Sunday, April 18, 2010

Responsible Religion

Thomas Merton.  New Seeds of Contemplation.  2nd edition (originally published in 1961).  New York: Abbey of Gethsemane, 2007. ISBN 081120099X.

(8) What is the purpose of religion?  In my experience, religion is a tool that individuals and communities use to tame human appetites.  Merton addresses this aspect of religion:
It should be accepted as a most elementary human and moral truth that no man can live a fully sane and decent life unless he is able to say 'no' on occasion to his natural bodily appetites.  No man who simply eats and drinks whenever he feels like eating and drinking, who smokes whenever he feels the urge to light a cigarette, who gratifies his curiosity and sensuality whenever they are stimulated, can consider himself a free person [an individual with integrity].  He has renounced his spiritual freedom and become the servant of bodily impulse.  Therefore his mind and his will are not fully his own.  They are under the power of his appetites.  And through the medium of his appetites, they are under the control of those who gratify his appetites.  Just because he can buy one brand of whiskey rather than another, this man deludes himself that he is making a choice; but the fact is that he is a devout servant of a tyrannical ritual.  He must reverently buy the bottle, take it home, unwrap it, pour it out for his friends, watch TV, 'feel good,' talk his silly uninhibited head off, get angry, shout, fight, and go to bed in disgust with himself and the world.  This becomes a kind of religious compulsion without which he cannot convince himself that he is really alive, really 'fulfilling his personality.'  He is not 'sinning' but simply makes an ass of himself, deluding himself that he is real when his compulsions have reduced him to a shadow of a genuine person.  In general, it can be said that no contemplative life is possible without ascetic self-discipline.  One must learn to survive without the habit-forming luxuries which get such a hold on men today (85-86).  
Religion aims to create an interface through which the community warns the individual about the dangers of going wherever his unguided fancy may take him (or her).  When it succeeds, it provides healthy (or at least innocuous) alternatives to the insane rituals we create spontaneously for ourselves.  When it fails, it magnifies the bad effects of ridiculous ritualism (which is endemic in all human life), fostering mass delusion. 

(9)  As Merton says elsewhere:
Where men live huddled together without true communication, there seems to be greater sharing, and a more genuine communion.  But this is not communion, only immersion in the general meaninglessness of countless slogans and cliches repeated over and over again so that in the end one listens without hearing and responds without thinking.  The constant din of empty words and machine noises, the endless booming of loudspeakers end by making true communication and true communion almost impossible.  Each individual in the mass is insulated by thick layers of insensibility.  He doesn't care, he doesn't hear, he doesn't think.  He does not act, he is pushed.  He does not talk, he produces conventional noises.  He does not think, he secretes cliches...Here the sin is not in the conviction that one is not like other men, but in the belief that being like them is sufficient to cover every other sin.  The complacency of the individual who admires his own excellence is bad enough, but it is more respectable than the complacency of the man who has no self-esteem because he has not even a superficial self which he can esteem.  He is not a person, not an individual, only an atom.  This atomized existence is sometimes praised as humility or self-sacrifice, sometimes it is called obedience, sometimes it is devotion to the dialectic of class war.  It produces a kind of peace which is not peace, but only an escape from an immediately urgent sense of conflict.  It is the peace not of love but of anesthesia.  It is the peace not of self-realization and self-dedication, but of flight into irresponsibility (55-56).
As with the individual, so with the crowd: nothing really good comes from just going through the motions.  Maybe the rain came because our ancestors danced this way and not that way--maybe our ancestors avoided moral problems by living this way and not that way--but how are we to sort the really useful kernel of the ritual from the (infinitely more abundant) cultural chaff?  How do we know that ethical behavior is guaranteed by chanting certain mantras (and not others), reading certain books (and not others), marrying certain people (and not others), obeying certain people (and not others), et cetera ad infinitum?  Until we think critically about how our religious behavior affects communal and individual moral integrity from an objective perspective (one that we can understand and apply as individuals, without outsourcing the thinking to someone else), our worship is no more rational or effective than that of a cargo cult.  Religion, to be useful, must be thoughtful, self-critical, and tailored to the foster the unstructured development of the responsible individual.

(10) All the foregoing militates strongly against the idea that there is something useful to be gained from theorizing about absolute truth from an imagined universal perspective.  If there is such truth, the process of human development effaces it so effectively that it might as well not exist, covering it up with crazy rituals that have little or no connection to it (and may impede responsible ethical conduct as much as they foster it).  Practical religion is always a question of balancing imponderables, making decisions without full understanding:
A man who is not stripped and poor and naked within his own soul will unconsciously tend to do the works he has to do for his own sake rather than for the glory of God.  He will be virtuous not because he loves God's will but because he wants to admire his own virtues [which he may or may not be in a position to judge]...Be content that you are not yet a saint, even though you realize that the only thing worth living for is sanctity.  Then you will be satisfied to let God lead you to sanctity by paths that you cannot understand.  You will travel in darkness and you will not longer be concerned with yourself and no longer compare yourself with other men.  Those who have gone by that way have finally found out that sanctity is in everything and that God is all around them.  Having given up all desire to compete with other men [in the mission field, at the university, before the congregation, on Wall Street] they suddenly wake up and find that the joy of God is everywhere, and they are able to exult in the virtues and goodness of others more than ever they could have done in their own.  They are so dazzled by the reflection of God in the souls of the men they live with that they no longer have any power to condemn anything they see in another.  Even in the greatest sinners they can see virtues and goodness that no one else can find.  As for themselves, if they still consider themselves, they no longer dare to compare themselves with others.  The idea has now become unthinkable.  But it is no longer a source of suffering and lamentation: they have finally reached the point where they can take their own insignificance for granted.  They are no longer interested in their external selves (58-60).
So the truly holy man (or woman) is not encumbered by some specious "mantle of leadership" that obliges him (or her) to tell lies or condemn others harshly for their ethical mistakes (whatever standard we use to determine these).  This to me is the essence of Christianity, the point that Christ is getting at when he tells the religious leaders of his own time (who were deeply committed to their own importance as the only legitimate representatives of God): "Verily I say unto you, That the publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you" (Matt. 21:31).  I understand Christ to mean that the point of religion is not maintaining some outward form of piety (the kind that has to be justified by lies and threats because it cannot withstand rational inquiry), but fostering an inner integrity (something that all are equally capable of achieving, and that each must find for him or herself).  It is my belief that this integrity flourishes best in the complete absence of tyrannical moral authority.  So I am open to free and frank discussion with my fellow-travelers on the road to enlightenment (or salvation, or whatever), but when they tell me I must submit to their superior light and knowledge or be damned, I respectfully refuse to cede to them the character that I construct only for God (or whatever we happen to call the mystery of life that lies in and around us).  Responsible religion depends upon thoughtful dialogue, which can only exist when both parties to the conversation have equal authority to construct their own beliefs (including access to the information from which those beliefs are constructed).  The fact that leaders of the LDS church have been willing to ignore this fact (as I perceive it) for the past 200 years is very disturbing to me.  From my perspective, they are either (1) evil masterminds who take delight in bilking their gullible fellowman, or--what is more likely from the facts--(2) poor saps like the rest of us who happen to have inherited a broken (or malformed) cultural paradigm that they perpetuate for lack of anything better.  But enough ranting for the present: I do not want to make too great a show of my own unholy urge to condemn others.


  1. Point #9 most got me thinking for this post: too often we LDS (and probably members of other religions, though I have no practical experience with such) think that bearing testimony of all the things we know that we're supposed to know supplies "a more genuine communion" -- when in fact we are simply saying what we know we're supposed to say. As the quote says, we end up with several variations of the same, clicheed testimony every month, to which few people listen.

    I have always been bothered by this -- or more specifically, by the judgment such "knowledge" sometimes fosters against those who are not so certain. We assume that people who stop "knowing" that our faith is true are no longer moral (since obviously only people who believe JS was a prophet are truly enlightened, ethical people, right?).

    Even so, I suspect that not all members are really so very bound by this "insensibility" as your comments suggest. I agree that you have pointed out some interesting and visible trends in religion. However, on an individual basis, these truths really do have enough personal significance to members to keep them more humble and open-minded than your last two options seem to leave room for.

  2. I agree that a lot of religious behavior is superficial imitation that may or may not lead to deeper spiritual awakening. I also agree that it is probably on some level a necessary part of all meaningful human interaction (speaking to your last point). Rather than throw it all out (and depart into the woods to live alone as a hermit), I would like to try to understand it and use it productively (rather than just mark time going through the motions, as I have for too many years now).

  3. It strikes me that my attempt to define the LDS General Authorities presents something of a false dichotomy. I think there are some definite benefits available to certain people within the LDS Mormon outlook, and some may (perhaps even rightly) want to preserve those benefits, even as they realize that said benefits do not depend directly on confusing myth and history. I myself would like to keep the good I have taken from Mormonism and leave the bad: despite what I thought initially, this has so far not removed me entirely from the LDS cultural ambit. I still serve where I can in my local ward, and even take part in some rituals. Maybe some of the brethren higher up are in a similar situation, trapped by the myth-laden rhetoric of their forebearers which too many of us believe as literal history. I wish someone with real authority in the community would muster the courage, the intelligence, and the conviction to begin the process of breaking the truth diplomatically to the membership at large (starting with the truth that shadow Mormons like me exist and are not evil bastards who need to repent for daring to realize that correlated LDS doctrine contains many absurdities, some silly and some potentially dangerous).

  4. "...may (perhaps even rightly) want to preserve those benefits by perpetuating the outlook..."