Monday, November 21, 2005

The Power of Stories

Barry Callaghan was on Big Ideas today, talking about the importance of stories. At one point he mentioned a book which tries to explain all of the strange and miraculous events of the Bible, attempting to establish an historical basis for them. The results are often comical; for example, mana is explained as being the excrement of insects deposited on leaves. Apparently, the Jews wandered around in the Sinai for forty years eating bug shit. This is particularly odd because the Sinai is rather small and can be crossed in four days, and the Egyptians at the time kept meticulous records of all caravans that crossed the desert, and the Jews are never mentioned. Callaghan points out that this inaccuracy does not denigrate the story as a story, but does heap ridicule upon those who would attempt to explain it as a mere description of events, a chronological record. Aristotle said that chronological descriptions of events are the lowest order of discourse. These are what Northrop Frye called the descriptive mode of language, the mode used in accounting, science, crafting, and empirical science. Mathematics and philosophy use the idealist mode of language, while religion and art employ the metaphorical. It is the vital importance of the metaphorical that Callaghan and Frye are defending.

It is ironic that fundamentalists, who rail against the rise of materialism, are themselves slaves to this mode of language, which is entirely materialistic. Far from being the defenders of the spiritual, they are spiritually tone-deaf. They are not merely unqualified to make pronouncements on religious matters--they are uniquely unqualified, the very last people one should consider as authorities on the matter. Their confusion of the spiritual and the material is evident in their reaction to works of fantasy. Unlike millions of child readers, these people cannot tell that the Harry Potter books are fantasy. The rise of modern fundamentalism is the triumph of materialism. The imaginations of these people are so atrophied that they cannot recognize or appreciate a good story when they hear one. Their only yardstick for the merit of a tale is whether is corresponds to physical events. And so, for them, the truth of the Bible must be literal for it to be true at all.

Stories are living pictures of ourselves and others, and the world as seen from human eyes. There is a correspondence to the world; not the world of matter, but the world of the heart. Good characters come to life when the story is told; we can play with them, imagine them in different circumstances. We can also put different characters in the situation, or imagine how the story would unfold if the situation was slightly different. Plot is the question, the characters are the answer, though they may be the wrong answer, leading to further plot entanglements or a tragic ending. The story can defy historical accuracy, get details wrong, even create an completely alternate world with different physical laws, but if the characters are unbelievable, the story will fall apart. The story has its own logic, its own will.

Twisting a story by slaving it to allegory is clumsy at best, a sign that the teller considers the story itself secondary. It is usually done because the teller distrusts works of pure fiction, believing they must be dedicated to a "higher purpose", or because the message must be cloaked in an allegory to avoid persecution--the story as disguise. The Narnia series by C.S. Lewis is an example of the former; Revelations in the Bible is an example of the latter. J.R.R. Tolkien loathed the Narnia books, believing that the art of the story always comes first. The appeal of the Narnia books do not extend beyond childhood; the stories simply do not have the depth or integrity to interest an adult. As for Revelations, it was written by a Christian in a Roman prison, and was a polemic against the Roman empire, predicting the fall of the Emperor and the Empire. St. John disguised it so completely to avoid detection by his captors that almost two millenia later we still can't make head or tales of most of it.

The merely descriptive, to the ancients, was but a poor cousin to poetry, a begger at the table of civilization. In our society this has been reversed. Poetry is of little value, art is merely a possible investment. Much of this might be blamed on the success of science, but science is not the culprit. Einstein said that imagination is more important than knowledge. Nerds, who form a large portion of scientific and technical communities, are notorious for their consumption of fantasy and science fiction, comic books, and fantasy role playing games. It seems that imagination and curiousity go hand in hand. Curiousity leads us to the knowledge that furnishes and fires our imagination, and imagination raises further questions and curiousity.

The prevalent prosaic attitude of our materialistic society is that both curiousity and imagination are of no value. Ronald Reagan asked why the federal government should spend money on intellectual curiousity. The question demonstrates a contempt for the world of ideas and dreams in favour of the material--and not the material world of nature, but the material world of commerce. It is not the laboratory that stands against the world of spirit, but the ledger. The war between money and spirituality is as old as religion itself. Although money may come as a result of following your dreams, the pursuit of money for it's own sake almost always produces garbage. Witness the stream of big budget drivel that pours out of Hollywood. The reason for this is that those for whom the primary goal is money are not interested in anything else except as a means to wealth. Curiousity and imagination take time that they do not have; more to the point, they do not consider it time well spent. There is no obvious material benefit to it. Time is money.

Fundamentalism serves a particularly American need: a religion of convenience. American Christian fundamentalism proves quite pliable in the face of economic demands; far from sharing Jesus' suspicious of wealth, American Christians regard wealth as evidence of divine favour. The very rigidity of fundamentalism is it's strongest selling point. It is clearly defined, easy to grasp, and if not effortless, it at least requires little thought. It therefore confines itself quite comfortably into the time allocated for it, and provides no distractions within the workaday world. Fundamentalists do not daydream. To dream is to wander out of the script. And having little experience imagination, they do not recognize it when it happens. A person well acquainted with works of the imagination will recognize the voice of a character in his head as simply a product of his own mind. Many fundamentalists do not seem to understand this. They take as real the voice of God or Jesus as they imagine it, convinced not only that the voice is from outside, but that its pronouncements are gospel truth. This sounds like psychosis, but I have heard so many born-agains claim to have two-way conversations with Jesus that I can only assume that this is common amongst them. I've enjoyed having many two-way conversations with fictional characters too, but I've always known they were products of my imagination.

Herein lies the proof of the power of imagination: if it is ignored or denigrated, it will assert itself in a way that cannot be denied. I am reminded with a story told in the movie My Dinner with Andre: a mathematician who prides himself on having no fantasy life whatsoever meets a faun in the forest, and returns daily thereafter to converse with it. Apparently his dreams, frustrated by his attempt to ignore them, erupted into the only world he considered worthwhile. So instead of a daydream, he got stuck with a full blown delusion. It seems that the same thing is becoming common amongst religious believers. But while the mathematician can decide to stop meeting the faun if it suddenly turns weird, a Christian would feel compelled to do what ever Christ told him to do. Psychotics are notorious for doing what the voices tell them. If religious believers cannot tell the difference between fantasy and reality, and feel compelled to act upon it, at what point does religious conviction become insanity?

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Religion and Ethics

The most prominent argument in favour of religion is the claim that religion provides the basis for our system of ethics. Clerics and ministers are frequently paraded out for discussions on morality, and those who vote for politicians on faith related grounds consider religiosity to be proof of ethical sensibility. This belief is based upon two assumptions: that our ethics are based largely upon religious texts, and that the belief in the afterlife acts as an inhibition upon selfish acts and a spur towards moral behaviour. But if you consider seriously both the texts in question and the real consequences of belief in the afterlife, it becomes clear that at the very least, both can act as justification for even the most ethically bankrupt of moral positions.

Consider, for example, the Bible. Compiled and edited by the Council of Nicea, the same body which formulated the Nicean Creed, the Bible was essentially a work establishing the tenants and agenda of the ancient Church. This agenda can be seen in the laissez-faire attitude of the Catholic Church for Fascist and Neo-Fascist regimes: Mussolini, Franko, and, closer to home, Duplessis in the Canadian province of Quebec. This agenda was expressed succinctly by Pierre Trudeau and his allies against Duplessis: Power comes from Above. The position of the early Church, the Catholic Church, and indeed, of the Eastern Orthodox Churches, can be summarized in this statement. It is a profoundly anti-democratic idea--it means that the opinions and decisions of the populace carry no weight. This attitude made the strongholds of these churches susceptible to totalitarian rule. Far from being the opponent of Stalin, the Russian Orthodox Church prepared the ground for his rule, by encouraging a mood of political apathy amongst the people of Russia. As in Germany, Italy, Spain, and Quebec, the Russians accepted without question the dictates of their leaders. Believing they had no power, they gave it away.

This attitude is not only inherent in the Nicean Creed, but in the Bible itself. The Council of Nicea was governed by Constantine the Great, Emperor of Rome. Traditionally, the Emperor had been declared a god. But if Constantine could not be a God, he could be the closest thing to God. But to do this, Jesus had to be taken out of the way. He had to become God himself--if a Judean peasant could be a great spiritual authority, then any man could question the dictates of political authority. This would not do. Jesus had to become the One Begotten Son of God, as was the ancient pagan custom of Roman and Hellenistic mythologies. This is heretical both to Judaism--and Christ was a Jew, above all else--and to Christianity. The Lord's Prayer begins with the words "Our Father," and Jesus called himself the Son of Man, not the Son of God.

And so, in the New Testament, Jesus becomes the supernatural hero, the Resurrected Son of God. Not the frail, fallible, man who pitted his own life against the odds, who died not knowing whether it would ever come to mean anything. The reality, that he died for a truth that he never knew anyone would ever appreciate, is trivialized by the myth that he went to his death a god, knowing that he would rise in triumph. A mere few hours of torment, and his return to supreme power is assured. For a god this is nothing. For a man this is everything. The power of faith is that a mere man could do this. The official lie was that only a god could.

And this lie is a discouragement of what Jesus himself said, that others greater than him would follow. Constantine could not allow this. That would be a challenge to his authority. And so, entrenched in the Bible itself, the Divine Right of Kings was born. To this day, Bishops govern by Divine Right, the equivalent of Kings within democratic societies, awaiting the day of their return to power. So too do the fundamentalist demagogues. In the theocracy they dream of, they will be the final arbiters of morality, untouchable by the concerns of mere citizens. Theocracies cannot be bothered with democracy. That is a notion of the enlightenment, the primary target of the religious right. Lurking within the Bible are the ethics of Roman Empire at its most decadent, when the democratic senate was reduced to a mere rubber stamp, and the people lulled into complacency by bread and circuses.

As for the afterlife, you must realise that evil men never consider themselves evil. Hitler himself believed that heaven lay a cyanide pill away. He expected a hero's welcome in heaven immediately after his death. He had, after all, killed all those evil jews. He was, in his own eyes, the hero, not the villain. Nor is he unique in this regard. Stalin, Ceausescu, Mao, Kim, Pol Pot, and Sadam Hussein all believed themselves to be heroes. So does Osama Bin Laden. Their protestations of innocence and heroism are not mere posturing--these people actually believe that they are what they say they are. To these people, the afterlife, should they believe in it, is a tremendous comfort and reassurance in times of difficulty. It gives them the resolve to stay the course, and pursue their genocidal goals. Only God can judge them, and they are convinced that God has already rendered his judgement. Prosecution is therefore not a concern. The worst that can happen is death, and heaven awaits them eagerly.

These people are morally insane. Much of their rational ability is intact. Far from giving them pause, the idea of the afterlife is a source of tremendous encouragement. The consequences of their actions in this life are of no concern. There is always an out. No need to compromise--if they lose, they still win. Such are the consequences of the belief in the afterlife. Of course, there are many people who believe in the afterlife who seriously consider that they might be doing wrong, that their actions might damn them. But these are precisely those people who have a strong moral sense. Even if they were atheists, these people would still be concerned with their own perception of themselves are ethical people. No one wants to believe that they are in the wrong. The genuinely evil are set apart by they ability to rationalize the extraordinary. For them, a belief in the afterlife will never be an obstacle, only an escape clause. It makes their evil easier, not harder.