Wednesday, September 24, 2008

God: the crash course

Religious language is by nature metaphorical. It is metaphorical to a greater degree—and really in a different sense—than language in any other realm. Thought and language are limited because they deal of necessity in relations, i.e. events are comprehensible only in relation to other events. In everyday language, signs are made to correspond with phenomena. The word cat, to use a very simple example, stands for a particular kind of animal. The word is not the animal, so of course the language is metaphorical in a rudimentary sense. But the animal is limited and conditioned, just as language is, so the correspondence gives rise to what we usually call literal truth, or facts.

The basis of religious thought, on the other hand, is an intuition of reality as eternal and absolute. When we follow logic to its end, we realize that the limited and conditioned and finite, which describes all events, could not be so unless reality itself is unlimited, unconditioned, and infinite. However, the intuition which forms the basis of religious thought is not the result of logic. Rather, it springs from the fundamental ineffability of self, or what I prefer to call subjectivity. Subjectivity itself, the very fact of experience, seems ungraspable, only approximated in language, because it is the context or background of all knowledge. We intuitively connect this with an idea of the eternal and absolute.

All of our primary emotions become involved with this basic intuition. Experiencing reality nakedly, prior to the formulation of ideas, involves awe, wonder, love, and fear. The predicament of thought is to be newly alive, experiencing the world and struggling to gain knowledge of events in their relations. If subjectivity was immediately graspable, if we could pick it up and examine it like a rock, there would be no sense of wonder, nor would any knowledge be possible. The human being is limited and conditioned, yet intuits the unlimited and unconditioned—the mind exists at this meeting point between the contingent and the fixed.

Let us call this ineffable subjectivity soul—despite the misunderstandings and misconceptions that the word will occasion. Reality itself, the infinite and eternal, is of necessity impersonal. But when I say “reality itself” I am performing an abstraction, as language requires me to do in any explanation. This “reality itself” is in fact not separable from events (i.e. the finite and conditioned); indeed it is the very essence of the absolute to be not separable. The impersonal, so to speak, includes the personal.

The word God (and its equivalents in other languages) can be used as a generic term for the absolute, unconditioned, infinite and eternal nature of reality. Philosophers and theologians have used it that way. However, it first arose as a symbol of the personal, the eternal as a person, in effect as the soul of the world. Every aspect of the human experience contributed to this—gods and spirits (and later, God) reflect every human capacity you could name.

Religious thought is important and valid because it allows access to meanings, to the soul’s understanding of itself, the world, humanity, life, and death. I’m not referring only to instrumental meanings such as “How does this work?” or “What is this made of?” but to meaningful expressions of the entire range of experience, especially including emotions. Religion became the basis for the social order because it was the primary access point for meaning, a sort of map of human life and all its purposes and feelings, including pains and enjoyments.

The boundary between metaphorical truth and literal truth was never completely clear. It was always determined by the necessities of the moment. We didn’t really become conscious of the distinction until the rise of scientific thought forced us into some kind of awareness. Religion in its social function—as the foundation of the social order—projected everything onto a “literal” reality conceived as external to the soul. God was believed to be an existing supernatural being, a creator external to the creation, and an authority to be obeyed. The mythology of religion—its symbols and narrative traditions—was believed to represent actual historical events.

But the curious thing about all this was that the meaning of religion and mythology, its significance for the soul, can only be metaphorical. Outside of practical instrumentalities, “literal” truth has no meaning. The struggle between science and religion in the West was, and is, a political struggle. Religious institutions relied on fixed belief systems in order to maintain an authoritarian social order. Scientific reasoning threatened that because it offered freedom from preconceived belief systems. When religion claimed literal truth for itself, it staked its fortunes on unfruitful ground. It committed the error of misplaced absoluteness—asserting that the limited (mythology, scriptures, symbols) was absolute, while at the same time proclaiming that the absolute (God) was limited (an external being).

An eternal and omnipotent God, a being who created the universe and is separate from it, is literally impossible. Any separate being exists in space and time, and is therefore limited. All the arguments have been demolished centuries ago. To argue about it with a “believer” today is to simply repeat what has already been proven.

But once you realize the metaphorical nature of all religious thought, its validity becomes apparent. Mythology is an imprint of the soul, inclusive of the entire range of experience. It presents contradictory symbols and narratives, just as human beings present them. Spirituality proper is the art of the soul’s apprehension of the eternal and infinite. It has many facets. In its intellectual aspects, it deals with infinity—the realization that all contingent events are ultimately obviated (or subsumed, as it were) in reality’s nature as eternal. In its emotional aspects, it deals with divinity—the transcendent nature of love, or as the Sanskrit perhaps more accurately characterizes it, ananda (joy, bliss).

God is a metaphor for the soul, for the ineffable character of subjectivity. It inspires devotion and worship because human beings desire and seek the personal, as they desire and seek their families and loved ones. The truth was frankly spoken already in the ancient Indian texts known as the Upanishads: Brahman (God) is Atman (Soul). Buddhist philosophy took things a step further by throwing out ontology altogether, a conclusion which is far more accurate and less prone to error than any theistic system, but too difficult for many people to understand. Buddhism ended up replacing the personal aspect of divinity with the Buddhas themselves, human objects of veneration that took on a supernatural aura while remaining benign. It would seem that the need for the personal aspect could not be denied.

This is the great secret of religion. It’s an open secret, but a secret all the same. It has been suppressed in the major Western religions (and to some degree in the Eastern ones as well) because it threatens the authoritarian social order. In the old days, the esoteric and the exoteric tried to co-exist, which in practical terms meant that the mystics had to be careful not to say certain things or they might get burned at the stake. Most religious institutions, at least in the West, have lost access to their own meanings, they’ve lost their power, as a native American might say, and increasingly rely on force.

Fundamentalists seem to think that they’re competing with science for the souls of men. Actually they’ve already surrendered the power of their own traditions—their literalism constitutes a confession that their “faith” is only a narrow set of beliefs about the world, beliefs that are contradicted by the free use of reason. In terms of the soul, in terms of the meaning and significance of life as apprehended by the soul, it is of no account whether the stories of Adam and Eve, or Noah, or any narrative, are historically true. Whatever significance these stories may have for someone, it would be in the nature of a symbol, of poetry that creates meaning. Religious institutions have elevated scriptures to the status of idols, calling them the “word” of God. If we rely on a book to tell us what to believe, then we are absolved (in truth, prevented) from engaging in the direct encounter which spirituality demands. This is very convenient for authoritarians. With book in hand, they can assume an infallibility that they ascribe to God while destructively practicing it on others.

What science has revealed concerning the nature and extent of the universe is astounding and, in a very real sense, inconceivable. We can say the words “billions of galaxies,” but we can’t form any real conception of it. In contrast, the covert mythologies of the literalists are generally small and tidy, with man at the center of things. It is not our awe or our wonder that is threatened by this new information—only our pride.

Those who seek to live a spiritual life today, and at the same time to honor their own ability to think freely, are faced with a necessity that is different, or at least more imperative, than in previous eras. We must see through religious symbolism and mythology; we need to explicitly acknowledge its metaphorical nature and its fundamental connection to self, to what I have been calling soul. We will always need spirituality and mythology. Religion is not going away. But we need to recognize its metaphorical nature if we are to continue to experience meaning in our lives.

The political history of humanity, which is intimately entwined with the history of religious institutions, is a tragic one because it is marked with oppression. This reflects an inner struggle. Humanity has continually subtracted itself from its understanding of reality. We have refused to honor, or even acknowledge, the unity of experience and nature, mind and world, soul and reality. Listening to our fear, we have maintained a wall between an imagined divine “other” and our finite and limited being. But this is the very wall that our intuition of the eternal, the very basis of our religious yearnings, is meant to break through.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

9/11 Nostalgia

As Republicans across the country gather to celebrate September 11, a feeling of wistful nostalgia pervades the air. The terrorist attacks in which close to 3,000 people died have proven very advantageous to Republicans seeking to gain political dominance in the U.S., but the gains have been unexpectedly short-lived.

It hardly seems to be seven years since George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, and other administration officials were thrilled and excited by the devastating attacks in New York and Washington. This was an opportunity crying out to be exploited, and they wasted no time in using fear to cement their political power and to gear the nation up for an attack on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Their gratitude to the terrorists has been deep and enduring, evidenced by the constant tribute paid to Osama bin-Laden and Al Qaida in the years since—Republicans citing the terrorists as support for whatever policy or initiative they might be pushing at the time. It was all part of an important campaign against the real enemy: liberals, Democrats, and other components of the “angry left.”

The voiceless victims of the 9/11 attacks became the perfect cheerleaders for the Republican cause. Photos and videos of the burning twin towers provided wonderful imagery for Republican campaign commercials and promotions. Whenever liberals or Democrats would seek to talk about issues, Republicans could threaten another terrorist attack if voters failed to continue supporting Republican candidates. Those who expressed doubts about the direction we were going in were obviously supporters of terrorism. Anyone who protested the war, or the use of torture, or the suspension of Constitutional rights, was suspect, a potential enemy.

But as the Iraq War turned into a quagmire, and various scandals exposed an inability on the part of the Bush administration to actually govern, Republican terrorism began to lose its luster. Most leading GOP figures remember 9/11 with fondness for the good times now gone, and wish that somehow the terrorists could strike again.

Rudy Giuliani, the ex-mayor of New York City, recalls with delight the day that events sunk to his level, so that he actually appeared as a leader rather than a psychotic prick. Ann Coulter stares at the poster of Bin Laden in her bedroom, dreaming of the day her idol will return and show the liberals who was right after all. Karl Rove chuckles to himself as he remembers the lovely sight of people jumping out of the flaming windows of the World Trade Center on that wonderful day. Why shouldn’t it happen again? he wonders. Well, there’s always hope.

On election eve of 2006, when the Democrats were taking back the House and Senate, Fox News’s Shepard Smith looked into the camera with a sad puppy-dog expression and said that he was worried. Even though the public was turning towards the Democratic Party, Shepard hoped that we wouldn’t forget the War on Terror and how important it was. Without the War on Terror, you see, Shepard Smith would be doing commercials for hair gel.

Dennis Milligan, the chair of the Arkansas Republican Party, was speaking for Republicans everywhere when he mused in June of ’07: “All we need is some attacks on American soil like we had on 9/11, and the naysayers will come around very quickly to appreciate not only the commitment for President Bush, but the sacrifice that has been made by men and women to protect this country." Without more attacks, the naysayers continue to gain ground. If only our terrorist friends could come through again and help us prove them wrong.

Earlier this year, Hillary Clinton said that a terrorist attack would help Republicans. Some Democrats reacted with outrage, but she was only stating the obvious. Republicans love terrorism. The more terrorism, the better it is for Republicans. John McCain’s chief strategist Charlie Black later said that another attack on America would certainly be a big advantage to McCain. At the time, with public disapproval of Republicans at record lows, one could hardly blame the McCain campaign for indulging in some wishful thinking. Ah, if only there were some more burning bodies, panic in a major city, mayhem and destruction by fanatic Muslims, wouldn’t that be great for us? Why, we’d win in a landslide!

Although it’s clear to all the wise pundits and talk show experts that terrorism is good for Republicans, there’s another aspect that is rarely mentioned. Absence of terrorism is inherently bad for Republicans. Therefore, it would be a grave error for Republicans to actually try to reduce terrorism. That would be working against themselves. Instead, as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have demonstrated time and again, the correct strategy is to strengthen and support terrorism as much as possible. We must do everything in our power to make America hated in the Muslim world so as to create as many new terrorists as we can. If these policies result in an eventual follow-up attack on America, so much the better. Republicans love 9/11 and they love terrorists. Although it’s politically incorrect for them to say it too loudly, Republicans hope and pray for a terrorist attack on the United States that will return the Republican Party to the popularity and prestige it briefly enjoyed seven years ago. Hopefully the attack will take place on a big liberal city such as San Francisco, so that a bunch of homosexuals will get killed for their sins into the bargain. That would be best. But whatever—they’ll take what they can get.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

A losing game

So John McCain picked a female evangelical, a virtual unknown, for his running mate. And I’ve been hearing some hand-wringing from liberal and progressive friends to the effect that this could actually help McCain win. A lot of people were surprised by the move, and I’m one of them—but on reflection I realize that a lot of us still cling to “reality based” notions of politics. And that includes some folks on the “right” as well. Who can blame us? The idea that politics involves a certain degree of serious consideration of issues and consequences helps give a sense of comfort and normalcy to our outlook. Unfortunately, events have proven this idea to be an obstruction to clarity.

The Republican Party does not really care about governing. And it doesn’t care about issues or ideas, except insofar as they facilitate corporate profits. Everything is about hidden messages, code words, imagery, personality, in short—electoral hypnotism. Previous cynical Repug candidates chose Spiro Agnew and Dan Quayle to be a “heartbeat away.” Those guys may have had a little more “experience” than Sarah Palin, but weren’t any more thoughtful, or competent. The fact is that the Repugs proved with George W. Bush that they could install an empty suit in the White House and still run things—sort of. “Yeah, they ran things into the ground,” you might say, but the rich cronies made lots of money, and that’s all that counts to these people. Their true motto is: “We don’t care.” Power is all that matters. That’s Karl Rove 101, and the man himself pronounced the Palin pick a stroke of genius.

Confronted with the never-ending antics of insane wingnut freaks, the people who dominate the political discourse in the United States, I find myself most distressed at their pathetic Democratic enablers. Instead of an opposition party, what I saw displayed at the Democratic Party was the same old fantasy that somehow they could win by being nice and positive and reasonable. These people just don’t seem to learn.

In all the hot air blowing about in Denver, I don’t recall anyone talking about Alberto Gonzales and the attempt to turn the Justice Department into a machine for voter suppression. I don’t recall mention of the Plame affair and the Nigerian forgeries. Did anyone talk about the rampant war profiteering by KBR and other Bush-Cheney cronies in Iraq which constitutes looting of the Treasury on an unprecedented scale? Or the simple disappearance of $12 billion in Iraq, along with untold amounts of weaponry and explosives? What about the Downing Street memo? Signing statements? Refusing to allow aides to testify? Domestic spying? Abramoff? Patriot Act? Abu Ghraib? The Terry Schiavo circus? Tom DeLay? False linking of 9/11 to Saddam? All the lying, lying, lying?

Why, I don’t even have the space to list all the examples of corruption. This administration is such a cesspool of criminality that it’s difficult to know where to begin. Maybe that’s part of the problem. We’ve been so bombarded with lies and hate and murder that it simply befuddles the mind. Of course there’s the huge issue of torture, which the Democrats have decided not to touch because their polling says that Americans are sadists and approve of barbarism. The evisceration of the Bill of Rights is a matter of concern, don’t you think? But if all you watched was the Democratic Convention, you wouldn’t know that was happening.

No, the Democrats didn’t hammer against the corruption of the vicious criminal regime that has made such a mess of the country in the last years. Instead they talked about the economy. Obama’s overrated speech focused almost exclusively on economic issues, appealing to people’s selfishness while dressing it all up in idealistic-sounding rhetoric. When it came to foreign policy, the message was that Iraq was a distraction from the true goal of getting Osama Bin Laden. Hey, John Kerry tried that last time. You remember how well that worked. At one point Obama actually mentioned “Russian aggression.” You know, I understand that a black candidate for President is in a difficult position. I don’t expect the Democrats to advocate an end to imperialism. But to not even attack the endemic corruption, the criminality, of Republican rule, is in my view, foolish strategy.

The Democrats pay lip service to the reality of our degraded condition, albeit mostly in economic terms. But the basic assumption is that this is all still “business as usual.” If they simply present a better and more positive choice than the Republicans present, they should win. This amounts to seeing our extraordinary situation, a time or peril, as part of an ordinary political process. It is a losing strategy.

By refusing to hold the Republicans accountable for lying, stealing, spying, and betraying the country, the Democrats surrender whatever moral ground they pretend to occupy. The election then becomes just a choice between two valid alternatives. The popular perception is that the Democrats are frightened wimps, and I do think they’re so used to being bullied by the hard right that they’ve lost the ability to fight back, but the underlying reason for all this is that they’re trying to please the same corporate forces that the Republicans are. They fear that impeachment, or even an aggressive campaign against Republican corruption, will dry up the corporate money.

With Nancy Pelosi and Stoney Hoyer and Rahm Emanuel and all these other clever people running things, there’s a good chance of McCain actually winning. Then what will all their caution have gotten them? Another arrogant Republican president who can defy the rule of law at will. What will it take for them to learn the simple fact that you have to fight these crooks with everything you’ve got? You don’t win by being nice and civilized and reasonable. Go for the throat, for chrissake!

On a simple practical level, the Obama campaign needs to attack the Republican party, not just McCain. “Republican” is a bad brand right now, so you need to say that word a lot if you’re a Democrat. McCain positions himself as being somehow different from Bush, something new, something not exactly Republican. If all you do is talk about McCain and not the Republicans and their horrible record, you reinforce the McCain narrative. If I were Obama, I’d be slamming the Republicans every chance I got. Yeah, throw in your change and your hope rhetoric too, but at this point just about everyone who can be swayed by that call has been swayed. Does negative campaigning work? Of course it does. Why do you think we’ve had twenty years of Reagan-Bush misery?

Obama may win anyway, I suppose. I hope so, just so there’s a chance for even a little bit of sanity to seep into Washington. Anyone who isn’t ignorant should have already decided to kick the Republicans out by now. The ignorant vote is all that’s left, but unfortunately that’s a large group. After eight years of this shit, if people can be swayed by some “hockey mom” nutjob, or another Swift Boat smear campaign, then there were no brains in their heads in the first place.