Multiplicity, Faith and History

Multiplicity, Faith and History

Mendut Temple, Central Java, Indonesia. Photo by Gunawan Kartapranata

Pascal said:

“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.”

He was thinking about the heavens, the stars, galaxies, night. He said in another pensée:

“For after all what is man in nature? A nothing in relation to infinity, all in relation to nothing, a central point between nothing and all and infinitely far from understanding either.”

I imagine most of us have these feelings from time to time. The immensity of the universe dwarfing us, subduing us, making us feel more than alone. Devastatingly alone.

But the reverse can occur, as well as all of the points in between. As in, think about history, think about the billions of forms of expression from age to age, culture to culture, nation to nation. Think about the collective as well as the individual. Expression, art, words, thoughts, music. It teems. It’s electrified. The variance, the variety, the near cacophony of different sounds. Collected snowflakes of our diverse minds.

When one thinks about that, it is hard to feel . . . . well, alone in an immense, indifferent universe. Perhaps. So much has been said and done. So much history has unfolded.

Diversity. A common theme for me. I return and return to it. But is it a mask, a cover, a shield between us and something else? Perhaps things can be boiled down to a few essences. To just a few. Perhaps all of those beautiful and ugly masks, those screams of “look at me!!” . . . . are really nothing more than an attempt to find meaning. Meaning as in:

Why are we here?


Why am I here?

What is the meaning, the purpose of the universe, and my place within it?

Pretty much all of religion boils down to that, and a great deal of philosophy. Much art as well. Though with art you have that love thing thrown in. In various guises. How to describe it. How to deal with it. And how to get it, or get out of it.

William James said:

“All our scientific and philosophic ideals are altars to unknown gods.”

He also said:

“Religions have approved themselves; they have ministered to sundry vital needs which they found reigning. When they violated other needs too strongly, or when other faiths came which served the same needs better, the first religions were supplanted.”

Change is diverse as well. Often tedious and slow, like the movement of a glacier. Like the car in front of you on a one lane road. It’s also sometimes violent and brief. Violent, immediate and nearly irreversible. Like losing a friend or a loved one. Or picking up some terrible disease. But we do change. We have changes in zeitgeist, in ethos, nationally, culturally, individually. And in our own time, we tend to think changes happen more rapidly than in the past. This may be true, or not so true.

Feelings of alienation, of loneliness, of questioning “Why are we here?” typically skyrocket during times of upheaval. Religions come and go. Sects rise and fall. Pretenders to the throne become ancient monarchs and former revolutionaries attack the young for wanting to take down the establishment.

Looking at the broad sweep of things, it’s sometimes easy to think:

“This has happened before. Why do we keep doing the same things, expecting different outcomes?”


“How can we really believe that our way is the only way, when we know that dozens, hundreds, thousands of other ways have been tried and have worked across the centuries?”


“Why do we go to war against those who do not believe the way we believe, when our set of beliefs is merely a drop in the ocean of time, history, and multiplicity?”

Logically, embracing the all can save lives. It can heal. It can prevent or stop wars. But it’s often very difficult, and tough, and sometimes on the edge of the Impossible. That’s where faith should come in. I say should, because we seem to have more faith in the power of violence, and the violence of power, than in the power of peace and negotiation. Why do we choose faith in such a narrow, limited, sectarian, exclusive form, instead of embracing the all? All of it. Everything. Past, present, future. Vertical, horizontal.

Inevitably, we join it anyway. We have no choice. But while we humans live, while we exist in the now, we love stubbornness. It’s almost a religion in itself . . . .


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