Monthly Archives: August 2014

The mountains don’t care

But sometimes they do

Jonathan Morgan

Moraine lakeIf you’re ever out in the Rockies, you’ll come across signs warning you about the dangers of the mountains.  These signs don’t beat around the bush– they directly let you know that “Mountains don’t care.”  And it’s true.  The weather doesn’t care that you forgot your raincoat.  Lightening isn’t going to discriminate between you and that boulder.  Heck, even that boulder doesn’t care enough to not twist your ankle or roll over your arm if you misjudge its balance.  The mountains don’t care.

But they’re also full of beauty.  And if you’re thirsty, those mountains are full of water– though you may want to bring iodine or a pump to kill off the germs.  If you’re hungry, they’re full of food– as long as you know what’s poisonous and what’s not.  And if you’re tired, you can find shelter among their slopes.  It won’t be as comfortable as a La-Z-Boy recliner, but it’ll keep the sun off your head and some of the rain off your back.  Before I run the risk of getting too poetic and sappy– my point is simply that the mountains also do care.

This is a microcosm for so many situations in our lives.  Sometimes life sucks: illness strikes at random; accidents happen; loved ones pass away; jobs are lost; opportunities disappear; war breaks out; injustice strikes at the core of your community.  But at the very same time, dear friends have new children; new relationships blossom; we receive random kindness; projects come to completion; strangers stand together for a common cause; or there’s just a really beautiful sunset.  We’re caught within the whole ambiguous mess.  The world doesn’t care.  The world cares.

Considering that this is a blog on a website that studies religion…well, you probably see where I’m going.  But I’m not trying to make any theological statement about the divine, and whether it cares or not.  Instead I’m struck by the capacity of religions, at their best, to hold these contradicting truths together.

The Hebrew Bible (or what Christians call the Old Testament) is full of laments about the staggering injustices of the world.  Yet it’s also full of amazing hymns of praise and awe.  These two voices are potently distilled in the Book of Job, a story about a devout and holy man, Job, who suffers every imaginable woe: his family dies, his fortune is lost, friends abandon him, and he even gets skin boils.  When he brings his anger before YHWH about this injustice, YHWH responds with an epic speech about the foundations of the earth and huge fish, which humbles, but also reassures, Job.

In the Bhagavad Gita, a famous Hindu scripture, the prince Arjuna is directly brought into the brutality of the world through his duty to fight and kill his relatives.  Yet, he’s simultaneously reassured by Krishna that it’s all okay– nothing is permanent in this world, everyone dies, but it’s not the true self that dies.  The true self, Atman, will never die.

In Buddhism, suffering is front and center as the First Noble Truth. Samsara – the cycle of birth, life, and death – is notoriously full of suffering.  Nirvana, as the liberation or salvation from this suffering, may seem like a handy solution to the problem. But Nagarjuna, one of the great Buddhist philosophers, taught that Samsara is Nirvana.  That’s confusing, and radical, and gets right to the heart of this tension.

Religious stories and teachings have a remarkable ability to face the ambiguity of existence.  The mountains care and they don’t care.  Life is suffering, and it’s also sublime. Great literature and artwork often face the same paradox of living.  But religion differs by also providing rituals and communities to help engage with that ambiguity– which is helpful, because the ambiguity isn’t going away.

Having the capacity to hold both truths at once is a deeply important virtue.  Without this virtue we risk falling to either side.  If the mountains simply don’t care, then despair’s the right response.  Or if they really do care, then we’re lead into some fantastical mania in which life is always on our side and even mountains will bend to serve us.  I suppose you could also just rule out both options and decide that the universe is just purely indifferent– but that position doesn’t seem to equip people to live very well.

I’m not dwelling on this capacity to hold ambiguity in order to simply applaud religion.  Instead, I want to highlight what’s lost if you treat religion as if it’s built out of propositional truths.

By “propositional truths” I’m talking about the sort of statements that are either true or false.  Water is made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom.  The core of the sun is nearly 16 million degrees Celsius.  The Hudson Valley was largely formed during the Taconic and Acadian orogenies.  These are propositional statements, and while a philosopher of science might debate with me, such statements are primarily true or false.

But how about the statement: Samsara is Nirvana?  It simply doesn’t make sense if you take it as a propositional truth.*  Something else is going on.  In the Book of Job, YHWH cares and doesn’t care about Job’s suffering.  If you demand that these are propositional truths, then they both can’t be true.

But if you listen to most contemporary debates about religion, they take it for granted that religion is built of propositions.  Creationists exemplify this tragedy by saying the book of Genesis is full of literal truths.  But even debates about the existence of God seem to depend on the assumption that this propositional quality of religion is its most important aspect.

If you force religious thought into that propositional framework, then it loses its capacity to handle the ambiguity of existence.  Instead it’s forced to pick sides.  This is tragic because it’s so rare to find symbols, stories, communities, and practices that bring us directly into that tension between the world’s indifference and concern.

If religion is primarily about truth-statements, then this tension is flattened into an irresolvable dilemma.  How can you choose only one side?  And, even more tragically, we lose the practices and thoughts that help carry us through the inevitable ambiguity of living.  The mountains don’t care and they care.

Either way, I’m going hiking.

*If you think it does make sense, you should check out some of Nagarjuna’s other writings (especially Mulamadhyamakakarika) where he uses four-way negations (which if you want to sound fancy is called a tetralemma) to undermine any tendency to think you have figured him out!