In Tremendous Trifles, GK Chesterton takes the metaphor of “tumbling trees and the secret energy of the wind” as being “typical of the visible world moving under the violence of the invisible.” He then goes on to suggest that people are a “forest” and that their souls are the “wind” that moves them: everything visible is moved by what is not immediately perceptible. Even an utterly rigid materialism that advocates a wysiwyg ideology is moved about by things that that far from immaterial. Yes, even materialism is rooted in the immaterial.
And it’s actually sad that these days the immaterial is so often regarded as immaterial in the sense of being unimportant, because it is in this that people are most likely to forget that what they see really isn’t what they’re getting. It would be safe to say that when the immaterial is neglected, what we’re seeing is really what we’re forgetting.
A few examples can help to get to what I mean. For instance, we see people at war and then assume that what we’re seeing is conflict. But war is not conflict. It is the inability to deal with conflict. People end up killing each other only because they do not know how to fight with each other. Bloodbaths result from forgetting the immaterial: the real violence, in this case, is actually what precedes the bloodshed. The same goes for relationships that fall apart: the problem (the breakup) is not the problem (bad communication, selfishness, etc.). And the same goes for various addictions (to drugs, bad relationships, work, unhealthy behavioural patterns, etc.): they are definitely not the problem, but very inadequate ways of addressing the problem.
Another example may help to capture the idea in slightly different territory. The case of religious fundamentalism is what most sane people, for fairly good reasons, perceive to be a problem. But fundamentalism is not the problem. It is a solution to a problem; or, to put it better, it is an attempt at a solution to a problem. Like war, it is often the inability to really deal with the problem. The problem here may go by many names, of course: anxiety, fear, doubt, mystery, etc. And fundamentalism—which generally amounts to biting down hard on one particular set of dogmas — is an attempt to deal with the ungraspable and the imperceptible. It resorts to calcified formulas and rigid dogmas taken up for the purpose of controlling the unacknowledged “violence of the invisible.”
Belief, it turns out, can operate less like a way of accepting and engaging with reality than like a defence mechanism: it can very well be a way to protect the believer from reality. Atheists are likely to use this as a way to say that this is why people of faith are such an issue: they naively, it seems, are trying to defend themselves against reality by evoking God and fairies and other imaginary beings. But of course, as usual, I’m applying this to all people everywhere. Atheists are not exempt from their own ideological gods. A million or a billion or more factors all contribute to the adoption of any particular “religious” stance, most of which we are probably unaware of. Because, truly, everyone believes something, even if it is nothing.
In the end, even though what I’m evoking here is probably a bit of a psychological minefield, what I want to get at is actually very simple: If we want to live happily in and harmoniously with the world, my guess is that we need to get behind the obvious. We need to, again, accept the primacy of the invisible. We need to recognise that our metaphysics is always a politics: our assumptions about reality — about what is perceptible and what is not, what is valuable and what is not — will always drive our actions in the world. When we deny the invisible as the ground, all we will end up with is sky and more sky. And it is then that we know what it means to be forever falling.
(Originally published on June 1, 2015)