Saturday, April 01, 2006

Dire Warnings

The next installment in this series of my older writings is a short story written about three years ago. Comments are welcome...

Dire Warnings

“The problem with this energetic exercise in imagination,” said Professor Durus, with a kindly smile, “is simply a lack of evidence.”

He was walking to the parking lot with his colleague, Professor Roth. They regularly engaged in various informal disputations, usually at the behest of Roth, a perpetual axe-grinder. Durus enjoyed their informal debates, wearisome though they often were—especially as Roth never managed five sentences without lapsing into insult and invective. But Durus was considerate and patient. Roth was ardently religious, a passionate believer in the supernatural, and Durus held a private opinion that this faith too often made a Zealot of him. Not surprising, Durus had sometimes thought. Hot ideology makes hot heads.

Durus himself was quite the opposite, renowned for a tolerant spirit, for facing life’s challenges with a cool-headed serenity that invoked the admiration of all who met him. Casual acquaintances thought him honest, pleasant, and charitable, and friends knew him to be so. His goodwill even extended to the few that, like Roth, actually disliked him.

“Come off it,” said Roth with an acrid tone. “Don’t make me drag out the theistic proofs. You don’t believe in the supernatural because you don’t want to believe.”

Durus considered that. One can never completely know one’s own mind, after all, but he sincerely did not think Roth’s assertion true. “I want only evidence,” he said. “I know the traditional arguments for God’s existence, and I find them unconvincing. Perhaps it’s true that I use my agnosticism as a shield against error, as a handrail to keep me from falling off either side of the bridge. Still, it seems to me that Reality, as we know it, can be accounted for apart from the existence of a superior being that made it all. A beautiful thought if true, but…

“However,” he added, “my objections are both philosophical and practical.”

Roth snorted in disgust. “What does that mean?”

“The supernatural is wonderful for mythology, but decidedly bad for real life. I object to your brand of religion—miracles, angels, and all the rest—because of the type of person it produces: either Crusaders, valiantly fighting to force belief on others—“ here he resisted the temptation to provide a convenient illustration—“ or Slaves, who sink from belief into delusion.”

“Delusion?” said Roth. “Don’t be a fool. Delusion is the legacy of atheism. Give me one example of real faith producing delusion. Not cultic sectarianism, mind you, but a major religion.”

They had reached Durus’ car. He turned to Roth and smiled again. “I’ll give you one, and then I really must go. You’re an historian, Roth: surely you are familiar with The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle?

Roth rolled his eyes. “Of course. What’s your point?”

“Well, the Chronicle is a fairly straight-forward historical account of early Medieval English history. Yet what do you find in the record for the year 793?

Roth didn’t remember, but also didn’t let on. “What about it?”

Durus quoted the passage. “’Dire warnings were come over the land of the Northumbrians and sadly terrified the people. There were tremendous lightnings and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air.’”

He looked at his colleague as if trying to determine his thoughts. “Dragons, Roth. In an otherwise sane, historical report. Matter-of-fact, as if recording the outcome of a battle. Why? It was a culture that believed in angels and devils, so why not dragons? Why not giants or fairies? And that’s my point: a strong belief in the mythological side of religion obscures reason, causing delusion in otherwise rational, sentient people.”

Roth snorted again, but said nothing. Durus clapped him on the shoulder, good-naturedly. “Don’t get me wrong, Roth. Religion has high value. It teaches us to be honest, to help the needy, to endure suffering with patience. That’s enough religion for me.”

“Oh, yeah?” retorted Roth. “Well, I wouldn’t recommend trying out your secular religion when you’re standing next to your kid’s coffin.”

That was a bit much, even for Durus. But he refused to let it draw him out. He sighed, sadly, and said goodbye to his intolerant acquaintance. As he drove home, Durus reflected on the conversation. Like Roth, he’d grown up in what he now called “fairy tale religion”—angels, devils, witches, giants—and had grown up a selfish cad. Only when he abandoned the mythical elements of faith, accepting religion’s moral teachings, had he gradually transformed into a man of compassion and tolerance.

But he recalled his closing words to Roth: “religion teaches us to endure suffering with patience.” That’s the hard part, he thought. Durus, in fact, had suffered little in life. Born to wealth, with a near genius I.Q., he had married the most beautiful girl at Oxford, and now enjoyed money, status, and two great kids. What would he do if suffering came, as it surely would? Endurance is the key. I can’t help what happens, but I can control my own response to tragedy, and not let it overwhelm me.

He turned his car into his own neighborhood, onto his own street. Instantly, he was offered a chance to prove the ethical and psychological superiority of his religion, for his house—his own home—was on fire. A wall of flame illumined the late afternoon sky with blazing light. He skidded to a stop in the driveway, breathing words of thankfulness, to no one in particular, that his family was away for the day.

He jumped from the car, fumbling for his cell phone, for no one had yet arrived on the scene. Panic and fear swelled and threatened to crush him, and he dropped his phone. But he took a deep breath, and began to calm himself, even briefly thinking how good it was that he would now have an opportunity to exercise his religion in real life. He would endure, and hold down the storm of emotions that were rising in him. Durus’ head was spinning, despite his valiant efforts to remain calm, and his senses were cloudy. But help would come. In fact…

A shadow passed overhead. A rain cloud, he thought. A downpour would certainly help. A roar of wind, and a frightfully loud noise, like thunder, boomed above him. Yes, it’s going to rain. He felt the ground move behind him, and heard a high-pitched, piercing noise, like a siren. The firefighters are here. They’ll save my house. He turned, and squinted in the glow of two bright, yellow lights. Vehicle headlights. The fire engine.

A blinding flurry of ghastly images assaulted his eyes—a gaping mouth; a face marked by malice, intelligence, and twisted pleasure; a burning, malevolent smile; huge, scaly wings; razor-sharp fangs. His final thought, as the fiery breath hurled him into the surprisingly real world of Supernature, was of Roth, his fanatical colleague.

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