Saintly Thoughts

Rational vs. Mythological Religious Visions

[I never quite finished this post which I had intended to put up in early February.  As such, there is a distinct gap in the middle of this posting.  I have thought about filling this gap and finishing the thought, but perhaps there is a good reason for the gap.  I'm not sure.  Regardless, I am posting it as-is.  I hope that you enjoy.]

Are we still being tricked by the concept of rational religion as formulated by Kant and others?  I mean by this the notion that historically existing religions are veneers overlaying some common core of intuitions concerning principles that make up a collectively universal human morality system.  Furthermore, such a view will reject all those aspects that appear mythological, ritualistic, or 'magical' as not merely unimportant vestiges of a less enlightened age, but as out-right dangerous hurdles to our continued development in the rational moral core.   Even though this idea is not currently in fashion (our age having somewhat recovered an affection for the mythical), I think there is still an implicit appeal to such a notion in much of the way that we think about religions.  And, truth be told, in a way there is probably some truth to the idea that religion, insofar as it deals with morality and rules concerning living, probably does contain accretions of wisdom culled from the experience of peoples living in various parts of the world.  Insofar as there are significant deviations in persons resulting from culture, we will see not insignificant variations in moral laws between various religious traditions, but still insofar as humans are all of the same species, there also tend to be certain commonalities. 

But this assumes that said moral intuitions lie at the heart of what religion is and what it functions as.  At the very least, while moral indoctrination and avocation appear to be central to the effect religion plays (or, at least, has traditionally played) in the life of the polity, for those people who live according to this moral system, the religion serves more as a means by which persons may orient themselves as to live well in this world, a concept which includes moral precepts but is not limited by them.  At the very least, such a concept as a “life well lived” requires a substantial story-based mythology (and note that, by mythology, I do not necessarily mean to imply an untrue or a counter-factual story).  This seems relevant because, were the religion merely a means of moral education/indoctrination, it is unclear that the form of religion is the most efficient means of effectuating moral education, though it may simply be the most obvious method.  Regardless, the danger of reliance upon religious education as a means of moral indoctrination is that its efficacy depends upon a complex series of interrelated dependencies on the 'trustworthiness' of the underlying mythology.   This belief in efficacy would appear to become more costly (in terms of economy and religious energy) as time goes by and the story told by the religion begins to fray (an inevitable process as the images of metaphorical language necessarily evolve, if for no other reason).  If there were not some fundamentally important aspect that we may attach to the central mythology (or story if you prefer, for current purposes these terms are interchangeable), it would hardly seem worth bothering with it.  

Furthermore, concerning the Abrahamic religions at least, one is forced to admit that there is at least one more aspect that many Christians and most Muslims would view as central to their traditions (Judaism represents a more complex situation).  These would argue that the core of the religions are the key revealed insights concerning the nature of an in-some-sense existent and powerful God and man's relationship to Him.  Furthermore, they (or many of them) would argue that the moral tenants are less concerned with allowing us to live well in this world, and more about pleasing God in the next.  [Granted, from an anthropological perspective we may view this as an aspect of these group's mythologies, but my point is that the specific aspiration which (in some religions This spiritual aspiration of these religions (amongst others) needs to be taken seriously, as it says something profound both about the human psyche and about the possibility of the Divine.  We need to take seriously the discontent that so many of us feel concerning the world as it is now, and the intuitions concerning the possibility of other worlds.  Such yearnings and hopes do not make a thing true; they may speak to nothing other than some after-effect of having evolved large brains capable of abstract thought.  But even if this were the case (as I have little doubt it is from the perspective of efficient causes) there is still a mystical veneer to the nature of our perception of reality.  The very fact that we enjoy hearing stories about things which we know are fictitious seems to speak to this.  It is as though discontent with the world as we perceive it is built into mankind at a fundamental level, and this discontent (and the hope that said discontent may be alleviated) is the spiritual force that keeps driving us from one pursuit to another.  But such a quest becomes untenable to our spirit if not tied to some ontological end, even if such an end is seen only dimly.  Not to say that it is impossible to quell this discontent or merely distract oneself (or be so ill-formed a human being as to not wish to think ontologically, but if that is the case who is to say which humans are ill-formed?  This is a tricky problem of our time which the natural law theorists seem to not wish to grapple with).  We know in our heart of hearts that we in our own selves may never attain to that Being which is ontologically complete (that is, sufficient in and of itself) of our own power, being mere coming-into-beings rather than beings correctly understood (if we may be allowed to speak in the idiom of the ancient Greeks).  But we are creatures that will always turn again to the ontological, and be disappointed if we are turned to something else.  And this is the interesting aspect of religion, where its real power lies.  For, mankind does not (as physical beings) require such aspirations, yet it is the most fundamental human need to seek out (and truly believe, whether we will accept our belief or not) such spiritual aspirations (think of the elevation of the hormonal/chemical process we call "love").  These aspirations will always express themselves in stories, and not all stories will be equally good at conveying the sense of these aspirations, some may in fact be perversions or inversions of this sense.  And thus we are left in the world of confusion that we see around us, able to intuit the sense of super-sensual striving through our need for the ontological but unable to construct any clear model which mankind can agree upon in the way that we agree upon mathematical truths (of course, this may be a bad example since nothing else seems to work with the same ontological immediacy of mathematics; though even there the ontological certainty is somewhat illusory).  And thus will arise the conflict amongst the various stories that we tell ourselves concerning our traditions and concerning the nature of ontology.  It is unavoidable, and thus the world (which we love, for the world itself is good, or at least we have little choice but to believe it to be so) will forever be in conflict because of the lack of clarity of our visions.  This is why the answer formulated so often involves the hope of another world where this inherent conflict which we cannot resolve is resolved.  We moderns mustn't sneer at the efficacy of these mystical visions of heaven rising up out of our past, no matter how fantastic they appear.  For we have not replaced them with anything more solid in the utopias we attempt to create here on earth.  I do not mean by this that we should ignore the earth, which we love, for the sake of the ontological.  In doing this, we lose the sense of the ontological, which we only know about and can contemplate because of our state as coming into beings, the fact (or intuition, if you will) of our existence.  Lose the one or the other and we are lost.  Thus, one intuition we may have is that the way of wisdom amongst religions is the middle way, in some sense.  That way which both accepts and rejects the world at the same time.  And we will know it within the context of those symbols lying closest to the base of our souls.  And we will press forward into the great sea of Being and the true symbols shall expose themselves and the false symbols shall disappear, for they never partook of Being.  Each man, woman, and child must trod this path to Being alone, but we must not be lonely along that path, lest we miss the insights of our fellow travelers.  And so, there is no sure methodology, one must trust oneself and distrust oneself at the same time.  Further than this, I can provide no guidance, I must walk onwards and hope that you shall have the courage and fortitude to follow, that we shall all have the fortitude to be honest with ourselves and reject the lies of the moment.  What is the ascendant lie of the moment?  As I write, the lie is that there is no higher good than the aspiration of the autonomous person.  This lie has been useful, but it is time that this lie is overturned and that the paradigm, that wheel of time, may be spun yet again.