This meme posted by the United Church of Christ, based on a quote by Elie Wiesel (US News & World Report, October 27, 1986) has shown up in a few news feed posts of late. The complete quote:
“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, but indifference between life and death.”
At best he gets one or two out of four right. Love, beauty, and faith are all social constructs. They must be pretty clearly defined before we can know what their opposites are, if opposites of social constructs like these can even be said to exist. Scott Peck defines love in The Road Less Traveled as, “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” Given that definition, that love is a choice, an extension outside of self, or work, I can roll with the opposite of love being indifference.
In another book, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil, Peck also takes on the nature of evil. He cleverly points out that “evil” is “live” spelled backwards, and has this to say about it:
“When I say that evil has to do with killing, I do not mean to restrict myself to corporeal murder. Evil is that which kills spirit. There are various essential attributes of life — particularly human life — such as sentience, mobility, awareness, growth, autonomy, will. It is possible to kill or attempt to kill one of these attributes without actually destroying the body. Thus we may “break” a horse or even a child without harming a hair on its head.
Evil then, for the moment, is the force, residing either inside or outside of human beings, that seeks to kill life or liveliness. And goodness is its opposite. Goodness is that which promotes life and liveliness.”
So it seems that at least according to Peck, the opposite of life is neither death nor indifference, but evil – rather an active and proactive force, “that seeks to kill life or liveliness.”
In my Songwriting classes I feel I owe it to my students to try to define objective measures by which to evaluate the quality of their songs, their relative beauty. It seems a fool’s errand, but there is Thomas Aquinas at least, whose components of beauty include symmetry or coherence, structural integrity, and clarity. This works for songwriting. I could argue that the opposite of beauty is confusion, obfuscation, poor quality and incoherence rather than indifference. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder though, and for my purposes here I will take a pass on this one.
His inclusion of faith however is curious and sinister. There are multiple definitions of that word faith as well, and the religious often try to point out that even atheists have faith. The problem is that the religious use the wrong definition of the word. The Oxford Dictionaries lists two:
1) Complete trust or confidence in someone or something: this restores one’s faith in politicians
2) Strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.
2.1 A system of religious belief: the Christian faith
2.2 A strongly held belief or theory: the faith that life will expand until it fills the universe
Now it seems pretty clear to me that the first definition is based on some level of experience, or empiricism if you will, data. There is the “this” in the example sentence, after all. Same with the idea that I have faith that the chair I am sitting in will hold me up or that I may have faith that my friends will not let me down. I have experience that leads me to believe all this, and that the sun will rise in the East tomorrow.
But the Wiesel quote clearly implies the second definition. There is only heresy in religious faith, in the second definition where doctrines are involved. Oxford uses the word “proof,” in contrast to this kind of faith. So no, the opposite of religious faith is not indifference, but reason, evidence, data, empirical support.
Those of us who have abandoned or dismissed religious faith as a substandard, unreliable, untrustworthy, insupportable and unauthoritative view of reality, as a so-called virtue, or even as simply a filter through which to run the total human experience can not be wholly written off as “indifferent.” This is just one more way that even liberal theologies, as pure and virtuous as their intentions might be, cannot help stepping in it and marginalizing whole classes of people many of whom are actively working to bring love, beauty and life to the world. We are anything but indifferent. Doctrine simply must be abandoned or at the very least marginalized to the point of irrelevance if we are to ever have an inclusive, equitable and just world.