “absorbed” the concept of fairness from their parents, seem to innately practice it, as well as expect it in return. Little children are often noted to protest unfairness in interactions with peers before they can even speak. How did we learn this notion at such a very young age, unless it were “wired-in” from conception?
Once again, therefore, the two ways to explain this consistency and primacy of central moral rule are either: 1) A Creator Being brought all of our universe and our species into existence, and implanted within all of us a central moral genetic code which, when we are in selfish and self-centered mode we can choose to violate, but it still calls out to us (our “conscience”) from within; or, 2) Humans adopted this moral value as a means of survival, but will always set it aside when the TRUE central value – assuring my own survival and that of the few others I may care about – becomes threatened! Which of course, renders it as not a moral value at all! Merely window-dressing. I believe it’s clear which view best accounts for the sociological and anthropological facts as we know them: View #1.
I’m certain that I have not done justice to Lewis’ arguments, but they are compelling nonetheless. I commend them to you, if you can locate the book referenced.
Now, with all of that said, if you are willing to describe yourself as standing in the circle of folk who believe that there is a spiritual Creator Being who planned all that exists beforehand, and brought it all, directly and indirectly, into existence, then I invite you to look with me more deeply at the Lewis quote.
If we then accept that we are, in fact, as human beings at least partly spiritual beings, what if the real and true core of us IS that spiritual part? What if Lewis is correct that we are really “SOUL”, and all the rest is or might be only temporary “machinery” for that soul to use? Would this change your thinking about yourself, if you accepted this idea? I think it is changing mine, though I’m still in the infancy stages, as I said above, of understanding it, or knowing what it means.
Next time, we’ll talk more about what this thing called a soul might be, and how it might, or even should, change how we view our lives.