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Earthquakes, Illusions and Eternity

by F. J. Dagg on March 21st, 2011

Please join me in a prayer for those enduring the ongoing disaster of Japan’s Great Earthquake of 2011. Images of such horror naturally shock us out of complacency and invite those kinds of questions that usually lie beneath the noise of everyday life: Does God exist? If God is, why does He allow suffering?

These questions, in this context, called to mind a passage I read many years ago in a then popular book, Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, wherein the author relates an encounter at Benares Hindu University in India:

…one day in the classroom the professor of philosophy was blithely expounding on the illusory nature of the world for what seemed the fiftieth time and Phaedrus [as the author refers to himself in Z&AMM] raised his hand and asked coldly if it was believed that the atomic bombs that had dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were illusory. The professor smiled and said yes.

Within the traditions of Indian philosophy that answer may have been correct, but for Phaedrus and for anyone else who reads newspapers regularly and is concerned with such things as mass destruction of human beings that answer was hopelessly inadequate. He left the classroom, left India and gave up.

–Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

A view similar to that of the Indian philosophy professor’s  was known in the West before Materialism replaced Christianity as its religion. While not characterizing the world precisely as “illusory,” this Western view is that the human experience represents a lower order of reality than Eternity. The relevant point is that both views suggest that harms suffered in this world are not what human experience seems to tells us they are, which is the basis for hope.

If Phaedrus’ professor was right, those who have died in the Great Earthquake have awakened from their dream of the world and those who mourn the dead can take comfort in the prospect of their own eventual awakening and reunion with those who have gone before them. Similarly, the remaining faithful in the West are assured that out of death and chaos arises the life of spirit in Eternity.

Materialists like Phaedrus will accuse me of wishful or “magical” or superstitious thinking, but until they can demonstrate conclusively that such views are false–which for all their condescension they have not done–I’m happy to accept the hope to be found in the contemplation of Eternity. Neither believers nor materialists can demonstrate their respective positions to be true, but it may be that the 17th century French mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal had the right idea with his wager:

…even though the existence of God cannot be determined through reason, a person should wager as though God exists, because living life accordingly has everything to gain, and nothing to lose.

–Pascal

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