Saturday, December 11, 2010

Religion, reification and idolatry

If idolatry is the worship of created things, and myths about god are our creation, isn't all religion idolatry?

I'd like to follow out a line of thought from a recent post about John Milton, who was deeply concerned with idolatry. Conventionally defined, idolatry is the worship of any object in place of a true god (whatever a true god is). If one's god is nature, then worshipping rocks and plants is not idolatrous, but if one's god is Abrahamic monotheism, then it is. If you worship a golden calf as an image of the Baal / Hathor / Apis cow diety in the Canaanite religions, this is only idolatrous if you are not a believer in those religions. In short, idolatry is close kin to heresy, requiring a definition of what is false and what is true.

At this holiday time, which we know has nothing historical to do with the birth of Jesus, the birth story itself being pure fabrication anyhow, it is hard not to see the entire Christmas exercise as a massive case of idolatry, whether one is a believer or not.

What is one to say? "Oh, never mind about all the crazy claims and tall tales- just go with the flow and worship as you are told!" That may be a festive response, and one appropriate to children, but hardly a philosophically defensible one. Especially when we are accosted by revanchists bellowing about "the reason for the season". Well, that, thankfully, is a lost cause. The Puritans even banned Christmas as biblically unfounded as well as infected with Catholic idolatry.

Higher in the artistic food chain, Milton also created an enormous fable about the fall of man, illustrated with dynamic characters, fantastic scenes, and pathos, (with not a few dollops of mysogyny), in Paradise Lost. What did he think he was doing? He knew his art was not true to any kind of fact, even if it embroidered on accepted scriptural sources. He was vivifying his own belief and that of his readers by fabricating a story. Was he also worshipping directly? God already knew the story- he certainly didn't need to be told the docudrama version. One may conclude that Milton was not dealing with god at all, but feeding the religious meme that lives by worship as an artistic and social bonding activity rather than consummating any transaction with the divine.

He enriched the clearly false religious narrative that bonds believers, but enriched the narrative of plain humanism as well, since his characters are never science fiction- however divine or fallen, they are always human. And that is the answer for me- that the art of Milton, and of religion generally, is very human art, investigating the trials and joys of the human condition. Religion itself is an enormous metaphor- a complex system of drama-symbols (devil, god, salvation, damnation) for us- our concerns and our psychological potentials.

A fine example came up in a recent New Yorker article, discussing the restoration of the early 1400's Ghent altar piece, by Jan van Eyck. It is fabulous- stunningly realistic, sympathetically human, and absurdly theological, with a large crowd of luminaries raptly adoring the lamb- a lamb facing the viewer with blood streaming out of its neck/heart into a golden chalice. Whew- what is going on there? How is this different from worshipping the golden calf?

The difference is presumably that the lamb isn't a "real" lamb, but a symbol for Christ (as if the golden calf wasn't a symbol for Baal). Similarly, the Catholic church can say that its army of symbols and costumes are not really there to be worshipped directly, (perish the thought!), but represent that which the theology says is immanent. All of which Milton couldn't stand, though he went right on to deploy and even richer myriad of symbols in his own writing.

At some point one has to ask what is symbol for what, and where does it all end? The atheist simply points out that the case for anything extra-natural underlying all this symbology is nonexistent, and the even if such sub-reality did exist, no one has the evidence about it required to tell all these stories. It is all tall tales and tomfoolery.

What we do have is the love of art- the desire to express the inexpressible and represent ourselves and our inner loves, fears, and explorations in the only way we know how- through concepts and symbols that can activate and share the numinous feelings we have about life. Our psychological depths are veritable oceans of symbol generation, recombination, and propagation, as we occasionally appreciate through dreams. Religion is a sort of waking communal dream, drawing up these riches for mutual enjoyment, whether lushly decked out with incense, stained glass and gilding, or astringently meditative. It is the feelings that are the alpha and omega, not the so-called knowledge, systems of theology, mythical history, deadening hierarchy, etc.

So I come to my title, that religion is a collection of symbols and practices by which we express our feelings. Feelings that ascribe great powers to the mind, hidden levels to the cosmos, and personality to nature. Feelings whose expression is a powerful source of mutual bonding and psychic affirmation. To take any of this seriously as some sort of factual narrative or portrayal of sur-reality is to reify metaphors & symbols. And to reify a metaphor is to engage in idolatry.

Can't we honor our feelings and share our art without making totems of their symbols, which, man being man, inevitably decline into magic relics, dogmatic "beliefs", and incarnate deities? Is that too much to ask?

  • America in decline? Not whether, but how fast.
  • Future of the desktop.
  • Compromises with the GOP continue...
  • Bill Mitchell quote of the week is back, in spades!
"While the hard-line Austrian school types were saying we should have let the crisis play out – it is clear that they have little understanding of the depth of the crisis and how much public intervention was required to stem the collapse. The scale of the US Federal Reserve credit line intervention is staggering. If the public interventions had not been made then we would have endured a major depression beyond doubt."
"None of the developments that the illegal foreclosure scandal has exposed are covered in mainstream microeconomic or macroeconomic textbooks. There we just learn about private optimising agents pursuing self interest to maximise welfare for all of us. It is a fairy tale without any application to the real world we live in."
"The conservative agenda is to tear down the public elements and to convince us that we cannot rely on government. But that agenda is not consistent with a generalised social well-being. It is a recipe for accelerating the transfer of real goods and services to the elites with economic power. It works – for a time – and then collapses. When it collapses we witness the ultimate hypocracy – the request for the state to socialise the losses."
And also...
"Rather, it was the capture of governments by the neo-liberals and the resulting regulative laxity that allowed the crisis to occur. And as usual – a poor diagnosis leads to a poor remedy. By erroneously implicating fiscal policy and macroeconomic policy in general as the cause of the crisis these characters can easily convince us that fiscal austerity and harsh cuts in pay and conditions are the way forward. They recruit the mainstream members of my profession to tell us that this will free up space for a strong private spending recovery.
It is patent nonsense. Ireland began its cruel austerity push nearly 2 years ago. They were meant to be enjoying prosperity by now. Instead, as was obvious to anyone but the denial cohort, their plight is worsening and they are being propped up by handouts from foreign governments."

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