Sunday, November 1, 2009
What Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav has in common with Screwtape
Religious fundamentalism has a lot more in common with extreme secularism and even atheism than both sides would usually like to admit. They both rely on a radical skepticism to reach their conclusions. A good example of this can be seen in the thought of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav (1772-1810).
For this reason our master [Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav] forbade us to study even the works of acceptable philosophers; they raise difficult and lengthy questions as to the ways of God, but when it comes to answering the questions, their answers are weak and can easily be refuted. Therefore he who looks into them and seeks to answer their questions by means of his intellect can fall into great heresy, when he sees that his answer is nothing and that the question remains. It is thus forbidden to look into (such books) at all, and one must rely on faith alone. (Art Green, Tormented Master: A Life of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav pg. 298)
In any other field the acknowledgment that your side cannot successfully answer the questions put forth by the opposition is an acknowledgment of defeat and acceptance of the other side. Ironically enough this position of Rabbi Nahman is almost identical to the one that C. S. Lewis has the demon Screwtape take in the Screwtape Letters. Screwtape advises his nephew Wormwood, a junior tempter out in the field, that he should make sure that his patient does not read any works of science even if it on the surface takes an atheist position, because science will put his mind onto questions of whether something is real as opposed to what feels brave and enlightened and may lead him to the "enemy." Considering this, it would seem that the position of Rabbi Nahman, despite its surface orthodoxy, should be seen as just another form of atheism or even Satanism since his assumptions are the same. Therefore any person who advocates such a position, no matter how long their beard is or how black their hat is, should be as welcome in a religious community as an atheist like Richard Dawkins or, dare I say it, an undersecretary of temptation like Screwtape.