Saturday, January 26, 2008

Nature Bats Last

If neurotics build castles in the air, and psychotics live in them, then theologians are the general contractors.

This comes to mind because it's an election year, and the obligatory piety is thick on the ground. The Republicans are of course the most egregious offenders, but the Democrats also bend a knee to religious sensibilities. You can hardly fault them: blaming politicians for sucking up to religious voters is like shaving your head and getting angry because your reflection in the mirror is bald. We get the politicians we deserve.

I wonder about religion. And wonder is exactly the right word. There has been a spate of backlash books lately (and belatedly), bemoaning the hyperprominence of religion in the public sphere, and the deference religious sensibilities are afforded in public discourse. The books are necessarily angry, coming as they do in reaction to religious advocates of punitive, rule-bound deities whose lack of empathy is their signature trait.

I believe many of the same things that Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens believe; I'm just not angry about it.
Rather than an atheist, you could say I'm an empiricist. Religion fills me with wonder, albeit not the kind its adherents claim to feel. Whenever I hear or read of someone referred to as a "respected theologian," I'm struck by how odd it is that we grant intellectual credit to someone whose life work begins with an invisible, omnipotent, omniscient and all-loving being (except when he's not). Of course most of what theologians study are the writings of other theologians, along with forays into adjacent fields like philosophy, history and anthropology. Not a lot of primary sources in the god business. By comparison literary criticism is as cut and dried as mechanical engineering.

I think the big mistake is in trying to take what is essentially a mystical experience and turn it into an academic specialty. That isn't scholarship: it's taxidermy. Those flashes we get—moments of genius, inspiration, sudden windows of clarity and understanding—are vital and alive, but when we try to turn them into an academic discipline, or worse, a rulebook, we turn the experience into an occasion for pity or ridicule, or both.

It's not the mystical experience we should disavow, but the parasitic superstructure that inevitably gets erected around the experience. Generally speaking, the more someone knows about the scripture the less they know about holiness; the more they are intent upon the letter of the law, the less they cleave to its spirit. It turns out that the "rules" people derive from their brushes with the Universal have a way of poisoning that experience, rather than transmitting it to others.

There are good things, healthy things, that come from mystical experience: the profound sense of connectedness and compassion we have for others, and there is something to be said for the sense that there is something larger than ourselves in the universe, a sense glancingly captured in Christ's teachings on humility.

In the end, I think the Zen masters had it right: if you see Buddha on the road, kill him. We don't learn from anyone else's enlightenment. At best, all we can learn from a wise master is how to find our own enlightenment. Unfortunately, there are plenty of foolish masters out there for whom we've accorded a reflexive and undeserved deference. Rather than see the lightning for ourselves, we're supposed to gape reverently at the grubby, hand-me-down Polaroids passed around by pitchmen too blind to appreciate the real thing.