Monday, April 17, 2017
At least since my seventeenth summer, when I sat long hours on the roof of my parents' house reading but not understanding Upanishads, I have been interested in the history of religion. My interest has broadened to include the history of philosophy, science, and mathematics as well: how have we as a species understood the world and our place in it?
Despite vacuous statements one often hears from ill-informed people who just want us to get along, all religions are not alike, nor do they share the same goals. I think it is insulting to a serious practitioner of, say, Mahayana Buddhism to say that his religion is just like that of a serious Mormon, and insulting to the Mormon as well. There are huge differences within groups who share the name of a religion, so huge that it can be hard for us to recognize one another. My mother, a sort of folk-protestant, expressed this difficulty when she would finish 'her Christmas' at midnight on Christmas eve and then say that after that I could celebrate Christmas in 'my religion'.
It would probably be convenient if, despite our differences , we could get along, although we do a rather good job of fighting even when we claim the same religion. Good English protestant Christians didn't hesitate to bomb the good German protestant Christians of Dresden. Perhaps in modern western culture, when religion has come largely to be relegated to the realm of 'the soul', that as Leibnitz said in paragraph 81 of his Monadology. 'According to this system bodies act as if (to suppose the impossible) there were no souls, and souls act as if there were no bodies . . . .' Leibnitz is often remembered in terms of Voltaire's caricature of him, but Voltaire gave us jokes while Leibnitz discovered calculus. He also struggled very hard to find a theory of everything, long before that struggle would occupy theoretical physicists.
For many religions, a theory of everything is assumed, with so little conviction that those with other theories of everything must be burned or beheaded or sent into exile. I find it interesting that those who believe in the law of gravity have never found it necessary to punish those who don't.
I would like to be able to ignore religions at this point in human history, to simply point out that we do not rely on religious theory for understanding the things that are important to us, but upon physics. My best understanding of religions these days is that they are live action role playing games The computer you are using to read this blog doesn't care whether you said the filioque yesterday at the Easter mass or even whether you went to mass yesterday. But, alas, many people with big weapons do care about such things. In the United States they tend to be people who will quote John 3:16 you. When I was younger and more patient with such people--i.e., before they had taken over the government--I would point out that the gospel according to John is not a collection of memory verses but a really quite beautiful piece of writing from the time when followers of Jesus were already being kicked out of the synagogues, and ask them if they had memorized John 17:3, in which Jesus tells his disciples what eternal life is. The wonderful thing about the Gospel according to John, in my opinion, is not that it is a spiritual book but a physical book. The soul does not act as if there were no body. In the beginning was the Word, but it became flesh. The flesh is killed, but when it is resurrected, it still wants a nice bit of fish and chips, even though it can now pass through closed doors. There are loose ends. It is nowhere nearly so neat as Leibnitz' Monadology.
But it is within the Gospel according to John that Christians find their big weapon to insist that their theory of everything is the only one, the one they will impose upon you for your own good even if they have to torture you to do it. Jesus is called the μονογενής γιος , the only begotten son, and that has been thought to mean that god has no other natural children, and if you don't 'believe in him'--whatever that means--you ain't gonna have eternal life and that has been thought to mean that you're going to hell. This interpretation ignores other uses of μονογενής γιος, such as Abraham's description of Isaac.
The discovery of video games in my old age has helped me understand in a convenient way how religions develop and how intensely people become involved with them. The Legend of Zelda, for instance, has in thirty years developed a large canon with difficulties in time-lines and meanings that are very similar to the difficulties that biblical scholars have with their canon. There are books and blogs and YouTube channels all devoted to the correct interpretation of the Zelda mythos. It's like Thomas Ray's Tierra, a computer simulation of evolution. But there are other games out there. One of the interesting ones in terms of Leibnitz and religion is Xenoblade Chronicles, which starts with a battle between two gods. Mechanis and Bionis--pictured above--not unlike the struggle that is part of many cosmologies, a struggle implicit in the stories of many parts of the Hebrew canon. There magic swords, the Monados, and one of them is marked with the name of god and it can kill the god. Fascinating stuff. The hero, Shulk, is a young boy who spends a lot of time contemplating the universe at Outlook Park. So far as I know, no one who plays Xenoblade has put to death someone who instead plays Zelda. But in a few years, who knows. 'The future doesn't belong to you.'
So, to answer a question someone asked me after my first Clickbait post, I suppose that I have come to think of god and christianity much as I do video games: as magnificent, interactive, works of art. The reason I find video games a better parallel than other arts is the participation, the interaction. Dance, which has often been a part of liturgy, is also similar, as can be a meal. Babette's Feast is a beautiful movie which describes one such meal.
In South Korea there are people, usually young men, who become addicted to video games to the exclusion of all else. I suppose that in a society that allows one to choose one's life, that choice should be honored. Monasteries are full of people who have become addicted to prayer to the exclusion of all else. In my own life, the temptation of the monastery has been stronger than that of the keyboard and mouse. But one misses so many of the other possibilities of life when one enters an addiction.
Sunday, April 16, 2017
Once again, the interwebs has led me. I was googling 'round dance of Jesus' this morning and the first suggestion was thebamabong.com. Odd, since there is not post like that on the bamabong. But it seemed a good way to follow up on my previous post, which several people had asked me to do, so, here goes.
I do not follow Kant's categorical imperative in all things. I recognize that many of my activities are not possible for everyone to do, that my rather rich but indolent life style in my old age is possible because I lived differently when I was younger and because other people are living differently now. My life style is not a moral statement, it's a hobby, like, I would suggest, organic gardening. A religion that claims catholicity, however, should probably fit Kant's criteria. In other words, it should scale.
The problem with Christianity, as with most religions, is that it does not scale. It is based on and claims to be a continuation, a fulfillment, of revelations and promises made by a rather tribal god to a man named Abraham, in the mostly desert region we now call the Near East. Despite some suggestions that he was a god of thunder storms, he wasn't consistently good about providing rain, so Abraham's tribe had to go to Egypt, where their gods kept the Nile flowing. But things went sour in Egypt, and the god of the Israelites, as they were now called, after Abraham's favourite grandson, fought with the gods of the Egyptians, who let his people go. Into the desert they went, where they were given water miraculously and also the law. And, they were promised a land. When they entered the land, the way with dealing with peoples of other gods was to wipe them out, a task which they failed to do very well.
I am going to skip the history for several centuries, except to mention that the most successful of the descendants of Jacob in terms of conquest was David. As we all know from Christmas carols and the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus, the Christ, is proclaimed as the proper scion of David. How comfortable Jesus was with this designation is a little hard to tell, but the Romans took it seriously enough to put him to death.
But, Christians say, the story didn't end there. He was resurrected from the dead, ate and cooked fish, hung around with his disciples and other friends for forty days before going up into the sky, promising to come back the same way, but sending 'another 'paraklete', the Holy Spirit, to lead them until he came back.
The Christians quickly became a much more motley crew than the Israelites. Membership was open to anyone, whatever their ethnic and social background, by baptism, and it was voluntary. To the distress of many Christians, even till this day, not all Israelites, who were called Jews by the time of the Roman empire, volunteered to follow the new David. What had been a movement within Judaism found itself anathematized by mainstream Judaism. But in the Roman empire, which encompassed many tribes and many gods, Christianity became a very powerful new force for unity, a situation which Constantine recognized by making Christianity a state religion. With Constantine's recognition and celebration in architecture of the new religion, however, it quickly changed from a pagan religion--a religion of the countryside, even though it had churches and bishops in town and cities--to a religion of powerful bishops in powerful cities.
I am going off on a bit of a historical limb here by suggesting that although there were many skirmishes within Christianity during the early centuries, it would be the substitution of the centralized, priestly religion for the god-in-a-blazing bush, god-knocking-one-off-one's-horse religion that would lead to its biggest opponent. Certainly we can see the stresses going back to the time of Samuel when David wanted to build a temple. And Jesus himself would predict that the Jerusalem temple would perish. But out in the desert, where Abraham had been a wandering Aramean, the same angel Gabriel who had appeared to Mary would appear in 610 to another prophet, Muhammad, with what Muhammad's followers would insist was the final and definitive word on all matters theological. Many Christians at first thought that the Muslims were just another Christian sect. Some say the same today about Mormons. Muslims did not see Christians that way. Christians and Jews were not so evil as Zoroastrians, but they were not part of the faithful.
As Christianity. which had ceased to be voluntary but had become a matter of imperial fiat, spread further into Europe and Asia and Africa, it encountered other religions that found it intolerable. Need I mention the attitude of the Vikings, for instance, upon encountering people who did not recognize the authority of the true gods? In places that Christian kings conquered, baptism by force became normal. This led to some odd circumstances. The dancer on the right in the picture that heads this blog is named Jesus 'Jacoh' Cortes. He is part of an American Indian dance group called Dancing Earth. Is his really the dance of Jesus? Is there something in Christianity other than its familiarity and comfort that is valuable to the world today, that is really catholic in the sense of belonging to the whole world? I think there is, and that it is easiest to find, perhaps, in the Gospel according to John. But that discussion will come in 'Clickbait 2.1: Monogenis'. We in the age of the interwebs have trouble reading something as long as this post has been.
Friday, April 14, 2017
Today is both my eighth anniversary on Facebook, and Good Friday. I was reticent about using Facebook when it was new. I had looked into MySpace, which seemed ugly. Many of my friends insisted that one could customize it to make it look however one wished, it didn't seem worth the effort. But a friend, who has since left Facebook, made me an administrator of a group, so I investigated the new kid on the block. The clincher was something that Mark Zuckerberg had said, I think in response to criticism that Facebook didn't allow anonymous users: 'One identity'. Kinda like what Jesus said: 'If thy eye be single.'
I became a user of Facebook, and many of my friends are from church, either from the meat world or from the virtual world. They are nice people, most of them. So I have reticent to write this because I don't want to suggest that I am condemning them. Yet as I have gotten older, I have more and more come to think of my and many of my friends' continuation in the church as an example of Stockholm syndrome.
I grew up in Jonesboro, Arkansas, a town that was then in Southern Baptist captivity. Bidden or unbidden, the thinking of the place, the gestalt, was presented to nearly everyone as a sort of individualistic calvinism. My conversion experience, something everyone was expected to have, came as a result of a nightmare. I still remember it. I was nine years old, and I dreamed that I was being pursued by a rhinoceros. Somehow my mother, who had heard my noises and come to comfort me, as I lay in my colonial maple bed in a room with sky blue wall paper covered with airliners, somehow she turned my nightmare into a religious experience. I should give my heart to Jesus, and I wouldn't have to fear the rhinoceros. (I'll let patient reader do other kinds of interpretations of that dream.) So, the next Sunday, to the tune of 'Footsteps of Jesus', I walked the aisle and got saved. A few weeks later, on a Sunday night, I got dunked, and was given a collection of tracts which explained the faith. I don't remember what they said, but I remember how they smelled.
I outgrew the Baptist church, went off to college, and thought I was free of christianity. But its basic tenets of guilt and its narrow morality were so much a part of the society that I was deluding myself. I got married. It would, I thought, cure my homosexuality, even though I didn't even allow myself that thought consciously. My wife and I avoided church for a while, but the time came when we moved to a new town and wanted to meet some 'nice people, and thought that they would be at church, and they were.
What does one do when one lives in a culture based on original sin and one is an original sinner--at that time in thought, not in deed. I had not technically slept with a man. (Except for one college room mate with whom I shared a bed; I deeply loved him, but was deathly afraid of showing it. But that's the tale for another night.) I went into the grace business: seminary, ordination, the full catastrophe. Divorce followed, and although I thought I would never again be a professional christian, most of my friends were still in the church. The people I met at gay bars were in the church. I became lovers with the pianist of one of the major Memphis churches. I attended an episcopal church whose senior warden I would meet sometimes on Fridays at the local leather bar.
Then I moved to Santa Fe, and met more liberal churchmen. It was and is odd. The 'real church' is the nice people with whom one hangs out. The Westboro Baptist people are not really christians. It's like nice nazis in the Third Reich saying that the people who ran the ovens weren't real nazis. I became orthodox, trying to convince myself that the total depravity of humanity was only part of western, Augustinian christianity. Duh.
Stockholm Syndrome. We have, at least my generation, been so immersed in the guilt and sin prison that we think it is good. I want to distance myself from that understanding of the world as much as I can, but it is not easy.
So, how to be authentic in one's identity? One of my friends, a nice person in just about every way, said when I began to appear on Facebook as 'other than christian'. that if I became the sort of atheist who thinks religions are evil he would find it a bit over the top. Do I think christianity, islam, the whole caboodle kit of religions, are evil?
I have been pondering that question rather intensely the past few days. I recently read Max Tegmark's 'Our Mathematical Universe', in which he tries to make sense of identity over time, comparing it to a soft pink worm that wanders through spacetime. A slice at any point is a now. How much a part of my identity this Good Friday afternoon in the Year of our Lord 2017 is the boy I remember being frightened by a dream one night in 1955? How is that memory more 'I' than the memory of how 1956 automobiles looked and smelled, or of the colour of the plastic baskets that held the hamburgers I ate for lunch most warm Sundays when my family made its weekly trip to the drive in on Gee Street? It is very easy to convince myself that the balance of the influence of christianity on my life has been evil. It was the desire to appear moral that led to my marriage, to the one time I spanked my son, to living a lie for years.
What about the balance for society beyond myself. Good Friday is a particularly confrontational time to consider that, I think. It is the day when the church focuses on an act of torture which is somehow claimed to be the salvation of the world, or at least central and necessary to that salvation. I think of how many saints are identified by the instruments of their tortures. How many folks know that St. Lawrence is the patron of the barbecue grill? When christianity was the religion of the downtrodden and tortured, I can understand how making an act of 'torment and shame' a source of salvation was helpful. But as soon as the church got power, it began to torture. Identity is such a problem.
So, in as much an effort of full disclosure as I can, I am writing this and sharing it. I want to make it clear that I am not blaming the church or its members. I am not claiming myself to be other than a willing victim, at least not after I was aware enough to realize that giving my heart to Jesus would not prevent nightmares. I have been a collaborator, an enabler. I want to stop, I want my identity to be one, my eye to be single. but damn. The gospel may be fake news, but it has such a seductive soundtrack.