I confess to having a seasonal defective disorder about this—Christmas I mean.
I am frankly tired of news about religious extremists plotting world takeover from septic tunnels, watching deals between “good” Taliban and “pro-western” Pakistanis brokered and shredded within months by toothy politicians, depressed from smiling over my gin when MSNBC reports that a pilotless drone (no, a different entity from the United States Senate) has killed a “top level Al-Qaida leader.” (No, not bin Laden. Certainly not—but someone who knows someone who met him once. Maybe at a barber shop.)
Bored enough even to yawn at the last report of a horrific car, market, bus, mosque or school bombing somewhere in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan. Weary to the point of dizziness at the latest decisions to send in another doomed-from-the get-so cadre of troops to “finish what we started” [sic] in Afghanistan. Innocence betrayed by the allure of travel to distant lands?
At a lower level of cynicism, I am lulled to despair with the conflict over whether Jews in Santa Cruz should or should not have a right to display a fifteen foot high menorah in the “downtown area.” It’s a cluster of candles for God’s sake, but more to the point: don’t you have a back yard?
I am sick of the Vatican being forced into the position, yet again, of apologizing for randy priests and abusive, sexually repressed nuns who couldn’t keep their paws off innocent children in their care. It is disgusting. It is so disgusting that we need to consider seriously if any other social community, unprotected by the fiction that religion operates for the good, is even capable of doing the things that religion does—and does by pointing to a Higher Authority whose function it is (apparently) either to forgive it or condemn it but does nothing to prevent it by putting its holy temple in moral order.
The commonplace concept of God in all three religions is so miserably and wretchedly puerile that it sends me searching for my dog-eared copy of The Future of an Illusion on an annual basis. May the Kingdom come (and go) soon.
So I ask myself, what went wrong, or what’s gone missing? All of these religions had mystery once upon a time. And without overstating the terrors that take shape when religion is taken literally rather than mystically religion unclothed is a dangerous thing. The poet Matthew Arnold warned a century and a half ago of the danger of taking myths, mixing briskly with the hazards of unformed religious passion and ignorance of literature, and turning them into dogma. For Arnold, the great devil of nineteenth century religion in the English tradition was making postulates out of poems.
Who could have foretold that the literalism and plain-talk we expect in twenty-first century discourse would constrain religion to take its own propositions seriously, and worse, act to defend them in absurd and violent ways. But that, I submit is what has happened.
Maimonides. Avicenna. Meister Eckhart. Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Balkhī Rumi, and more to date (d. 1937) Muhammad Iqbal and Thomas Merton, alas, are not the future of religion.
I have always found it odd in one sense that many of the great philosophical mystics were also great intellectuals, especially it seems logicians and mathematicians. Origen and Ibn Rushd, in their respective pockets, saw theology closely aligned to true wisdom, in that higher sense the neo-Platonists were so fond of talking (and talking) about.
So let me talk about it.
I have said a sufficient number of times (so that anything beyond this time will be mere repetition) that the “cure” for all the bad religion we see around us is not “good” religion or the “right sort of” religion or (above all) declamations that what we’re witnessing “isn’t really religion” but some sort of satanic parody of religion. All such talk is an invitation for conflict under the banner of dialogue.
Religion is not purified by scraping away the mould to see if any edible bread is left. A cure—and yes, that is the word I want–depends on seeing the violence inherent in religious literalism and heeding the call to myth, mystery, and poetry.
When it comes to religion, words speak louder than actions. All forms of biblical and Quranic literalism are invitations to moral terror not because the precept you happen to be reading at the moment is “wrong” but because the one you read next might violate both conscience and commonsense. Violent because you cannot know what verses stir the mind and heart of your friendly local mullah, priest or rabbi. Picking and choosing what the experts believe the laity need to hear–the way most preachers have practiced their faith in public over the millennia–may be a tribute to the power of discernment, but it teaches the congregation—the occasional Catholic, the wavering Muslim—some very bad habits.
It can lead to a constricting of moral vision, the abuse of little children, butchering or disfiguring wives and daughters, the killing of the tribe of Abraham by the children of Abraham. Words do this because they have the power to be misunderstood. And because taken as a bundle, the texts of the sacred traditions are a muddle of contradictory and sometimes terrifying ideas that commend everything from peace on earth to extermination of the unbeliever in their several parts.
It is the kind of tangle that attracts knot-tiers and exploiters and anyone who needs the money of the poor to be rich. Most of the methods developed to study and examine the narratives of the world’s religions “scientifically” in the last two centuries have helped to provide contexts for texts, have shone light on the community within which texts developed—ranging from Syria to Medina—reminding us above all that the ancient words are no different in provenance than modern words: that is, they are human words and need human interpretation. The words are not above us, they should not be considered immune from our assessment and judgment. Any doctrine of inspiration that teaches otherwise is potentially if not actually malignant and insidious.
I could quote Rumi, or Ibn Rushd, or a poem by Alama Iqbal to make my point. They were all great hearts and deeply committed to their vision of religious truth. Taken in another direction, they might have been vicious—because mysticism has often led to esotericism and fanaticism. (Religious language is funny that way.) Origen and Peter Abelard lost their testicles and hundreds of Anabaptists in Munster in 1535 their lives not because they lacked imagination but because they had special visions of how to take the kingdom by storm.
So let me take refuge instead in the myth we find embedded in the story Christians like to read at this time of year.
The Christian myth is that love was born into the world in human form, divine nonetheless and (as the story winds on, without prejudice to the order of composition of the gospel elements) capable of suffering, and destined (as in the ascension myth in Luke) to regain his heavenly estate. True love, recall, does not undergo change, does not “alter when it alteration finds.”
Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign. (Christina Rossetti, 1885)
People who hate the gory images of crucifixion and the metaphysically blinding element of the resurrection narrative, tend to like Christmas anyway. They like it even though they may very well reject every other part of the Jesus tradition. What they like “about” it may not be Christian at all, and may well be more ancient than the ancient ideas that quietly undergird Luke’s and Matthew’s poetic fables.
Socrates it’s easy to forget, was no fan of “poetical myths” “Those which Hesiod and Homer tell us and the other poets, for they composed false fables to mankind and told them [Republic, 377d]. These are “not to be mentioned in our city” [Republic, 378b]. It is easy to forget this because Plato himself was unable to exile Homer completely from his city. What he worries about is the propensity of “myth” (poetical or philosophical) for misunderstanding and the natural tendency among the uneducated, the young and the intellectually dull for getting the myths wrong—missing the point.
In the Ion [533c], Socrates explains that some people are closer to wisdom and interpretation than others. Call it knowledge—as later Platonists and their sympathizers did. There is a power, Socrates teaches, which descends from the gods to certain men and to others who, like Ion, use the works of the inspired. “It is, he says, like a series of iron rings the first of which is attached to a magnet so that the power of the magnet passes on to all in the series.” Think God, think angel choirs, think wise men, think shepherds. “Those beautiful poems are not human, nor the compositions of men; but divine, and the work of the gods: and that poets are only the interpreters of the gods, inspired and possessed, each of them by a peculiar deity who corresponds to the nature of the poet.” But it stops with the interpreters, the users. The force is not with everyone.
Christianizing Plato is a perilous business, but it did not stop the church fathers and later writers from trying and getting it poetically wrong in their determination to be theologically right. The life of Jesus for many of the interpreters was simply an allegory of divine love, the way in which love (truth) became incarnate. The way love “came down”—in the beginning, for John, “at Christmas” for Rossetti. Certain writers saw this, to be fair, more philosophically than others. The Gnostics did not need a manger or a virgin mother. The most arrogant of the mystics sided with the ancients in thinking that this love was simply a gift of inspiration given to men of learning and ability. Love, philia, is the general term that Plato uses when he wants to convey attraction. It is usually a one way street: the image of iron rings and magnets drawing the things of this world to the things of an unseen realm by a mysterious power that is divine—god-originated..
Perilous though it is, I think that Christianity was unique in democratizing love and in making love available to even the lowliest, the most ignorant, the slaves and sinners. Even the pagan haters of Christianity hated it most for its non-exclusivity, its lack of a membership code. Plato would have hated it, too, and would have insisted that, had there been any, Christians should be barred from his city. Later philosophical Platonism had next to no social dimension. Christianity did.
Christian mythology took the principle of attraction and the connection between God, conceived as love, and forgiveness, considered intrinsic to goodness, and extended it to a human race that had lost its compass and its ladder. Everyone could be perfect because everyone could be attracted.
Do I believe this is literally the state of humanity? Do I think that we should tell our children these things irrespective of SAT scores? Do I agree with Plato that amateurs need not apply and that the secrets of the myths should be “locked in concealment”—the path taken by most of the Platonically-based mysteries and even for a while among certain Christian groups.
What I believe is, there are no mysteries in mangers.