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Published the week of 2007-09-26
Disrespecting the dead
By: Eric Jackson
In one of my classes the other day we happened to be discussing why it was easier to believe in God years ago than it is now. I confess an inability to understand the question. I do not think it has ever been very easy to believe in God; rather, I think it has always been prudent to put some stock in a deity of some sort while making plenty room for doubt. Agnosticism, not atheism, is the natural attitude of man.
I promise not to discuss God for the entirety of my article. I merely intend to use him, if he will allow it, to demonstrate a particular point. And that is this: men do a tremendous service—to their ancestors, to themselves and to their progeny—when they regulate the vices and imperfections, present at all times, to men long dead and reserve the virtues for themselves. They are also engaging in fallacy.
Consider, as my class did, the story of Moses and the burning bush. As Camille Paglia points out, “Knowledge of the Bible, one of the West’s foundational texts, is dangerously waning among aspiring young artists and writers.”
This is true, it is distressing, and it is the subject for an altogether different article.
Anyway, I trust that we all know at least a thing or two about Moses. So far as I can tell, there are three possible reactions to the story: one could believe Moses, as I do; one could disbelieve him, as those who reject the possibility of the miraculous must do; or one could profess an honest agnosticism toward the very bizarre affair.
But it is not fair to poor Moses to say that he only believed that his experience was divine because he lived long ago and thus, by implication, was stupid. We have no evidence to allow us such an ungenerous conclusion. Is it honestly supposed that Moses didn’t know that bushes are not in the habit of starting on fire without being consumed?
Yet it is precisely because he knew a thing or two about bushes that the incident struck him as extraordinary. If Moses was really as ignorant as some would suggest, he wouldn’t have gone closer to the bush at all. He would have shrugged it off as a natural occurrence.
Or we may take another event which occurs some years later in that same book. A fellow by the name of Jesus Christ allegedly raised a fellow by the name of Lazarus from the dead.
This was generally not done, and you can bet your last denarii that this was as shocking then as it would be if it happened today. The same options present themselves to the reader. It is not enough to say that men do not come back from the dead.
Everyone, from the most uncivilized cannibal all the way down to the talking heads of cable news shows, knows this. Belief in a miracle doesn’t work without a law; it is the temporary suspension thereof which makes for the miracle.
Anyway, my real point, which has probably been lost somewhere in Galilee, doesn’t concern miracles. I merely suggest that our attitude toward our ancestors is frequently uncharitable and unfair. The men of yore may have been more foolish than we are—and they may not have been—but perhaps they had the good sense to realize it.
This is what struck me so odd. This is how society defines adoptees period. No way around it. How are we as adoptees expected to respect the dead (our heritage) without ever knowing who they are?
Cicero—a dead guy—says somewhere that, “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.”
There is another way to remain a child and that is to pretend that all who came before you were ignorant.