Monday, February 23, 2015

The Butterflies In Our Boxes

Proselytizing is risky business. Religion has always been, and remains a powerful motivating force that captures the attention of people and moves them to act out the convictions they develop. The need to make sense of the various overwhelming circumstances that we face leads many to reach for a "power" greater than the individual or communal self. That need to become connected to a force greater than one’s self, or more powerful than the sum of our communal experiences drives many people to develop a reverence for existential imperatives that are perceived in supernatural terms. Invariably the journey into the supernatural is shrouded in cloaks of “mystery and miracle”. It is for these reasons that I think we should be wary of what I will call the inherent risks in the "reach" for faith. In a world where radical theisms have again become vehicles of  much social and political turmoil, it is useful to remember the well stated realism that theology is what one person says and another hears about "God".

Imagine that you were the observer of a discussion that two parties were having about the super butterfly in each of their boxes... boxes that only each party could see into. So the one party describes in exotic detail the attributes and actions of the butterfly in his or her box. The thing is said to be beautiful and skilled at flight. It has colors that were too exotic to name and had features that defied one’s ability to detail. This butterfly is said to have appeared out of nowhere one day after a storm. That thing of might and beauty could also talk... in every language... And was able to tell stories not only of the past, but prophesy about the future.

Now the other party, not to be outdone, looks into his or her box and sets about describing the butterfly therein. Not only does that creature possess all the attributes and abilities of the already described butterfly, but it's wings are larger and more powerful. The looker into the box states that every time this creature moves in flight, it becomes the source of all the winds. The back and forth between the two parties is sometimes heated as each attempts to describe the occupant of a particular box in terms that would give it supremacy over the other’s butterfly.

As an intelligent observer, you look on with great interest as the banter goes on. The rivalry between each protagonist grows and becomes more and more obvious. You notice that at times they make claims about their butterflies without even looking into the box in which the creature dwells. This tends to happen especially when the conversation gets very heated. Eventually they turn to you, each one of them, and ask you to vouch for the veracity of their individual claims... based on their assumption that you know something about butterflies. It is then that you are struck by a singularly astute observation... No one can see into the box of each of these persons but them. The experience of actually seeing into those boxes is exclusive to each. No one else has access to those boxes.

And so you awaken from the more than momentary incursion of consciousness only to hear them each clamoring for you to take sides. Not only do they expect you to believe the stories they tell, they each want you to be a witness for their version of things. That is until you confront each of them with the question: How do I know that there is even a butterfly or any other creature in your box? You know that they won't give you a meaningful answer... They will of course forbid you to look into their boxes, that is how they maintain their hold over other acolytes. Mystery. The power of each’s claim is maintained by way of its given mysterious nature. It is enough for them to get you to just “believe”. And I'm thinking that I will give due regard to the claims of each; that is if they in turn will recognize my right to not believe in the very existence of the butterflies in their boxes.

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