Open and Closed Systems, 2: Closed Systems

Having discussed open systems, let’s look at closed systems.

First of all, with all systems of thought, religious or otherwise, there is always a dialectic between the experiential and the theoretical.  We all have experiences from the moment we are born to the moment we die.  We also,  unlike any other creatures (as far as we know), interpret our experiences.  We label them as good or bad, pleasant or unpleasant, boring or exciting; we try to figure out what they mean; sometimes we even doubt that they occurred at all.  We can’t not analyze and interpret what happens to us.

Open systems tend to emphasize the experiential.  They don’t lack interpretive frameworks–it would be impossible for any human endeavor to do so.  Rather, they de-emphasize them, preferring to focus on experience.  One way to put it would be to say that open religions, such as Hinduism or Daoism, are less concerned with orthodoxy (correct belief) and more with orthopraxy (correct action).  Different pandits might disagree about the nature of Brahman (God) or the exact meaning of the Vedas; but all would agree on maintaining the proper rituals and dharma (standards of behavior and religious practice).  The Confucian concept of the Rites (禮, , in Chinese) is very much similar to this. 

On the other hand, closed systems put greater stock in interpretation or theory.  What is important is more the meaning of the experience rather than the experience as such.  For example, a closed system would emphasize the fact that one’s experiences in prayer or meditation indicate a specific spiritual movement, or interaction with God, etc., rather than the qualitative nature of the experiences themselves.  Orthodoxy becomes more important than orthopraxy.

In the post on open systems, I didn’t dwell much on their advantages, because for one, I let Edmund Burke do a lot of that heavy lifting for me;  but also because from my perspective such virtues are self-evident.  No confining dogma, no insistence on uniformity, a very welcoming ground for questioners and enquirers, tolerance of differing opinions, and relative lack of crusades or jihads.  What’s not to love?  Therefore, I felt it necessary to be more detailed about the downside, since this is often overlooked or denied even to exist in regard to open religious belief systems.

By the same token, but in reverse, I don’t feel the need to enumerate the disadvantages of closed systems, since I think they’re pretty well manifest.  However, the advantages are often ignored or dismissed, so I’ll talk a bit about them now.

Obviously, a person can’t act out of pure experience.  We generalize about our experiences–we inveterately interpret them and abstract from them.  Not to do so would be fatal.  Primitive humans had to be able to generalize about what kinds of plants were poisonous, what the signs were of incipient bad weather or migrations of herds of prey animals, how to make tools, etc.  With no theory at all, we’d still be in the trees.  Science, though not as advertised a perfect and flawless method of attaining to all truth, nevertheless has used abstraction, generalization, and theoretical approaches to accomplish great things (as well as not-so-great things) of which we are all beneficiaries (and sometimes victims).

Likewise, organized religion, for all that many denigrate it, has produced many holy men and women, inspired great works of art and music, given  hope to many, and through school, hospitals, and workers serving the poor has done much good in the world.

Put it another way:  Ken Wilber said that there are two functions religion serves.  One is to completely destroy your worldview–to literally “blow your mind”–so that your whole identity is restructured towards a higher goal.  This is more or less the enlightenment experience (or union with God–the terms vary by religion).  The other is to provide solace and comfort, and help people get through the hardships and sorrows of life.  Many tend to valorize the former function and dismiss the latter as the “opiate of the masses”, but Wilber disagreed.  His argument is that very few, in any given era, are ready for the soul-shattering entailed by deep religious experience.  Most have more need of consolation and support–something to “get you through the night”, in John Lennon’s words.  This is the other,  more widespread function of religion, and it is, according to Wilber, perfectly legitimate.  It is in this area that closed religions (the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and to some extent Zoroastrianism; Buddhism and Jainism, while mostly open, have some closed traits) have excelled.

This is the beauty of closed systems, at their best.  They have a framework which has developed over time through the experiences of many holy men and women, poets and prophets, priests and laity.  This framework is a distillation or compendium of what has been found, to put it crudely, to “work”.  Thus, the average believer does not have to reinvent the wheel, to try to do his spirituality alone.  He or she can benefit from the great insights, writings, prayers, and liturgies of the past.  As Vipassana meditation instructor Jack Kornfield says, the great religions are in a sense “brand names” that have stood the test of time in serving people’s spiritual needs.

Thus, while fully aware of all the nastiness committed in the name of organized religion, I still give at least two cheers for it.  For all the failings and all the bad, closed systems have done much good for people, too.  Even for us self-conscious intellectual types, there is much of benefit in a well-defined religious system that gives us a framework within which to work.  It is also all too easy to root for the other side–the marginal, the non-standard, the heretical–just because it’s the underdog.  Had Gnosticism of some sort–Sethian, Valentinian, Manichaean–won out (or any other ancient “heresy”, for that matter) and what we call “orthodox” Christianity lost, the former would have become institutions with all the vices, failures, problems, issues–and good points, too–that any institution has.  The young or the restless would find the Sethian Church or the Manichaeans to be stifling, would feel the establishment didn’t “speak to them”, and so on.  In such an alternate universe, perhaps Nicene Christianity would be the fascinating Other that would draw the rebels, the poets, the misfits, and Gnosticism would be the fuddy-duddy faith of their fathers (and mothers)!

Thus, the project of this thread (and in a lager sense, this whole blog).  I’m not willing to throw Orthodoxy away altogether.  There’s too much baby with the bathwater there.  Moreover, the Catholicism to which I subscribe does give an order and discipline that someone with my temperament needs, and a good framework within which to raise my daughter until she comes of age and makes those decisions for herself.

On the other hand, like all closed systems, orthodox Christianity–like any other kind–is forced by necessity to effectively claim to have a greater grasp of transcendent reality than it actually does.  Of course, there are always the disclaimers of God’s unknowability, etc.; but in practice it all too often comes down to “Roma locuta, finitum est!”  (“Rome has spoken, the [matter] is finished!”)  It is also in the awkward position of having to cling to past formulation even when there is good reason to believe them unworkable (as detailed in my discussion of polygenesis in the “Legends of the Fall” series), and then being forced to jerry-rig some way out of such impasses when they become totally unworkable.

For this reason I think it legitimate and salutary to think outside the box of closed religions.  Not discard the box–just not to think that it contains all that is, was, or will be.  God is much too big for that.  Hence my quest for a Gnostic orthodoxy, here and in my life.

Posted on 21/09/2012, in Christianity, Gnosticism, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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