06 August, 2011

"I Want to Believe"

One starts by making one concession to popular culture, and it all comes rushing in. Everything is making me think of that really-not-quite-Shakespeare television show, the X-Files lately. Even this quote from Flannery O'Connor: "I think there is no suffering greater than that caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment that is. But I can only see it in myself anyway as the process by which faith is deepened. What people don't realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket when, of course, it is the cross."

Interestingly enough, that's something that the show kind of gets right. The characters who "want to believe" (remember that rather corny movie title?) aren't exactly drawing comfort from it. The risks run from job loss to the discomfort of knowing that life is rather darker than it seems. But somehow the truth itself is worth knowing. The ultimate non-utilitarian understanding of truth: not the Jamesian definition of truth as "whatever works, but the age-old understanding of truth as that which is real. Aristotle starts his Nicomachean Ethics with the claim that: "All men by nature desire to know." A life run like a well-oiled machine, free from the discomfort of grinding gears and occasional breakdowns may be desirable from a utilitarian perspective. But courageous thinkers from Plato through Aquinas and Maritain find truth an end good in itself. X-Files, as I've complained before, doesn't know what that truth is, and only half hints at times that God might have something to do with it. But in a society where utilitarianism has so much sway on the cultural consciousness, "I Want to Believe" (one might clarify, "even if the truth is uncomfortable") isn't such a terrible place to start.


Turin Hurinson said...

The problem with saying "I want to believe" is that it can become a substitute for actual belief--I'm thinking of people like Terry Eagleton, who instead of taking the Dawkins line and attacking religion say, "yes, yes, I can see where you're coming from, how nice it would be if what you were saying is true... but I simply can't believe that, I'm too sophisticated, and am stuck living in the real world as a tortured agnostic." They don't seem any closer to conversion than the hard-line anti-theists.

Incidentally, I'm interested in whether you think the X-Files is "worth watching," but since you haven't seen many of the other myth/arc-based shows, it's hard for you to really judge it. You should check out some of Joss Whedon's stuff, as well as The Wire, and maybe a few other well-known HBO shows... the heyday of television wasn't the early 90s, as you suggested in a previous post, it's NOW.

Therese said...

Oh, absolutely there's a problem with just saying that. But my point was kind of that the object of belief in the show is at least not depicted as something to be comfortable with. It's quite uncomfortable, in fact, but the characters find it worth knowing nonetheless.

In terms of Joss Whedon's stuff (of which I actually have watched a decent amount), it's difficult to judge. Some episodes are absolutely on par, but it's kind of hit-or-miss depending on who's writing it. Some are just entertaining, some are actually quite good. As you can tell from the posts, I am still very ambivalent about the lack of philosophical coherence (wait, reincarnation but also a Judeo-Christian God?), and would find the show better off without some of that. But hey, even Firefly situates its characters in what we can hardly help recognizing as an ambivalent universe (more in a moral sense than anything else) and focuses on making a good story out of it. It's a comparison in which I can see many flaws, but I think the main point is there. The main difference between the two is that Firefly has a coherent arc across all episodes while the X-Files definitely mixes things up a lot.

That thing about the heyday of television...I was hardly suggesting that it was better in the 90s. Just that popular consciousness was more directly formed by the same few mega-shows than it is now. Now you have a lot of little things you can see if you don't like Glee or Lost or whatever. Partly due to the explosion in electronic media, I think every person at the workplace is less likely to have seen "Popular show A" than they would have been to watch "Seinfeld", "X-Files," or "Friends". Those are shows to which one can refer, even refer to the characters, and almost everyone knows what you're talking about. Refer to Joss Whedon and you might get a few who've obsessively watched Buffy. But mention Firefly or Dollhouse and you'll be lucky if someone even recognizes the show's name.

Therese said...

I realize the first paragraph of that response is pretty vague. Basically, whatever faith is in the show, it is 100% not in the Dawkins "comfortable religion" line.