Christianity is strange. It bids man to recognize that he is vile, and even abominable, and bids him to want to be like God. Without such a counterweight, his exaltation would make him horribly vain or his abasement horribly abject.
— Blaise Pascal, Pensées
Anthony Kronman, in his magisterial book Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan, focuses on this very tension to argue that in fact, mankind has gotten the worst of both worlds here. Filled with a loathing for our imperfect human condition, and taught to grovel before a heavenly father for whose gifts we can never be remotely worthy, the unbearable psychological pressure made it inevitable that we would seek to usurp his throne after driving him beyond the boundaries of creation. As Nietzsche’s Zarathustra asked, if there were gods, how could I bear to not be a god as well? And so, in the centuries since Pascal wrote, it would seem that the counterweight has snapped under the tension, freeing us to both soar to new heights of vanity and plummet to new depths of depravity.
And yet, should we ever manage to prevail in our quest to conceptually stand outside of creation, having accounted for every last subatomic particle’s mass and motion within a framework of laws and formulae that leave nothing to chance, nothing that defies our understanding, nothing that evades our controlling will, the philosophical question would still remain: what would we want with such power? What would we do with it? What sort of world would we create and endorse if we were to become the embodiment of the God we imagined into existence all those centuries ago? I imagine most people, if they think about the question at all, assume that the answer will somehow be provided by the conclusion of the quest itself and quickly forget about it. Alan Watts brilliantly suggested that most likely, we would attempt to eliminate all of the “bad” elements of existence and keep the “good” ones, only to realize eventually that “good” and “bad” are conceptual distinctions, not actual ones, and only exist at all in opposition to each other, incapable of being cleaved.
Pascal also said in another epigram that all of mankind’s problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room alone. Sitting quietly alone might lead to a serene acceptance of the world just as it is, with all its tragic flaws. Though it might just as likely lead to the sort of thinking-too-much that causes people to invent gods who burden them with impossible demands and ideals. Once again, the imaginary line between good and bad cuts through the very nature of existence itself. As Kronman said in another book, this is the self-contradictory essence of the human condition.