Gospel & Universe
This page argues that the ideals of charity and love transcend dogma, and that we ought to see Christianity as a watery current flowing into other currents.
Deeper than Dogma - 3 X 4 - Water Spirits - Baby and the Floating Rubber Duck
Deeper than Dogma
How to keep the baby and yet throw out the bathwater? How to keep the sense of wonder and beauty, the sacrifice, forgiveness, etc. — and yet dispense with the dogma?
Some would argue that the core of Christianity is the dogma; that is, Christianity equals faith in the Creation, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection, and the Redemption that only believing in Jesus can supply. Yet what if beneath what believers think are miracles is their need for miracles? Whether the miracles happened or not, who can say? Who has verified even one of them? At this point belief becomes a victim of word play: those who say they believe have convinced themselves to think something is true when, underneath, they know that it isn't true in the way that their lives and history are true. They use the word belief in a way that turns desire — or what they want to be true — into a sort of unassailable, mystical fact. You hear them say everything from "It's my truth" to "It's the Truth," all the time avoiding the primal definition of truth, i.e. that which is verifiable, that which cannot be contradicted by fact or by other people's beliefs.
I realize that I could be accused here of putting words into peoples' mouths, and of ascribing a lack of meaning to what other people think and feel, which hardly seems fair. In Agnosticism: Secrets and Mysteries I note the traditional distinction between soft, personal agnosticism and hard, universal agnosticism. The soft agnostic would — often in a temporary sort of way — say that everyone has their own truth and that we can't gauge the epistemological value of the personal experiences of others. Yet agnostics are more permanently tough or hard on this point. They note that we're all basically the same, endowed equally with the same types of DNA, the same neurons, the same systems of cognition, and the same human patterns of emotion and behaviour. No one's endowed with a special vibration or frequency meter to receive revelations inaccessible to others. The words OM or JESUS don't open up exclusive realms. The yogi acknowledges this, adding that OM is only one among many paths to enlightenment, or to whatever destination it may lead. Yet the preacher continues to tell us that JESUS is the only path to the only destination that counts.
Christians themselves use the logic of equality, stating that everyone can receive Jesus into their hearts. If what they're saying is that we can all plug into compassion and love, then I have no argument. But if what they're saying is that they plug into a special current of Love that puts them on a higher level of Truth than everyone else, then we do have a disagreement. Fairness, equality, and logic suggests that this higher Truth is a historical creation, a mental construction built on the foundations of need and hope. People, and perhaps even societies, needed this solid structure of morality and meaning, perhaps most desperately during the collapse of the Classical world. Augustine may have written the City of God partly because the city of Rome was in ruins (it was sacked by the Visigoths in 410 AD), yet just because the Classical world needed something historically doesn't mean that this something is true epistemologically. Today, global warming, overpopulation, violence, inequality, corruption, etc. may lead us to need an otherworldly Emergency Exit, yet this doesn’t mean that there is such a door.
Beneath dogma lies the deep principles and practices for which Christianity is famous: love, charity, forgiveness, equality, examination of conscience, forgiveness, the golden rule, as well as an openness to cosmic meaning, that is, to the inexplicable spiritual possibilities of the universe. These are the enduring beliefs and values of Christianity, not the things that were decided in debates and councils at the end of the Classical Age — things such as the doctrine of original sin or the unity of God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost.
3 X 4
Devoting one's life to the practices of charity, forgiveness, and the golden rule, doesn't require the following elitist and unrealistic notions:
1) You've been personally chosen by the God of all time and space, and as a result everything in your life has a special meaning.
2) Because of Jesus' sacrifice, you're invincible in the face of sin and death. No matter what you do, you can, if you confess to God, find forgiveness for it. No matter how depressing or alienating your life is, after you die you'll live in a happy afterlife with God and other believers.
3) You're fundamentally, essentially superior to atheists, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Daoists, and basically everybody else who doesn't share your belief.
Some people are so bothered by the above attitudes that they reject everything about Christianity and religion. Yet these people might also consider the following points:
1) Getting rid of Christianity is unrealistic.
People love stories. The Christian story incorporates the ideals of love, humility, morality, truthfulness, and forgiveness in one narrative. My problem isn't with the flow of this narrative, but with the dogma insisting that this narrative's fixed, that it's gospel, that it's settled once and for all in a single Form or Meaning. I think it's more realistic — in light of history's changing texts and the diverse origins of writing -- to see the Christian narrative not with a capital N, but with a million small ns. I think the 11th Century Sanskrit author Somadeva was on to something when he saw narrative as an ocean full to the brim with currents of stories, forever flowing and forever changing. In this analogy, Christianity is a deep, powerful current like the Gulf Stream: its waters came from the Old World and bathe the shores of the New World.
The Gulf Stream dominates in one part of the globe, yet it is essentially connected — by divergent flows and by its very watery, salty nature — to the Equatorial Currents, the Brazilian Current, and the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, which itself flows into the Indian and Pacific oceans. It's time to get rid of the notion that one ocean current is the best. We should keep that current, and also see that it flows with the other currents in the great sea, the interconnected vast body of water that we might simply call the ocean. As I suggest in the following poem, this is more difficult in the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) than in the Eastern ones...
Islam may literally mean Submission
but they all require it
from the water in the beginning
to the garden of obedience
from the floodplain of the drowned
to the wafer and the wine
all the children of Abraham must
in one way or another submit
to moral rules and litigation
to love, repentance, and the ideology of mercy
and to The Book
whatever the lineage
or whatever geographers, historians
common sense or Watson and Crick might say
there is only one God
and one Word that's true
What does it matter what the old books say
gibberish cuneiform and painted idols
when the universe is one
and there is one God to rule them all?
What does it matter what the Old Book said
about Laws and broken promises
as long as we suspend our reason
and accept what we hope to be true
we will be saved
as long as we accept the New Book
as well as the Old Book
and as long as we accept
that there are inferior laws of physics
according to which electrons fire into dendrites
and there are superior laws of physics
according to which water turns into wine
In the matter of smashing icons
and cups of wine
Islam has no peer
for not even Art dare frame that fearful Symmetry
or draw in sky the mouth that spoke
that iconic iconoclastic text
that told us in no uncertain terms
about graven images
a black stone devoid of figures
and water but not wine
Drunk on love
his basalt leg is wrapped
around the smooth stone torso of Parvati
while his tangled locks stream down
from Kailash in the clouds
the OM on his forehead unravels
and they become one
with Ganga Ma
and a million other deities
until our minds are so numb with counting
that we come back to One
His mind consumes the One
and peoples Zero
with a stream of consciousness
that flows from where he is
over distant oceans
to where he is
no longer stuck in karma
caste, samsara, or time
but in eternal movement
from this shore to the farthest shore
past holy books and continents
past Ice Ages, planets, the Milky Way, galaxies and universes
until we become that point in distant space
That pied-noir was like the Buddha
minus the meaning
a Heraclitus of Algiers
whose being flowed like water
between his fingers
like the charge of an electron
from the opposite side of the world
to your optic nerve
and your finger tapping a key
and out you go again
from this continent to the next
in a split second
Or was it a collection of poets that wrote those obscure words
about how water works by nourishing the roots
and not pretending to Pinot Noir or Cabernet?
A number of writers have suggested getting rid of religion altogether. Sam Harris is among the more forceful in his argument that religion itself is largely to blame for our troubles. I applaud his Voltairean spirit, his desire to resurrect the old crusader's phrase, Ecrasez l'infâme!, by which Voltaire meant Crush the infamy of religious intolerance! Yet it’s a tricky job levering religion from culture, economics, and politics.
Often religious problems have historical, geographic, cultural, economic, and political roots. Which goes deeper in explaining Hinduism, the geographic and cultural mix of Aryan and indigenous subcontinental peoples, or the belief in such things as varna (caste), karma (action, usually considered along with it's consequences), samsara (reincarnation, following from karma), dharma (duty or one's place in life), and powerful goddesses such as Saraswati (goddess of wisdom, the arts, etc.)? Which goes deeper in Islam, the early Medieval culture of Arabia, or the theology found in the Qu'ran, the Hadith (accounts of the Prophet's life), and Shariah (Islamic religious law)? Which is deeper in Christianity, the need for a solid social structure in the wake of paganism and the barbarian invasions (of the late Classical Age) or a strict belief system (in which no other competing religion can be true) and a male-dominated hierarchy? In Western Europe this religious hierarchy (the Catholic Church) was based on the male-dominated hierarchy of the Romans — a clear instance of social structure influencing theological structure.
These are just a few examples of the original complication of the religious by the secular. Add over a thousand years of such complication. While some believers are willing to re-contextualize theology without regard to culture, language, etc., most believers rely on over a thousand years of this context, this integration. Picking what they find meaningful in their cultures and histories from what they believe theologically is a massive task. Muscular versions of 21st century secular atheism (like those of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, or Christopher Hitchens) aren't likely to get at the roots, the deep roots, of their belief. Much less pull these roots from the soil.
Religion responds to peoples needs and experiences. Getting rid of religion ignores the need people have to codify their beliefs and to see them operate within a coherent social and historical framework. Most people don't have the time or the wherewithal to devise their own personal responses to the great religious and philosophic traditions. They need short-cuts, codifications, scaled-down versions of belief that they can work with in their practical lives.
Getting rid of religion also ignores the fact that people have experiences that they can't fit into the scientific scheme of things. People aren't likely to stop believing in God or the soul any time soon. And why should they? While we may criticize dogmatic and unfair aspects of belief, we can’t say that their beliefs in God or the soul are nonsense.
2) Atheists can be just as dogmatic as Christians. I explore this point more fully in Agnosticism 1: Secrets and Mysteries. Here I'll just make two points:
It isn’t easy to make a gospel — or an anti-gospel either — of our place in the universe. Scientists are the first to admit that we don’t fully understand the cosmos, the human brain, or fundamental things such as gravity, waves, subatomic particles, or dark matter. Our understanding changes, yet gospel and verse claims to be absolute. To assert that there can at present be any sort of gospel about the universe or the human spirit is to ignore everything that we don’t know.
Religious dogma and atheist dogma often act as two poles that tear people apart. By cementing their positions and making them impervious to each other, religious fundamentalists and atheist fundamentalists make it difficult for others to balance, let alone integrate, emotional belief and rational thought.
3) Christianity has many wonderful practices and practitioners.
The cherished religious ideals of Christianity — love, charity, a moral social order, patience, forgiveness, etc. — are cherished not because they came from On High or were miraculously chiseled into stone on a mountain, but because they make sense both in terms of reason, emotion, human psychology, and social behaviour. Those who say that religion has done nothing but harm are looking only at the harm it has done, and not at the good. It's like evaluating the impact of science by focusing on machine guns and global warming, and forgetting all about aqueducts and vaccines.
Baby and the Floating Rubber Duck
Like all philosophies, Christianity has many types of believers. I can think of at least four types who keep the baby and throw out the bathwater.
i) Christians who don’t assume that Christianity automatically trumps other religions and philosophies. These Christians have no interest in declaring what the God of all time and space has said or concluded, despite what it might say in their holy book. They have no interest in damning others to Hell or condescending to others simply because they have different ideas. Instead, these Christians are interested in the ideals of their religion -- love, good works, forgiveness, etc. They understand, or they assume, that other religions have similar ideals.
ii) Christians who believe their Truth is greater than other truths, yet maintain a deeply tolerant frame of mind. This group has a strong secular, humanist, liberal, or ecumenical bent, and as a result they refrain from pushing their feelings of superiority on others. These are people for whom the ideal of mutual tolerance between Christians and non-Christians becomes a reality. This is where goodwill and action connect, and where tolerance and social harmony become a real possibility. Because these Christians aren’t afraid of other beliefs, they look squarely at the alternatives -- the doctrine of karma-samsara, the Dao, the iconoclasm of Islam, etc. Just as they explore the negative sides of other religions (Hindu caste, Daoist alchemy, Islamic extremism, etc.) so they look into negative aspects of Christianity. They don’t avoid uncomfortable facts about the Inquisition, about the layers of Biblical redaction that call into question the notion of Divine Writ, or about Biblical borrowings from the Ancient Middle East. Tolerant and open-minded, these Christians temper dogma with reason. As a result, they don’t call evolution just another theory. Rather, they concede that it's the most massive, most well-documented explanation we have so far for the history of physical life on earth. Likewise, they promote democracy over dogma, keeping their minds open to things such as gay marriage or female priests and popes. In brief, these tolerant Christians do their level best to make sure that they -- and their children -- have the freedom and the intellectual tools to make up their own minds.
iii) Christians who believe in the afterlife because there’s no hint of salvation in the here and now. I’m referring to those whose lives are so miserable that to attack their consolation -- even in theory -- would be cruel. Recently there’s been a surge of movies exploring the history of African Americans -- from political domesticity in The Butler (2013) to the large-scale horror of plantation slavery in 12 Years a Slave (2013). In the latter, some White Southerners use Christianity to justify slavery, yet the slaves also use Christianity to bear the burden of their historical crisis. In The Help (2011), a Black preacher not only urges his congregation to stand up for what’s right, but also to love and understand their oppressors. How many people throughout history were trapped, and how many are still trapped, in similar ways? What’s the point of arguing that such people ought to cast off irrational religion if it provides them with the only comfort they have?
iv) Christians who believe it's more important to help people than to convert them. It may come as a shock to scholars, but many people don't care about the intellectual framework of their beliefs. As long as the core seems right to them -- as long as their religion's about love, responsibility, justice, etc. -- they don't worry about the bigger historical and philosophical picture. For such believers, Christianity may contain a mythic timeline and dogmas that they can't really defend. Yet more importantly it contains humility, honesty, service to others, and moral courage in the face of injustice. The Christian doctor in the Congo and the nun in the slums of Mexico City are light in a chaotic darkness. Does it really matter whether or not they capitalize Light?
Next: Believe It or Else