Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Bees In Our Bonnets vs The Butterflies In Our Boxes

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The appeal of the supernatural
Proselytizing is risky business. Religion has always been, and remains a powerful motivating force. It has the power to capture the minds and imagination of people, and move them to act out the convictions they develop. This acting out of convictions is at times executed with gross disregard for the perspectives of those who do not share them.

The need to make sense of the various, sometimes 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 more awesome 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. So, for example, instead of simply identifying with the need to live a balanced life and do right with each other, we come up with formulations about “doing the will of God”. We could call this the mystification of enlightened self-interest. We shroud the commonsense imperatives of our personal and communal experience in other-worldly language, and by so doing we transfer the authority for control of our lives from our selves, and one another... to a mysterious Other.

Invariably mystery and miracle become bedrocks of our belief systems. For reasons that we must continue to honestly and boldly analyze, we create the foundations of our faith in the realm of the supernatural. Our Saviors are born of virgins, and not just in the sense of a young woman of marriageable age, no... we make that 'maiden' conceive and have a child without having had sex! Our messiahs come back from the dead and talk to us. They bring the dead back to life... literally… even those who had started to rot. They make wine from water… just water. They walk on water. They feed multitudes with food barely enough for two people. And so, in the process of denying the ability and the responsibility that we have to change our world for the better, we attribute to our gods natures and abilities that are essentially super-human. We believe of course that they have made us to serve them, and that we are lost without our faith in them.

It is for these reasons that we should be aware and wary of the inherent risks in the reach for faith. The connection between our theology and our anthropology is often obscured by ultra-poetic attempts to place the one above and beyond the other. In a world where radical theisms have again become vehicles of  much social and political turmoil, it is useful to remember the essential truth that theology is what one person says and another hears about "God". Simply put, theology is nothing more than our conversations with each other about our gods. These conversations often suffer from our tendency to replace the discipline of critical analysis with dogma. Could it be that dogma is an affliction of the ever-present power dynamic in our relationships?

The butterflies in our boxes

(The general outline of the exercise I am about to describe is from a discussion that took place one evening over thirty years ago while I was a seminarian. The course was 'Development Studies', which sought to engage us in a critical analysis of god-talk in the context of post colonial / developing countries. Details vary, but the essential point remains.)

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 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 inexplicable might and magnificent beauty could also talk... in every language... And it was able to tell stories of the past, and 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 that 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 that particular butterfly supremacy over the other.

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 now believe what each has been saying about their butterfly. It is then that you are struck by the singularly astute observation that 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. The prospective convert is left with the very real disadvantage of believing… Or not.

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 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.

The bee in our bonnets
Where does our unrelenting preoccupation with god-talk come from? Why this perpetual harangue about our origin, our state of being, and our destiny? The competing narratives about faith do not take place in a vacuum. They happen in the context of very real, and at times, competing interests in our social and economic environment… Rich vs Poor… Haves vs Havenots… Good vs Evil… Theist vs Atheists...

Historically, those who have preached to us about rewards that await us in Heaven, or eternal damnation in Hell, have invariably been the agents of those who have taken the liberty to reward themselves with the bounties of a culture of inequity. Yes. The priestly classes have mostly been the servants of the ruling classes. This has been true for all the major religions.

In cases where the religious instinct has been cultivated by the economically and politically disadvantaged in contradiction of the prevailing belief system, any new movement is usually viewed with scorn and ridicule. Almost universally, they are initially singled out for brutal repression. This was the case with the Rastafarian movement in Jamaica. The Rastafarian rejected the idea of a white messiah, favoring instead an Ethiopian emperor of their own ethnicity. This new consciousness is expressed by the Rastafarian artist Sizzla as follows:

"I have no white God... don't teach anything wrong
Would di(the) white God save mi(me) from whiteman oppression?
I have no white God... It's just a BLACK MESSIAH
If a white God a Bless(If a white God blesses)
How him naw bless Sizzla(How is it He doesn't bless Sizzla)?"

The dialectic in which Sizzla engages brings to the fore the basic incongruence between what he was taught to believe and his lived experiences. He declares unapologetically against the idea of a white God in a cultural and political circumstance in which White racist domination functions as an oppressive reality in the lives of Black folk. His new consciousness is expressed in the the cultivation of a new sense of self in which a rejection of European aesthetics and Theology is an ontological imperative. The dread-locked Rastafarian became a symbol of rebellion against White cultural domination, and was reviled and feared as a consequence.

Persecution was a fact of life in early Christianity until the Roman Emperor Constantine realized that he could domesticate the new religion and co-opt it for the cause of stabilizing and expanding the empire. Thus martyrdom gave way to Christendom, and the marriage of Church and State became a reality. Wherever it is the case that strands of religious dogma become the impetus for revolutionary change, the believer is martyred… persecuted and in some cases, annihilated. Alternately, the domesticability of new movements is exploited to further the ambitions of the State.

In societies that are strained by the burden of inequality, the very real antagonism between hope and despair in people's lives becomes the breeding ground for instability. The loss of hope, and the breeding of despair, are the context in which violence develops in such societies. A sense of hopelessness and the futility it generates, is the animus that drives people to do violence... to themselves… and to others.

Injustice is the bee in the bonnets of those who rise up against the status quo. It is a source of the torment expressed by its victim, which is in turn vented on everything and everyone within reach. In such circumstances the need to repair the breach results in the promotion of a choice between the bee in our bonnets and the butterflies in the philosophers’ boxes. To preempt the upset that injustice causes, the dispossessed are called on to defer their need of material fulfillment in favor of a spiritual life, and their desire of a hopeful future until an afterlife.

The question we must answer
More important than our reach for mystery and miracle, is the reality of how we view and treat those with whom we live, and move, and have our being. There is in fact a well established and very meaningful orthodoxy which declares that it is utter nonsense to talk about our fascination with gods we cannot see, while we foster a culture of inequity. The propagation of injustice is a direct contradiction of our claim to obedience to any loving God. It places our faith on tenuous ground, and nullifies all attempts, rhetorical and liturgical, to validate our stated beliefs.

Theological exercises that do not affirm the experiences and the needs of our common humanity are a gross misuse of physical and mental energy. Worse than that, they are potentially dangerous. To profess our love for, and our commitment to the butterflies in our boxes while we actively antagonize one another is to live
a lie. Lies have a tendency to erode our potential to live in authentic relationships. This is as true for each of us as it is for all of us. Lies negate and erode the life-enhancing potentials of individuals and of nations. A meaningful faith is one which finds expression through the cultivation of real equity in our stewardship of Earth and its fullness. Another word for equity... Justice.

In the physical, cultural, and political spaces in which we live out our lives we often have to confront the incongruities between the ideas that we have come to define ourselves by and the challenges that are inherent in the realities of our being together. The tensions herein are real and ongoing. Our efforts to resolve these tensions underline the necessity to engage philosophically with our selves and each other. The honest philosopher comes to acknowledge a truth that is universally affirmed: "There are more questions than answers; ... and the more we find out, the less we know". The less we know for sure that is.

Ultimately the most consequential question that we must answer is not about the nature of God. The responses to that philosophical piece are too subjective to be universally useful. We can agree that that question is indicative of a certain functional genius, and it most definitely has its place in our philosophical resumes. But the more pressing query is: Who is my neighbor, and am I his/her keeper? An affirmation of the wisdom and the duty implied in this question clears the path to the salvation we and our societies seek… and need.

1 comment:

  1. Man! So real! So true!! So timely!!! I'm sweating!


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