Thursday, January 19, 2012

Time to talk about our eternal* shame

*(The eternal as compulsion; repression; an unending return; a haunting by some apparition or ghostly presence; a shame, which we try to cement over; always try.)

This is an essay about Christianity, as it comes to us today, a serious essay about a dead religion, that in its Death holds for us a warning of its own Return. One which we ought to heed.

It doesn't get more dramatic than that. 

Or more heightened, more preposterous, more pontificating, or more pretentious. This is the very language of the church fathers, of the mass, of the priest and the pope on high. It has within it elements of the very return of which I speak in the sense that I adopt here rhetoric not a million miles away from that of the mass.

It is the return not of the fact of religion, of its details, its circumstances, its particularities - not, then, a return of religion itself. But rather this is a return of the ghost of religion.

I find myself, when speaking about religion with my friends, always being the one that defends it. At times I seem to be the one that apologises most for it. I’m sure some friends go away thinking that I am in some way for religion. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

On the other hand, I hear them naturally espouse a scientific viewpoint, always as a counterpoint to religion, always. Some of them watch mildly esoteric musings about how we are all made of star light, how we are all connected by the universe, or how we are all Evolution's creatures, stemming from some mysterious origin in the distant moments of some beginning (or something) of time.

I have a problem with none of this. 

What I think may end up being a problem, a problem for the next age, with its seeds planted in our present moment, is the return of religion.

Like I said before, I am always the apologist. I am always the one in the corner, darting my head forward, ready to argue that there may have been some decent, true elements to Christianity, or that God may be dead, but like Jesus on the third day, he is resurrected, in a different form, in different robes, in the present day.

And this resurrection is both a good thing and a bad thing. Our tradition remains with us, comforting us, cradling us. On the other hand, it holds us back, a clasping hand. At your lowest ebb you may even feel that it will overcome your struggle away from it, and send you careening back towards a darkened void.

Onwards and upwards, I hear you say, away from a past which haunts our collective memory in the form of a tragedy. This is a tragedy in a double sense, as it as viewed as a bad memory, an embarrassing time we are now trying to free ourselves from. It is also a tragedy in the sense that it is not given a chance to take another form other than tragedy, to be viewed rationally, from a distance. This is the tragedy of religion in our day. And it is not those pockets of fundamentalism amplified by the internet of which I speak. Neither is it the fear of a religious overwhelming of the current scientific zeitgeist of our time. These are questions of the surface; these are questions that ensure the ghostly potency of religion.

It is, rather, the very question of this ghostly potency, of this constant need to reassert an opposition to it when it stands robbed of any meaningful political power, disavowed in all corners defined as 'sane' corners. I am talking here about our own attitudes towards religion, not some fundamentalist’s. I am talking about people that call themselves atheists, or find themselves at a party getting in a holy uproar about the devil of religion.

Religion in the West was, for over 1,000 years, a totalitarian system. Where it was encountered, it was fierce in its own assertion of itself. It was based on a Book - the Bible - and the power of the Book should not be underestimated. It was the assertion of rule, total and unified, spiritual and political, that defined Europe as the single entity of Christendom, a ghostly persistence that spread beyond the political, the social, always beyond definition. 

Let me reiterate one thing. Where it was encountered, it was like that. But, remember, people lived mostly away from the centre, away from digital hubs, 24 hour news cycles, or the constant bombardment of advertising. Out there on the perimeters, they practised a vague form of christianity mixed with paganism. A roman could, in all likelihood, stop and honour the gods of Greece, were it not from some obviously political decree from the emperor of some sort forbidding him from doing so.

Here, we touch on something essential to the ancient world: religion had economy. Rome came to conquer: the building of monuments to her gods went hand in hand with the setting up of roman governance. Religion, politics and war went hand in hand. Each could justify the other, and one could be relied upon to justify the other. Religion had economy in the sense that it could be exchanged, used (and abused) for other purposes. In a money-based economy, money is the form of symbolic exchange by which goods can be acquired, sold without complete loss, a symbolic form of representing what was not there physically; a symbolic form of representation for a man’s word. 

His word itself can be good, can have value and substance, especially when the opposing party takes him at his word. But when represented as the external physical object of money, the value shifts, and the man is not responsible for it anymore. This is the essence of economy - when something can be used as justification for action that inherently holds within it an expectation of responsibility. That is one of the things which people get very wrong about, say, the crusades during the middle ages. The call to arms by the pope, and the people’s willingness to go to the holy land, was presented as religious. But its pretext tells a story of reinforcing political bonds, as well as the power of the church, at home, and gaining the spoils from Muslim controlled Jerusalem. Religion serves an economic function here, an excuse, a form of symbolic exchange, with which just about anything could be justified. This does not change with the death of God. Indeed, opposition breeds its own strange form of emulation.

The zeitgeist of the day, today, is that progress is inherently right. Conversely, we live in a time where tradition is viewed as evil, negative, a fragment from a less enlightened age. I would here like to debate both these points. Indeed, I would also like to debate the assertion of polar opposition: that tradition is all there is, that we must pray reverently and finally at its alter. I do not disagree with my friends that such a view is ridiculous - I simply disagree with them about their opposite view, too.

I disagree with this whole constellation of positions and viewpoints which it is so easy to fall into these days.

We experience life as a mystery. I say that in a profound sense, in that it both evades being put into a rigorous system, or it evades a merging, of thought to the universe, of the outside of objectivity and the inside of subjectivity. It evades a oneness, and is always characterised by division. Who knows what it would be like to be one with the universe, whether it would be akin to religious ecstasy, taking a drug, or some form of the Buddhist Nirvana. I don't know. I think, though, that here Buddhism is instructive in some way. It speaks about the disillusion of the self as a path to Nirvana. Here we hit on something which is essential - to experience, to be, to call oneself by a name, any name, even by the title "self" itself, is to create a chasm, a gap. This gap is more than just a possibility. It is, in itself, the possibility of being. Thus, there is a great, profound, unending mystery at the heart of our being. And at the same time there simply is no mystery, for all things just are. The world will present itself to us whether we like it or not.

The mystery of being manifests itself brilliantly when speaking about tradition and progress, religion and science. Both attempt, in there own way, to structure the present moment through rules and rituals, but both end up placing their bets with some other time, some other place, past or future. What both sides of the debate fail to recognise is that each exists only in relation to the other. They carry each other, seek to emulate each other, even through the rhetoric of opposition. 

In a very real sense they both stem from a shared history of ideas and values. Both have moral orders inherent within. At the same time, both wish to upset moral orders which they deem to be outside. God needs to be killed. But by killing God, something strange will happen. Something very strange. We will start to see an emergence of science as political economy instead of religion. Indeed, we are seeing this happen now, at all levels, when a company wants you to buy their brands, or when a politician needs a justification for something or other. Not so much "by the grace of God", as "by the grace of these statistics." This holds within it a powerful organ on which our institutions can rest (as upon religion they did in the past) but is also a powerful set of justifications for just about anything. 

In a weird sense, it is as if the reliance upon science in structuring our world is an attempt to fill in the foundational gap of experience. But it can only exist, as any concept only can, at the edges of the gap, outside of it, because it is by the conditions of the gap that the concept stems. The father can never completely be the son. Well, except for in Christianity, and even there they proclaim it as one of their central mysteries.

Here is my point: anything that has economy in this fashion, be it religious or scientific, can be used and abused endlessly in the political arena. That is a fact of life. 

Should we then have no ideals, no structure to our lives? No. That is not what I am saying. What I am saying is that we need to respect the fact that these structures will be used under certain circumstances to propel events which may not be to your liking. All I can say is to respect the mystery at the heart of existence - don't view it as dark and forbidding, but view it as the very condition for awe and wonder. And be skeptical, to a degree, of rhetoric and politics; but do not simply expect a conspiracy or ill-intent behind any action taken by a government official.

We could end up willing their ineffectuality into existence, architects of the demise of our own social sphere. 

The possibility of the return of religion is not through some sort of mass-reconversion to Christianity, but through the assertion of the totality of science, or scientific concepts, in this the Age of the Number. When I say that we are more than that - more than a number, as number six from the sixties television show The Prisoner would say - I mean that profoundly and concretely. We cannot help but be more than that. That is why skepticism is a positive thing, or can be, when we view life as such.

In the motorcycle diaries, a young Che Guevara sits beside an old woman while she is dying. He remarks in the book, a diary, that when she passes she enters "the great mystery that surrounds us." Faced with this moment of death, a poignant moment, he finds only mystery, an awe, and a kind of reverence at the limits of our existence. This, for me, is the only form of reverence.

I'll leave you with the beginning from a poem attributed to Nelson Mandella, but written in reality by Marianne Williamson. "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate, Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure." We constantly try to put ourselves in boxes. This is natural, a comfortable womb. But we should attempt, to borrow a phrase from everyday life, to think outside the box every now and again. This is where innovation comes from, but it is also where justice comes from. 

If we want to be just in the eyes of the future - in the eyes of our children and the people that must inhabit it - then we have an obligation to do this. Even with regards to science, and its growing economy. 

Thus ends the sermon. If you wish to leave a donation, that'd be nice ...

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