Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Saint Paddy's Pantsuit.

Theology, I have been told, is the spiritual quest for answers to life’s bottomless questions. In my life questions tend to form in ever increasing variety in direct proportion to the amount of attention I wish to apply to things around me.

The other day, for instance, a very attractive youngish woman wearing a lime green pantsuit caught my attention. Like a wounded fish splashing about in pool of information the widening, but constrained, cacophony of wavelets splayed out as a pattern of questions lacking answers; each point in time the pools surface was disturbed requested some answer, and like ripples on a pond ignoring them would hasten their disappearance faster than any examination. In other words, the questions were endless, but quite trivial.

Some of my more in-tuned readers will note that yesterday was Saint Patrick’s day, and that many people were wearing clothing in various shades of green. That is true, and it is also true that Saint Augustine of Hippo converted to Christianity the year that Saint Patrick was born (387 CE).

Saint Augustine of Hippo, after his conversion to Christianity at age 32, stated that the Greeks had defined theology as “de diuinitate rationem siue sermonem" (reasoning or discourse about the divine). Unfortunately, St A from Hippo did not think the reasoning of just anyone was welcome; only those that truly believed. It was not until long after his death (on 28 August 430) that the idea of silencing the reasoning and discourse of non believers on divine topics would take a more organized violent turn. Mr. A of Hippo did not explain the obvious irony in his statements; he attributed his definition to the Greeks who were Pagans by his standards, and therefore could not be trusted to engage in the “rationem siue sermonem” they created his term for. A similar Irony would be used by Dante, who would employ the Roman (and therefore Pagan) poet Virgil to show him around hell only to leave him behind when Dante entered Heaven because Virgil, who died a Pagan, could not pass into Heaven.

Neque enim hoc opere omnes omnium philosophorum uanas opiniones refutare suscepi, sed eas tantum, quae ad theologian pertinent, quo uerbo Graeco significari intellegimus de diuinitate rationem siue sermonem; nec eas omnium, sed eorum tantum, qui cum et esse diuinitatem et humana curare consentiant, non tamen sufficere unius incommutabilis Dei cultum ad uitam adipiscendam etiam post mortem beatam, sed multos ab illo sane uno conditos atque institutos ob eam causam colendos putant.” – Saint Augustine of Hippo (De Civitate Dei contra Paganos : Liber VIII:i)

Saint A was writing this information in his runaway bestseller “De Civitate Dei contra Paganos” (The City of God Against the Pagans) published in 426 CE. The book’s intended audience was the citizens of Rome which had been sacked by the Visigoths in 410 CE. At the time the Visigoths were pagans as they would not convert to Christianity till 589 CE. Saint A’s book defended Christianity and God against the reasonable questions of why an all powerful God, and the church which worshiped it, should fall so easily to the Visigoth army of king Aleric. In searching the original text of “De Civitate Dei contra Paganos” (a difficult task since I am barely literate in Latin) I have not found mention, or explanation, for the slaughter of tens of thousands of Goth families in 408 CE as a result of directions given by Christian Roman Emperor Honorius. This is not a piece of history that should be lost as the Catholic Church has a lineage of Popes named “Honorius”, with the first ascending to the papacy way back in 625 CE (27 October). Interestingly the first Pope Honorius would be anathemetized by the third council of Constantinople on purely theological grounds.

In the modern tradition divine is too common to be reserved for elite groups of true believers to examine. Ralph Waldo Emerson stated that: “Every man is a divinity in disguise, a god playing the fool.”, and the status of reasoning and discourse on the internets suggests that he might have been onto something. Unfortunately the ubiquitous divine is so mundane and common that it approaches triviality.

The trivial nature of the questions the sighting of the woman in the lime green pantsuit is really not in question:

      “Why lime green?”
      “Bellbottoms and wide lapels?”
      “Was that a thrift store find?”

Even the more ironic questions were trivial:

     “Is that pantsuit made of double-knit polyester? That style of pantsuit should be made of double-knit polyester, but nothing should really ever be made of double-knit polyester.”
      “I would probably find that woman attractive in many outfits, but she may not have caught my eye if she were wearing something less bizarre, and therefore I may not have found her attractive at all. So does wearing the pantsuit make her more attractive?”
      “Is she wearing the pantsuit, or is the pantsuit wearing her?”

The questions could be incredibly complex:

     “Do double-knit polyesters contribute to global warming?”

That is a question that is asked easily enough, but what are the implications of those aspects of the petroleum industry that are needed to create the polyesters, and at what level of capacity is there an increase in efficiency over small and intermediate scale production? Is the ease in creating the fabric using plastic outweighed by the low carbon footprint of some harder-to-use natural fibers? If the pant-suit lasts forever does its longevity offset production impacts? And the list of compelling factors goes on, and on, and on….

She raised questions about eternity:

    “How long will that pantsuit exist after she has turned to dust, and modern Earth’s civilization itself is forgotten?”

 She raised questions about the entire universe:

     “Will they be able to produce a good Star Trek reboot, and will they wear lime green pantsuits?”

But for all the layers and swirls, lights and shadows, the image of those questions remained trivial. I had seen an attractive woman, who I may not have even wanted to meet, wearing a lime green pantsuit. The less intrinsically trivial questions had only a trivial association with the short-lived sighting. However, the collection of questions, and the implications of further questions, describe a bottomless inquiry; the sort of inquiry that theology is there to assist with.

Why this examination of theology? Theology is the rational face of theism, and as Atheists we are often called upon to have some sort of “Atheology”, but it is difficult to examine the study of something that does not exist. Saint A’s Idea that theology is believers thinking about God  is a great idea if you have enough authoritarian muscle to make the discussions mean something painfully true. In a secular society theology has become more ephemeral; the more cynical might summarize it as being “the totality of all things meaningless that it is important for you to believe as long as we get your tithing”.

The pretty woman in a lime green pantsuit is as important as any theological figure. She raises questions intrinsic to her existence, and those questions are as large as the inquiry makes them. Most modern practitioners of open-theism do not dare nail their beliefs to anything stable. Modern theology will continue to become more ephemeral with every passing generation. Even now the beliefs of self-identifying Atheists and the vast majority of Christians (who only reflexively identify as Christian) are more similar on once-important topics than they are different. This is a good thing… even if everyone decides to begin wearing brightly-colored double-knit-polyester pantsuits like those from some 1970s utopian science fiction movie.