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Wednesday, February 19, 2014
Religion ... Society ...

I came across some interesting observations recently about organized religion and it alleged antagonism towards the ancient myth of the “hero’s journey”. These observations are contained in a book called “Seeking Truth, Living With Doubt” by Steven Fortney and Marshall Onellion; a collaboration between a Buddhist high school teacher and an agnostic condensed matter physicist. Somewhere in the middle of the book, chapter 7 to be exact, the authors discuss the relationship of the “individual’s heroic journey” to the institutions of science, art, mysticism and institutional religion. They review the ancient theme of the hero who leaves his home turf for a long-term road trip in search of truth, beauty and meaning; i.e. your basic Joseph Campbell stuff. The classic example of course is Homer’s Odyssey, but as Campbell points out, the hero’s journey is a theme that runs throughout the course of human history, showing up in many different ways in different civilizations, in different eras both modern and ancient.

These fellows feel that art, science and mystical spiritualities (Buddhism, most notably) are generally good things for human-kind. Not surprisingly, they portray these institutions as being mostly favorable and supportive of the individual’s journey. But as to organized religion . . . well, they basically find that religious institutions, especially the “Levantine faiths” (i.e. Christianity, Judaism and Islam), are responsible for most of the pig-headedness and closed-mindedness in the world, both yesterday, today and presumably tomorrow. So obviously the traditional religions are not open very receptive to someone, however inspired she or he might be, who goes off on his or her own in search of wisdom. According to Fortney and Onellion, the fathers of the church, temple and mosque stubbornly assert that they have a lock on wisdom, and thus any attempt to gain wisdom outside of their standard doctrines and teachings is dangerous and deluded, an infidelity and heresy.

Here’s a taste of what Fortney and Onellion have to say on this: “The Levantine faiths disavow the individual journey as a source of truth. However there are individual journeys of the sinner outside the blessings of the faith and leading to repentance, to confirm the truths found through text and the corporate custodians of the text . . . all three religions, in their basic texts, go into detail of what terrible, but justified horrors await the questioner, the heretic, the apostate.”

OK, so there is much truth in that. I myself had to step away from a once-close association with Christianity following a personal journey of study and thought about the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth. I find it regrettable that there isn’t more room for discussion within these institutions, for appreciation of the journey of the “seeker”. But then again, there are those rare individuals who embark upon the sinner’s journey to faith, who in their repentance are accepted by the institution and touted by it as witness to the truth of all it preaches . . . only later on to find out that the repentant seeker never really did settle down and is now asking challenging and even embarrassing questions to the institution that she or he initially embraced.

The prime example I know of is Thomas Merton, who journeyed from a Euro-Manhattanite world of atheistic / socialist idealism and a scholarly bon-vivant circle of friends, to become a Trappist monk and priest. Merton wrote the story of his journey in a wildly popular book called “The Seven Story Mountain“. The Catholic Church loved this book (first published in 1948), and held it up as a modern justification for its ancient ways.

But Seven Storey was not Merton’s last book. He kept on writing and thinking and interacting over the next 30 years or so, into the rebellious 1960’s, and over time he showed more and more impatience with the strict boundaries of the Church. He arguably was part of the movement that loosened up those boundaries just a little through the Vatican 2 reforms. But these still weren’t enough for Merton (and for a lot of other people), who in his final years dabbled with some of those eastern mystical faiths that Fortney and Onellion celebrate. He also briefly considered leaving his monastic life for the world of romance, marriage and family upbringing (yes, he did have a “hot” relationship with a young woman for several months, not an easy thing to pull off when you are a priest in a Trappist monastery).

In the end, you can’t say that Merton proved Fortney and Onellion wrong; some might say that his obvious discontent after embracing the priestly life that he once longed for so much only proved them right. But ultimately the Church too is made up of humans, and all of us have had some sort of journey (or at least a longing to make a journey) in search of meaning. I don’t think that the religious institutions are quite so regressive and harmful to social progress as Messrs. Fortney and Onellion paint them. They too are on a journey, and perhaps it is good for humankind to have institutions that do not readily embrace modernism and technology (which certainly have many sins of their own).

Let’s consider another quote from Seeking Truth: “The key difference between the sciences, art, mystical religions and the Levantine faiths lies in their value and role of the individual. The former see the individual as the source of understanding . . . the Levantine faiths, in their literalist corporate forms demand obedience by the group to a dogma, an ideology, a ‘revealed truth’. These two views, one viewing people as part of a church, a brotherhood, and the other valuing each of us as an individual, are not reconcilable.” Again, I think this is overstating the case just a bit; the old time religions don’t entirely ban individual expression, and the arts, sciences and mystical practices aren’t always respectful of the individual.

But even to the degree that this is true, is it really wise to hold the individual up unquestioningly as the fountain of truth? What about community, what about the wisdom of the collective, what about the lessons of history, what about the need for morals and laws? Stalin and Hitler and Sadaam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden all had their “understandings”, and I’m sure they all held sincere convictions as to what they perceived to be truth. They represent extreme examples, but even in our everyday lives, we often see that we, as individuals, don’t always get it right. And from personal observation from my own involvement within one of Fortney and Onellion’s beloved “mystical religions”, there sometimes develops an atmosphere of navel gazing and psychoanalytical narcissism. I found just as much if not more concern for the poor and for world peace among the Christians that I knew, as I do now amongst the Zen Buddhists. (Admittedly, the Buddhists voice a lot of concern; but I saw more real-world action from the Christians).

Perhaps our world needs a tension between tradition and progress, between the institution and the individual, between things that change and things that stay the same, as to really get it right. Not to defend the overly radical and sometimes deadly excesses sometimes inspired by the religious traditions, nor their chronic slowness to realize the equality before God of all humans, regardless of race or sex or sexuality (and the suffering they cause in their blindness). The religious institutions do change eventually, and much of that change will come from forces without.

But it would be nice if more were to come from within, inspired by those who initially embrace the institutions in their journey from a world of fault and sin, and who later realize that the institution itself has to admit its own faults and humbly embrace its own wisdom journey through the uncertain forests and mountains of human history. I myself was destined to find my way outside the ecclesiastical mainstream, but my hat is off to those of you fighting the good fight from within. And I’m not willing to blame the “Levantine faiths” for all that is wrong in the world. You’d think that a scientist and a Buddhist would take a more nuanced view of institutional religion, and stop grinding axes.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 1:30 pm      

  1. Jim, Officially, the idea that organized religions’ rules are writ in stone holds. But lately I’ve been reading that (at least for Catholics) the hierarchy (the keepers of the “rules and regs”, so to say) has come up finding that enormous numbers of the faithful *say* one thing (e.g., I’m a Roman Catholic and believe all it teaches), yet blithely go their way when it comes to rules that just don’t work well in their lives. To name one: sex before marriage and several other rules designed to “govern” the lives of the faithful. I’ve also read recently that the bishops from Japan have told Pope Francis that the “Vatican mindset doesn’t fit [the] Asian Church”.

    It’s not just a matter of Catholics disagreeing with their Church; it’s a matter of outright quiet disapproval and personal refusal to follow what they’ve been told to do. And basically, I think that likely this has been going on for centuries. People disregarded the “rules”, perhaps took the chance they’d “go to hell”, but probably didn’t believe that last one either. (Back in the 1300s Julian of Norwich was wondering just how much suffering and sorrow in a life was “enough” to get a person into heaven and not hell. So, even then, people wondered about the “rules” and doubted them.)

    I’d also doubt that the other “Levantine faiths” were much different. My hunch would be that ordinary individuals who belong to both the Jewish and Islam faiths likely take about the same attitude toward their “rules and regs” as Catholics do.

    Then you have those that of faiths that put forth a bunch of “rules and regs” for living who, as you say, go off the deep end with their ignoring their faith – the Stalins, Hitlers, Sadaam Husseins, and Osama Bin Ladens. And there have been plenty of Catholics who would fit in that group too.

    Maybe, when considering ordinary people, it is less one of “going off the deep end” but of the quiet living of what one realizes life is all about.

    Thus, I find it difficult to actually take too seriously the whole argument Forney and Onellion propound.

    And speaking of Merton (and many other well-known, respected, and revered Christians) one thing I’ve known for many, many years is that a person cannot live without (some kind of) love in his/her life. It recently dawned on me that, when it comes to love in a person’s life, as far as the Church is concerned, it’s another “Galileo situation” – where everybody else seems to know the truth but the Church. Here again, it’s a matter of what is “official” and what people really do in their lives. (It also dawned on me that in the Galileo case the Church was 500 years behind the times; but in the “live without love” situation, it’s been behind the rest of the world for millennia.) And people keep going their ways.

    As to the Eastern groups Forney and Ornellion seem to favor: It seems to me those groups just put their “dis-beliefs” in another area – more social/ethnic than religious. India had (has?) its untouchables, misogyny; China has had its tendency to favor the group rather than the individual, to say nothing of its misogyny. (Seems somehow the men have a “need” to always make sure their women are doing what they are “supposed” to do.) Perhaps these groups just put their “disagreement” with the Levantine spiritualities in another area, making it more socially acceptable, and giving the impression of more social acceptance while ostracizing and scapegoating certain groups.

    Maybe more trust should be placed in the individual – and how he/she lives real life as good persons – than in the “official” rules and regs of any group.

    While I’ve quoted things that seem that perhaps the Catholic Church will be changing in the future, I’ve also read a quite perceptive article that points out that one may change the higher levels of the Vatican; but whether one can change the middle levels of the Vatican, where nobody have *ever* been fired, where everybody gets “kicked upstairs” when there’s a scandal, may be another thing. Once again, it may be left to the ordinary individual to use common sense in living. MCS
    P.S. I’ve come to the point where I find we need a new word for “journey” as has been used so very appropriately; lately it had come to be currently used in almost any indiscriminate situation. The word used to have real meaning but in the past few years it has lost the power it had. Everybody and their brother seems to use the word “journey” to depict anything in life that requires more than an hour to accomplish – at least so it seems to me. “Journey” used to be a great word; but it’s lost the power it had and is quickly becoming a cliché. We need a new word. MCS

    Comment by Ma — February 19, 2014 @ 7:06 pm

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