I was listening this morning to Ezra Klein’s interview with the novelist and I guess lowkey theologian Marilynne Robinson, who’s got a new novel out called Jack, and she mentioned that secular or atheistic people tend to believe that they’ve liberated themselves from theological questions when all they’ve really done is abandon the language of theology. And then she said something that rang my bell supremely hard.
On the subject of certain difficult metaphysical questions, she said that she wishes she could “liberate [the question] into indeterminacy.”
It reminded me of the vibes I was getting last month while reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance—which cast a spell on me that I’m still not totally comfortable with, because it’s a book of pop philosophy, which seems like an oxymoron, and so I feel like I’m being conned. Drinkin’ the Kool-Aid.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has sold five million copies and while I’m compelled to say that five million people can’t be wrong I also understand that maybe one in five of those ZaMM buyers actually read the book, and maybe half of that readership was similarly spellbound.
Plus I suppose the reality of Nazi Germany squashes any argument that millions of people can’t all be wrong about the same thing.
You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it’s always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig
But yeah, the Robinson quote: to liberate something into indeterminacy suggests, to me, the stoical or Zen-like or simply level-headed understanding that, basically, you can’t win em all.
I think that, when you’ve accepted that a question can’t be answered, it frees you up to just appreciate the question’s difficulty and the beauty of its complexity. To gnaw on it as an exercise.
And I find that the prolonged consideration of unanswerable questions points you toward unexpected answers for other questions. An ostensibly fruitless task that yields sumptuous things indeed if you just stick to it.