“Man is not a rational animal. Man is a rationalizing animal.” — Heinlein
We like to justify our actions as if our choices are somehow inevitable, a logical output from a predetermined set of inputs. We rationalize without even realizing that we are making a choice – and in many cases we are not aware even that we have a choice.
More often than not, it is our insecurities, not our strengths, that tend to guide our decisions. Behavioral psychologists have long understood that people fear loss more than they value gain, and this is broadly true across classes and professions. Even engineers consistently seek to “manage risks” without ever “managing reward.” Most people, when given the choice, opt for a boring and predictable existence. They are managing their risk, which means they do not pursue reward.
From a religious perspective, I find this worldview to be a terrible loss of opportunity. But religious people are not necessarily any better at maximizing their opportunities. Outside of just a few strands of a few religions, even people who have a relationship with the spiritual world can choose religion as a defensive mechanism, a way of dealing with their insecurities, instead of as a lever with which to make more of themselves.
And so, with two polar opposite approaches to religion, we can end up with very similar results when it comes to dealing with insecurity.
At one pole we have what I have sometimes called “Jewish Intellectual Disease”, which loosely translates as the belief that if one keeps seeking and questioning and thinking, then eventually the answers will be clear. In reality, this results in people who are consumed by their doubts, and who question everything. They are frozen into inaction because they lack sufficient data to make an entirely informed decision. So they go through life making as few decisions as possible, because that is the smart, safe thing to do. These are the smart people, who ultimately doubt G-d enough so that G-d does not free them up to make decisions. In their minds, they maximize the importance of mankind even as they minimize their own actions.
A fellow-traveller of the smart agnostic is the person who fears examining their lives. Terrified at the prospect of being alone with their thoughts, they fill their time with pursuits that allow them to live in a fantasy world of videogames, or voyeuristically tracking the lives of famous personalities, comic book or sports heroes. Unthinkers actively avoid quiet reflection, so they always want to have music playing in their ear. When they have to listen to the thoughts of others, they choose the echo chamber, finding comfort in the tribal sense of belonging even on the basis of allegiance to the same sports team or political party. These unthinking drones seem to be everywhere.
At the other pole, we have those who deal with their insecurity by deciding that everything is in G-d’s (or Fate’s) hands. For them, mankind is nothing in the face of the Divine Plan. In the fate-based world this leads to people who have no ambition in their lives beyond what seems to be pre-destined because of circumstances of birth or upbringing. And even in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, there are a great many people who simply say that “everything is G-d’s will,” which is another way of saying that individuals are powerless. To them, not only does G-d control the world, but people who are ambitious are, in some sense, inadequately faithful.
Those who entrust everything to G-d fulfill Marx’s adage that “religion is the opiate of the masses.” Religion, for a great many people, is the way to avoid the awesome and terrifying responsibilities of being a free adult.
But whether one is a cynic, a nonthinker, or a fatalist, the outcome is invariably quite similar: opportunities are lost. Lives are much emptier than they could otherwise be.
The Torah introduces us to all of these characters, by instructing us to seek the challenging and terrifying path, that of creativity and holiness, of growth in imitatio dei.
At the always-questioning pole is Avraham. Though a – the – original believer, Avraham doubts and pushes G-d, even going so far, as Richard Harvester shows, as kicking back G-d’s promise with: “Prove It.” The result is that G-d says that he will prove it – by knocking Avraham’s descendants down so far that they will have to accept that their salvation, when it comes in the Exodus from Egypt, comes about entirely through divine power.
At the other end, as beautifully shown in the same video, are the Jewish people sinning, en masse, with the golden calf. Our experiences in Egypt did far more than just make us appreciate G-d’s power: it served to reduce the individual, to hyper-nationalize a collection of Jews into a mass of humanity, not only capable of decision-by-mob, but also sometimes reliant on that mob. The pendulum had swung far: people were unable or unwilling to think and speak for themselves, away from the conformist behaviors that just as easily are described by the behavior of a flock of sheep.
It is no surprise that a dominant theme of the end of the Five Books of Moses is that the people should be “strong and of good courage.” In the Torah the pendulum swings from always-questioning to never-questioning, from individual to nation – but all of these are just ways of dealing with our fears. The hard part, the truly challenging bit, is realizing that we are supposed to be somewhere in the middle. We are supposed to ask questions, but not to the point of using those questions as an excuse for inaction. We are supposed to believe in G-d, and that our actions matter.
This is the place of dynamic creative tension. In our human relationships and in our relationship with G-d, we are supposed to be in a marriage: at once individual and unique, but able to interact on an intimate-enough level that we are capable of growth and change in response to the forces and feedbacks that we encounter from others.
It is a frightening place to be. Without being able to fall back on cynicism or just by justifying our actions because “everyone is doing it” we find that we have to understand what we do, and try to understand why we do it. This requires time spent thinking and often just listening – in prayer or meditation, or snatched quiet moments during the day. It means confronting ourselves, examining our lives to see if we are merely finding ways to blame everything except ourselves for the world that we have created, or whether we are actually doing the best that we can.