Open and Closed Systems, 1: Open Systems

In this post I want to give a rationale for my “Towards a Gnostic Orthodoxy” series.  After all, one might say, “If you’re orthodox, then why isn’t that enough for you?  Or, if you have that many problems with orthodoxy, why not be honest and leave outright?”  There are less polite ways in which these questions could be posed, obviously; but they are legitimate.  Thus, I want to look at what I’m trying to do here and give at least some motivations for it.

All religions, philosophies, and world views acknowledge, at least in principle, the finitude of the human mind and the human condition.  Our minds and understanding are limited; enormously limited, in fact, with respect to all there is to know in the universe in all its complexity.  We know very little, and with respect to all that there is to be known, we may always know very little.  What seem like great strides to us may be minute baby steps, little children chipping pebbles from the side of Mount Everest, in the big scheme of things.  So much as this everyone, in principle at least, would agree.

Given this baseline, there are two basic approaches, I think, that religions (and to a lesser extent, philosophies and worldviews) tend to take:  what I’m calling open and closed approaches.  These approaches emphasize the unknown (and unknowable) on the one hand, and the known (and knowable) on the other, respectively.

Open religions put a strong emphasis on the unknowability of reality and our limitation as human beings in trying to understand it.  Such religions do have beliefs, customs, rituals, and so on.  However, these are seen as more or less contingent.  They are subject to change over time, and they mainly serve the needs of the people, rather than describing eternal truths about the God, the cosmos, or reality.  Such religions, at least in their popular manifestations may indeed be very traditional, even hide-bound.  This is part of the natural human tendency to value stability and continuity in society.  Nevertheless,  this does not imply a static nature in terms of the beliefs underlying the religion itself.

In fact, in open religions there is usually a divide between popular or folk religion and the religion of the philosophers.  The former tends to emphasize continuity and social cohesion, as well as addressing the concerns of day-to-day life.  The latter deals in the more abstract realm of meaning, metaphysics, and what the underlying nature and purpose of the religion is.  Typically the philosophical or theological schools are quite diverse.  One might say that in such a religion everyone agrees that they ought to pour out a libation on the Spring Equinox; but there would be a divergence of opinions as to why one should do so and what the effect of the ritual actually is.  One could also be cynical and describe this, as Burke did the Roman religion, as one where all religions are considered “by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.”

In fact, in my view Burke wasn’t actually being cynical here–he continues, my emphasis:

And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.  The superstition of the people was not embittered by any mixture of theological rancour; nor was it confined by the chains of any speculative system. The devout polytheist, though fondly attached to his national rites, admitted with implicit faith the different religions of the earth. Fear, gratitude, and curiosity, a dream or an omen, a singular disorder, or a distant journey, perpetually disposed him to multiply the articles of his belief, and to enlarge the list of his protectors. The thin texture of the Pagan mythology was interwoven with various but not discordant materials.

This is as fair a summary of the virtues of an open system as any I can think of.  Another excellent example is the Jain concept of Syādvāda.  Jainism, in that regard, is a very good example of an “open” religion, as are, to varying degrees Buddhism, Hinduism, Daoism, the Greco-Roman religion of antiquity, and most traditional religions.  Jainism and Buddhism are slightly less open in that they have more doctrinal infrastructure, so to speak, than the others listed; but they are still, by and large, relatively open.

Of course, open systems aren’t perfect.  An incisive criticism comes from G. K. Chesterton in Chapter Five of his book Orthodoxy, and is worth an extended quotation, emphasis added:

The last Stoics, like Marcus Aurelius, were exactly the people who did believe in the Inner Light. Their dignity, their weariness, their sad external care for others, their incurable internal care for themselves, were all due to the Inner Light, and existed only by that dismal illumination. Notice that Marcus Aurelius insists, as such introspective moralists always do, upon small things done or undone; it is because he has not hate or love enough to to make a moral revolution. He gets up early in the morning, just as our own aristocrats living the Simple Life get up early in the morning; because such altruism is much easier than stopping the games of the amphitheater or giving the English people back their land. Marcus Aurelius is the most intolerable of human types. He is an unselfish egoist. An unselfish egoist is a man who has pride without the excuse of passion. Of all the conceivable forms of enlightenment the worst is what these people call the Inner Light. Of all horrible religions the most horrible is worship of the god within. Anyone who knows any body knows how it would work; any one who knows any one from the Higher Thought Center knows how it does work. That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light; let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street, but not the god within. 

Ouch!  As one temperamentally inclined towards the “Inner Light”, I have to say that there’s a lot of truth there, and the truth sometimes hurts.  C. S. Lewis makes a similar point in Reflections on the Psalms in the course of discussing the violent and savage content of many of the Psalms.  He says that such savagery strikes us as barbaric and extreme; but he points out that a civilized and cultured Greco-Roman pagan of the time, while not being at all savage, would not lift a finger to undo the brutality of the system.  According to him the savagery of the Psalms is the savagery of righteous indignation at wrong; poorly directed and extreme, but pointing at something legitimate.

Having looked at open systems, and having written nearly 1200 words on them, I’m going to wind up this post and use the next to look at closed systems.

Posted on 21/09/2012, in Christianity, Gnosticism, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

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