The Moment of Truth — March 25, 2006

Humanity: God’s Little Disappointment

Welcome to the Moment of Truth, the tenderest piece of the tuna’s belly, that just melts in your mouth.

My wife is a dedicated eighth-grade social studies teacher. All the important assessment tests are over, and she could, if she felt like it, wind down the semester with something easy, like how the Federal Reserve figures out when to raise interest rates. Instead she’s doing a unit on twentieth- and twenty-first-century genocide.

It’s a depressing topic, but it’s nice to know that the reaction among students in a non-war-torn, comparatively affluent situation (the South Side Chicago neighborhood of Little Village, affluent compared to, say, Sudan) is still the same as it was when I was a kid: “Why doesn’t somebody do something about it?”

We look back at the multi-millions massacred in WWII as at an obsolete drama, a Jacobian tableau. We’re certainly glad THAT’S over. It has emerged, however, that those years just happened to be the turn of the Jews and various other put-upon Europeans and Chinese to be slaughtered en masse. Others had had their turns before and have had since and will have in the future. Pol Pot, Nixon, the broken-up Yugoslavia, the Balkans, East Timor, Rwanda, and currently Sudan are a few reminders that humanity hasn’t matured past mass butchery since Franco, Stalin, Hitler, Tojo and Mao ruled the Earth.

Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you.” I guess you really can’t get much poorer than a victim of genocide. Poverty, as I’ve asserted before, is an especially close relationship with death. Will we always have poverty? And if so, will we always have its most extreme form, genocide?

I believe humanity has the potential to one day grow beyond poverty and war. But I’m going to play devil’s advocate, here, and argue from the point of view of the most pessimistic philosophies regarding the possibility of improving the human condition. I mean, of course, the world’s religions.

I’ve already quoted Jesus implying that humanity will not improve itself—at least not until the Divine Catharsis purges us of our impurities by chucking all the bad people into a lake of fire. The Qur’an seems to hold a similar view, although leaning solidly toward stigmatizing the infidels, who will, of course, be punished—thus also purging the world of impurities.

Now it seems to me that purging humanity of its impurities is exactly the demagogic purpose genocide is supposed to serve. So I think it’s safe to say that there are aspects of Christian and Islamic thought that not only take genocide as an integral part of human nature, no more able to be grown beyond than the desire for food, sex, and comfort, but also speak the same demagogic language of purity and purging that itself leads to genocide. So they accept genocide as an integral part of human nature while at the same time subliminally encouraging it.

Hinduism is not linguistically or epistemologically genocidal in the way or to the extent Islam and Christianity are, although parts of the Hindutva movement are working on that. Hinduism does, however, draw a pessimistic trajectory for the world, humans included. Hinduism speaks of four ages, each succeeding one worse than the one before it. The fourth age is the Age of Kali, which we’re in. It’s the most flawed of the ages. Wisdom, holiness, life and power are not what they were in the other three ages. And the previous age couldn’t get rid of violence and poverty—so what chance do WE have?

Hinduism shares with Buddhism the idea that to be human is to become entangled in the ever-worsening, or at best consistently bad, human condition. The world is false, pointless and screwed up, and the world as lived in by humans is the worst of all. However, only by being human do we win the opportunity to release ourselves from life’s entanglements. In both Buddhism and certain interpretations of Hinduism, other beings, no matter how powerful, can never achieve freedom from the flawed and ultimately false world they inhabit—not even the Gods. Only a human can be a Buddha, attain nirvana, or achieve moksha, release from the cycle of lives. So the good potential humanity possesses is not to grow beyond its tendency to massacre large groups of itself. Humans who remain entangled in human karma will be subject to the same pains and sufferings regardless of what age they live in or what ways they attempt to improve the methods of governing themselves. The most we can hope for is to escape the setting of the situation altogether.

Judaism, of course, established the flawed-humanity narrative we in the West live by with the story of Adam and Eve and their eventual exile from the Garden of Eden. The Talmud also speaks of a decline in holiness of each successive generation, similar to the decline of ages in Hinduism. But the Kabbalists of the Middle Ages, whose mystical theological framework is still influential in Jewish thought, took the idea of a defective cosmic history even further. Perhaps it was an attempt to explain why we’re trapped in a history so unlike one a loving God would create, or even a sensical God—or even a remotely competent one. To the Kabbalists, the very creation of the world went wrong. When the thing that came to know itself as God began the process of dividing into and catalyzing the constituent forces and events that brought the universe into being, a fly got into the ointment. What was meant to be a harmonious universe got an asymmetrical conception in its cosmic womb—due, perhaps, to what is sometimes called in rabbinic language the “evil inclination”—and that asymmetry set in motion myriad errors, wounds, and breakages in time and space, forcing God to play a game of catch-up he can never win. And humanity, of course, who were supposed to be God’s crowning achievement, are instead God’s little disappointment, constantly screwing up.

Think what a disappointment we are to him now. We were supposed to live in a beautiful garden, and now it seems, thanks to our disobedience, which Kabala says is possible only because of a deformed Genesis, we’re in a permanent state of suffering until the end-time cataclysm, such as it may be, arrives to usher us humans into a repaired harmony God failed to create in the first place.

What I want to get across here is that, in favoring the invisible realm over the visible, in denigrating the world, and thinking of each succeeding generation as farther from grace than the one before it, religions indoctrinate their adherents into a defeatist view of history. They suggest that only intervention by God or a complete break from human reality will ever solve our problems. And since, for most of us, neither God nor a break from human reality seems to be in the offing, what really do we have to gain from these religions? What they tell us collectively is: you will never solve your social problems. Genocide will always be with you.

Religion, then—the very thing claiming to ennoble humanity should they follow its dictates—is a buzz-kill, a bring-down, and a Shleprock. But the major socio-economic systems of the past half-century don’t seem to have much more to offer. Communism was supposedly an optimistic religion, but it ended up, especially in its Stalinist and Maoist forms, another purity-based genocide machine of its own. And capitalism is based on the idea that man is flawed—that greedy and shallow and violent behavior are going to be the norm until the end of the world.

So, let me ask you something: who is sticking up for you, humanity? Who is cheerleading and yelling, “You can do it, humanity! You can create a much better, more just world. It may take generations, but the attempt must be made.”

Who, I’ll tell you: Me. I don’t care what the world’s major religions and economic systems say about you, humanity, I believe you can do it, one day. If you want it enough it will happen. I’m not certain about that, but I do know that you can’t do it if all you get is negative reinforcement telling you the task is cosmically fated to never reach completion. So go, team, go, that’s what I have to say.

In the meantime, do me a favor and try to avoid killing each other, okay?

This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!