Uncategorized

Dogma Bites Man: the Role of Reason in Religion

The doctrine is like a finger pointing at the moon, and one must take care not to mistake the finger for the moon. — Buddhist saying

“In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him; and without Him was not any thing made that was made. In Him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.” — John 1:1-5

And in Greek

The language of the Bible is remarkably direct and accessible. John is talking about great ineffable mysteries — things perhaps beyond the comprehension of the human mind — and yet he speaks simply, plainly, as one might to a child. Actually, even more plainly than that: the language of the Bible, even in the New Testament’s original Greek, is extraordinarily simple and unadorned, compared to the standards of the language as a whole.

To take one very evident example: the Bible uses “and” a lot. English (and Greek) have any number of conjunctions that might serve: “because”, “since”, “while”, “however”, etc. In general usage, writers and speakers tend to vary the conjunctions they use, thus avoiding heavy-handed repetition and a simplistic style — but also to link their ideas and lead the reader from thought to thought, showing how things fit together. The Bible doesn’t generally do this.

The effect of this is that most Biblical passages present a series of assertions without saying how they fit together. They don’t make an argument; they don’t build up a complex idea; they simply list facts. This makes things easy, in a sense, because the reader doesn’t have to follow an argument, or compare statements, or hold multiple ideas in their head at once. Furthermore, if the reader wants to build an argument, or construct a complex idea, the text allows them to do so; it permits, in fact, many possible interpretations. It may be, for example, that in the beginning was the Word because the Word was with God, since the Word was God; or perhaps in the beginning was the Word for the Word was with God, but the Word was God; or in the beginning was the Word despite the Word being with God, yet the Word was God; etc.

And in Hebrew, And in English

Did the Biblical authors intend their text to be so simplistic, easy to read, and ambiguous? Probably not. This odd use of ‘and’ actually appears in the Old Testament as well, but there, it’s a lot less out of place: as it happens, ancient Hebrew had very few conjunctions in the language. A writer of Hebrew didn’t have much choice other than to use waw, which may be translated as “because”, “since”, “while”, “for”, “yet”, etc. …but is usually simply given as “and”.

And when Jesus spoke (in Aramaic, a close relative of Hebrew), he faced the same situation. Thus when the Greek New Testament was produced, the authors were (a) working with Jesus’s words, (b) trying to join their work to the established Hebraic Old Testament, (c) may have been translating into Greek from Aramaic original texts, and (d) were probably Aramaic speakers themselves — and all these sources included lots of waw’s; meaning that they frequently used the Greek word for “and” (kai) instead of availing themselves of Greek’s full set of conjunctions.

And since the Greek New Testament was interpreted as God’s word, God’s word was kai — strictly translated as et in the Latin Vulgate, und in Luther’s German translation, and and in the King James.

The upshot of Hebrew’s conjunctive paucity and its literal translations was that the holy canon of Christianity was simplistic, easy to read, and ambiguous. The New Testament was a single (relatively) short text, but it still admitted of many possible interpretations. For a while the churches tightly controlled those interpretations, partly by forbidding the Bible to be translated out of Latin and Greek; but once translations became available, and people began to see many possible ways of reading the text, sects multiplied endlessly.

Interestingly, the Christian Bible also admits of no interpretation. That is to say, if someone wants to simply read the list of conjoined assertions without trying to see how they fit together, and just take them as they are, on faith, they can. For many, in fact, reasoned argument is seen as antithetical to religion; rational argumentation is a slippery thing that can easily lead one astray from the unadorned Word of God, or from the immediacy and certainty of direct experience with the divine.

And in Reason, And in Religion

The role of reason in religion is one of those ambiguities that Christians have been arguing and thinking about since the beginning. Augustine believed that reason was fine, as long as it didn’t contradict things known through revelation. Aquinas, on the other hand, believed that if one could simply reason long and hard enough, one would find no contradiction between revelation and reason; and he is famous for his attempts to rationally prove the existence of God.

Meanwhile, other Christians argued that reason was, at best, a distraction, and at worst, a temptation to evil. Tertullian said “I believe because it is absurd”; Luther distrusted reason to do anything more than shed light on our own ignorance; Locke believed that faith was “above reason” and it ruled matters where reason could not go; and Kierkegaard felt that faith required a submission of the intellect, hostile to it and forever beyond it.

These attitudes contrast starkly with the intensely rational stances held by the Stoic pagans of Greece and Rome, as well as (for example) the Buddhists. The Stoics believed strongly in natural law and reason, and its sway over the world and humanity. And Buddhism’s core tenets read like a logical argument: There is suffering in the world; suffering arises from attachment; therefore, to remove suffering, remove attachment.

Today the situation is no closer to resolution: the war between faith and reason is recast as religion versus science, and the battles are fought in the churchyards and schoolrooms. Some people see reason and science as the amoral midwives of the modern world, with its inhuman technology and unspeakable horrors of war, and reject them unconditionally; while others point to all the wars caused by conflicts over faith and religion, and see reason and science as our only hope for species survival.

And in Druidism

Pagans in general hold a diversity of views about reason and science. Most of them hold the Earth to be tremendously holy, and it is hard to see technology’s rape of the planet without holding a grudge toward the science and reasoning driving it. Nevertheless, most pagans I know are comfortable with science and its tenets and are happy to believe in evolution, Odin, general relativity, and the Horned God, all at once.

The ancient druids were the lorekeepers of Celtic society, praised by the Greeks for their knowledge of history, culture, astronomy, and the like; and the druids of the revival period (the 17-1800s) carried on this tradition — most were experts in language, anthropology, religious studies, and history, as well as more esoteric arts.

Different modern druids will give you different perspectives on rationality, though I think most would agree that it is essential to the balanced spirit. After all, reason is as much a part of being human as sleeping, breathing, and eating; it is a unique gift not lightly to be cast aside. But I think most of them would also agree that reason alone will not get you all the way to the top of the mountain.

For myself, I am heavily influenced by Zen philosophy, which makes use of reason, but not in the usual way.

And in Zen

Zen teaches that the highest levels of enlightenment cannot be apprehended by reason; it is beyond the capacity for rational thought. But that doesn’t mean rational thought should be abandoned. On the contrary, the logical mind is an essential tool in the search for ultimate meaning.

The Zen Master presents the pupil with a koan: a logical puzzle. Among the most famous are “What is the sound of one hand, clapping?”, or “What was your face before you were born?”, but I prefer the simpler and less-known “Who are you?” If the student answers a name, like “John Smith”, the Master then asks, “Who is John Smith?” If the student says something like, “It’s me, this person standing before you,” the Master asks, “But who is it standing before me?” The student is tasked to sit in meditation and ponder the question — who am I, when all attributes and predicates are stripped away? The logical mind loops and jumps, twists and tangles…

But koans do not have answers. Their purpose is to puzzle, to force the student to exercise the mind, to reach new insights about identity and reality. Eventually the logic, relentlessly applied, begins to break the false attachments and illusions of the world, and the student starts to ascend to the higher levels of enlightenment. And at last, logic will fail, and enlightenment will be attained.

But let me be clear: koans are not the only tools available; this can be done with any ambiguous or unclear proposition — a Tarot card, a song lyric, a chance word heard on the subway. A verse from the Bible.

Dogma and Lemma

The irony, then, is that the road to enlightenment can indeed be, and has been, walked by people contemplating the Bible’s oddly phrased, simplistic, and disjointed attestations, precisely because they are odd, simplistic, and disjointed. The less sense a Bible verse makes, the more like a koan it is, and the more wisdom can be wrung from it by the dedicated student. The most profound mystic truths have been inferred from seeming-nonsense such as “Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” Even the maddest Zen Masters never exhorted their followers to eat them (to my knowledge — I wouldn’t put it past them). But this is the foundation of some of the deepest Christian mysteries — and its meaning is a source of ferocious contention between various Christian sects.

This, then, is the last piece of advice Zen offers regarding reason: don’t elevate lemma to dogma. Feel free to use whatever koans or Bible verses you like, and reason about them freely, but the final truth is beyond reason. Reason is a boat that can take you to the shore of enlightenment, but you have to step onto the shore yourself. Do not mistake your reasoned conclusions for eternal truths. To do so would be to mistake the finger for the moon.

Uncategorized

The Roads Ahead

A few weeks ago I posted a survey asking folks what kinds of products or services they might like for me to offer here on the blog. Many of you responded, and I am very grateful to all of you who took the time to do so.

And it appears, ladies and gentlemen, — based on your urging, and my own meditations — that I’m going on a journey. Two journeys, in fact, simultaneously, in two directions. Good thing I’m a Gemini.

Continue reading “The Roads Ahead”

Uncategorized

Survey: What Do You Want?

Dear reader,

I’ve been blogging since Midsummer 2006 — almost five years now. During that time I’ve moved three or four times, changed jobs, been divorced and affianced, and gotten a cat. I’ve written about spirits (evil and good), phonosemantics, choosing your religion, tossing your television, the Law of Attraction and the laws of humanity, the purpose of the universe and the best way to make a buck, children and gods, the Tao and Tolkien, the Lakota and the fairies, paganism and language.

And don’t you worry — I have no intention of stopping! I have a pile of articles waiting to be written — stuff on why things seem to come in threes, the difference between justice and fairness, the role of divine inspiration in capitalism, the place of fiction in druidism, an analysis of Harry Potter’s magic, pacifism and anarchy in the natural world, a treatise arguing against the rule of law, the history of the Ghost Dance, the relationship between love, hate, and violence…

abyssBut enough about me! What do you want?

You see, this blog is an essential part of my druidic practice. It’s not just a soapbox where I rant into the ether; it’s a place where I try to reach out and connect with like-minded people such as yourself, and to help you, if I can. That’s why I have a huge page full of downloadable meditations, stories, and other resources. You can meet a spirit guide, find inner peace, release your fear, increase abundance, or just deeply relax. You can get astrological readings, spiritual name analyses, books, calendars and journals. All of it’s available for a donation of any amount (including $ZERO). Thousands of people have benefited from my materials. I’m really proud of what I’m offering, and I want to keep adding to it.

But that’s all stuff I personally decided to make. The question is, what do you want to see?

Continue reading “Survey: What Do You Want?”

Uncategorized

Top Ten Druid Journal Blog Posts

To my great surpise, delight, and slight embarassment, Kara-Leah Masina has posted a staggeringly positive review of the Druid Journal over at her site. Thank you, Kara-Leah! I’m so glad you’re enjoying my site. And thanks also to all of you who are reading my words: it’s such a privilege to be able to share my ruminations and explorations with such a diverse, inquisitive, and insightful audience. To reach out, to touch and inspire even one person, one time, with this blog, is a tremendous privilege; so when I see my subscriber list and traffic growing week by week, the word gratitude seems woefully inadequate.

tolkientarotiiiOne thing Kara-Leah mentions is that she wishes I had a Top Ten list of popular blog posts available to help her navigate deeper into the site. Until recently I actually did have such a list out — in fact, I had half a dozen lists of popular blog posts, sorted by month. However, for whatever reason, no one ever clicked on them! So last week I took them down, and I decided to rely more on the “More about…” links at the bottom of each article.

However, for the talented and winsome Kara-Leah and anyone else who shares her preferences, today I offer two Top Ten lists: the Top Ten most visited blog posts, and my personal Top Ten favorite list.

TOP TEN MOST VISITED BLOG POSTS

  1. Eight Reasons Why TV is Evil
  2. How to Choose a Religion VIII: Old Religions, New Religions
  3. Do Evil Spirits Exist?
  4. The Structure of Consciousness, Part One: Archetypes and Circuits
  5. Alban Elued Revival Druid Ritual
  6. On Subjective Reality I: Strange Questions
  7. Carl Jung’s Shadow on the Stairs
  8. Great Articles on the Law of Attraction
  9. Possible New Celtic Language Discovered
  10. Phonosemantics: Find the Meaning of Your Name

TOP TEN PERSONAL FAVORITE BLOG POSTS

  1. The Purpose of the Universe
  2. Children in Paganism
  3. Running with Cernunnos
  4. My Anima
  5. Why I Blog (or: I’m on a Mission from a God)
  6. On Subjective Reality II: the Belief Community Model
  7. How to Choose a Religion VII: Languages of Spirit
  8. How to Choose a Religion VI: the Search for Truth
  9. The Mist-Filled Path I
  10. The Mist-Filled Path II

0503.JPG