Sunday, December 26, 2010


"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.

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