Neal Stephenson on Christianity, Grace, Sincerity, and Seeing Things as They Are

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Books, skmurphy

I have started to reserve Sundays to write on spirituality, charity, and a higher moral purpose to our life as entrepreneurs. I was struck by the quote that Stephenson puts in Juanita’s mouth in Snow Crash and have concluded that he is performing a similar ministry in his science fiction writing. There is a sense of wonder and meditation on “some power like grace, like the Force, or Providence, or what-have-you, that had been at work in the world today”  (from Zula’s reflection on the events of Reamde)

Religion is not for simpletons

Juanita has been using her excess money to start her own branch of the Catholic church–she considers herself a missionary to the intelligent atheists of the world. […]

“Don’t be condescending,” she says. “That’s exactly the attitude I’m fighting. Religion is not for simpletons.”

“Hey, I went to church every week in high school. I sang in the choir.”

“I know. That’s exactly the problem. 99% of everything that goes on in most Christian churches has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual religion. Intelligent people all notice this sooner or later, and they conclude that the entire one hundred percent is bullshit, which is why atheism is connected with being intelligent in people’s minds.”
Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

I think a lot of folks see people’s flaws very clearly in their teens and early 20’s and turn off to religious beliefs. I think is far more complex and if you can maintain a sense of wonder then you cannot mistake your umwelt, the limits of your perception, as the limits of reality ( or as Arthur Schopenhauer observed in “Studies in Pessimism“, “Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world”).

The church is dispersed among all people

“The ministry of Jesus Christ was … an attempt to take religion out of the temple, out of the hands of the priesthood, and bring the Kingdom of God to everyone. That is the message explicitly spelled out by his sermons, and it is the message symbolically embodied in the empty tomb. After the crucifixion, the apostles went to his tomb hoping to find his body and instead found nothing. The message was clear enough; We are not to idolize Jesus, because his ideas stand alone, his church is no longer centralized in one person but dispersed among all the people”
Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash

I think this also imposes a tremendous responsibility for action: free will implies everyone can and must make a difference.

Falling short does not mean we are insincere

“That we occasionally violate our own stated moral code does not imply that we are insincere in espousing that code.”
Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age

We all fall short of our intentions to act correctly. That doesn’t mean we lack integrity. There can be different motives for what appears to be hypocrisy.

This was probably rooted in a belief that had been inculcated to him from the get-go: that there was an objective reality, which all people worth talking to could observe and understand, and that there was no point in arguing about anything that could be so observed and so understood. As long as you made a point of hanging out exclusively with people who had the wit to see and to understand that objective reality, you didn’t have to waste a lot of time talking. When a thunderstorm was headed your way across the prairie, you took the washing down from the line and closed the windows. It wasn’t necessary to have a meeting about it. The sales force didn’t need to get involved.”
Neal Stephenson, Reamde

Again, free will requires us to observe and act on what we see.

“Or maybe none of it had been that rational…maybe this was all down to some supernatural effect, such as grace, that flowed through people’s lives even if they didn’t understand why.”
Neal Stephenson, Reamde

I think miracles occur around us frequently.  They may not be what we hoped for or what we were expecting. But they are there.

More on umwelt

More on “umwelt” from the concluding paragraphs to “What Scientific Concept Would Improve Everybody’s Cognitive Toolkit?” by David M. Eagleman

 Our unawareness of the limits of our umwelt can be seen with color blind people: until they learn that others can see hues they cannot, the thought of extra colors does not hit their radar screen. And the same goes for the congenitally blind: being sightless is not like experiencing “blackness” or “a dark hole” where vision should be. As a human is to a bloodhound dog, a blind person does not miss vision. They do not conceive of it. Electromagnetic radiation is simply not part of their umwelt.

The more science taps into these hidden channels, the more it becomes clear that our brains are tuned to detect a shockingly small fraction of the surrounding reality. Our sensorium is enough to get by in our ecosystem, but is does not approximate the larger picture.

I think it would be useful if the concept of the umwelt were embedded in the public lexicon. It neatly captures the idea of limited knowledge, of unobtainable information, and of unimagined possibilities. Consider the criticisms of policy, the assertions of dogma, the declarations of fact that you hear every day — and just imagine if all of these could be infused with the proper intellectual humility that comes from appreciating the amount unseen.

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