22 February 2015

Religion, groups, names of a few writers

Directly below is a junk image whose origin escapes my memory, and the text that follows is my side of an online bull session.

From a comment thread:

I’m attracted to the whole discussion and all the speculation about religion, I love looking into the stuff that seems wrong to me just as much as the stuff that seems right – I’m interested in absorbing as many perspectives as possible: I think about right and wrong similarly to the way that Whitman talks about heaven and hell:

The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me, / The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue.

I leave out Nietzsche from the ‘best philosophical writer’ question because I think his genius transcends the category of philosophy. (I mean that as a high compliment.) And, just so you know where I’m coming from, I worship Schopenhauer, but I am most enchanted by the cheerful stance of Walt Whitman: he’s the one I most desire to emulate. If I have anything like a personal religion, I think it’s a cross between Whitman, Blake, and Kafka. But I’ll change my mind in no time, I suppose.

I will give a quote from yet another bio that I’ve been reading. (Imagine the following words tempered with my delight for the topic itself.) Marcel Duchamp says:

All this twaddle—the existence of God, atheism, determinism, free will, societies, death, etc., are the pieces of a chess game called language, and they are only amusing if one does not preoccupy oneself with ‘winning or losing this game of chess.’

Even though I’ve repeated this too much, I’ll say it again: I care about individuals, not groups; and since religions are groups, I have no idea how to talk about them – but I’m very interested in the individual who provoked the founding of each religion. One of my favorite passages about this is from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Self-Reliance (by the way, add Emerson to the group of minds who comprise my ideal godhead):

Every true man is a cause, a country, and an age; requires infinite spaces and numbers and time fully to accomplish his design; — and posterity seem to follow his steps as a train of clients. A man Caesar is born, and for ages after we have a Roman Empire. Christ is born, and millions of minds so grow and cleave to his genius, that he is confounded with virtue and the possible of man. An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man; as, Monachism, of the Hermit Antony; the Reformation, of Luther; Quakerism, of Fox; Methodism, of Wesley; Abolition, of Clarkson. Scipio, Milton called ‘the height of Rome’; and all history resolves itself very easily into the biography of a few stout and earnest persons.

I share your admiration of Joseph Campbell – his views changed my life when I most needed it. Among other great works by him, I devoured with great interest his Masks of God series (Primitive Mythology, Oriental Mythology, Occidental Mythology, and Creative Mythology – my favorites are the first and the last).

As far as any adherent of God [X] being mistreated by any adherent of God [Y], a couple sayings come to mind – the first is from St. Mark’s Jesus: “resist not evil”. The second is from St. Luke’s Jesus: “Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you”. Also, here is a quotation from The Yuma Daily Sun, which Cormac McCarthy uses as the last of three epigraphs to begin his novel Blood Meridian – my point in copying the quotation is, I assume, the same as McCarthy’s; that is, to remind us that this kind of thing has been going on for a very long time:

Clark, who led last year’s expedition to the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, and UC Berkeley colleague Tim D. White, also said that a re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier shows evidence of having been scalped.

An extra bit of claptrap:

The term ‘spirituality’ seems usually to have a positive nuance (I mean, in general usage), whereas the phrase ‘organized religion’ seems almost always to have a negative nuance. But that single word ‘religion’ is a wildcard: Some people use it in a positive light; some hold it as suspect; and some think the word can only denote something so despicable that it must be denounced – as when Nietzsche says: ‘all religions are at the deepest level systems of cruelties’.

So, unless we clearly agree on a definition for the term ‘religion’, everything that we say about it will simply reveal our own individual bias for or against that particular word, rather than revealing any truth about our world. Here I want to mention again what William Blake writes, in Plate 11 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

[The ancient Poets] studied the genius of each city & country, placing it under its mental deity. / Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of & enslav'd the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects; thus began Priesthood. / Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales.

Blake uses the word ‘Priesthood’ to denote this process of ‘enslavement thru interpretation’. If we substitute the word ‘Religion’ for Blake’s ‘Priesthood’, it becomes the culprit of much ugliness; and Nietzsche’s judgment above is exactly right. On the other hand, the idea that I gather from some of the pro-religion comments is that the word should be placed back on an equal standing with the word ‘spirituality’. This latter view claims that religion—or at least our use of that word—has grown away from its healthy origin into something bad, but we should try to mend it rather than annihilate it altogether.

I suppose this problem will either work itself out or not. My understanding is that the definitions of words are determined by popular usage; and it would require a Mechanical Grabber Arm of massive proportions to move the minds of the mob into harmony on this issue. Even then, one would need enough adhesive to make them all stay put. But I cannot imagine a person who would prefer ‘slavery via priestly interpretation of ancient texts’ over the chance to participate in a community of compassionate friends.

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