Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Mythology = Other People's Religion

There once was a time I wanted a mu.nu site, but that time is long gone. I can't remember the last time I was able to post a comment there. Maybe Pixy Misa - the system admin - doesn't like me. Anyway what follows should have been a comment - if a verrry long comment - to Robert's post on Lent. Go read it, or the rest of this discussion probably won't make any sense....

It seems that Robert is studying Aquinas, and it also seems Robert is all bent over a saying on a teabag - green tea - that says, "Recognize that you are the truth." Since it offends his (and Aquinas') world view (Christian world view) it is evil and dangerous, at worst, at best it is dismissed as
"pop spirituality". But is it, or is it just from a non-Christian world-view? And are all non-Christian world-views dangerous by definition? Or should everyone's views but yours be dismissed?

The problem with Aquinas is the problem with most "like thinkers" - he is right (or so he assumes) and everyone else is wrong. He knows he is right because he believes, so anyone who disagrees with him is necessarily evil. Aquinas' work is based on the Christian bible. You have to get to Descartes before you find anyone in the Christian West trying to work form first principles not based on Genesis, and Descartes failed miserably. (See Solipsism in the dictionary.... though you can make the case this was a driving idea behind The Matrix.) Any expression of something from outside the accepted dogma will have a "genuinely corrosive effect on the spirit." (Robert's words.)

So the argument comes down to this: If I don't believe what you believe, am I evil? The West has answered this question in the affirmative for most of the last millennium. From the expulsion of Jews from England, to the Spanish Inquisition, General US Grant's General Order 11 during the Civil war to the Pogroms of Eastern Europe, right down to the Holocaust if you aren't one of the saved, you are a devil, and we will treat you accordingly.

The other aspect of this argument from Genesis is, "Are there any pieces of evidence that will change your world view?" In this case the answer is usually no. Galileo was threatened with torture and sentenced to house arrest for having the nerve to view the heavens through his telescope and come to conclusions about the structure of the solar system not based strictly on Genesis. (And publish his findings.) His conclusions were easy to verify with a telescope, but that didn't matter. Even though the previous Pope pardoned (or whatever) Galileo and admitted what most elementary school children know - this planet revolves around the sun and rotates about its axis - the problem is still with us today.

One current incarnation of this argument centers around whether or not sexual orientation is a choice (when did you DECIDE to be hetero, and were you influenced by friends or coaches in school?) or is it genetic or teratogenic? The Religious Right have their answer based on Genesis. So any evidence to the contrary is dismissed. (The sexually dimorphic nucleus is unknown, even though it is only one example among many.)

The big issue is, of course, evolution. It contradicts the fundamental idea of Genesis, so it must be wrong. In Genesis, Man's creation is strictly separate from the creation of the rest of the world. No evidence will ever prove evolution right,* no one will ever move the creationists one inch from their current understanding. And when you try to discuss it with them, they usually resort to the "No true Scotsman" version of ad homenem attacks. "No good person" or "No true Christian" holds with evolution.

So in the end, Aquinas is just another bat to hit people over the head with. Aquinas' position is that if you agree with him, and live your life according to the precepts he follows, you will be happy and society will be the just society. That is exactly the same position as Bin Laden, except that Bin Laden backs up his opinions with explosives and death for anyone who dares disagree. Now granted, that is a big difference, perhaps even a qualitative difference between the two positions, but the positions are akin. (Like it or not, both men are arguing from dogma.)

Now Aquinas probably got a lot right - most "serious thinkers" do, even if they also get a lot wrong. (See Aristotle.) But his view of the workings of the universe isn't the only one out there.

So back to the example of your little green teabag: it is a bit a Eastern religion. In the East - India, China, Japan and a few others, man is not separate from God, but a part of God. (That is a simplification, because to explain the difference between what the Levant sees as "God" and what the East sees and the union of the Uncreated/Uncreating principle and the Uncreated/Creating principle would take all day.) That and the fact that the West has lost all understanding of the true nature of polytheisms, and what is supposed to underlie them. (You don't have to believe in the Roman gods in order to study and understand Roman mythology. Prior to WWII, most educated people would have studied Greek and Roman mythology and culture. No more....)

In the East, God didn't create the world "out there" or somewhere else, but the universe is a part of God. The universe is part Vishnu in the Hindu tradition, for example. In those traditions you don't try to "have a relationship with God" as the Christians do, you try to understand your unity with the creator and with all around you. To realize "You are Truth" is just a bit of Zen. (But of course Vishnu himself is only a metaphorical stand-in for things it is hard to describe. And of course there are 3 things in the Hindu creation story that all reference the same thing... the Uncreated/Uncreating principle of existence.) Is it surprising to find a bit of Eastern Philosophy on a green teabag? Is it dangerous? Corrosive to the Spirit? What if the label said "Jesus saves." Would view that as "pop spirituality" or something else?

So your "evil" little teabag, is just a bit of religion from different tradition. I think will find Zen - in all its wonderful forms - is a bit beyond "pop psychology spirituality," though pop psychology spirituality no doubt draws on Zen ideas, it probably also draws on Western ideas as well.

If it doesn't fit in your world view (or Aquinas' world view) is it evil and dangerous, by definition? Better get set for the next Pogrom.


* Science doesn't work in terms of "absolute truth." That got us in so much trouble in the 19th century it was officially abandoned. (A bit still clings to the people talking about dark matter and dark energy.) Science - all science including evolution - is a system of theories postulated to explain the experimental or observational evidence, nothing more. We know that Newton was wrong. We know that in some places, Einstein was wrong, but their works provide a "close approximation" to the truth. Close enough to navigate space craft, etc. When the next best theory comes along, they will be thrown over in favor of the new.

Joseph Campbell was fond of saying that mythology is other people's religion, and religion is a popular misconception regarding mythology. If you aren't up to reading philosophy, you can watch his program with Bill Moyers. Though it is the pop psychology level of introduction. The Joseph Campbell Foundation also has an excellent series of taped lectures. Though if you are up for reading, Campbell wrote much that is accessible.

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