Sunday, December 26, 2010

pravda

"God's all-inclusiveness manifests itself in the infinite multiplicity of the ways that lead to him, each of which is open to one man." - Martin Buber

I have been flirting, lately, with an internet dating website. And although like all flirtatious relationships this is stupid and shallow and laughable, it also brings up some interesting points. Today I want to discuss one of the stock profile-building questions that this website allows you the option of answering, which goes as follows: "Some religions are more correct than others, true or false?" and the fact that almost everyone who uses the site chooses "false."

It is not just on a dating website that I have heard this sentiment, however. I have also heard it all over the internet, in my classroom, on TV and in films - everywhere - and I have to say that as normal as this has become, I still find it weirdly nonsensical.

As a negation, it makes perfect sense. I would expect all atheists to answer "false," for example, because an atheist by definition believes that all religions are equally made of bollycockles, and that they are, inversely, equally true. But there is nothing in the systematized theology of any of the other major world religions that allows for the equal truthiness of any other religion. While most share a broad array of moral and ethical principles, they also all make a few key, mutually-exclusive Truth claims.

The Christian religious tradition in which I have lived my life, for example, says that God is three parts and that Jesus is the leg of that stool by which people can get to God. The only leg. No other religion believes or accepts this, and even one of the more amorphous, bleeding-edged, "many paths" eastern religions cannot - by definition must not - tolerate this intractable Christian doctrine.

Fact: quantum mechanics be danged, a cat can't be both dead and not dead at the same time - it can only be perceived as both, which is not the same thing.

So why are so many people (people who on a dating site slot themselves into one religion or another) making this claim without any acknowledgement of the formal logical disjuncture that it implies?

There are a lot of possible reasons. For one, there is the fact that you and I are not computers - motherboards waiting neutrally for clumps of binary religious information that can be copied without informational degradation from some universal worldview template. We are, each of us, a cobbling together of ideas from varied and vastly complex sources, and it would be ludicrous to think that today's cobblings (happening, as they are, in such an informational madhouse with such broad access to such a variety of viewpoints) would resemble anything like the religious monoliths of the past.

But humans are herd animals, and this illogical, anti-monolithic new worldview has become, ironically, a monolith in its own right.

I think it might have something to do with the Nazis. Everything always comes back to the Nazis. When I teach Art History, one of the things I try to do is to trace the roots of Nazism in the artwork of Germany as it developed as a nation prior to the World Wars. Since Art and Philosophy became such ardent bedfellows during the Enlightenment, I inevitably end up working my way through Nietzsche's "uberman" concept and concluding that Nazism is but one of many ugly things that will inevitably occur when you take the idea of Man as the Measure of All Things (the foundational idea of the Enlightenment) and extrapolate it out into real life.

Knowing myself as well as I do - in all my weakness and failures - I am disinclined to place myself at the center of anything, much less the Universe. I tend to think that you have to have something at the center of the universe if you want to feel safe. But while I tend to want to make that something out to be God, I certainly don't want that God to be definable by a person or group of persons whose livelihoods and power-base can only be maintained if they are allowed to construct a God who is leashable, boxable, and laughable.

I am glad, therefore, that the repositioning of Man at the center of the universe during the Enlightenment meant that most folks stopped accepting, carte blanche, the God-taming assertions of the powers-that-were. They were not willing, however, to go gently into the dark night prepared for them. When the morality-and-ethics-defining capabilities of religious institutions (especially in the Western World - and therefore especially Christianity) fell under serious suspicion, confronted by the fast-growing body of evidence accumulated by the Great Scientific Experiment that suggested that many of the fact-assertions the church had made were, in fact, fictions, the Christian Church essentially just re-wrote the terms of engagement.

While some parts of it continue even to this day to dogmatically assert that the world is flat and the center of the Universe, the vast tide of human thought began to drag the majority along with it. In a dialectical process that is by no means complete, the Church attempted to reclaim its power by participating in the creation of a fact/values split. They left questions of "fact" to science and retreated into blind faith, loudly asserting that faith was enough to make something true in an important enough way that the facts did not matter.

But a conflict between widely accepted fact and asserted value does matter. It takes an immense amount of power and energy to force a human mind to operate in a state of denial, and the Church's participation in the creation of the fact/value split has actually had the opposite of its intended effect. Instead, it has seriously diminished the real-life power base of the global Christian church. When was the last time, for example, that you saw a world leader caving to the demands of the Pope?

This is, I tend to think, a good thing. Christianity by definition has no frickin' business pulling the strings of power, and while declining church enrollments in the western world may have dire consequences for overinflated building maintenance budgets everywhere, I do not think it makes a lick of difference to the Truth itself, which persists despite what anyone does or doesn't make of it.

Nonetheless, I am bothered by the growing acceptance of a complete fact/value split. While I think it arises in part from an attempt at epistemological humility (a worthy goal, to be sure), I believe it ultimately cuts out its own legs and leaves itself floating, legless and bleeding, on a shark-infested sea.

The attempt of fundamentalists to maintain the illusion of complete knowledge is as laughable as it is lamentable, but the solution to the problem is not to construct a nonsensical new belief system where fact and value never meet; but rather to humbly, slowly, and with great silence go about the inherently incomplete-able task of living our personal narrative in great certainty of whatever few things we can find to both absolutely know and believe. I, for one, think that the best possible course of action is to make your list ridiculously short, cut it in half, slice off the ragged bits, and try to figure out how to make it even smaller.

I know that the ghosts of my fundamentalist childhood are now crying "foul!" and "wishy-washy, hippie, granola-cruching mumbo-jumbo!" but again, the cobbling together of an individual worldview is inevitable. As hard as anyone might try to transfer a complete and fully intact worldview to another person, the wondrous variability of human nature always-always-always lets random bits in through the cracks.

When I am asked if some religions are more correct than others, I answer most decisively, "true." In fact, I am even willing to say that I believe that one religion is most correct, and it is my own. Anyone who says they believe otherwise is actually only admitting that their true religion is other than what they think - that it is, rather, the very broadly-believed, monolithic pluralism that is, in the words of Willy Shake-a-stick, "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

I can say this without feeling like an arrogant fundie jackwagon, because to my mind I'm not being smarmy - I'm being honest. Saying, "I don't believe what I believe" isn't humble, it's a lie. I try to keep open at all times and in all ways to the possibility that I might be wrong about pretty much everything, but I do not think it does anybody any good to pretend that I don't believe what I actually do.

I think it's worthwhile, though, to take a quick look at my short list - at what I am unabashedly claiming as absolute truth.

First, there is capital "T" Truth itself. I believe it exists and that any attempt to create a false dichotomy between it and moral and ethical values is stupid and extremely dangerous. Nothing is ever completely certain, but as we write the narratives of our lives, I do believe there is a Spirit of Truth that illuminates the stories that we tell - whether we are writing about how it feels to lose an eight-year partner or about the eating habits of North Californian fruit bats. This spirit, at its best, is a love that is both self-forgetting and unconditional. It is grateful, open and creative, and can only ever be fully realized through a process - through life. Propositional approaches to truth are interesting and at times helpful, but are also totally unimportant when our feet are actually hitting the pavement (which is always).

As Jesus (sort of) said,  "You can figure it all out and know all there is to know. You can be as smart as Einstein, Hawking, Lewis, Ghandi and Oprah all at the same time. But if you don't have love, you are a friggin' jackwagon."

The spirit of Truth is available to absolutely everyone, wherever and however they may be. It is alive and creative. Its one constant is change because its life-blood is love, and love must be open to constant, adaptive, existence-level re-application. If it is not, then it is not love. It is not real.

God is there, too, in the thick of it. God is unfathomable and unapproachable in the sense that you cannot approach your own skin, or fathom a self that is perpetually changed by the attempt. This may sound pantheistic, but it is not. It is, rather, an attempt to counteract the post-hellenistic, platonic context which was the basis for the creation of an impossible, ugly sacred-secular dualism in the Christian church.

This is all very confusing, and very propositional. It is also most likely just a big pile of horse manure.

The best thing to do, I think, is to put down the boxes I have been stacking - the empty cardboard boxes I was layering into a Babelesque tower-to-the-unreachable-sky. Instead, I should probably just shut up. I think it is possible that if I shut up for long enough, I may find myself actually floating skyward. I may look down on my laughable, pitiful tower and I may begin to see it in the context of all the other towers that everyone else has been building all around me.

Who knows? If I stay silent enough and laugh deeply enough for long enough, I may find that I have risen high enough to see that all the box-towers of all the people are actually somehow together making another, bigger picture. And I believe I will smile, then, because in the larger picture that I can just-barely begin to see with my eyes popped as wide as I can make them, there will be something that will look like it might just be the corner of the most beautiful mouth in the world - and it, too, will be smiling.

This, I suppose, is why I choose to stick with Jesus. Despite all the ridiculous stupidity perpetrated by all the people who claim Jesus while stacking their empty boxes with an affected air of self-importance, Jesus is still smiling - offering something I see precious little of elsewhere: GRACE. Jesus offers freedom from toiling and trying. He says, in essence, "Yep. This here whole gong-show is a serious balagan (that's Hebrew for big pile of poop) and you know what, it's all right by me. I know it sucks and blows and hurts like the bejeebers a lot of the time, but isn't it freakin' beautiful?!?"

With Jesus, I get a chance to see through his suffering eyes the suffering of this tragic world. I get to see the wonder and loveliness of it all and then - best of all - I get to project that unconditional love and grace back out into the world. I get to be the healing grace I yearn for and love.

This, I think, is a truth worth fighting for.

5 comments:

  1. I stopped believing in God because I became too angry with Christians to handle the dichotomy of claims and reality. I simply couldn't settle on believing a God that went along with, allowed, or even endorsed what Modern Christianity has done.

    My atheistic days only last a little over a year. Even in that time before I made peace with God, I never shied away from the idea that Jesus really offered the best path to follow in life.

    Though I more than likely have disagreements on deity (I would probably consider myself a panentheist), I do feel similarly in my view and opinion of Christ...the life he offered, in my opinion IS the best and most true way.

    Even though you defied Schrodinger's Cat and used the word poop or a variation more times than my preschool classroom, I appreciate your stand point and your willingness to make a bold, yet still gentile affirmation of ultimate truth. It's people and writings like this that will save Christianity from itself.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you, Becca. Although I doubt very much my ability to save Christianity from anything, I appreciate the thought :)

    In my defense, "poop" and "poo" and the like are a lot funnier than, say, "shit." Or at least, sillier, and I'm pretty sure that all my pretentious little thoughts are nothing if not silly.

    As to Schrodinger, I suppose that was more of a dig at the infuriating incomprehensibility (to me) of quantum physics, and an expression of the suspicion I have that the quantum physicians are just doing it on purpose to try to make me feel stupid.

    ReplyDelete
  3. 1) Welcome to OkCupid! The world's largest stock-pile of mind-numbing, hair-pullingly frustrating match questions! :P Thankfully, you can hit the skip button.

    2) I can only speak for myself, not the whole vast world, about this particular question/position.. I strongly suspect that a not unimportant percentage of people answer that question with "false" just to avoid being politically incorrect, when you assume that the answer "false" is simply the statement that "I don't believe what I believe", I think you're missing some points.

    If I say every religion is as valid as any other, I could be saying a couple of things. firstly, as you point out, I could be an atheist. But secondly, I could also be anti-religion, rather than holding a disbelief in god, simply consider all organized religion to be hooey because of the inherent humanity flaws involved in an organization run by, well, humans.

    I could also be saying that I don't, in fact, have a great deal of faith in what I believe-- which in fact quite a number of believers seem to be motivated more by a fear that what they believe might be false, so they have convince everybody else around them that it's true. (Of course, this is a mindset that is entirely unlikely to claim "all religions are equally valid.) But it could mean that I arrived at my conclusions by some attempt of logic, rather than belief, and given that the church has taken the road of "blind faith is what is needed" as you pointed out, I can't in good conscience say that I "believe"-- not like that, so I choose to admit that I don't know and just think. This is, on the whole, a dangerous way of being in terms of keeping one's ideological footing, but helpful if what we want is to remain flexible.

    I could also, as the case with myself actually my real position, be saying that all religions have their own fundamental flaws, but to my best assessment, all have the ability to offer a path to the same destination. Whether someone actually chooses to walk the path, or falls to the way side, or decides to be lazy and just sit down somewhere near the bottom, is a different question entirely. You say that Christianity requires a belief that a certain path (in this case, Jesus) is the ONLY path to god, but I could just as easily say that is the point wherein I think Christianity has made an error, but that error doesn't invalidate it for those people for whom, Christianity has shown itself to be the best path to god. Some people need/want that kind of absolutism, others don't.

    That was all very loosey-goosey, because I'm tired, and should have been in bed 6 hours ago.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thanks for your comment, Ari.

    I waited 'til I was ridiculously tired so my response would be fair :) I just got back from Australia and I have slept zero hours in the last twenty six and a half, so I think I'm ready to go.

    First, I think that if someone is "anti-religion" as you say, it doesn't release them from the parameters of the question. As I see it, anti-religion IS a religion.

    Wiktionary defines religion in four ways: 1. A collection of practices, based on beliefs and teachings that are highly valued or sacred.  
    2. Any practice that someone or some group is seriously devoted to. 3. Any ongoing spiritual practice one engages in, in order to shape their character or improve traits of their personality. 4. An ideological and traditional heritage.

    Rather than go into the minutiae of each of those, I will just say that I think that even atheism is, in fact, a religion under all four of those definitions, and that it seems to me that people who say they are "anti-religious" are just trying to do what every religious person does, which is to attempt to define their belief system as somehow transcendent.

    The fact is, we all live within systems. They are how we approach, define and manage the world. When it comes to God, we all have systems. Very few people these days have a system that is particularly well-defined but that ill-definition IS a system. What those people are saying is that they prefer the disorganization of their own cobbled together religion to any of the organized ones. Intentional or not, I find this to be a disingenuous position to hold, and I think people who hold it are just trying to think of themselves as better or more "spiritually together" than all those poor dupes who've allowed themselves to be snookered by organized religion. Pride is pride wherever you find it, and it always implies a lie, because we are all equally tiny little warts on the universe. We're all also amazing, which is why this particular form of pride doesn't bother me all that much. But I still think these people should own their beliefs.

    ReplyDelete
  5. If, as you also point out, a person just doesn't have that much faith in what they believe, then I think what we have is another example of someone answering a different question than the one that was asked. Extremely normal, that, but not particularly useful.

    The problem here is that we're dealing with words, which are contingent, transitional, and not particularly accurate. You can say that you believe the point where Christianity got it wrong was by making an exclusive truth-claim for Christ, but at that point you've taken the core out of it and is no longer something that ought to be defined as "Christianity," at least not by any traditional sense of what a definition is.

    You can't pick and choose what you like from a religion - a religion is defined by the commonalities agreed to by those who live in them as adherents. And while commonalities are hard to come by these days, the exclusivity of Christ is pretty much an inviolable principle. Take it out, and it is no longer Christianity to which you refer, but rather a postmodern fusion religion that really needs a different name.

    Which, to take it back to the okcupid question, means that what you are really saying is that you think that all the aspects of the major world religions that you agree with are not mutually exclusive. If you feel like spouting tautologies, suit yourself. But I think if you're going to use words you have to take them for what they are - baggage and all.

    Postmodernism wants you to be free to drift along, an individuated island of awesome deityness, free to recreate reality as you see fit. Good luck with that, but I'm not thinking it's going to work. While it may be difficult to ascertain, there IS a reality, and it WILL intrude.

    I'm not trying to be rude, but I'm too tired to think straight. I tend to think that most people create or accept a religion that they feel best allows them to maintain their status quo. The only way I see around that is a creative, loving life of humble dialog. If I've violated that principle, I apologize. Just sort of riffing in my sleep, here.

    ReplyDelete

Support my writing habit: click below to...

SOME POSTS THAT'VE BEEN POPULAR, RECENTLY...

CHECK OUT MY FIRST BOOK ON GOODREADS...