I was born into born-again Christianity, but eventually left behind the twice-born life not long after graduating from college. My reasons for leaving were threefold: a complete lack of any experience of the divine, ever, despite my sincerest efforts; studying world religions in college and meeting equally fervent believers of those religions—we can’t all be right; and finally becoming convinced of what I consider the obviousness of the truth of naturalism. The combination of personal experience, understanding the logic of reasoned argument, and the power of evidence-based empiricism was the perfect storm of my liberation from religion.
However, the stakes are especially high when one transitions from a religious worldview to a naturalistic one. As Nietzsche once pointed out:
“One interpretation has collapsed; but because it was considered the interpretation it now seems as if there were no meaning at all in existence, as if everything were in vain.”
The despair of nihilism can be held at bay by banal distractions for only so long. Fortunately, philosophy, poetry, and science were the three disciplines that offered me a way to reconcile my being-in-the-world, and to redeem the vagaries and vicissitudes of existence. It’s just as Ralph Waldo Emerson says in his essay The Poet:
“That will reconcile me to life, and renovate nature…Life will no more be a noise…This day shall be better than my birthday: then I became an animal: now I am invited into the science of the real.”
A love of both philosophy and poetry has stuck with me ever since college, and one of my favorite poets was Wallace Stevens. With regard to poetry, he once wrote:
“The relation of art to life is of the first importance…in the absence of a belief in God, the mind turns to its own creations and examines them, not from the aesthetic point of view, but for what they reveal, for what they validate and invalidate, for the support that they give.”
Stevens believed that poetry could be a “supreme fiction” to replace the fiction of God, that poetry could take on “the existential burden of religious belief without the guarantee of religious belief,” as philosopher Simon Critchley put it in his book on Stevens, Things Merely Are. But Stevens eventually realized that his project could never succeed. I also realized that poetry alone cannot redeem life. Could philosophy and science contribute to life’s redemption?
On the face of it, the cerebral nature of both philosophy and science seem to be at odds with the imaginative playfulness of poetry. Both philosophy and science demand clear thinking and conceptual rigor—they seem to leave no room for the mysterious ambiguity that is the essence of great poetry. But philosophy, poetry, and science all have something vital in common: they all teach us to look at the world again, each from its own unique aspect: philosophy interrogates experience, science verifies it, and poetry translates it into something relatable and relevant to life. And with that realization I found the key to my conundrum: meaning in life likely requires practicing the virtues of all three.
Wallace Stevens articulated his own existential project in his long poem, “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” which is less a definitive statement than an exploration of possibilities. So in the spirit of his attempt, this blog is my “Notes Toward a New Chimera,” my personal project of incorporating the reasoning power of the philosopher, the unrelenting empiricism of the scientist, and the passion of the poet to achieve that synthesis of reason and emotion that makes life worth living.
I believe that both those who have left religion and those who have never lived with it can emulate the New Chimera to beneficial effect. The three-ingredient recipe of the New Chimera can be tweaked to suit anyone’s taste.