Monday, April 17, 2017
Clickbait 2.01: Monogesis, Monads and Monado
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.