Sunday, January 09, 2005

Intellectuals, Christianity and Obtuseness

I just read a fascinating yet intellectually dissatisfying article on Counterpunch by an English professor, Walter A. Davis, linked here: The article made me consider some things.
1) Intellectuals like to gussy up their essays with big words, even when these obviously don't fit. Let me say a basic fact about writing: If your writing is incomprehensible, you're a bad writer. QED. Davis certainly has an interesting argument. He says that the fundamentalist Christian ethos is fundamentally built on hate and destruction. It first involves a literalist interpretation of the entire world, rubbing away any complexities, any shades of opinion, any metaphor or art. After all, the Bible is a beautifully written piece of art containing many good stories: it is more like an almanac than anything else, containing valuable moral advice that is somewhat contradictory (which makes sense; we live in a contradictory and complex world and have to have a complex set of moral tools at our disposal), history, and prophecy. Yet to make it the inerrant word of God, one has to eviscerate that. There is a certain comfort to such a basic, dualistic, literalist worldview. He then goes on to point out that all actions acquire either a divine or a demonic agency: Either Satan made me bad or God/Jesus/the Holy Spirit made me good. Human actions literally do not exist. The problem with this is that, rather than Buddhism and (in a different way) psychoanalysis which recognizes the pathology of the mind as internal to the mind and recognizes that these different demons can only be exorcised through internal confrontation and through trying to achieve an internal unity of being, that a miraculous wiping clean of the slate makes the person hate rather than pity and try to understand their pathologies and view those pathologies as external to them, thus preventing them from taking responsibility for them. Saying "I was a lecherous man who was possessed by evil spirits to have promiscuous sex" is almost diametrically opposed to "I was a lecherous man who had something in me, something I must discover and confront, desire promiscuous sex, thus harming my own chances for spiritual recovery and hurting other people." This version of Christianity then causes someone to fight those demons they see in others not in a manner such as "I see this in myself even now and I think I can help you" but "You used to be like me, impure, and now I must help you castigate yourself of this sin." This evangelicism is actually truly built on a total disrespect and hate for other human beings: If they don't agree with your interpretation of religion, then it is a simple fact not even worthy of tears that they will be tortured by demons and be close to Lucifer's evil arms their entire afterlives. Hatred and guilt are very closely associated emotions, and unfortunately fundamentalist Christianity has both in spades. He concludes by saying that the Revelations are playing out on the world stage what's going on with the mindset of the fundamentalist: A final battle between good and evil, all souls choosing either one or the other path. There is a revelling in the revelations, a loving of total destruction.
All this is relatively simple to say. I don't think I need to use the words thanatos, jouissance, apotheosis, or anything of the kind to say it. And were I to think about it, I could probably make the message even more simple. A great way of making yourself look smarter, look more indispensable and thus more deserving of University funds, and of obfuscating your argument from proper analysis and refutation is to toss in German, French and Latin so only your tame University buddies will read it. This can be the case even when, as in the case of postmodernism or of Kant or whoever, that your idea is full of merit and deserves serious thought. Only minor figures in the left like Noam Chomsky and almost-forgotten writers and theorists like George Orwell (in his classic "Politics and the English Language") have said roughly the same thing as I have. Thoreau's right: Simplify, simplify, simplify. My eyes glaze over when I read some of this intellectual jargon, even when after I'm done I find some value in the commentary.
2) Moving onto the merit of the theory: I think it's an interesting caricature and an abstract model that highlights some problems with fundamentalist thinking, both from a spiritual and ethical standpoint, but it's just that: a caricature and a model. First of all, this is only true of a particular version of fundamentalist Christianity. Second, despite the author's livid criticism of a too-simplistic and literal view of the world, his own analysis fails to see gradations and contradictions in thought. Just as the Bible brooks contradictions either in direct text or in terms of broad ideas (which does not detract from its worth as a moral, literary or historical text in the slightest), people who are Christian have all sorts of behaviors. Let me get specific:
a) A woman I argued with on a forum when I said that Jesus was a Bodhisattva. In her polemical response on the superiority of Western civilization, she included a comment on how much better our science is. Of course, she was arguing for an outlook that's proven to simply mire science in the Dark Ages, but nonetheless she valued science in some contradictory and incomplete manner.
b) A friend of mine who listens to Eminem, sympathizes with the plight of minorities in this country, and is very receptive to post-capitalist and leftist arguments in general. What he was afraid of was me being mad at him when he said "But blacks are going too far now, they're using racism as an excuse to get unfair advantages." That argument makes leftists mad, but it shouldn't. It's a perfectly legitimate question to ask. This person is a great and moral person who respects my spirituality.
c) Christians I've met all over who are receptive to Buddhism, who are willing to sit down and discuss issues of faith, Christ, godhood, love, politics, and so on.
d) A Christian commentator on the night before Christmas who said that those who were racist clearly had not been completely transformed by Jesus' love.
I do disagree with the idea of having Jesus as a force and not as a teacher be the impetus for spiritual transformation. However, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. If someone believes that Jesus, like other Bodhisattvas (in Buddhist and Asian myth), generates positive energy and helps people forgive themselves for their sins or wrongdoings and teaches them to get onto the right path, that all makes sense. Jesus says great things about ethics that even rabid fundamentalists abide by when it's close to home. People are not swallowed by ideas: If an idea says it's okay to murder people, most of the time they still don't do it. What Buddhism says on the topic of spirituality and spiritual/ethical transformation is something many Christians can empathize with: The mind has many demons or aspects of the personality that are destructive yet stem from positive things. What spiritual practice does is widen consciousness of the moment so we can first stop unconsciously behaving in such a way as to empower those demons, getting a wider and wider understanding of their operation, and finally (at total enlightenment) having a complete understanding of one's self and a total control over one's emotions and actions, becoming a completely rational and totally compassionate being. The understandings of Buddhist ethics are what empower me to protest against capitalism and corporations, statism, racism and uniculturalism, patriarchy and sexism, militarism and violence, homophobia and restrictive gender norms, and so on. I see that these are individual demons played out on a large scale in recurring institutional patterns, and that as long as they exist they will have both spiritual and literal corrosive effects on people and the world. If a belief in Christ helps propel someone to moral understanding and to spiritual transformation, then its good.
That fundamentalist Christianity may in turn be interpreted to support capitalism (an ideology that is not about such passion as pure hate and contempt, but rather about greed and reducing people to automata of consumption and production) does not mean that the two are intrinsically linked, and I think Davis reveals his misunderstanding of capitalism's psychological and intrinsic basis when he makes this claim. Fundamentalist Christianity could also, according to polls of these very same Christians, be used to put into place a world very much like what the Left desires.


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