thread: 2006-08-31 : I think my expectations are screwed

On 2006-09-06, Sydney Freedberg wrote:

Avram: Do you really want to give Donald Trump the legal right to try to prove you wrong, with real people's happiness at stake?

Clinton: As far as "marriage," though: I find it bizarre that it is a legal entity, as it is rooted in religion and ritual.

In every culture I know of, including ours, marriage has major economic implications: it may involve dowry and/or brideprice, and it inherently changes who inherits what when someone dies, even if no children are born (unless you have an elaborate, ironclad pre-nuptial). In many cultures, elite marriages also have major political implications: my tribe is now allied to your tribe, my kingdom to your kingdom. It's unsurprising that the state regulates it.

Smoking pot is bad for you. I know, so is drinking alcohol, and because it's much more prevalent in our culture it does much more damage. But we have thousands of years of tradition—there I go again!—that make a decent stab at regulating how you use alocohol, and that give consumption of alcohol (e.g. at the Eucharist) social context and significance: If you're of European descent, you probably don't have the same cultural apparatus helping you out with marijuana (obviously, I can't speak for other cultures). I'm not really eager to spend the next few thousand years doing trial-and-error with people's health on how to incorporate any additional recreational narcotics into the society I live in, so I'd rather ban any of them I can on a precautionary basis. But frankly I wouldn't get too worked up if marijuana got legalized, since it's not that bad for you.

Rev. Daegmorgan: what you call a "blasphemous, dangerous bathtub experiment" is someone else's next major religion. And, spiritually, the question I have to ask is: why do you assume you have the authority to tell God how he must speak to people, or any authority at all to tell anyone else how God chooses to speak to them (which is more or less the same thing)?

First, in self-defense: I never mentioned "blasphemy." The concept's not really relevant to what we're discussing, anyway.

I didn't say the word "dangerous" either, but it's so strongly implicit in what I did say that I'll grant you that one. Better yet, I'll go ahead and use it now myself: Yes, I do indeed think that mixing and matching your own religion on the fly is inherently dangerous. (Why I'll go into in my answer to Vincent below).

And I am certainly not telling God how He (She?) to do anything: That would truly be blasphemous.

I am definitely warning other people to be careful when they think about God—especially if they think God is speaking to them: Both modern psychology and ancient demonology would tell you there are other voices it could be. But even if you're not schizophrenic or possessed, the bloody and unhappy history of people starting or trying to start new religions should make you cautious.

I do not presume any "authority" to warn people in the sense of being able to command people to do one thing or the other. I do claim some "authority" in the sense of "knowing what the hell I am talking about": I've read a great deal about the subject and have spoken to people more informed than myself. To get back on my favorite high horse again, I belong to a tradition—in general, the 4,000-year Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition; in specific, the 200-year U.S. Anglican tradition, i.e. Episcopalianism—that gives me the benefit of what smarter and holier people than I have thought about this for generations, as well as the cautionary tales of the stupid or evil done in my own tradition.

We accept the value of institutional knowledge in the sciences, history, even inside one company's IT department where you don't want to lose the one guy who's been here since the server was installed five years ago: Why do so many people reject the value of tradition in spiritual matters? It's not as if the nature of God, the universe, and good and evil is simpler or easier to figure out for yourself than how to reboot the network.

I can't speak about the Sikhs one way or another, except to note that they've been around for centuries. Darwinian logic suggests that, if their religion was horrifically flawed in such a way that it led to appalling human misery or social breakdown, people would have stopped cherishing it and adhering to it long ago. If someone tries to create the "next major religion" tomorrow, I'm going to be awfully skeptical—and I think the lethal experience of the Branch Dravidians and Heavens' Gate groups argues such skepticism is not only a reasonable precaution but a moral imperative.

I can speak about early Christianity, and it's important to emphasize how firmly Jesus of Nazareth rooted His teachings in longstanding Judaic tradition. He observed Passover and worshipped at the Temple; His social criticism (the cleaning of the temple, being willing to heal and feed people on the Sabbath) and His ethical commandments fit squarely into the prophetic tradition—even "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" is a pre-Christian Judaic axiom; even his self-proclamation as "Son of Man" arises out of a centuries-long Messianistic tradition. The Gospels certainly quote Jesus criticizing the Mosaic law permitting divorce ("what God has joined together, let no man put asunder" - Matthew 19:6) and mandating the death penalty for adultery ("let he who is without sin amongst you cast the first stone" - John 8:1-11), but they also cite Him repeatedly stating that He has come to fulfill prophecy, not to invent something new and utterly alien to tradition.

Vincent: But I AM going to press you on symbols and traditions. When you say that certain of them have psychological power, and handling them naively is playing with fire, do you really mean that they have spiritual power, and handling them naively is dangerous for your soul?

I'm not particularly concerned that God will punish people for blasphemy or heresy or idolatry, if that's what you mean; I figure all of us humans are fallible enough that our ideas about God must make Him (Her) alternately laugh and weep, and while some religions are closer to the truth than others, none of us has it entirely right by any means.

What I am concerned about is that people will screw up their lives—principally by damaging their personal psychological health and their relationships with others. I wouldn't make a strong distinction between "psychological" and "spiritual" here, or between mental health and the health of your soul: A spiritual belief that is sincerely and strongly held must by definition influence thought and behavior, which makes it a psychological reality as well.

Jungian archetype theory, as I understand it, operates on the same principle of profound and wary respect for these symbols. My own recently concluded The Shadow of Yesterday campaign deliberately played with archetypes I'd tentatively call the Devouring Mother, the Tyrannical Father, the Martyred Daughter, and the Wandering Man (see—but we all were fairly well aware of what we were doing, and we confined acting out these archetypes to the game itself, respecting Meg Baker's warnings about proper intentionality and containment in ritual (see If we had been trying to create our own religion, even—especially!—if we were doing it half-seriously, we'd have needed much stronger safety precautions and would have had much more trouble containing these disturbing ideas to one specified compartment of our lives.

Almost any religious idea, taken out of context (or, sometimes, in context) and without heeding the warnings of tradition and history, can lead to destructive behavior: There were Christian heresies that argued if God could forgive anything, the way to prove His forgiveness was to commit horrible acts; there were Christian orthodoxies that argued if God was one and author of the laws of the universe, the way to respect that unity and sovereignity was to make citizens utterly subject to rulers, wives utterly subject to husbands, and execute anyone who disobeyed. Other religious traditions have elements advocating human sacrifice (ancient Greeks, Pre-Columbian Americans), ritual prostitution by women willing or unwilling, and ritual self-mutilation. This is not a toolkit of ideas that anyone can just grab stuff out of at whim without serious reflection and serious study.

What I am asking for is humility about our own "new" ideas—which are all too often old, bad ideas revived—and respect for the thoughts and experiences of those who have gone before us.


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