Browsing the blog archivesfor the day Wednesday, August 1st, 2007.


The Wisdom of Doubt, Part XII

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Religion, Wisdom of Doubt

In the first post of this series I objected to the use of the word faith as a synonym for religion. Faith is a component of religion, to one degree or another, but not religion itself.

The other problem with faith is that it conveys the wrong message about religion. I found an example of this in an essay by Christopher Brookmyre at the Comment Is Free Guardian web site.

The notion that faith – belief in spite of an absence of proof or even in the face of compelling contrary evidence – is a form of mental and moral fortitude needs not merely to be challenged, but to be given the full point-and-laugh treatment, so that we can see afresh how this” absurdity deserves ridicule rather than reverence.

From here Brookmyre goes on to discuss the occult practice — known as “spiritualism” — of using “mediums” to contact the dead. Spiritualism became a big fad in the 19th century after two sisters claimed they could communicate with peoples’ loved ones who had passed on. The “dead” responded to questions with rapping sounds, which the sisters were making with their toes. Brookmyre concludes,

The story of the Fox sisters and the rise of spiritualism illustrates that belief in the face of the evidence is at best a retreat into intellectual infantilism, and at worst dangerously irresponsible.

The Glasgow would-be bombers believed faith itself was a virtue, a sufficient reason to murder hundreds of innocent people. I don’t think being nine hours too early on June 30 disqualifies me from saying that such faith is a self-indulgence we can ill afford.

The problem with this essay is Brookmyre’s definition of faith — belief in spite of an absence of proof or even in the face of compelling contrary evidence. That’s not faith in a religious sense.

I wrote in the last Wisdom of Doubt post that some things can’t be explained with words, and I’m about to plunge into explaining something with words that can’t be explained with words. But let’s start with words. The American Heritage online dictionary gives these two definitions of faith —

1. Mental acceptance of the truth or actuality of something: belief, credence, credit. See OPINION. 2. Absolute certainty in the trustworthiness of another: belief, confidence, dependence, reliance, trust.

Neither of these definitions work for me. That’s the problem with using words to explain religion. The Tao that can be talked about is not the Tao.

Faith and doubt in the religious sense are both about openness. A Christian might put his trust in God’s love, and that trust enables him to live a more open-hearted and courageous life. Although life may bring him grief and disappointment, his trust in God’s love enables him to accept what he can’t change and move on. When the time comes, he accepts even his own death.

So where does doubt come in? Doubt in the Zen sense is not knowing. A Christian might use the word humility instead of doubt to mean about the same thing. Doubt means you don’t know with any certainty who or what God is, or what’s going to happen next, or how your plans for yourself will turn out, or even what happens when you die. But though you doubt, yet you trust. This is faith.

Doubt also means you are open to all possibilities, all understanding, because you haven’t filled up your head with certainty. Zennies sometimes use the phrases “beginner’s mind” or “don’t know mind” to mean the same thing. That’s why this kind of doubt is about being open. The other kind of doubt, the one that causes people to fold their arms and say religion is just superstitious crap, is closed.

As I’ve written this series I find myself going back, again, to the Hsin Hsin Ming by Seng-Ts’an (d. 609).

If you wish to see the truth
then hold no opinions for or against anything.
To set up what you like against what you dislike
is the disease of the mind.

“Hsin Hsin Ming” is variously translated into English “The Mind of Absolute Trust,” “Verses on the Faith Mind,” and even “Inscribed on the Believing Mind.” Normally, in our culture, if you said someone has a “believing mind” it’s assumed that person has a head full of dogmas he “believes in.” But Seng-Ts’an says that to have faith “hold no opinions for or against anything.” Be open, and trust that openness.

Religious fanatics approach religion in exactly the opposite way. To be a fanatic is to be closed. For an explanation, let’s go back to Eric Hoffer in The True Believer.

Only the individual who has come to terms with his self can have a dispassionate attitude toward the world. Once the harmony with the self is upset, he turns into a highly reactive entity. Like an unstable chemical radical he hungers to combine with whatever comes within his reach. He cannot stand apart, whole or self-sufficient, but has to attach himself whole-heartedly to one side or the other. …

… The fanatic is perpetually incomplete and insecure. He cannot generate self-assurance out of his individual resources — out of his rejected self — but finds it only in clinging passionately to whatever support he happens to embrace. This passionate attachment is the essence of his blind devotion and religiosity, and he sees in it the source of all virtue and strength. Though his single-minded dedication is a holding on for dear life, he easily sees himself as the supporter and defender of the holy cause to which he clings. … The fanatic is not really a stickler to principle. He embraces a cause not primarily because of its justice and holiness but because of his desperate need for something to hold on to. …

… The fanatic cannot be weaned away from his cause by an appeal to his reason or moral sense. He fears compromise and cannot be persuaded to qualify the certitude and righteousness of his holy cause. But he finds no difficulty in swinging from one holy cause to another. He cannot be convinced but only converted. His passionate attachment is more vital than the quality of the cause to which he is attached. [Hoffer, The True Believer, HarperPerennial edition, pp. 84-86]

This is not being open-hearted and courageous. It’s being closed and fearful. The fanatic is closed to himself and to any Truth or Reality he might happen to trip over. If what the fanatic attaches to is a religion, he clings to that religion rather than follow it.

Fanatics have no doubts. Hoffer again:

To be in possession of an absolute truth is to have a net of familiarity spread over the whole of eternity. There are no surprises and no unknowns. All questions have already been answered, all decisions made, all eventualities foreseen. The true believer is without wonder and hesitation. “Who knows Jesus knows the reason for all things.” The true doctrine is the master key to all the world’s problems. With it the world can be taken apart and put together. [p. 82]

There are no surprises and no unknowns. All questions have already been answered, all decisions made, all eventualities foreseen. They have no doubts. They are closed. That’s why they have no faith. They may “believe in” God, but they don’t trust God as far as they can throw him. They close themselves off in enclaves of the faithful and fear everything that isn’t Them.

Because they are fearful, religious fanatics imagine a God who is something like a cosmic superhero. They are weak and helpless, but he is strong, and he will come and smite the feared Other and make it disappear. Or worse.

Let’s go back to this excerpt from Glenn Greenwald’s new book (A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency) in Salon:

One of the principal dangers of vesting power in a leader who is convinced of his own righteousness — who believes that, by virtue of his ascension to political power, he has been called to a crusade against Evil — is that the moral imperative driving the mission will justify any and all means used to achieve it. …

… Intoxicated by his own righteousness and therefore immune from doubt, the Manichean warrior becomes capable of acts of moral monstrousness that would be unthinkable in the absence of such unquestionable moral conviction. One who believes himself to be leading a supreme war against Evil on behalf of Good will be incapable of understanding any claims that he himself is acting immorally.

This is the road a fanatic walks. The fanatic goes from believing that, for example, someday Superhero Jesus will return to rescue him from whatever he fears, to thinking that he has to take action himself on Jesus’ behalf to make this happen. Consider, for example, the Christians United for Israel. Max Blumenthal writes,

CUFI has found unwavering encouragement from traditional pro-Israel groups like AIPAC and elements of the Israeli government.

But CUFI has an ulterior agenda: its support for Israel derives from the belief of Hagee and his flock that Jesus will return to Jerusalem after the battle of Armageddon and cleanse the earth of evil. In the end, all the non-believers – Jews, Muslims, Hindus, mainline Christians, etc. – must convert or suffer the torture of eternal damnation. Over a dozen CUFI members eagerly revealed to me their excitement at the prospect of Armageddon occurring tomorrow. Among the rapture ready was Republican Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. None of this seemed to matter to Lieberman, who delivered a long sermon hailing Hagee as nothing less than a modern-day Moses. Lieberman went on to describe Hagee’s flock as “even greater than the multitude Moses commanded.”

The fanatic can’t wait for Jesus to come; so, he’ll initiate steps to kick start Armageddon. This is not a true faith in Jesus, but the opposite. Or, the fanatic thinks he has to send suicide bombers to destroy the World Trade Center as part of the Holy Plan to establish true Islamic rule. Or that it’s OK to shred the Bill of Rights if it enables True Conservatism to dominate American government. Or whatever. The point is that when you have no doubt you are right, then you are ready to bullshit yourself into doing anything –including acts of genuine atrocity — and calling it Good.

This is, in part, what sets religious fanaticism apart from religious faith: A sincerely religious person practices his religion to calm and resolve his fears. The fanatic thinks his religion gives him permission to destroy what he fears.

Of course, without doctrine or teaching there is no religion. This is one of the inherent paradoxes of religion, along with the use of words to explain things that can’t be explained with words. For the most part, doctrines are conceptualizations of things that are beyond conceptualization. But everybody’s got to start somewhere. If you think of the words and the doctrines as training wheels, and not the whole bicycle, you’ll be fine.

It does seem that many religions aren’t much more than lists of “facts” about God, morality, or the afterlife that one is supposed to “believe in.” And these doctrines are all items one must accept on faith, in the dictionary sense of the word. Adopting a set of religious beliefs is what makes one “religious,” in our culture. I didn’t realize how bleeped up that was until after I’d gotten serious about Buddhism, and someone who said she was writing an article about Buddhism asked me “what Buddhists believe.” I was struck dumb by the question. Truly, it is a question that doesn’t have a simple, 25-words-or-less answer. The snotty Zen answer would have been something like “not putting a head on top of my head,” or even “as little as possible,” but that wouldn’t have told her anything. I fell back on the Standard Answer, which is that Buddhism is more of a practice than a belief system.

But I think that answer could apply to most of the world’s great religions — it’s more of a practice than a belief system. Religion, sincerely practiced, is a practice of openness.

If I had any advice for Christianity, I’d suggest — every 500 years or so — dumping all the doctrines and starting over. Forget you never heard of this Jesus guy, and you know nothing about him, and then read the Gospels. With a pair of fresh eyes and plenty of don’t-know mind, the Gospels might surprise you. Christianity has been cranking out doctrinal minutiae for two thousand years, and in some cases — eschatalogical dispensationalists like the CUFI do come to mind — Jesus completely disappears under the muck.

Doctrines are fine as long as everyone is clear they are guides to the truth, not the truth itself. The hand pointing to the moon is not the moon, and all that. Believe it or not, in times past many great Christian theologians and mystics understood Christian doctrine that way.

Back in Part IV I quoted 20th-century theologian Reinhold Neibuhr —

It can not be denied … that this same Christian faith is frequently vulgarized and cheapened to the point where all mystery is banished. … a faith which measures the final dimension of existence, but dissipates all mystery in that dimension, may be only a little better or worse than a shallow creed which reduces human existence to the level of nature. …

… When we look into the future we see through a glass darkly. The important issue is whether we will be tempted by the incompleteness and frustration of life to despair, or whether we can, by faith, lay hold on the divine power and wisdom which completes what remains otherwise incomplete. A faith which resolves mystery too much denies the finiteness of all human knowledge, including the knowledge of faith. A faith which is overwhelmed by mystery denies the clues of divine meaning which shine through the perplexities of life. The proper combination of humility and trust is precisely defined when we affirm that we see, but admit that we see through a glass darkly. [Robert McAfee Brown, editor, The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr (Yale, 1986), p. 248, emphasis added]

The “through a glass darkly” passage comes, of course, from St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 13, King James version. This chapter also says “if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” So why isn’t the proper synonym for religion love instead of faith, I wonder?

I think fundamentalism will eventually dissipate, if it doesn’t get us all killed first. Because fundamentalism is closed, it has no where to go except to break itself into more and finer bits of dogma for people to argue about. At some point the “faithful” may start to notice that they’re sitting in a dark basement arguing about the nature of sunshine when they could just go outside and enjoy the sunshine.

A long time ago I wrote a poem that compared the spiritual journey to getting lost in New Jersey. You’re driving around looking for the way to Manhattan, and you’re completely lost. Then you see an exit sign by the road that says “Route 4 East to the George Washington Bridge.” The George Washington Bridge will take you across the Hudson River to Manhattan.

Now, the sensible thing to do would be to follow the sign and head toward the bridge. But in the world of religion, for some reason people don’t do that. Instead, they pull over, get out of their cars, and begin to worship the sign. They try to get other people to stop and worship the sign. Pretty soon the sign becomes so strewn with flowers and prayer cards no one is actually reading it any more. Eventually priests appear to explain the “true” meaning of the sign. Then the sign worshipers hear about people praying to the Lincoln Tunnel toll booths. Heathens!

Sooner or later they’re all arguing with themselves and even starting wars in the Name of the Sign (or the Toll Booths). And nobody is getting any closer to Manhattan.

Or, you can read and take to heart what the sign tells you, and follow it.

Stay open, and good journey.

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Underside of “the American Hologram”

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conservatism, Social Issues, workers

I haven’t read Deer Hunting With Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War by Joe Bageant, but it looks interesting. The “American Hologram” is his term for “the televised, corporatized virtual reality that distracts us from the insidious realities of American life”. From Alternet:

Bageant grew up in a fundamentalist Christian, ultra-working-class family in a claustrophobic little Virginia town named Winchester. Then, in his own terminology, he made his escape. He moved west and made a pretty decent career for himself in the world of journalism. A few years ago, though, he felt a craving for his childhood home and, now deep into middle-age, decided to relocate once more.

So the self-proclaimed socialist, atheist, heavy-drinking, three-times-married Joe returned home, to a landscape dominated by rabid, demon-battling fundamentalists (including his younger brother, a fire-and-brimstone preacher); NASCAR; overpriced mobile homes; greasy food; depressing, dead-end, anti-union workplaces; and gung-ho patriots whose pick-up trucks boast bumper stickers such as "Kick their ass. Take their gas."

Bageant :

“The working class here in what they are now calling the ‘heartland,’ (all the stuff between the big cities) exists on a continuum ranging from complete insecurity to the not-quite-complete insecurity of having a decent but endangered job. It is a continuum extending from the apathy of the poorest to the hard-edged anger of those with more to lose. Which ain’t a lot, brother, when your household income hovers around $30,000 or $35,000 with both people working… Until those with power and access decide that it’s beneficial to truly educate people, and make it possible to get an education without going into crushing debt, then the mutt people here in the heartland will keep on electing dangerous dimwits in cowboy boots.”

Alternet continues:

Part ethnography, part sociology, part just good, old-fashioned storytelling, Deer Hunting With Jesus uses an insider’s perspective to explain, generally successfully, why parts of rural America, especially in the South, are so conservative, so suspicious of “big city liberals,” and so willing to cast their lot with right-wing politicians who swiftly turn around and bite these working class supporters in their collective ass.

Imagine a cross between Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas?, Hunter S. Thompson’s booze-and-dope fueled meditations on Nixon’s political potency, and C. Wright Mills‘ understanding of the durability of the power elite… put ’em all into the hopper, mix them around at high speed, and you end up somewhere about where Bageant did. In other words, it’s informative, infuriating, terrifying, scintillating, and, at the end of the day, when HST’s ghost finally emerges triumphant, it’s just downright fun.

Alternet, on the centrality of fraud to all of this:

A common theme throughout his book is fraud, and the peculiar vulnerability to fraud of closed-in, under-invested-in communities such as Winchester: religious charlatans pushing dodgy theories into the heart of the political process; wealthy, educated men and women deliberately curtailing the educational opportunities of the poor, giving them just enough schooling to know how to dream the American Dream, but not nearly enough to ever be able to challenge their poverty and make that dream a reality; workers "encouraged" by companies like Wal-Mart to be hostile to the "special interests" represented by trade unions.

Bageant’s fraud of "the American Hologram", is the fraud at the heart of conservativism.

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