Sunday, August 19, 2007

conversation and war

I am the rite, I am the sacrifice.
I take the offering, I am the offering
I am the father and mother of the world.
In ancient days I established it.
I am what need be known, what purifies,
The sacred syllable OM,
The verse of the sacred books
Your way and goal, upholder, ruler,
Witness, dwelling, refuge, friend,
the world’s origin, continuance and dissolution,
abiding essence, changeless seed.

Bhagavad Gita 9:16-18

A friend sent me a YouTube link recently. I think he was thinking that I would really enjoy this talk by Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. It starts out with these words on the screen:

"We have no reason to expect to survive our religious differences indefinitely. Faith is intrinsically divisive. We have a choice between conversation and war. It was conversation that ended slavery, not faith. Faith is a declaration of immunity to conversation. To make religious war unthinkable we have to undermine the dogma of faith. The continuation of civilization requires not moderation but reason."

Harris's basic theme is that the time has come to speak openly and clearly about what he sees as "the dangers posed to society by religious belief. While highlighting what he regards as a particular problem posed by Islam at this moment with respect to international terrorism, Harris makes a direct criticism of religion of all styles and persuasions, as both dangerous and impeding progress toward what he considers more enlightened approaches to spirituality and ethics.” (thanks to Wikipedia)

"To speak plainly and truthfully about the state of our world – to say, for instance, that the Bible and the Koran both contain mountains of life-destroying gibberish – is antithetical to tolerance as moderates currently conceive it. But we can no longer afford the luxury of such political correctness. We must finally recognize the price we are paying to maintain the iconography of our ignorance."

My first response, though being no great student of history, was to wonder, “Didn’t we already go through this during the Enlightenment?”––reason as the primary basis of authority, the Scientific Revolution, rationality. I understand that the great figures of the Enlightenment were reacting against the stale traditions, irrationality, superstition, and tyranny of the Middle Ages, and that they believed they could lead civilization to progress––but did it work? Reason divorced from religious intuition and mythic imagination? Is this not what gave birth to unbridled capitalism, the military industrial complex and all its spawn?

My friend argued that Harris is “a huge defender of the mystical aspects of religion” but is it not true that not only cultures and civilizations but people themselves aren’t simply born into the mystical aspects of religion. Those same cannot easily be divorced from the popular mythological aspects of religion. Does not Jungian psychology suggest that if we were to rid ourselves of all the religious imagery and language it would all rise up again?

I am no defender of fundamentalism in any of its forms and would count myself first in line to decry the abuses in the name of religion. But “gibberish”? Is biblical, quranic, vedic or any other religious language merely gibberish? Is mythology––or art, for that matter––gibberish?

Fr Bede, in his introduction to Universal Wisdom, says that this is the difference between the mind of western man (sic) and that of the people of the ancient world, and that it is typical of a male patriarchal culture. The human being in the west is "described as a ‘rational animal,’ that is, an animal being with body and soul, of which the faculty of reason is considered to be the highest power... and no knowledge is considered to be scientific which does not depend on this…” On the other hand, as Jacques Maritain, Mircea Eliade, Carl Jung point out, there is another way of knowing––imagination, images and archetypes, the intelligence of myth and the intelligence, if you will, of religion. And it is actually a superior way of knowing. And in these great myths (albeit when not taken literally), Bede says, a profound wisdom is contained in which “reason is implicit but not explicit” and reason proceeds from it by abstraction, “from its embodiment in the imagination. The wisdom of a great poet… a wisdom which grasps reality not in abstract concepts but in concrete images.”

And then I thought about Mahatma Gandhi (faithful devotee of Sri Ram), and Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez. Would they be excluded from Harris’ conversation? Or did they ever exclude themselves from their current conversations about social change, all four devoted ahimsa–non-violence, peacemaking? And was slavery really ended by unaided reason, not, at least in some cases, “reason informed by faith”?

That latter, “reason informed by faith,” was actually the only thing I offered by way of a, looking back, somewhat pathetic salvo to my interlocuter. In the odd position of using Pope Benedict as an counter-example, I wrote that the flaw in Harris’ argument is that someone like the present pope, for example, does not base his opinions just on revelation, but is a stalwart defender of Greek philosophy, and of the fact that the “will of God” is reasonable, ie., a hopeless defender of the logos of the Greeks, and so things like slavery or spreading religion by violence are against true religion, the abuses of religion in the past notwithstanding and no longer to be condoned. But, I added, obviously people who don’t believe in the reality of grace, coming from any tradition, are always going to think that even religious ritual and praxis (and not necessarily only the higher stages of mysticism) are going to have nothing to offer to either human or social development, and so have no place in the conversation that Harris rightly declares to so precious.

It's Harris' argument that I don't think is reasonable.

We are so often stuck between a rock and a hard place, as Bruno (Barnhart) describes it: “a climate polarized between a reductionist rationalism on one side and an immobile institutional dogmatism on the other. In the midst of the continuing war between scientism and fundamentalism… it has never been easy to imagine and to develop a third sapiential possibility.” (The Future of Wisdom, p. 23)