Overweening Generalist

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Sunday God-Stuff From a Mystical Agnostic

The OG is a "mystical agnostic"? Yep. Or at least that's my answer these days when someone asks me about my religion (which, truth be told, hardly ever happens these days; my apparent agnostic hedonistic heathen rep tends to precede me); I like a line from Professor Carlin: "I'm not an atheist and I'm not an agnostic. I'm an acrostic. The whole thing puzzles me." (found in Sullivan's excellent book on Professor Carlin, 7 Dirty Words: The Life and Crimes of George Carlin, pp.221-222)

In the thirty or so-odd years I've been reading the Holy Books, the interpretations of such, studying various branches of what Robert Anton Wilson called "atheology," delving joyously in meta-satirical religions like the Church of the Subgenius and the Discordian Society (I can't get enough of that Old Time Irreverence, often invoking a Gee Oh Dee I don't believe in), reading evolutionary psychological views on religion, on and on...I remain a happy sorta-atheist/agnostic who's pagan-gnostic-ish "spiritual," and who sees the gods and goddesses of all religions and myths as METAPHORS for internal human states.

If The Reader wants to know largely where I'm coming from in these matters, I heartily recommend reading an essay by Robert Sapolsky titled "Circling The Blankets For God," collected in his book The Trouble With Testosterone. (If you have the time, here's 80 minutes of Sapolsky lecturing at Stanford on the neurobiological basis for a lot of weirdness in religious practice.)

I'm also (obvious to many of you) heavily influenced by Robert Anton Wilson's various nuanced takes on religion; radical intellectuals and artists who were brought up in the Catholic faith seem to attract me strongly and I don't yet have it nailed why, for I was not brought up in any faith and remain a default happy pagan of some sort. Buckminster Fuller once told RAW in an interview that "'God' seems like a rather small concept to contain the exquisitely interaccomodative coherencies of universe," and I also resonate with that.

(Others who have greatly influenced my thinking on religion: Aleister Crowley, Alan Watts, Aldous Huxley, Terence McKenna, Joseph Campbell, Nietzsche, Chuang Tzu, Rumi, Timothy Leary, Elaine Pagels, Ezra Pound...)

So why am I interested in Christianity and other established and organized religions? Because so many of my brothers and sisters on this planet take this stuff VERY seriously. As the theologian Harvey Cox (who I admire) often says, there are people who will die for the faith and there are people who will kill for the faith. I'm necessarily interconnected with all of you; what you - in the widest possible sense of "you" - think and feel and believe about your religion fascinates me (often in a somber way). In the end, because organized religion is such a Big Deal I must, almost by definition, as an overweening generalist, be interested. And so: on with it...

The "Emergent Church"
I have a brother who has a degree in Theology, and he's turned me on to this term. He's thrown names and book titles and ideas from this movement at me, and I've been trying to keep up. As someone who thinks Falwell/Robertson-level xtianity is a plague on the Unistatian body-politic, the emergent church is something to be happy about. As I read some of the authors my dear brother tells me about, I find an assumed language (less so with people like Harvey Cox and Peter Berger and Philip Jenkins, not that they're hard-core denizens of the emergent church, but my brother has spoken highly of them as theological writers, or more accurately, sociologists of Christianity and other religions) that strongly suggests I (pagan) am not thought of when the books were written; that is, when I read Marcus Borg, Tim Keel, and Brian McLaren (this last my brother's favorite, along with Erwin McManus...my biggest clue that the emergent people are on to something good: the mainstream moronic Christians are feeling heavily persecuted by these relatively small postmodern religious thinkers; Google "emergent church" and see how scary it is to the mainstream. Here's one about McManus), I realize how much is assumed by these writers towards their assumed readers: fairly radical Christians who have sussed and ruminated far far more on the meaning of scripture and the history of scriptural hermeneutics than I would ever be expected to, as an Outsider. And it really feels like I'm not..."in the club." And often, I don't read these books all the way through. They're too geeky and for Insiders. Perhaps this will progress so that these writers will realize there are people like me trying to understand the programs better, but I suspect, given what they're up against, that these guys have more pressing issues. The funniest of these emergent guys - that I've seen, so far - is Dan Kimball. If this is the future of Christianity, then we non-Christians have something to look forward to, I must say. "God" "bless" them!

Montaigne on Prophecy
In Book I of his Essays, there's one called "Of Prognostications." It's instructive that Montaigne could write about prophecy in such a Skeptical Enquirer-ish manner in 16th c. Catholic France, but we must notice that every time he makes fun of prophecy, it's pagan-based stuff. He notes people who rave on about how their almanac turned out to be right about some such thing, their readers somehow not noticing all the instances in which it was wrong. This selective attention, this oh-too-human psychological bias is well known to us today. (Jeez, just read Daniel Kahneman's astonishingly erudite new book, Thinking Fast and Slow!)

Montaigne tells us of Diogenes the Atheist, who saw a painting of the survivors of a disastrous shipwreck, and a Believer chastised him saying, "Look, you who think the gods have no care of human things, what do you say to so many preserved from death by their especial favour?" To which Diogenes - one of the guys on my team - responds, "Why...that their pictures are not here who were cast away, who are by much the greater number." Montaigne in that same essay talks of Joachim the Calabrian abbot, "who foretold all the future Popes," and the Emperor Leo, "who prophesied all the emperors and patriarchs of Greece." This stuff cracks up Montaigne; he reminds me of Aldous Huxley who, when he moved to Hollywood to get away from warring Europe, ironically consulted astrologers and palm-readers, trying to keep a straight face. Montaigne's take on astrologers and diviners who seem to have some sort of unworldly power is, in my Cotton translation, worth repeating. He's ultra-modern here and would probably laff himself silly at the latest Pat Robertson schtick of "God Told Me To Tell You" chicanery:

This I have been an eyewitness of, that in public confusions, men astonished at their fortune, have abandoned their own reason, superstitiously to seek out in the stars the ancient causes and menaces of their present mishaps, and in my time have been so strangely successful in it, as to make me believe that this being an amusement of sharp and volatile wits, those who have been versed in the knack of unfolding and untying riddles, are capable, in any sort of writing, to find out what they desire. But above all, that which gives them the greatest room to play in, is the obscure, ambiguous, and fantastic gibberish of their prophetic canting, where their authors deliver nothing of clear sense, but shroud all in riddle, to the end that posterity may interpret and apply it according to its own fancy.

Nostradamus, anyone?

Why Stick With It?
When prophecy fails - which is a famous sociological book, highly recommended - why do people stick it out? How do they explain the failure of the inerrant? To go back to sociology, there's tremendous cognitive dissonance. I've been mouthing off about this stuff, I've invested emotional energy in this all coming to pass, and now it doesn't. Someone heard the the voices in their head and mistook them, or the devil made 'em do it. Or someone is a weak shaman/prophet/wiz and forgot to carry the two or they read the entrails wrongly. Or, the leaders have done something abhorrent. (Think: Catholic priests and child abuse, for example.) Do I gather my wits, cut my losses and convert to Scientology or just join the Marines? Do I become a Rationalist? What?

No, we know that people do not (usually) do any of those things when the system - religious or not - that they have vested interests in being "right," fails them. A recent study suggests that "system justification" is at work. The more you have invested, emotionally and otherwise, and the more enmeshed you feel within the system, the more you must adapt and see the system for what it still can be. To outsiders, the system you're in is corrupt, inept, unjust, evil, stupid. The insider adapts, excuses the latest crime by the leaders as a rather small thing, and figures this is yet another test of faith and fidelity.

This seems to apply to political thought and other Belief Systems (which I will abrev. as BS, after David Jay Brown) as well. This seems like a worthy study to keep in mind for those who are active for progressive change. One thing the article doesn't address is that a small minority do quit, and militate against the system they formerly adhered to. I see this as a rare form of courage, and quietly applaud anyone who's jumped outside of the system in order to make Things better.

Now, because my sponsor has been so supportive, here's another commercial from the good people at Grady's Oats:

God's Approval Rating
As of last July, God's approval rating was at a dismal 52%. Or at least that's according to this report on a poll. It's certainly much higher than Congress's approval rating, which, last I saw, was around 7%. So when we look at it that way, God is kicking Congress's ass (or is it asses?). If it was a prizefight, the refs would stop it: too much blood all over Congress. (I've heard God has a good right arm jab, but an even better left hand uppercut.) I have no data on how well God is doing now, just after Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, and other solstice-hovering  "holy" days. Maybe if the economy improves, God can push it to 60% by Easter, and his Kid can take it from there.

(One really has to make a Miracle work to challenge "oral sex," which consistently polls at around 98%, worldwide, and that's only for the givers!)

The question is: how can God work his image? I know some PR firms that are pretty damned audacious and mendacious at getting you to believe that the sky is not blue, but really: a fuschia with Peter Max stripes. Or that raising taxes on billionaires will further wreck the economy. Or that global warming, even if "real" and man-made, is a good thing. Or that Newt Gingrich would make Unistat great again. But are they up to taking on God as a client? How would you make God look a lot better to Joe and Josephine Q. Sixpack? Because, personally, I don't know. I'm with Woody Allen, who thinks God has failed miserably, and wonders why everyone doesn't get together to file a class-action lawsuit against Him.

All right, once again I've typed far too much. I apologize for wasting your time, fellow non-believers and  the one or two Believers who might read this blog. Shalom! (Or is it Aloha?)

Here's Harvey Cox, for my dough one of the best of the sane theologians. It's 10 minutes:


Annabel Lee said...

Sorry for the delay in finally reading this one - I've been sick for the better part of the past week with a nasty flu that just won't go away. That hasn't stopped me from writing, but the reading, well, that's a different story.

I remember watching something about 5 or 6 years ago on PBS talking about the emergent church. I didn't think much about it, as I hadn't heard that term used since. Though, I did go ahead and Google. You're right. There is a vast paranoia out there regarding the movement. It reminds me of the paranoia that the GOP operatives use whenever the Dems attempt to do anything. No surprise, since both are supported by the same backers.

I think you could potentially do entire posts regarding the topic of the emergent church, and still not be able to fully capture the scope of the movement. It's an interesting look at the books that make up Christianity. I'm mostly concerned with what would happened to these people if they suddenly learned that their worldviews were entirely wrong and their lives and beliefs were for naught. I think that's the part that scares them the most right now. That this group has a different take on the teachings.

Of course, the idea of biblical literalism is a completely 20th century American concept. In fact, the Vatican has stated for 2000 years that the Bible should not be taken literally and should be read as a collection of feelings and thoughts, with understanding and open-mindedness. This stands in stark contrast to the way religion operates in America.

Though, who can be surprised when you have a business that sells nothing, makes huge profits, pays no taxes, and enjoys great political power.

michael said...

When I think of the authoritarian, literal/fundamental xtians in Unistat, I can't help but think of Nietzsche's "slave morality." I've been hanging with my brother and some of his friends and they do NOT seem like that to me; they're really sophisticated believers who have very many ideas about how to interpret scripture, and they seem quite open-minded to me, and mostly far to the left of Obama. No wonder the repressive xtians are afraid of them.

Also: if anyone reading this has a good line on some numbers or percentages or changes over the past ten years re: self-identification with the Emergent Church, please feel free to chime in here. I asked my brother and he said he thought "it's much more than you would think if you only followed mainstream media," or something like that, but has convinced me that the groups he's involved with are small but very intelligent, activist in not-directly political ways, digital-media-savvy, and "emotionally intelligent."

I have friends who can't stand any xtian talk, or have a semantic reaction when I say, "the Bible," and - I am not "saved," as far as I know - but I have to remind them about MLK, the threat his mvmt presented to the power structures. Not until MLK gave a speech about poverty among all Americans, including whites, did he get shot by a "lone nut."

Hardly anyone in my circle even knows who Dorothy Day was.

Hope you start to feel better very soon, Annabel my dear.

lavaface said...

Hi, I stumbled across this blog for the RAW interview post and decided to read some more. I thought this post on the emerging church to be particularly interesting and thought I would comment.

From the little I have read, the emerging church movement seems like a positive step. There is a lot of derision focused on modern Christianity and I have to admit, some of it is probably deserved (at least towards the modern -day pharisees *ahem* fundamentalists). But at the same time I can't help but feel that a lot of the scorn is unjustified and just happens to be "the cool thing to do." As you noted with your experience with your brother, there are a number of intellectual Christians with modern sensibilities. The great thing about the Church is that it provides a community of love and support and guidance. There is a local community arts co-op that I have considered my "church" at times and I have personally had unusual experiences with 12 Step groups re: Higher Power. Not going to go to deep into it now but I have thought a lot about the subject. As a generalist, you may be interested in a few books I have found useful as guides for my thought: The Christian Agnostic, by Leslie Weatherhead (there is a selection of quotes from the book here: http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Leslie_Weatherhead) C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity is a classic (See also The Screwtape Letters) Christian Hedonism, by John Piper.

michael said...

@lavaface: What a fantastic comment.

I've been meaning to get to The Christian Agnostic; I read Mere Christianity a long time ago when I was very very closed-minded to anything I took as "pro-christian," so I should probably read it again because I'm a different being now.

Piper's book I've never heard of, but feel like I should've: Christian Hedonism? Wow! Here we've modeled it all as Thou Shalt Not...Anything Pleasurable, Because WE Want Control of your mind, not someone else.

I went to the Garden of Love
And saw what I never had seen...

lavaface said...

One other book I should mention is "Jesus and the Lost Goddess." This book really expands on the Gnostic ideas Philip K. Dick touched on in his later novels, and particularly the Tractae Scriptura at the end of VALIS. The authors make an argument that while there very well may have been an historical teacher, the Jesus story is best understood as a metaphor for each individual life. Very illuminating.

I don't go to church but I did grow up in a churchgoing family and have nothing bad to speak of. I guess we attended nice churches. I stopped believing in around 7th grade and when I went to college, I gravitated towards Taoism and Zen Buddhism. After reading those books last summer, and in light of personal experience, I have come back to think of the Church in a new light. You might consider me a Zen Christian, looking for the Middle Way.

I have thought about attending church again but I'm having a hard time reconciling the apeshit lunacy and hypocrisy that abound in the South. Then again, maybe it's not as bad as I think. I suppose I'll have to visit one day and find out. I've enjoyed your posts and have subscribed so I'll probably toss in a comment here and there on future posts.

michael said...

Hey lavaface. Many years ago I spent some time reading a book on Christian Zen; I want to say the writer's names was Christmas Humphries. Alan Watts - ordained Anglican minister and major infl on RAW - has some fascinating things to say about christianity and the West, vs, all the Eastern ideas he was so well-versed with.

Just last night I was reading about gnosticism and PKD. The gnostic books seem like the red-headed stepchild for xtian thinkers: few want to acknowledge their existence, much less why they were marginalized and burnt, their adherents persecuted.

I am not part of a church. Never have been. But there's lots of persuasive lit that being part of a church lessens anxiety, and people live longer. The problem is just what you stated: can you find a community that doesn't offend your openness? One that isn't too "apeshit," as you say?

I'm glad to have you as a reader and commenter. Thanks for the book recommendations!