Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Hubris of Humankind 12



Section 3: In Praise of Polytheism

Thanks to Rev Tom Hamill, B.A., S.T.L., L.S.S., a maverick priest and consummate scholar, I have believed for the last twenty years that all the various gods from the various religions about the world represent some aspect of the human make-up or psychology.  I shall return to this point at a later time in these posts, as my central personal belief these days is that life is all in base a question of our psychological make-up.  Perhaps this is a bit of a reductionism.  However, I do need to some some deeper thinking on this subject.  Be that as it may, let me now return to the arguments of John Gray.

The first great monotheistic religion is, of course, Judaism.  The Jews believed that their God was the one true God and that all the gods of other peoples and races were mere shoddy imposters.  There is a lot of nationalist egotism (if I may coin a new phrase) and pure xenophobia in monotheism too, I believe. Xenophobia is an intense dislike and/or fear of that which is unknown or is different from oneself, especially in the case of foreign people.  The Jewish people were “the Chosen People”, the people set aside by God as special.  The implication of this is that all others are lesser beingsGray argues that it was only with Christianity that monotheism really took root.  I quibble with him here as I feel it was with Judaism that the root first struck fertile soil.  Anyway, there’s no use splitting historical hairs as Christianity is the first born child of Judaism and it did spread like wild fire around the then known world.

I like Gray’s practical rather than theoretical distinction between Monotheism and Polytheism:

For polytheists, religion is a matter of practice, not belief; and there are many kinds of practice. For Christians, religion is a matter of true belief.  If only one belief can be true, every way of life in which it is not accepted must be in error.  (Op.cit., 126)

I also like another fact that he elucidates – that polytheists were never missionaries.  Indeed, nor were they ever fanatics or crusaders or inquisitors as were the great monotheistic religionsIndeed monotheism produced political faiths, too, like communism and socialism – themselves often fanatical crusaders and indeed inquisitors.

Section 4: Atheism, The Last Consequence of Christianity:

I an at one again here with Gray.  If the debate between Theists and Atheists were a chess game, Theists make the first move and Atheists the second.  It is consequently hard to envisage there being a second move unless there is a first move.  The former is my analogy, not Gray’s – I point this out, as it is probably a very poor one.  In Gray’s words: “To deny the existence of God is to accept the categories of monotheism.  As these categories fall into disuse, unbelief becomes uninteresting, and soon it is meaningless.” (Ibid., 126)  Again, I like his analogy here: “Unbelief is a move in a game whose rules are set by believers.” (ibid., 126)  Again, this is insightful and very true.  In my words, atheists are denying propositions made by theists.  Having watched the horrible violence in Northern Ireland from the late sixties to the late nineties of the last century, and having listened to the shibboleths of the more extreme Protestant groups who always said “No” or whose religious and political faiths were based only on the premise of the denial of what the Catholics believed or achieved, I reckon such inter-denominational war merely mirrors the theist versus atheist debate.  All of these arguments seem extremely trivial on an intellectual level, but on a personal and social level they are very explosive, if not murderous ones indeed.

Gray rightly argues that Christianity and Atheism are declining together.  The answer I feel is simple: they live in a symbiotic relationship.  I’ll finish this section with a sentence from Gray: “Atheism is a late bloom of the Christian passion for Truth.” (Ibid., 127)

Section 5: Homer’s Vultures:

This is a section that I find overpowering and disturbing.  It is sheer nihilism.  In its definition of this term the IEP gives the following:

While few philosophers would claim to be nihilists, nihilism is most often associated with Friedrich Nietzsche who argued that its corrosive effects would eventually destroy all moral, religious, and metaphysical convictions and precipitate the greatest crisis in human history. In the 20th century, nihilistic themes--epistemological failure, value destruction, and cosmic purposelessness--have preoccupied artists, social critics, and philosophers. Mid-century, for example, the existentialists helped popularize tenets of nihilism in their attempts to blunt its destructive potential. By the end of the century, existential despair as a response to nihilism gave way to an attitude of indifference, often associated with antifoundationalism. (See this link here IEP )

Gray quotes from Homer’s Iliad a section where the gods assumed the likeness of birds (vultures) who just provoked men to war with one another for their entertainment.  There is no nihilism there, he claims, because the vultures do not seek to redeem human life.  There is simply nothing in that life that needs redemption.  Gray works on the assumption, which seems to run counter to the definition quoted above, that nihilism is the idea that human life must be redeemed from meaninglessness. I simply don’t understand Gray here.  The failure is all mine.

section 6: In Search of Mortality:

Here Gray has a go at Eastern philosophy and meditation practices.  One could be appalled, but one is led onwards by his strength, courage and sincere conviction, if I am not committing a tautological heresy here in my language:

Nirvana is the end of suffering; but this promises no more than what we all achieve, usually without too much effort, in the course of nature.  death brings to everyone the peace the Buddha promised after lifetimes of striving.  (ibid., 129)

Strong medicine indeed.  But maybe, that’s what greedy, avaricious humankind needs more than ever, the strong medicine of realising his/her own mortality.  In short, our man Gray maintains that Buddhism is essentially a quest for mortality.  Brilliant.  Here Gray, in my opinion has written a modern koan for us which is worth meditating on as one sits.



A picture I took last June in a field near The Cliffs of Moher. A young bullock or just a source of burgers? Excuse my agricultural ignorance as I am a city lad!

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