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A Brief Defense of Religion: The Double-Standard Argument

Any important or powerful idea is potentially dangerous to the very degree to which it is important or powerful. It is as foolish, therefore, to blame mechanized industry for Hitler and Stalin — or to blame advanced physics for Hiroshima and Nagasaki — as it is to blame the message of Jesus Christ and the sacraments established for our spiritualization for the Crusades and the Inquisition. Why, then, is this such a common foundational argument for atheists and materialists?

The faulty assumption of materialist reductionism notwithstanding, religion is treated as a separate entity, a thing apart from “the rest of life.” There is contradiction, here, on the part of materialists, but also on the part of “religionists.”

Materialists, for their part, want to have their cake and eat it. On one hand, we have atheists like Sam Harris who propose to study religion as any other “natural” phenomenon. That is, Harris wants religion to be a strictly sociological, anthropological, and neurological event, codifiable and quantifiable, but without the qualia of real experience. The religious person would balk at such an approach, not entirely without reason. To study the physical attributes of red light, or the biochemistry of a raspberry, is yet quite distant from the experience of redness or the feel and taste of a fresh raspberry. In answer to the faithful, however, there is surely something to be learned from, say, studies of the neural correlates of religious experience. The materialist will be forever barred by the nature of things from his true goal: religious experience cannot be explained away by mere brain states. Though not the place to go fully into the topic, it is relevant at least to point out the relationship between drugs like mescaline and DMT and religious experience. Drugs like these may provide a “sneak peek” into the world of mysticism, but do not produce — outside of traditional, sacramental contexts, at any rate — the lasting constructive shift in perspective and behavior which arise quite naturally from meditation and deep prayer. Even the so-called “God helmet”, touted by unsophisticated atheists as proof that God is all in the brain, seems to produce nothing but a hazy sense of “presence” with literally none of the hallmarks of authentic contemplative experience, and certainly no lasting change in the participant. If anything is proven thereby, it is only that there are indeed brain-states correlative with religious experience, but that tells us precious little about the nature of that experience. Seeing how the brain responds to the color blue would give a colorblind scientist no notion of the feeling of “blueness”.

Even with this desire to study religion from the outside, as it were, and to treat it as a fully “natural” event (leaving aside the purely Western need to distinguish with absolute sharpness between nature and supernature), the materialist still wishes to hold religion at arm’s length from human culture-at-large. This distinction is artificial and quite unnecessary, but the secularist will call it justice.

It is from this violent analysis of human nature that arises the attack of atheists like Richard Dawkins that the religious person is mentally deranged and that religion is a psychological anomaly requiring eradication or cure. (For mercy’s sake, we will not here delve into the proposition of Sam Harris and others that Muslims ought to be conquered or killed for the crime of being Muslims; this would take us far afield. It is enough to mention it as a possible extravagance of atheism, and that it is not representative of the majority atheist belief). It is obvious, and not enough as arguments go, to say that this is quite the reverse of the historical pattern, so far as “mental health” is defined by social functionality and statistical normalcy.

The back-alley stabbing attempted here against reality is quite easy to thwart. Study after study by “dispassionate” science shows the very real usefulness of religious faith — or even mere belief — in maintaining healthy attitudes during convalescence, old age, and life’s many trials are too clear to ignore: religion appears to aid, rather than hinder, psychological health. Taken to extremes, religion is as liable as anything to produce imbalance and extravagance, but when properly incorporated, it seems to be factually beneficial. This is, as a materialist will be quick to point out, little or no help in proving the truth-claims of religion, but it does kick a leg from under the claim of the inherent destructiveness of religion to the human mind.

Medically beneficial or not, there is something inherent to the place of religion in the human psyche; rare indeed is the person with no religious impulse at all, and even atheists tend to see something pitiable in a void of any sense of mystery and awe when staring into a starry sky, walking along the ocean’s edge and gazing at its vastness, or listening to the majestic peals of thunder approaching with black clouds in train. Like it or not, this very sense of grandeur and beauty is as “religious” as anything. Those students of religion-as-phenomenon often say that religion is an attempt on the part of the “primitive” mind to understand and participate in this majesty. The religionist might well respond: by the very suchness of things, we will participate in this suchness in any case at all, but only religion permits us to do so consciously, deliberately, and fully. This is the difference between the non-action of the Sage, on one hand, and the blind action of the passion-filled and the inaction of the lazy, on the other.

The mistake of the religionist referred to previously is also based in the false separation of religion from “the rest of life.” This separation is absurd. Religion is for humanity, for life, and not the reverse. If it could only meaningfully apply to quiet evenings alone, religion would be no different than watching television (except, perhaps, for the fact that we are socially encouraged to publicly discuss television, but not religion). A saying has it that faith is personal, but not private. Forgiving the inadequacy of a merely personal faith, the saying is useful in that it points to the need to fully live one’s religion without needing to violate the freedom of conscience of those around. In order to fully live one’s faith, one must first have faith to begin with. Faith is an investment of trust in a process, not mere ascent to a set of precepts and abstractions. Insofar as doctrines are necessary, they serve as foundational pointers to the process in which one might place faith, but they do not themselves make up that process. The religious process may begin in one specific arena — say, politics (Confucianism), collective worship (Judaism), or private contemplation (Buddhism) — but it must inevitably bear fruits which spread further seeds upon the soil of every other arena of life. In essence, all religions lead to the unicity of individual life, of collective society, and, eventually, of all existence. “He to whom all things are One, and who draweth all things to One, and seeth all things in One, can be steadfast in heart, and remain peaceable in God.” (The Imitation of Christ, I.3) The error of separation, of division, of dualism is one shared by many among the religious and secular alike, but it is still an error.

To draw the circle closed, the power inherent in any authentically religious perspective is, then, also its danger. But nuclear technology can provide cheap electricity as easily as it can vaporize millions of lives; it is entirely a matter of motivation. We may draw the analogy out a bit further: the amount of raw power made available by nuclear technology comes with the corresponding risk of that power going out of bounds and causing destruction purely accidentally. So, then, with ideas. Religion has been a powerhouse for enslavement of individuals and nations, but also a dynamo of freedom in the hearts and hands of the wise and charitable. It is the nature of Revelation to point the way to Liberation for those with eyes to see and ears to hear (and, despite New Age and other post-modern claims to the contrary, there is little enough evidence that real, lasting, organic, and responsible freedom is possible without dogma). This very capacity to break chains, though, may be redirected by the unwise, shortsighted, egotistical, or downright malicious among us to the cracking of bones. The same key will lock and unlock. When you lift an axe, shall you split logs, or skulls?

A Rock and a Hard Place: Politics & Spiritual Commitment

I seem always to be caught in a bit of a bind as far as ideological commitments go. On the one hand, I am a religious Traditionalist which, assumptions have it, ought to incline me toward social and economic Conservatism; on the other hand, I am a political Liberal. “Liberal” is, in my case, certainly not to say “secularist” as I am far from convinced that non-spiritual values can in any way serve as a firm foundation for an authentically ethical society.

I recently made known in a social medium my enjoyment of David Berlinski’s latest book, The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions, an amusing and well-argued dismantling of the “new atheist” movement’s claim to scientific objectivity. I purchased, read, and enjoyed most of the book before discovering that Berlinski is a senior fellow of the conservative “intelligent design” think-tank “The Discovery Institute”, and his friendship with neo-con talking head—and professional bigot—Ann Coulter. Well, this just illustrates my point. I still agree with much of what Berlinski writes in The Devil’s Delusion. As long as he and I stay away from politics, we could have a rather fruitful friendship.

Yes, I am a religious Traditionalist or, to use my preferred terminology, a Perennialist. I see something inherently, even absolutely (in the “relative-absolute” sense of Schuon), valuable in the sacramental forms of the world’s great Revelations—a category, I hasten to clarify, which is not limited to the three major Abrahamic monotheisms. Somehow, though, my moral obligations within this framework have gone askew of those of many of my cohort. Or, just maybe, theirs have gone quite seriously askew.

Modern Conservatism has gone off to the impossible geography of the land of Ayn Rand-and-some-few-selective-readings-of-Leviticus-and-Paul and left us (not to mention Jesus) in a dust cloud wondering what the hell happened. Politics, at its best and at its core, is not a matter merely of convenient policy-making, nor of unscrupulous deal-making; an authentic political system is moral to its very soul, and is thus founded on the moral assumptions of those who create and recreate it. This being the case, the Conservative fairy-tale becomes, like an unvarnished Grimm story, quite disturbing: we see a narrative of blood and tears, God’s Justice and Mercy belonging only to a select few supermen who have managed effectively to invent a god in their own image. (“[S]o also in this world people make gods and worship what they have created. It would be more fitting for gods to worship people.” The Gospel of Philip) This free-market-god is a total inversion of the God spoken of by the Prophets and God-men; he is not the God of the Logos but, if the expression will be forgiven, the god worshiped by the devils and archons. But what more should we expect of the Age of Iron?

It is certainly not practical to enforce the same scheme individually and locally as on a very large national scale, and this is sometimes the excuse given (when any is proffered at all) by the more thoughtful among this sort of history- and doctrine-ignoring neo-Conservative for their extremely un-Christ-like political and economic ideals. The extremes to which this excuse is stretched, however, make a veritable non sequitur of what would ordinarily be a common-sense observation. Local and individual charity, whether helping people with their chores, donating blankets to homeless shelters, setting up a soup kitchen in your church, or whatever it happens to be, is absolutely vital, andall charity—in the sense of the biblical Virtue—manifests first and necessarily out of the individual’s deepest commitments. But there is no magical ring-pass-not at which, suddenly!, spontaneously!, Mercy must give way entirely to Justice and our judgments of people who are not ourselves need kick in at their very harshest. We may need to soften certain personal moral requirements in order to relate them to society—pacifism being a good example—but that is not the same thing as abandoning them as irrelevant at a certain numerical threshold of living human bodies, land measurement, or—most damning of all—dollar value.

Religion not only does not demand of us that we turn the unfortunate, diseased, orphaned, widowed, or even just irresponsible, out to the unkind elements, it outright condemns any such tendency inherent in earthly human nature. And let us not be coy on this point: “original sin”, at least in the sense of selfishness and schadenfreude within the human psyche, is an observable phenomenon whether or not we choose to attribute it to a primordial event or simply to a naturalistic evolution. To accept fiscal conservatism, then, is simply togive in entirely to the “fallenness” of the world.

Social conservatism is equally problematic, despite the seeming strength of the “religious” argument in favor of it. As fiscal conservatism turns people materially out into the cold, social conservatism does so psychologically and spiritually. If fiscal conservatism casually (or gleefully, as in the case of Ron Paul supporters) condemns people to disease and death from exposure or starvation, social conservatism forces them to despair and the brink of suicide. Combine the two, and you have a kenomic cocktail—a samsaric Screwdriver, if you will—of which Old Scratch himself would be proud.

Let us take the social-argument-du jour—homosexuality—as our example. And, let us say for the sake of argument that homosexuality is, in fact, sinful by its very nature. Well! How does it differ in kind from the sort of sex which produces children? Christianity, to mention the religion most commonly seen as vocally opposed to any sort of “gay civil rights”, has no traditional claim to a positive view of either reproduction or heterosexual sex-as-such. The idea that Christianity is all about “family values” is an entirely modern development, and one quite at odds with its theological and ethical roots. This is not to say that Jesus was totally anti-family, but He certainly taught that family is of secondary importance (at best!) when compared to our deeper (that is to say, non-biolgically-dependent) commitments. The body, in Christianity, is not to be intentionally harmed, but is also not meant to be venerated; what is family, really, but a biological commitment? Family is very important, biologically, but what makes members of one’s family morally and spiritually important is not the shared DNA, but the brute fact of their humanity. If we happen to share values and interests with them, more’s the better! So, it is hard to make a case for homosexual sex being significantly worse than heterosexual sex. What needs to be placed front and center in both cases is simply this: human love is a lower-order analogy (in the esoteric sense of the word) to Divine Love and, at its best, sex is a specific flowering of love (vide traditional—non-fundamentalist—Muslim, Hindu, and Jewish teachings about sex). And this flows nicely into the other common “Christian” argument made in favor of homophobia: It just isn’t natural!

An “argument from nature” can hold no water with a Christian for the simple fact that “nature” is fallen. Nature is not morally evil, so let’s not be throwing any “world-hating Gnostic” accusations around, here, but it is broken and flawed from the perspective of the relative-absolute (which is to say, the personal God to whom most religions turn when they pray). So, while it is possible to draw metaphysical/esoteric/symbolic conclusions from Nature-as-Scripture, this is a process of higher-order epistemic sublation, of intellectual adequation, or of out-and-out Revelation; it does not follow from this essentially intellectual-intuitive process that nature-as-form is completely good and, thus, useful as a standard of moral guidance. If that were the case, we would have ample examples to follow in eating our own babies, or at least just taking craps wherever we happen to be when we feel the urge. In other words, moral arguments-from-nature simply do not hold in the Christian mind (when that mind is sincere and well-informed, that is). This is all, of course, leaving well aside the fact that homosexuality and bisexuality are quite well-attested and frequently observed in the natural world. If arguments-from-nature do not work in the puerile “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” intellectual miscarriage, they cannot work the other way round, either.

What are most important in both arguments are the points of Love and of Humanity as Archetypes, as platonic Ideals. Whether or not homosexuality is a sin (to return to my initial assumption in service to the greater point), it is nevertheless an infinitely greater sin to assume that we are then in a position to devalue the central humanity and love which is being expressed by it. If it is incumbent upon me to not be gay, well, I’ve already succeeded; but it is in any case far more pressing that I stop caring so much about who a person loves and care more about Love Itself.

The Revelations place great, not to say exclusive, emphasis on morality. This is in part because we are fallen; we require, to some extent, rules to abide by. That is, until we are more fully able to live from the Real—that which is not and cannot be touched by the Fall, by samsara, by kenoma—at which point, morality falls away not because it is wrong within its own limits, but because the Love which lies at the heart of Justice-oriented morality may live through us more spontaneously. The law is transcended by the Law; the spiritual Torah floats above the written Torah. In just such a way, our own psychic narrowness must give way, sooner rather than later, to God’s Fullness.

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A Sincere Call for Responses

January 12, 2012 8 comments

ATTENTION: Religious and spiritual folks who read this blog, I have a question for you and I am very interested in your responses. This is more than idle curiosity, however, for it cuts to the core of both spirituality-as-such and of what I plan on studying in my return to college.

What is your response to (and/or explanation of) the strongly apparent necessity of the physical brain to metaphysical mind? Neuroscience more and more finds direct correlates between brain states and mental states; how does this affect you and your worldview? Do you have any particular religious and/or philosophical responses? In short, what does this seemingly causative relationship from “brain” to “mind” mean?

I have my own ideas, here, but I’m looking for the ideas of others. Please share!

Book: “Advaita Vedanta: A Philosophical Reconstruction” by Eliot Deutsch

December 28, 2011 1 comment

I just started reading Advaita Vedanta: A Philosophical Reconstruction by Eliot Deutsch. Read it? Interested in the subject matter? Let me know what you think!

This book kept popping-up in my Amazon.com shopping trips, as well as in various bibliographies and the like, so I finally ordered a copy (along with two jars of Branston Pickle, because Amazon.com doesn’t want me to ever leave my house again). It just came in today, and I’ve started my usual pre-read skimming, and just finished reading the preface.

The subject is of particular interest for me, as I have spent a lot of time over the past several years pondering similar philosophical problems in relation to Gnosticism, Christian mysticism, and Hermeticism. The author’s main objective—one which I stand behind on principle—is a reconstruction of Advaita-as-philosophical-school according to a modern Westerner’s view of universal philosophical problems. How does Advaita address “problems” such as God’s existence and nature, the nature of consciousness and unconsciousness (or, more precisely, nonconsciousness), karma and morality, experiential (direct) and observational & studied (indirect) epistemology, and so forth.

As up-my-alley as this book seems, I must say that I’m somewhat skeptical of the author’s ability (really anybody’s ability) to fully deconstruct the cultural and historical context of Advaita in order to put it clearly in view of the broad strokes of Western philosophy. I certainly intend on giving Deutsch enough of the benefit of the doubt to read the book and see how much I can learn from it, but “religious systems” and “spiritual philosophies” (for lack of more precise terms) more than not defy this sort of deconstruction-and-reconstruction; please accept as evidence the utter failure of so-called “Neopaganism” to produce a viable path of spiritual growth. (Apparent examples to the contrary are almost always practicing some combination of Christian, Jewish, Islamic, and Hermetic methods with a light dusting of Neopagan terminology on top, leading an astute observer to the realization that they would be much better off dropping the Neopagan trappings altogether and devoting themselves to that which is of real worth in their systems.) Deutsch’s approach remains to be seen by this reader, though, so he could very well still surprise me.

The Convocation of the Silver Rose & Golden Cross

September 28, 2010 1 comment

Please take a look at the blog/manifesto of the Convocation of the Silver Rose & Golden Cross. It is an evolving set of principles pointing toward cooperation between all those who seek or serve the Light in the midst of the darkness.

The Devil

Once, long ago, lived a man named Siddhartha, sometimes called Siddhartha Guatama, Shakyamuni Buddha or, simply, the Buddha. Siddhartha was quick as a serpent, and patient as an ox. He was also enlightened.

Siddhartha searched for years to find a method of spiritual practice that would lead directly and safely to enlightenment, a method that would allow anybody who committed themselves to it to lift themselves beyond the reach of suffering even while alive. When he could find no such methods in his whole land, he decided to make of himself a laboratory.

And so he went out into the wilderness and sat under a tree and vowed, saying, “I will not move from this spot until I have achieved the Goal.”

As he sat and meditated, concentrating himself entirely upon the reality of the present moment, Siddhartha was confronted by many visions. Beautiful women danced and stripped before his eyes. Riches fell from the heavens. Gods and demons bowed before him, pledging their eternal service if he would but stand up, then threatening him with inhuman torments if he refused to wiggle a toe. Every possible passion was embodied in front of him. But Siddhartha just sat and smiled. Each vision came and, inevitably, went.

At length, Mara, the king of demons, appeared in person, revealing himself to be behind all of the temptation through which Siddhartha had sat. Even now, with the great Mara himself cajoling, threatening and bribing him, Siddhartha just sat and smiled. Mara realized that he had been bested, but vowed not to let this be the end of the fight, and went on his way. And so Siddhartha became the Buddha, the Awakened One.

But the story does not end there. Siddhartha went on to teach his method to all who would hear him. He taught of patience and wisdom, of compassion and discipline, of a sober way to enjoy life and achieve enlightenment without sacrificing health and sanity. He was known for being patient and wise, compassionate and disciplined. But even he would feel the occasional upwelling of an unhealthy passion, or the budding of an unskillful thought. What he had learned under that tree, though, he applied at those times. He stopped those emotions and thoughts from becoming dangerous and evil words and actions. Whenever they arose within him, no matter how strongly they surged, he would smile and quietly say, “I see you, Mara.” And at that, his mind and soul were stilled and Mara vanished.

Around five hundred years after Siddhartha, but still very long ago, lived a man named Yeshua. Yeshua, known today as Jesus, was a carpenter by trade and a faithful Jew. Yeshua was a brilliant public speaker, an honest teacher, and a true man of God. He was also anointed by God.

Yeshua studied Torah throughout his youth, even interpreting it for the rabbis much older than himself. He knew from a young age that it was his life’s mission to do the will of God. He knew also that his mission involved teaching others how to become anointed themselves and to spread that anointing far and wide. This was his Good News. To begin his mission, Yeshua received a baptism of water to make way for the fiery anointing of God’s Holy Spirit.

And so he went out into the wilderness and sat upon a hill to meditate and pray, and vowed, saying, “I will not move from this spot until I am fully with my Father in Heaven, one with His Will.”

As he sat and meditated, concentrating himself entirely upon the One Reality, Yeshua was confronted by voices and visions. “You are hungry, yes?” he would hear. “Use the power of your Father in Heaven to turn these rocks into bread and you will be sated.” But Yeshua did not budge, calmly responding, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” And so Yeshua saw himself on the pinnacle of the Temple and was told, “Throw yourself down from here to prove that you are God’s son. Surely, your Father will send His angels to save you!” But Yeshua shrugged and said, “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” Finally, Yeshua was whisked to a high mountain from which he could see far and wide and was told, “All of this I rule, and all of it I will give to you if you will only bow down and worship me.” But Yeshua said, “Get behind me, adversary! You shall only worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve!” And so the tiny god (devil) left Yeshua.

But the story does not end there. Yeshua went on to teach his way of life to all who would hear him. He taught of patience and wisdom, of compassion and discipline, of a sober way to enjoy life and attain to God. He was known for being honest and true, powerful and humble. But even he would have continue run-ins with unskillful thoughts and dangerous passions. When he found them within himself, he honestly examined them and would pray for comfort or the lifting-up of his cup of troubles from off his heart, but always ending his prayer, “But not my will, but Yours be done.” When he found them within others, he would bring their attention to the situation with a shocking, “Get behind me, adversary!” And at that, he would still his own mind and soul, and the minds and souls of those who came to him for teaching, and the tiny god vanished.

The Emerald Tablet of Hermes the Thrice-Great

1. True it is, without falsehood, certain and most true.
2. That which is above is like to that which is below, and that which is below is like to that which is above, to accomplish the miracles of the one thing.
3. And as all things were by contemplation of the One, so all things arose from this one thing by a single act of adaptation.
4. The father thereof is the sun, the mother the moon; the wind carried it in its womb; the earth is the nurse thereof.
5. It is the father of all works of wonder throughout the whole world.
6. The power thereof is perfect, if it be cast on to earth.
7. It will separate the element of earth from that of fire, the subtle from the gross, gently and with great sagacity.
8. It doth ascend from earth to heaven; again it doth descend to earth, and uniteth in itself the force from things superior and things inferior. Thus thou wilt possess the glory of the brightness of the whole world, and all obscurity will fly far from thee.
9. This thing is the strongest of all powers, the force of all forces, for it overcometh every subtle thing and doth penetrate every solid substance.
10. Thus was this world created.
11. Hence there will be marvellous adaptations achieved, of which the manner is this.
12. For this reason I am called Hermes Trismegistus, because I hold three parts of the wisdom of the world.
13. That which I had to say about the operation of sol is completed.

In praise to God for giving me to understand the Arcanum of which I sought, I pray as Hermes did to the Divine Poimandres (Corpus Hermeticum 1:30-32)

I have come, divinely inspired by the truth. Wherefore, I give praise to God the Father with my whole soul and strength:

Holy is God the Father of all.
Holy is God whose will is accomplished by his own powers.
Holy is God who wills to be known and is known by those that are his own.
Holy art thou who by the Word has united all that is.
Holy art thou of whom all Nature became an image.
Holy art thou whom Nature has not created.
Holy art thou who is stronger than all power.
Holy art thou who art higher than all pre-eiminence.
Holy art thou who suprasses praises.

Receive pure offerings of speech offered to you by inner mind and heart, thou who art unutterable, vast, beyond description, who art spoken of by silence.

I beg you that I may not fall from the knowledge that leads towards our essence, and endow me with vitality; by this grace, I shall enlighten those of the race who are in ignorance, my brothers and your sons. Wherefore, I have faith and I bear witness. I go to life and light. You are blessed, Father. He who is your man wants to share in your holiness, as you have given him all authority.