Let me ask you a purely academic question: Hello?
— Dean Blehert

Sunday, December 25, 2005

A Brief Christmas Meditation

(I need to work on "brief". Currently my wit is lacking soul (brevity, that is).

Today, I'm told, is Christmas. Seems a good time to deliver myself of a few thoughts about the fine old religions. These are far from new ideas, but perhaps my take on them will be of use to some.

One reason religion is a tricky subject for most people (one of the things people are told not to discuss at the table, likely to lead to dissension) is that most (perhaps all) of our major main-stream faiths are composed of two distinct elements that tend to be mushed together so that they are difficult to differentiate. These elements are:

1. An attempt to free man from entrapments so that he (in the he/she sense) can be more himself.

2. An attempt to enslave man.


The proponents of freeing man assume that we are basically good, and that our apparent evil behavior results from the suppression of what we truly are. They stress that when they refer to God, they are referring to something in each of us or that some shard of God in us reflects the whole of God. They express this in many ways (and this expression emerges in all the great religions, though the examples below are from Christianity -- after all, this is Christmas day).

One of my favorite statements of it is in Meister Eckart's remark that "The eye with which God sees you is the eye with which you see God." (Or did he have it the other way round.) A similar statement from St. Augustine (which also is hard to recall, because it works both ways, and I may have it backwards) is "I went in search of God and found myself." The beginning of the Gospel of John is another statement of this. Another example is Augustine's view of sin or evil as a a suppression of God within us, and of Hell as an absence of God, our being set apart from awareness of God's presence -- set apart by our own despair, our own unwillingness to know ourselves. For example, a person who has done things he considers evil will, to assert his basic rightness, justify those evils to the point where any glimpse of his own basic goodness will be shattering, blinding, to be avoided (he thinks). Hence the long, wrenching weeping that typically accompanies moments of realization.

Those who want to free man would agree with ideas like the following:

It is not the strong who are to be feared, but the weak, who, out of fear of others, suppress them.

It is not the free man who is to be feared, but the slave, for the slave does not consider himself responsible for his actions.

It is not enforcement that makes a man treat others well. It is encouraging him to follow his dreams. (Where those dreams are insane, it is because of earlier enforcements that perverted saner dreams. The solution is to rehabilitate the person's OWN dreams, which are always positive.)

Each person is responsible for his own condition. That does not preclude his taking responsibility for others, and your taking responsibility for another does not relieve the other of the need to take responsibility for himself. (One expression of this is "God helps those who help themselves".) In other words, the concept of responsibility is broader than notions of guilt and blame.

"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free."

Not that I (for example) am God in the megalomaniac sense of being the only God, but I think many of the people who think of religion as a way to free man from entrapments would agree that, not only is something of God within us, but in a sense, that is who we are. For example, I've had moments in which I've been aware of a source of limitless joy and creativity and understanding, and I've felt it, not as something within me, but as something I am, something that is far more what I am than, for example, my body or the personality-and-body conglomeration I call "Dean Blehert". At such moments, if I look at my own body, it seems tiny, as does the room containing it.

This is not to be confused with "anything goes" and "hooray for free love and orgies." That has nothing to do with freedom. It's a parody of freedom designed to degrade the concept of freedom, designed by those who fear freedom. Usually the proponents of "anything goes" are the "Mr. Good Vibes" psychiatrists and psychologists who turn people on to the latest drugs and sexual fads, which lead to more spun-in patients for the stern "control-everyone" psychiatrists.

A person who is free will act (or so the proponents of freedom believe) in ways that are optimal, not only for themselves, but also for others, since a free being wants to play, and that means he wants playmates, and that means he wants others to be free. You don't free others from entrapment by encouraging them to give way to whatever cravings obsess them.

I'm not saying that freedom must be chaste or Puritanically grim. I'm saying that the "Orgy" picture of freedom is so constricted that it seems bleak to a free being. It's like touting the freedom of a dog to lick up his own vomit. It's not much fun.

There's the old song line, "How do you get 'em back on the farm, once they've seen New York?" Similarly, "How do you get 'em back to the whores, once they've known love" or "How do you get them back to being couch potatoes or people leading lives of quiet desperation, once they've discovered the joy of creation"? or "How do you get them back to being serial killers, once they've discovered that other people exist and that play is possible and that better games are available?"


A large component of the "great religions of man" consists in attempts to enslave man or subdue man "for his own good" or suppress man's evil impulses. This is religion motivated by fear, based on the idea that man is innately evil. It's the religion of high priests (or in our irreligious days, chiefly the religion of psychiatry, that views more and more of us as insane and seeks to suppress our "symptoms" with drugs, shock and other enforcements). The high priests know that we are evil and dangerous and must be kept in our places. They fear the creative, distrust joy, feel that the way to make us "good" is to threaten us with terrible eternal punishment (and deprivation of great rewards) if we step out of line.

One fine description of this view of religion and how it contrasts with the other is in Dostoyevski's parable (in "The Brother's Karamozov") of "The Grand Inquisitioner." Encountering Christ, upon Christ's return to earth, the Inquisitioner explains that he will have to have Christ burned at the stake, since Christ comes to bring freedom, and people don't want freedom, fear it, will be destroyed by it.

Those who hold by such beliefs would generally stress the following:

God's power is based on our own lack of power. To understand God's greatness, we must abase ourselves. Because God causes all things, we must not consider ourselves able to cause anything. That is, for example, the dark side of Calvinism (and most of what we call "Puritanism" derives from Calvinism) -- the idea that all is pre-determined, that there is no free will. Obviously if only God has freedom of action and if we have no freedom of action, there can be nothing of God within us.

People are basically bad. Goodness must be enforced upon us. Thus we need to believe that a few chosen (pre-determined) individuals (the high priests? inspired saints?) are good enough to enforce goodness on the rest of us. How does this fit in with the fairly wide-spread idea (not just in Western religions) that man is made "in the image of God"? I suppose it can be made to fit: We are so bad, that we took the perfection we were given and corrupted it.

[More basically, the idea that we are "made" ignores the idea that something in us is immortal. Immortality is not something that begins last Tuesday, then goes on forever. Something timeless has neither beginning nor end. What begins will end. At least that's my understanding of it. I speak, not out of theological reasoning, but from my own experience of, on occasion, simply knowing who I am, and at such times, I am aware of myself as having neither beginning nor ending. This is not something I can prove to you, though if I can persuade any of you to step out of your heads for a while (a heady experience), you'll know what I mean -- and probably many of you have already had that experience.]

I said I'd be brief. And, in theological terms, I've been very brief, but in Internet terms (where everyone is in a hurry), I've failed. Nonetheless, I'll say a bit more:

There are many examples of the mix of these two elements in any religion. I suspect that in most cases a visionary who has experienced great freedom tells others they too can be free of the things that entrap them (in dying bodies, loveless lives, cycles of brief pleasures that lead to long agonies, inability to express to others what is beautiful in themselves, inability to love, etc.). The rulers and big shots in the society see this as a danger (this guy is going to make these mobs of idiots strong, and they'll stand up to us), they try to suppress the new religion; this fails; therefore, the bought priests, in the name of the new religion, corrupt it, introduce a heavy dose of fear, hell, bureaucracy, complex rituals that involve the flow of wealth and power to the priesthood, punishments, etc. (But even, say proponents of freedom -- even the high priests are basically good beings. Just more difficult to reach then others, closer to being cinders or stones.)

When I read the Gospels, often I feel I am reading the words of a visionary (Jesus) who sought to free men. When I read Paul, I find a mix of this (mostly) with a bit of the other. When I read the Book of Revelations (written long after the death of Jesus), I feel I'm reading a book aimed at driving people nuts and carefully crafted to do just that. Its connection with the Jesus of the Gospels in extremely tenuous. I think whoever got it made part of the cannon was (like the guys who gave us the Nicene Creed and made it heresy to remember that one may have lived before this lifetime, so that the preciousness of the one and only body we are ever allowed to have makes it possible for Hell and Heaven to continue to make sense as stick and carrot) -- I think that guy was out to keep people under control as good little vulnerable pure-meat bodies, with souls like the batteries in the Energizer Bunny. And, of course, if salvation requires the end of the world, why would anyone bother with trying to improve conditions among the living and perhaps making waves in the process? Great control operation.

I won't try to elaborate, in detail, my evidences for this view. It would extend this message considerably. I'll just say that, first of all, what I object to in Revelations is not something specifically Christian. For example, The Book of Revelations echoes similar imagery and concepts in the Old Testament books of Ezekiel and Daniel. Also, my objection is not only to the degrading idea of man in that book (We aren't eternal unless God brings back the piece of meat we happen to use as an identity badge during a particular lifetime?), but also to the specific end-of-the-world incidents related, for those incidents happen to be designed to push certain overwhelming "buttons".

Analogy: Dad drives his kid to drink by beating the hell out of him and telling him he's no good. Kid moves away, stops drinking (with great effort expended in the process) and starts to put his life together. Dad shows up one day, sees the kid looking strong and alive, hates that, so says, "Look at you, you punk, you were never any good. Remember how you spilled milk on your Mom's best chair, how she cried; how you ran away that time, drove your Mom nuts; you were the death of her, and now you're a big shot, think you're better than your old man, probably don't remember how I sat up with you when you were sick...". And so on. What's he doing? Pushing every button he can think of to drive his son down again. To do so he brings up every past painful experience he can think of. Does it work? Depends on the kid, how tough he is, how much he understand what's happening. (The movie "Shine" does a good job of presenting a father-son relationship that's along these lines.)

Well, that's what I get when I read the Book of Revelations, but someone is pushing buttons that affect just about everyone. Old nightmares based on long-ago experiences.

When those of us who are not Christians or are Christians, but sometimes feel that certain fundamentalist groups are too "extreme", the actions we usually object to most are dramatizations of "Revelations", though any truth, when obsessive, becomes something scary.

How does one love as oneself all those people who, clearly (per "Revelations", nearly everyone), are doomed to eternal agony?

I could make finer distinctions within and between Gospel books, but am here looking at a broad and, I think, obvious distinction, just to make my point. Simply read the Gospel of St. Matthew, then read "Revelations" (read both in the same evening) and notice whether or not they belong in the same universe and express even remotely simlar visions. For me the only connection is that both have a simplicity and directness of expression.

Beyond that, when I read the first, I hear the voice of one who is wise and means us well. (This doesn't mean I agree with everything he says. It means I highly respect what he says.) When I read the other, I feel I'm hearing the repeated, mechanical ranting of a madman who is carrying an "end of the world is coming" sign and trying to drown out the visionary.

So, though I doubt that most people would consider me a Christian, I do hope you've had a merry one, and I hope that you are able to extricate from the knotted mishmash of Christianity (and the other major religions), the strand that is, indeed, merry. As William Butler Yeats says of Chinese wisemen in his poem, "Lapis Lazuli" (he's looking at a carving of them in that blue stone):

One asks for mournful melodies;
Accomplished fingers begin to play.
Their eyes mid many wrinkles, their eyes,
Their ancient, glittering eyes, are gay.

No comments: