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What is so terrifying about Room 101?

January 08, 2012 By: John Kindley Category: Uncategorized

It’s not the prospect of getting your face eaten off by hungry rats, or of whatever you most fear befalling you. No, it is the fear of ultimately betraying those you love, of preferring your self to them, of preferring that what you most fear be done to them rather than to you, and thereby discovering that your love was a lie, and that you yourself are less than nothing. It is the fear of doing, and being, what you hate.

The so-called Problem of Evil, widely considered as the strongest argument against the existence of God, is typically framed by asking why bad things happen to good people. But the real Problem of Evil is this: Why do “good” people do bad things? Why do we ourselves not do what we believe to be right? Why do we fall short, by the testimony of our own consciences? In this, I believe, and not in cancers or tsunamis, or even in man’s inhumanity to man, is found the greatest obstacle to faith. It is found not in what others do to us or each other, but in what we ourselves do, or fail to do.

In theory, then, as the Stoics might say, our Happiness and our Beatitude is in our own hands. Yet even so, “the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do. . . . I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.” Those of us who have foolishly gotten ourselves addicted to cigarettes know this better than anybody, and are reminded of it daily.

The answer, if there is one, is to understand, before we ever get to Room 101, that we are less than nothing, and that only God is Good. Perhaps then we will find in ourselves the strength of the martyrs. “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” The modern ear revolts at this: Am I not good? Why did God create me to be nothing, and so weak? Why, if he is our Father, and loves us, does he demand our abasement, and our abject subjection to Him? But, in truth, the Son is equal to the Father. God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves. God is more us than we are ourselves. It is we who have made ourselves nothing. It is as easy as the Stoics say. It is as easy to lay down your life for your friends as it is to throw away those stupid cigarettes.

I believe there is salvation even for Winston Smith and for Julia. Perhaps, as barbaric as it sounds, there is a Purgatory, wherein what we fear most finally befalls us, and wherein we may discover for ourselves, if we didn’t discover it in this world, that the “sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.”

15 Comments to “What is so terrifying about Room 101?”


  1. Thank you for an EXCELLENT article, John. I’ve just shared a kink to it on the Christian Libertarians Facebook page.

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    • John Kindley says:

      Thanks Rob. It appears there’s several such sites. Could you give me a link to the one you posted on?

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  2. You can redefine the problem and choose to ask (and answer) a different question. But the original question remains: Why does an omnipotent and omnibenevolent god allow suffering?

    Of course, one can imagine a first mover, even an omnipotent and omniscient one, who has no qualms about allowing suffering – indeed, who insists on it. A deity needn’t be benevolent; cruel and venal is also possible. But that’s not the sort of god most Christians (which is your self-definition) claim.

    Milton offered an answer satisfying to those who find it so and not far from your point: God gave people free will because choosing is the essence of creation:

    If I foreknew,
    Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault
    Which had no less prov’d certain unforeknown.
    Paradise Lost, III, 116-118

    But Milton’s God is not exactly omnibenevolent, and his formulation doesn’t really satisfy unless you buy into it a priori.

    Of course, the problem of evil is “considered the strongest argument against the existence of God” in the most limited of ways. First, it’s not an argument at all, it’s really an conundrum. How does one reconcile suffering with a particular but not necessary set of creator characteristics (omnipotence and omnibenevolence)? If god who doesn’t have one or the other of that characteristics, then there’s no problem (though there’s perhaps a question about why you’d still be both loving and worshipful of a god who lacked both.) Beyond that, it’s largely irrelevant to non-philosophical arguments about the existence of (at least) a Biblical sort of god.

    And, of course, to the ument, after all, only againstonly if the definition of God includes both omnipotence and omnibenevolence. And then only if you’re making philosophical arguments with no attention to much of anything else.

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    • John Kindley says:

      I am reminded of, of all things, this line from the movie Jacob’s Ladder (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yt3Ny_BG3yQ&feature=player_embedded): “The only thing that burns in hell is the part of you that won’t let go of your life: your memories, your attachments. They burn them all away, but they’re not punishing you, they’re freeing your soul. If you’re frightened of dying and you’re holding on, you’ll see devils tearing your life away. If you’ve made your peace, then the devils are really angels freeing you from the earth.”

      We take our wisdom where we can find it.

      What is a man who could pass the test of Room 101? Who could lay down his life, and allow himself to be crucified, for his friends? He is a God. He is God. He is free. He is a co-creator with God, bringing about the world we desire. In the state we are in, how else could we realize such freedom? This is not to say we should be callous about suffering, or should be masochists, but somehow we should be such that we are able to overcome, and not fear, the worst that could happen. I wish that someone would teach me to be such a person. And there are examples in the world that lead that way. But it is God himself who ultimately is our teacher, and speaks to us in the depths of our soul. Part of that lesson seems to be to realize that the Self we think we are is a bundle and a tissue of fear. We are made of fear, that needs to be overcome. (I recognize these words are hollow coming from me, because I have not yet learned my lesson. They are just words, my own reflections, refracted through my own imperfections.) Winston Smith and Julia succumbed to their fear, under entirely understandable and horrific circumstances. But what of O’Brien, who tortured them? There is no greater example of fear, and we see similar examples everywhere in our country today. The State, “our” State, is driven by fear. The hoarders of wealth, and coveters of status and privilege, are bundles of fear.

      Why do we find ourselves in a world that puts to us such a horrible test in the first place? Why did God put us here? I don’t know, but as medieval as it sounds, I think “original sin,” or a primal fall, must have something to do with it. Perhaps the main reason we are horrified by suffering is that we fear. And we fear because we have separated ourselves from God. The evidence of our separation is in our failure to do what we ourselves believe to be good, when we realize it is well within our power to do what is good. This shows us both that salvation is within reach, that God stands at the door and knocks, and that we are stubborn and willful. By denying God, we deny our true selves.

      Granted, I have encountered some who claim they don’t fear, and even deny that they ever act against their own conscience. This is why the image of Room 101 is so powerful. I don’t believe the man who could face the test of Room 101 would ever be so proud as claim he could meet it. I don’t believe he would judge, or look down upon, others. I believe such a man would be devoid of Self.

      There is suffering that seems senseless beyond comprehension. Jesus, after all, had a mission that presumably gave him strength (although I think we all have that same mission). His mother was there for him at the foot of the cross. What of the examples that Ivan Karamazov gives, of children tortured by their own parents? How can we expect children to comprehend a loving God, when their young minds are twisted and tortured by the suffering inflicted on them? We know these experiences can contribute to the formation of criminal minds and souls filled with hate, and who can judge them? But, although it may sound callous, we are all put to the test, some of us worse than others. It is important to affirm that even these sufferings are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. God is there even for them. It is callous to say He is not, that their sufferings prove there is no God, and that they have no hope.

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    • How can God be both perfectly merciful and perfectly just? To be perfectly just requires that every wrong be paid for in full. To be perfectly merciful would be to forgive at least some of them.

      How can the imperfect be made perfect? Conceptually this is impossible. Does the ordeal of suffering purify and bridge the gap? That’s the idea, partly. It’s not severity for its own sake, it’s the nature of the thing: if God is perfect he can never unite with anything that is imperfect. Then again, it’s wrong to seek God through deliberate infliction of purification and suffering on yourself or others. Or at least it’s weird. Although nobody seems to feel that way if you’re pursuing, say, a physique and not God. No pain, no gain, as they say.

      We must have a law of gravity, but that means a plane full of people can fall out of the sky and kill everyone. Shall the law of gravity be suspended to prevent that? In how many other situations would you like that to be the case? Make a list. Be sure not to leave anything out. Lives hang in the balance.

      Benevolence might mean one thing to us and quite a different thing to the supernatural creator of everything that exists. You have to take that into account.

      God isn’t just omnipotent and benevolent; he’s also inscrutable. If we could understand him completely and perfectly we’d be greater than him rather than the other way around.

      So there. This sums up my understanding of this theological conundrum. Don’t get mad at me. I’m just trying to help.

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  3. Well, yeah. The ultimate answer to these questions is that the ominiscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent (omnijust, too, if you buy into Regan’s claim), unique creator of the universe also surpasseth human understanding. We can’t understand how it’s all possible because that would require us to be able, ourselves, to be omniscient. Which means, of course, you have to take it on faith. Which is fine as a religious position, but doesn’t really advance things philosophically.

    Nor does it do anything to resolve these things for those who don’t have that faith. Can you convince me of God? No. Is such an entity needed? Not that I can see. Is there such an entity anyway? I can’t see it, don’t believe it, and therefore don’t find myself struggling to account for the implicit and inherent contradictions.

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    • Hey. Jeff. I’m not proselytizing, or even deeply engaging in theology or philosophy with you. I have to be really drunk to do either.

      Just musing a little. Thought you might like it.

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    • John Kindley says:

      Although this may be rather unorthodox, I think the whole concept of “faith” is suspect, and (John Regan probably won’t like me for saying this) I think the institutional Church and its institutional requirements are largely responsible for the advent of this propositional conception of “faith.” The inherent irrationality and internal contradictions of this standard conception of faith is I believe a cause for much of the disrepute such “faith-based” religions are held in, and for much of the wars and inquisitions that have been perpetrated in their names. I think what ultimately matters is what one knows and understands. Any stock we might put in a book written almost 2000 years ago depends entirely on what we immediately and personally know and understand. (It’s probably important to admit in this context that words and rationalizing can be an obstacle to knowing and understanding.) Buddhists are a-okay in my book, and from what I understand they don’t necessarily believe in “God.” What I find inconceivable, i.e., completely contrary to everything I know and understand, or at least think I know and understand, is abject thorough-going materialism. I also believe that what matters even more than what one knows and understands is how one lives, although this is tied up intimately with what one knows and understands. One of my favorite bloggers, a professed atheist, albeit one who linked approvingly to one of my posts on gnosis a while back, has a post today with this title:
      Preach the Gospel always and, if necessary, use words

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      • Good works as the path to salvation. If there is such a thing.

        Here’s the thing: Rick Santorum “knows and understands” that whole categories of really decent, good, honorable people are headed straight for hell because they engage in activity described at one point in his scripture as an “abomination.” I know and understand that he’s a dangerous fanatic who’s also wholly misguided and knows and understands things which aren’t so. I assume that if he knew me or anything about me he would have a similar view of me.

        I think a moment of Wittgenstein, from the Philosophical Investigations, is in order:

        “What is your aim in philosophy?
        “To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.”

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        • John Kindley says:

          from a short article I found online a while ago titled “Wittgenstein, Tolstoy, and The Gospel in Brief” (http://www.the-philosopher.co.uk/witty.htm) [I added a link to The Gospel in Brief to my list of Essential Reading in the sidebar at right a while ago]:

          Although the Gospel in Brief was not published in Tolstoy’s lifetime, it clearly comes from the period of his religious and moral writings between 1879 and 1902. It is a fusion of the four Gospels, the purpose of which is to seek an answer to the problem of how we should live. It is both philosophical and practical, rather than theological and spiritual, in its intention. Tolstoy believed that the existence of God could neither be proved nor disproved and that the meaning of life lay beyond the limits of our minds. ( And compare this with Wittgenstein’s conception of absolute or ethical value as expressed in his 1929/30 Lecture on Ethics (Philosophical Review, 1965.) Tolstoy further believed that the Church itself, as a body, interfered with one’s ability to live a peaceful, everyday life, free from significant pain and suffering. This too can only have appealed to a restless soul such as Wittgenstein.

          The Only Book in the Shop

          How Wittgenstein came by his copy of the Gospel in Brief, and the importance he came to attach to it, is almost a parable in itself. At the time in question Wittgenstein was serving with the Austrian army at the start of the First World War. These circumstances were very different from those of Edwardian England let alone the blissful solitude of a Norwegian fjord. Wittgenstein discovered a small bookshop in Tarnow, a town then under Austrian rule but now in southern Poland. It is said that the shop had only one book (Tolstoy’s) and that Wittgenstein bought the book because it was the only one they had. Some have suggested that he saw this as a sign, though we shall leave that supposition there. In any case, he started reading the Gospel in Brief on September 1st 1914 and subsequently carried it with him at all times, memorising passages of it by heart. He became known to his comrades as the man with the gospels, constantly recommending the book to anyone who was troubled. Wittgenstein himself said that the book essentially kept him alive.
          . . .
          There is then a paradox. While Wittgenstein asserts that nothing can be said about ethics, the Gospel in Brief says a great deal about how life should be lived, and, furthermore, what it says seems to have had a powerful influence on Wittgenstein. The solution to this problem lies in the distinction between saying and showing, as expressed in the Tractatus; because although there are no ethical propositions – the Gospel cannot say anything about how we should live – yet Wittgenstein must have believed that it did show the way to live.

          The statement ‘It is wrong to kill’ can be said, in the minimalist sense that it can be spoken, but in ‘Tractarian’ terms it cannot be said in the sense that it expresses a particular moral imperative. People say things like this all the time, and other people understand them. It is, however, possible that someone may disagree with this statement, and there is ultimately no way of resolving the dispute by reference to states of affairs or facts about the world. This is because the statement does not express a fact, and this is what is meant when Wittgenstein asserts that ethics cannot be put into words. If I say it is wrong to kill, do I, thereby, show that it is wrong to kill? In some cases I do and, in some cases I do not. There is no way of proving that it is wrong.

          Such remarks as: ‘I am my world’ (Tractatus 5.63), and ‘For what the solipsist means is quite correct, only it cannot be said, but makes itself manifest’ (Tractatus 5.62), provide a key to Wittgenstein’s view. In these he directs us to the actual experience of living. The person whose moral outlook, i.e. their way of living, is changed by a work such as the Gospel in Brief has not been convinced by logical arguments or matters of fact. They have, rather, been shown, the way that they should live.
          . . .

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        • So what are you saying, Jeff? You’re against good works? Or salvation? Or both?

          I mean, I understand that CDL’s are contrarians, but isn’t that taking things a bit too far?

          And as far as flies go, I have to wonder what Wittgenstein would have made of that movie with Jeff Goldblum. Talk about showing something that words can’t describe. Plus, what the hell is a “fly-bottle”? I didn’t know they make bottles for flies. Is it like a flea circus?

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          • I’m all for good works, though with the understanding that I get to decide what’s good. (The typical religiously or morally or politically motivated suicide bomber presumably thinks she’s doing good works. I’d disagree. There’s the rub (to quote William rather than Ludwig this time).

            And I don’t oppose salvation. I just don’t believe in it.

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      • Please, John. I certainly won’t dislike you for stating your opinion forthrightly.

        I disagree that the “institutional church” would be responsible for a propositional conception of faith, if I understand correctly what you mean by that. People have a need to understand and to communicate their understandings, some people more than others. So there’s an effort to reduce thoughts to propositions. But then eventually you’re trying to fathom the unfathomable and there’s no language for that.

        Of course, there’s nothing wrong with engaging in this kind of discourse, provided wine is involved.

        The point being, well, I’m not sure. You start bringing Wittgenstein into it, and the next thing you know it’s hard to say anything. Which is ironic considering that he liked Tolstoy, who was famously wordy.

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        • John Kindley says:

          I concur. I think and “believe,” e.g., that Jesus rose from the dead, but that it wouldn’t diminish the Gospel if his biographers in fact have gotten this aspect of his story spectacularly wrong. (Tolstoy omits the Resurrection from his Gospel in Brief.) I think and “believe” that we have “free-will,” but that determinism (not from a materialistic perspective but from a theological perspective) has some logic going for it and might provide a truer way of looking at things. I think and “believe” that, contra Wittgenstein, we can make true ethical statements based on the objectively-discernible nature of man, but that I might be wrong and Wittgenstein might be right. I think and “believe” that the Truth that really matters does not lend itself to such propositional expressions, and at the same time is self-evident.

          Here is an interesting passage from towards the end of the Gospel in Brief:

          “The Gospel is the revelation of this truth, that the first source of everything is the understanding of life itself. This being so, the Gospel puts in the place of what men call “God” a right understanding of life. Without this understanding there is no life; men only live in so far as they understand life.

          Those who do not grasp this, and who deem that the body is the source of life, shut themselves out from true life; but those who comprehend that they live, not through the body, but through the spirit, possess true life. This is that true life which Jesus Christ came to teach to men. Having conceived that man’s life flows from the understanding, he gave to men the teaching and example of a life of the understanding in the body.

          Earlier religions were the announcements of law as to what men ought to do, and not to do, for the service of God. The teaching of Jesus, on the other hand, deals only with the understanding of life. No man has ever seen, and no man can see or know, an external God; therefore our life cannot take for its aim the service of such a God. Only by adopting for his supreme principle the inner understanding of life, having for its source the acknowledgment of God, can man surely travel the way of life.”

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