essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
Zhuangzi was a famous Taoist philosopher of the third century BC who reflected on the uncertainty of knowledge. So much unknown, so little time to experience and learn, he thought. He had a dream which has become famous: in the dream he was a butterfly. But when he woke he said to his followers: “I know not if I dreamt I was a butterfly, or if I am a butterfly dreaming I am Zhuangzi”. This is a beautiful way to express the quandary that confronts all who reflect on the meaning their lives have.
Lack of knowledge has never held back believers in a religious system. Human nature abhors a vacuum, as Spinoza might have said. I agree with him when he said: “Everyone should be free to choose for himself the foundations of his creed, and that faith should be judged only by its fruits…”
It’s tragic that all faiths have their intolerant side. The Catholics, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, Mormons, Christadelphians, followers of Islam, of the Divine Light Mission, the Unification Church, Scientology, the Children of God – all these believe they have the only true connection to God, and that all others who do not believe as they will be damned. If they all turn out to be correct, then we’re all damned.
If Karen Armstrong is right (A History of God) and we need to believe, that faith is part of a normally functioning process of the brain, like dreaming, then perhaps it’s understandable we get agitated in just what we believe in, especially when others believe differently. The choice is large. In past times people have been fervent members of the Abecedarians (seeking enlightenment direct from the Holy Spirit); Adamites (back to Adam); Albigensians (adopting chastity to destroy the evil creation of the world); Apostolicals (living like the Apostles); Cainites (followers of Cain); Collyridians (worshippers of the Virgin Mary); Diggers (the poor shall inherit the earth); Montanists (prepared for the immanent end of the world); Nestorians (Mary was only the mother of Jesus, not of God); Pelagians (no original sin); Shakers (believers in the female Christs Ann Lee and Mary Anne Girling); Rosicrucians (founded in the 13th century by Christian Rosencreuz, the cross as a symbol of life power surging between the seven worlds). And that’s just the choice available to Christians.
In more modern times we as believers can join the Divine Light Mission, and worship Guru Maharaj Ji; the Church of Love Israel, followers of Paul Erdman; Scientology, followers of the doctrines of Lafayette Ronald Hubbard; the Children of God, followers of David Berg; the Unification Church, who believe in the messiah Reverend Sun Myung Moon; the Catholic Church, who believe the Pope is infallible; the Jews, who believe they are the chosen people; the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, followers of Krishna and his 16th century avatar Krishna Chaitanya; the Foursquare Gospel Church, founded by Aimee Semple McPherson; the Evangelistic Association founded by Oral Roberts; the Elijah Company of Neal Frisby; the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, whose mainstay was Ellen G White, but whose predictions for the date of the end of the world have not so far been accurate; Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose many predictions of the end of the world, grounded meticulously in biblical scholarship, have also so far not been accurate; the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, whose founder Joseph Smith found a book written on golden plates, and a pair of crystal spectacles with which to read it, which detailed the migration of both white skinned and black skinned Jews to America. There are of course many more, at least 5,000 more, according to Peter Bowler, whose True Believers I have been quoting.
This need to believe, in all its diversity, in my opinion comes about because we are all sooner or later confronted with a paradox that only faith can solve. We have an incredibly detailed sense of self, and of the world we live in, evolve a hardly won wisdom which gives us a perspective of this experience, and value our loved ones. Yet at every hand we are confronted with the impermanence and decay of the body, the existence of death, and the oblivion that awaits us all. No matter how much we love and honour a person, we know that person will be forgotten after they die. Human beings, we learn, are both of immense value, and negligible, throwaway entities of no account. It’s tempting to focus on just one of these perspectives. Focus on both, and psychosis may ensure. This is where faith comes to our rescue.
Religious faith, I think, is based on the belief in God, in a being of greater dimension that humans have the power to comprehend. Beyond this I don’t think it necessary to go: it’s a belief of strengthening and inspirational power. Needless to say, most if not all faiths have gone considerably further, claiming to know the unknowable. The details have all sounded atheistical to me, whether they be that God is three persons in one (where ‘person’ is an unknown quality), or that God lives in the clouds, in a city made of gold and pearls and has a long beard, or that a religious founder has the power to double your money. Atheistical because they offer certainty to support faith, when faith is all that’s needed.
God is a concept that has little relevance to the everyday life of humans, but religious belief often tries to limit God by enumerating its qualities, forecasting the future and imposing rituals and procedures on believers which have little to do with faith. Any human concept of God must surely be inadequate. Concepts of God that define God as all-everything, material and immaterial, the smallest part of an atom, the most comprehensive universe of galaxies, the vanishing of beauty, could be accepted by all faiths. On the other hand the more limited idea we have of God the more certain we can be about it (not God, but the idea of God), and the more prone to belief, to have faith and reject the unfaithful. All this takes us inexorably away from living, which is the experience of God (defined as the all). In a sense, religion is a retreat from God. An imposing of order on the incomprehensible mystery of living and of God.
There is a medieval fable about a juggler who had a particular devotion to the Virgin Mary. He was a wandering player, and very poor, and could not make an offering in one of the churches where her image was displayed. But one night he hid at the back of the church, and when the sacristan had closed the doors for the night, the juggler crept from his hiding place, stood in front of the holy statue of Mary, and offered the only thing he could, his skill. He juggled for Our Lady. God was so pleased with this, said the story, that he caused a miracle to occur, and a rain of rose petals fell on the juggler and a sweet perfume filled the air. I like this story a lot. This is what I’d call faith.
In one of the Sufi poets there is a story of a rich man who lived in luxury. He had a wonderful garden and rich furniture, but he was not happy. Yet he was a pious man, and prayed as prescribed. He reflected often on the fact that God had made the world and everything in it. In his garden was a plum tree, and he thought one day, God has made this plum tree. He looked, and for the first time saw the golden wood of the trunk, the vivid dark green of the leaves, the wonderful colour of the fruit. He was amazed by the beauty he saw. This man, the poet said, had made the best prayer of all. I like this story too. This is what I’d call prayer.
In the history of religions there are two basic movements. First, the idea of sacrifice, of doing the right things to appease God. Sacrifice, ritual, outward prayer, churches, priesthood, and eventually sacraments, saints, holy days, and the development of a social dimension of faith. This has been what religion is for over one million years. Unfortunately it’s a little like a business contract: I’ll do this ritual, sacrifice, prayer for you, and you in return will answer, and give me this advantage or other. The second idea is of God within, of personal responsibility for salvation, of attaining by some discipline a form of union with God. As far as we know, this latter idea first arose in the fifth century BC with the teachings of an extraordinary number of inspired men all across the world, who lived at about the same time.
Confucius (551-479 BC); Lao Tse (b. 604 BC); Upanishads (from 600 BC); Gautama Buddha (560-480 BC); Zarathustra (b. 588 BC, trad.); Elijah (c. 800 BC, written c. 560 BC); Isaiah (fl. 740 BC, written c. 580 BC); Parmenides (fl. 500 BC); Aeschylus (525-456 BC); and Pythagoras (570-490 BC): extraordinary that it would have been possible, if one lived about 540 BC, to have visited and learnt from many of the major expounders of religious thought we know about (excepting such later figures as Jesus, Plato, Mohammad, Mani and Bahá’u’lláh). Gore Vidal has written a novel based on this coincidence, Creation.
These men had key thoughts, which are with us still. For Confucius it was the idea of harmony, expressed through social relations. For Lao Tse it was the Way, a transcendent awareness of the divine in all life. Buddha taught a way to free the self from illusions ever present in life. The writers of the Upanishads strove to see the self, that which thinks and sees itself, as part of eternal verities. Zarathustra contributed the idea that every human action has an effect on the continuing struggle of Light against Darkness. The Jewish prophets strove to undo the devastation caused to their people by the conflicts of the empires of the time by calling for moral reform, and in the process had a vision of a single god who had formed a covenant with Jewish people. Parmenides thought that the perceived world was an illusion and behind it was a real world of eternal values. Aeschylus showed how the painful emotional divisions within us all can be resolved into wisdom. Pythagoras saw the relationship between the elements of the world in terms of music and number, and he believed in transmigration of the soul. His main influence was to inculcate a disciplined way of life by which followers could attain these insights.
Some of these figures promulgated a process of such austerity that later followers negated their message and turned them first into religious founders and then into gods, to be prayed to, wonder workers who could fulfill petitioners’ wishes. Gautama, who didn’t believe there were gods, became one, as Hinayana was supplemented by Mahayana. Jesus, who urged followers to seek the Kingdom of God within themselves, became the second person of the trinitarian godhead. What we know of these figures comes from material written down long after their lifetimes. Plenty of opportunity for man to become myth. Most of what we know of religious ‘founders’ (excepting probably Muhammad) is more exactly a testimony to humans’ astounding need to believe, and to the transcendent insights that need brings in its train.
What’s clear is that the polarity between the modes of sacrifice and the modes of inner spiritual development have caused many religions to periodically reinvent themselves. Christianity began as a reformist apocalyptic sect within Judaism in the tradition of John the Baptist, was transformed around 100 AD by the salvationist interpretation of Saint Paul, turned into an institutional church through the organisation of Pope Gregory about 400 AD after the destruction of Rome, incorporated a strand of mysticism such as that of St John of the Cross or St Francis in the later middle ages and Renaissance period, conflicted with European nationalism and split into many self-determinating sects at the birth of Protestantism. Judaism began as a crusading faith with a decidedly militaristic flavour, transformed into a monotheistic religion with a covenant with God under the influence of the prophets during the destruction of the nation by the Babylonians, became almost entirely ritualistic under the Sadducees, then the religion of the book after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the Romans in 70 AD.
The faiths, if successful, have become political institutions, and much of their message has unavoidably become political also. But inside each of them is a kernel of insight which can help to create meaning in what otherwise would be insignificance. The revealed truth within a religion is something that has to be delved for, faith being nothing in itself without commitment, or without love, as St Paul said, or without compassion, as Gautama believed. Buddhism tries “to teach us how to attain detachment from the things of this world, how to reject love, that brings fear, and fear, that brings death, and death, that brings the unending cycle of ignominious rebirth” (taken, out of context, from James Kirkup’s Heaven, Hell and Hara-Kiri, a book about various aspects of Japan – in the quoted passage Kirkup is talking about the Noh drama).
My perception is that we learn as we live, that learning is the great activity (including the learning of mistaken things). We leave this world, though basically unchanged, yet very different beings from the ones we are born as. Over our basic being or nature has been imposed a patina of experience which modifies us profoundly. If this is retrained after death (the big if) it should modify whatever becomes of our enduring components, should cumulatively affect the whole of surviving creation. Life requires of us all not a worship of God, but to live and to learn.This could itself be a form of worship, of faith. Faith itself, though, is a form of dealing with fear. I am afraid of dying, but I will have faith that God will grant me eternal life.
Like God, man creates universes of his own, where confusion gives way to meaning, where fear is replaced by faith, where the purpose becomes known as God, and where rules govern behaviour. Sometimes these worlds can be like poems, like a koan of Zen, giving an insight into existence. Or so the butterfly dreamed.