Friday, July 25, 2008

RELIGION ISN’T JUST LONG

Over on Salon, the author James Carse is interviewed about his new book, “The Religious Case Against Belief”. (See, ‘Religion is poetry’, by Steve Paulson, (http://www.salon.com/books/atoms_eden/2008/07/21/james_carse/).

Carse’s thought is that the crucial element in any religion is it’s “longevity”; i.e., if it’s been around a long time then it sorta carries more weight and is more impressive, hence more attractive as a repository for your belief. This is an effort to locate the core of the value of religion within this dimension. The ‘value’ is that believers will feel better with a religion that has been around a long time, since it has somehow proved itself.

Nah. Won’t work. Can’t work. You wind up reducing belief to ‘feelings’, and belief is more than that. To assert, as Carse does, that religion is simply ‘a belief system’ – that’s like asserting that a human being is simply ‘a set of interlocking physical systems’ – but a human being is more than that by a long shot.

This is yet another effort to ‘keep’ religion without getting too mixed up with the actual existence of ‘God’ (in whom, by the by, Carse cheerily and cordially does not believe). More specifically, this is an effort to cage religion into the Flatness of this-world; it reflects and proposes a hugely constricted – and I say inaccurate – view of the life-space.

To adopt it is to enter the 1941-1945 war in the Pacific with a knowledge and vision of things naval not updated since the Age of Fighting Sail during the Napoleonic era. The naval Battle-Space since the mid-20th century is multidimensional (threats to your vessel can come from above and below as well as simply across the water) and much larger (shells can come from 25 or more miles away, and aircraft from hundreds of miles away), and is amplified by radio and radar and sonar (as the war progressed), such that time to identify and respond to threats is greatly compressed, even as ships themselves can travel against the wind and sustain higher speeds. The state of the art naval knowledge of the Napoleonic era assumed a much smaller, less complex, more leisurely space in which one conducted one’s operations.

So too with Carse and so many others. Their’s is a Flat view of the Life-space. There are no angels ascending and descending, no demons arising and prowling about, no ‘clouds of witnesses’ surrounding and supporting one, no communion of the saints (them Kathliks!) interlocked across the Void and through the Veil. None of that. Just ‘us’, trapped here in this small, flat dimension, hoping to make our way to nowhere across its surfaces, with religion enabling us to do it with a little more confidence and dignity. Although for what purpose one would need to preserve one’s dignity on such a flat surface surrounded by nothingness and heading toward more of the same … Carse doesn’t say. Perhaps simply to keep the illusion of propriety and to preserve the graces (small-g)). How soul-frakkingly banal. But then, have you been to a university faculty cocktail party recently?

Not that we need to embrace the emotional agitations of the Fundamentalistics, mind you. One can entertain a clear-eyed view of the Space (Life or Battle, as you prefer) without yelling and hopping loudly to relieve one’s fears. In fact, they sorta look for that (or did, anyway) in naval and military officers: the ability to possess oneself no matter how clearly disturbing the situation that confronted one. Get a clear picture of the situation, don’t distract yourself with emotions, figure out the best way to proceed, pass along the relevant orders, and be ready for the next round – and don’t scare your subordinates by crying or fainting. Of course, not distracting oneself with emotions in order to perform the mission – well, that’s sorta such a ‘man’ thing, and soooo ‘insensitive’. Which is probably why they don’t train them much for that any longer. But we digress.

Longevity is too Horizontal; it’s just another aspect of a Flat, single-dimension vision of Life, and it’s precisely that trapped sense of Flatness and of being Alone bigtime, especially when things go wrong for one, that prompted people for millennia to heed the inner prompting from Beyond. During those long ages, several persons, indeed, found Christianity to be of no small use in this regard, and even Catholicism.

The attraction of – let’s just say – Catholic Christianity was not simply the fact that it had been around a long time, nor that it had such great cathedrals and tapestries and stuff, nor that it enabled one to get into the better clubs (indeed, for so long being Catholic did precisely the opposite). The attraction was that one felt connected to, and supported by, and actually anchored in some level and quality of Being beyond the confines of this Flat and too mortal coil. And more than ‘feeling’ that one was thus fortified and Accompanied, one ‘knew’ it – faith being not so much a ‘feeling’ but a mode of knowing. A mode of knowing that penetrated the perennial cloud of un-knowing whose dense and senseless surface baffled, terrified, and drove mad so many human beings since human eyes first looked up at the stars (or at the dinosaurs, if our Fundamentalisic siblings be possessed of a firm grasp on reality – about which, however, let us say no more).

The channel that penetrated the Veil did not (except for a very few) include a video or audio cable, but it transmitted a palpable stream – not so much of ‘information’ as of a Sense (capital S intended) beyond mere ‘feeling’ that spoke, whispered, to the very core of oneself. God whispering in the awesome silence directly to your very deepest self.

There developed, after a while, “an abundance of Jesuses” – as Carse deftly limns a history of Christianity from Aquinas through the Reformers and up to Hegel, and then on to the mega-churches of the present day. But this ‘abundance’ does not prove that there is no actual Jesus nor that faith can only be a thing of this Flat-Space because there can’t be a dozen Jesuses in some other Beyond-Space. The fact that the several blind men famously formed images of several different ‘elephants’ doesn’t mean that there can be no actual ‘elephant’; it simply means that men are kinda blind and none gets the entire big picture right. But the elephant is still there, even though incompletely perceived by the men, but complete in him-(it, her) self. And very much alive.

The ability to perceive the Beyond, like the ability to see the stars at night, has diminished as societies became more immersed in the material world. As the noise of the factories increased to a roar, the whisper from Beyond became harder to hear; as the lights of streets and screens intensified, the tiny beam from Beyond became harder to see.

Worse, as the things of this world and its surfaces became more insistent in their demands, those marvelous and ancient receivers – soul and spirit – fell into neglect. So that now, in this postmodern age we humans have regressed to a strategic and tactical and professionally human competence suitable only to a far less ‘capable’ knowledge of the Space – within and without – where our lives – individually and communally – are playing out. As bad as bringing the proverbial knife to the gunfight, we now approach the modern Life-space without the knowledge-base we once possessed, purchased at so great a price by long generations before us. We bring a Sailing Age appreciation of naval operations to a Steel-and-Oil Age naval situation. We shall not last long without embracing a very steep learning curve.

Between the Fundamentalistic hysteria in the face of the Awesome, and the flat-souled Materialist/revolutionary denial that anything beyond the surfaces of this world exists – between these two hopelessly inadequate options a true appreciation of our Space must be formulated. Or … recovered.

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