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Quote for the Week

Alexander Hamilton Addressing the Mob

It is before all things useful to men to associate their ways of life, to bind themselves together with such bonds as they think most fitted to gather them all into unity, and generally to do whatsoever serves to strengthen friendship.  But for this there is need of skill and watchfulness. For men are diverse (seeing that those who live under the guidance of reason are few), yet are they generally envious and more prone to revenge than to sympathy. No small force of character is therefore required to take everyone as he is, and to restrain one’s self from imitating the emotions of others. But those who carp at mankind, and are more skilled in railing at vice than in instilling virtue, and who break rather than strengthen men’s dispositions, are hurtful both to themselves and others.

–Baruch Spinoza, Ethics; courtesy of Wikiquote

The Disenchantment of the World, Part 4: The Enlightenment


On this rather elliptical path towards looking at religion as role-playing, we’ve looked at the religious milieu of the ancient Greco-Roman world, the origins of monotheism, and why it replaced paganism.  Many aspects of pagan belief remained, of course, under a (sometimes extremely thin) Christian veneer, and sometimes more or less openly as various types of folk practice and superstition.  Still, Christianity was on the whole dominant for nearly a millennium and a half after it conquered pagan Rome.  What struck a blow from which Christianity has never completely recovered, and which began the disenchantment of the world in earnest, was the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment is the period beginning at about the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th Century in which a new focus on reason and secularism began to be manifested in Western and Central European society, and to a lesser extent in Eastern Europe.  It’s always hard to give a concise definition of a complex phenomenon such as the Enlightenment, but the following points can serve as a beginning.  The Enlightenment was characterized by

  1. An emphasis on human reason, as opposed to Divine revelation.
  2. A focus on science and the scientific method.
  3. A call for political and social equality:  that is, democracy over monarchy, the intrinsic equality of all classes and nationalities, and even the beginnings of equality between the genders.
  4. A call for political and religious liberty:  Established religions were to be opposed, freedom of religion and association were promoted, and people were to be free to change their governments if need be.
  5. A desire to put human reason and science to work in improving human society, especially by rationalistic and technocratic means.
  6. An emphasis on the individual over the collective.
  7. A suspicion of organized religion and a tendency towards Deism and anti-clericalism.
  8. Optimism and (to some extent) utopianism as to the prospects of improving society; and a tendency to view the past as primitive, superstitious, and obscurantist, and the future as the realm of glorious possibility.

I think those points are a fair outline of the Enlightenment worldview.  It’s very clear from points 1 ,2, 5, and 8 why the Enlightenment resulted in so much disenchanting of the world; but before I go on with that, I think we need to look at the context of the Enlightenment, lest we misunderstand what followed.

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Heaven, Hell, and the Religions

We’ve looked at universalism in the Abrahamic and Dharmic religions, and in a summary way in the other major (and minor) religions of the world.  In this post I’d like to see what, if any, broad patterns we can find, and what their relevance is in general and in particular, specifically in regard to universalism as a concept.

In the case of traditional and folk religions, the very concept of an afterlife often seems murky–the dead inhabit a shady, insubstantial realm such as the Greek Hades or the Hebrew She’ol.  Alternately, they may inhabit the realm of the deified or semi-deified ancestors.  These two possibilities are not exclusive, it should be noted.  Some such religions, such as that of the ancient Celts and some strands of the ancient Greek religion, had some sort of belief in reincarnation (or “metempsychosis”, as the Greeks referred to it).  By and large, there is no consistent idea of reward and punishment–Heaven and Hell–in most of these faiths.  To the extent that there is, it is either ambiguous or applicable only to a few (such as the Greek Elysian Fields and Tartarus) or it seems to have been imported from other religions (any notions of heavens and hells in Chinese and Japanese religion, for example, come from Buddhism).

In general, I think it fair to say that there is no clear evidence for reward and punishment in the afterlife in any of the religions that precede the Axial Age, with the probable exception of the religion of Ancient Egypt and the possible exception of Zoroastrianism (so many Zoroastrian writings have been lost and there are so many issues with dating the ones we have, that there is some ambiguity as to how old certain doctrines actually are).  I think it is also safe to say that there is also no clear evidence of reward and punishment in the afterlife in the traditional and folk religions that have survived to modern times, except insofar as they’ve been influenced by so-called great or world religions.

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Excursus: Neutrality, and Why I Am Neither For Nor Against It


As I wrote the last couple paragraphs of “Heresy:  Systems of Control“, I began to fudge on the phrasing a bit, and it occurred to me that I ought to write another post explaining why, and elaborating the issues involved.  I almost said that in a pluralistic society we must respect all religious beliefs while keeping public policy neutral.  However, that little word–“neutral”–has caused issues in blog discussions elsewhere to which I’ve been privy, so I want to look at it here.

In a confessional state, there is no question of neutrality.  A given religion is the official one, simple as that.  How this is manifested may vary:  there may be no separation between church and state at all, or there may be moderate separation, or the state may acknowledge the state church in merely symbolic ways.  Religions other than the official state religion may be banned and persecuted, tolerated with restrictions, or left totally alone.  Regardless of the specifics, though, there is no pretense of neutrality–there is the state religion which is favored and enshrined in law, and there is everything else.

The United States, of course, not only has no state religion, but the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment ensures that there never will be an American state religion.  We have been a pluralistic society from the beginning:  first, with most forms of Christianity represented in colonial times;  later on, with immigration and religious ferment, almost all human religions have come to be found within the boundaries of the USA.  As a result of this, we tend to think of ourselves as “neutral”–that is, people of all faiths are treated the same, and no one religion should have a special place over any other.  This had always seemed to me, for one, to be self-evident.  However, in the course of various blog discussions I’ve had over the last year, I’ve come across a frequently expressed counter-narrative.

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Heresy: Systems of Control

We’ve looked at various ways of defining heresy here, here, and here; and we looked at orthodoxy and heresy in terms of conformity and non-conformity over here.  In this post, I want to look at the issue in a more sociological context.

The tendency in writing about heresy–definitely in traditional histories of Christianity, where orthodoxy is the Good Guy trying to fight off the heretical Bad Guys that keep popping up, but also in a lot of revisionist narratives, too–is to make it about the intellect, on the one hand, or Good vs. Evil, on the other.

The first mode is sort of theology as mathematics.  That is, the emphasis is on minute analysis of data (in this case, Scripture, Tradition, statements by Councils, and so on), discussion, and debate, all geared towards discovering what the real teaching of the Church actually is.  In other words, it’s a lot like trying to prove whether or not Fermat’s Last Theorem is correct or not–it might take a lot of work, but it can be done with enough intellectual elbow grease.  This point of view is especially appealing to the Scholastic and Thomist temperament; but unfortunately, it’s a really bad model of what’s going on.

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Pop Culture Tricksters

L-r:  Pee Wee Herman, Joel Hodgson, Mike Nelson, Weird Al Yankovic

L-r: Pee Wee Herman, Joel Hodgson, Mike Nelson, Weird Al Yankovic

I posed the question, “Could Joel or Mike on MST3K have been a chick?” (to be flip) over here, and answered, “No.”  On the way to justifying that answer I looked at the archetypes of the Trickster and the Holy Fool.  Now let’s bring it back to pop culture and apply it.

I think the host/captive on MST3K is really just a specific example of an archetype that occurs very commonly in pop culture.  Two other exemplars are Pee Wee Herman and Weird Al Yankovic.  There are others that spring to mind–for example, Rob Schneider, Chris Farley, and Ringo Starr have embodied aspects of the Trickster/Fool persona in movies and music–but the four I’m considering here are the best examples.  They are all about the same age and were at their peaks at approximately the same time.  More importantly, they all have embodied the archetypes more fully and consistently, and as a bigger part of their public persona, than the other actors and singers mentioned or for that matter than almost anyone else in pop culture.  There are also interesting parallels in their careers that I want to look at.

As one important proviso, I want to point out that when I speak of these worthies, I am speaking of their public personas, not their private lives, unless otherwise specified.  Thus, I’m not particularly interested in Paul Reubens or Joel Hodgson, but I’m very much interested in Pee Wee Herman and Joel Robinson, their on-screen characters.  Mike Nelson and Weird Al used their real names, but I am equally interested in their personas, not in them as individuals.

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Holy Fools

In my last post, which deals with the archetype of the Trickster in pop culture, having been prompted by a discussion of who should host MST3K, I mentioned, in addition to the Trickster, the Holy Fool.  I didn’t describe the Holy Fool beyond merely mentioning the term, so I’m using this post as a brief detour to discuss the Fool archetype.

The Holy Fool or Fool is in a sense the Trickster in a religious context.  What one might call the spiritual-but-not-religious form of the Holy Fool is the Fool.  We’ll distinguish the nuances soon.  In any case, the Holy Fool emerges from the very definition of religion.  Religion–from the Latin re-ligio, or “binding back” (to the Absolute)–ultimately seeks to connect us to the Absolute, however we may conceive of that (God, Brahman, the Universe, etc.).  In short, it seeks to take us beyond the realm of day-to-day existence; it seeks, in short, transcendence.  The question is, how does one describe transcendence in the language of the day-to-day world?  Mystics–those who claim to have had experience of that transcendent level of reality–are in an even more difficult position.  Having experienced the transcendent, how to you convey that experience to those who have not had it?  It’s like trying to describe color to the blind or music to the deaf.  It is like the man in Plato’s cave who, having experienced the exterior world, is looked at as insane by his fellows still locked in darkness.   Not surprisingly, the mystic is indeed often looked at as insane by larger society.

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Tricksters, Fools, and MST3K

Tricksters Fools Joel

Some decade and half ago or so, I was having a conversation with a friend about Mystery Science Theater 3000.  He was a big fan, and though I’d always avoided it in the past, he’d managed to get me into it, too (that’s a long story in itself, and for another time).  We were discussing one of the big topics of MST3K fandom, namely Joel vs. Mike, and who might make a good third host should Mike leave and the show continue.  This was in the Mary Jo Pehl days, when she had replaced Trace Beaulieu as the main nemesis, playing Pearl Forester, the ostensible mother of Beaulieu’s Clayton Forrester (I guess I should note here that parts of this post are going to be very much “inside baseball” and that non-fans may need to go Googling some of this stuff).  My friend suggested the possibility of a female lead, putting forth Pehl as an example of the type of comedienne who could do so.  I disagreed.  I need to emphasize that I am all for equality and am proud to call myself a feminist.  However, there are some differences, obvious (men don’t bear children) and subtle (women are better at verbal skills, on average, men at spacial perception).  I didn’t have anything so exalted in mind here, though, and though I was adamant that it had to be a male in the lead role for MST3K, I couldn’t quite say why.

I thought about it on and off, and came up with some tentative thoughts on the matter, but never pursued them.  I even saved the original template of this post, since I thought the subject would be interesting, but never could quite come up with a clear exposition.  Finally, a few years ago I encountered the fascinating and excellent book The Trickster and the Paranormal, which had been suggested to me by Chris Knowles at the Secret Sun blog.  The book revolutionized my views on several things.  One of the less important, but still interesting, such things was the question of who should host MST3K.  Specifically, I now could articulate clearly why I thought, against my feminist impulses, that the prisoner on the Satellite of Love would have to be a guy.  The short answer, the unpacking of which will encompass the rest of this post, is that a girl would not fit the necessary Jungian archetype for the role.

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The Dharmic Faiths


Having looked at the Abrahamic faiths, let us turn our attention to the Dharmic religions.

The Dharmic Religions–Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism, as well as a few other minor ones, originated in India, as the Abrahamic faiths originated in the Middle East.  Dharma, the central concept in these faiths, is a Sanskrit term notoriously difficult to translate.  Most English speakers can’t even pronounce it right.  The Sanskrit letter अ, typically tranliterated “a” is pronounced like the “u” in the English word “but”.  The letter आ, transliterated “ā”, is pronounced like the “a” in “father” (or better, like the “a” in the Spanish “padre”).  The diacritical marks of scholarly Sanskrit transcriptions are not often used in popular works; but in any case, “dharma” is the correct spelling and transcription.  Each “a” represents अ, the short form of the vowel.  Thus, “dharma” is correctly pronounced with the first syllable rhyming with “fur”, thus:  DUHR-muh (there is also a puff of air after the “d”, which is why it is spelled “dh”; but few English speakers can get that correctly, and I can’t always do it right myself).  English speakers almost universally rhyme the first syllable with “car”:  DAHR-muh.  This, quite simply, is wrong.  Actually, the best known Sanskrit word borrowed into English, “karma”, should rhyme with “dharma”–the first syllable should sound like “cur”, not like “car”, thus:  KUHR-muh.  However, I learned the standard English pronunciation (KAHR-muh) before I learned Sanskrit phonology; and the word has become thoroughly naturalized in English with the “wrong” pronunciation.  Therefore, I follow the masses in saying KAHR-muh.  I do insist on holding the line on DUHR-muh, however, notwithstanding popular pronunciation or sitcoms!

If we can’t even pronounce the word, small wonder we have trouble translating it!  Depending on context, “dharma” could mean any of the following:  natural characteristic, moral law, path, doctrine, religion, property, sign, obligation, or duty, among others.  Etymologically, it comes from a Sanskrit (and ultimately Indo-European) root meaning “firm” or “solid”.  At its root, “dharma” means “natural law” or the natural principle that is characteristic of a particular thing.  A rock’s dharma is to be hard; water’s is to flow; an animal’s is to follow the lifestyle of its species.  Only for humans is it more complicated.  A person’s dharma is the whole set of morals, ethics, obligations, and responsibilities for humans in general and for that individual in particular, according to his age, class, occupation, and state in life.  For example, truthfulness, honesty, cleanliness, etc. are the dharma–appropriate behavior and way of living–for all people.  A child’s dharma is to obey his or her parents, and a parent’s dharma is to provide for his or her children and raise them well.  The dharma of a married person is to be a good spouse, and of a sannyasi (renunciate) to be celibate.  The dharmas of a teacher, an engineer, a laborer, and a priest would all be different, according to the occupation of  each.

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The Abrahamic Faiths


Having talked about ways to understand and categorize religions, let’s now do so.  There are various ways to do so:  by geographic region (Asian religions, African religions, European religions, etc.); by founding (revealed religions vs. folk religions, etc.); and so on.  I want to look at what might be called “genetic” or “family” relationships.  That is, members of a particular faith might modify, develop, or alter doctrines, worldviews, and such, until what initially is a sort of heresy of the original religion becomes a brand new religion in its own right.  That process is a topic for the future.  Right now, I want to look at the “family” of religions that claims the most adherents worldwide, the Abrahamic family of religions.

In the early days of the United States, though the Founders strongly emphasized freedom of religion and did not, themselves, think of America as founded on Christianity or any other religion, the general feeling was that the U. S. was, in a sense a “Christian” nation.  In the 20th Century, as the nation became more diverse, there was some effort to expand the definitions of U. S. religious culture.  Particularly after World War II, in light of the Holocaust, and in an attempt at reparation for the Antisemitism that had been all too common previously, it became common, and later expected, to use the term “Judeo-Christian”.  The idea was to emphasize commonalities–ethics, the Ten Commandments, etc.–as an attempt at a more irenic way of speaking about religions.  It has been objected–and in my mind, rightly so, to some extent–that the term “Judeo-Christian” is a bit of a weasel word that improperly conflates vastly different faiths.  Nevertheless, it has been thought of as a better-than-nothing term.  However, as Islam has become more noticeable in our society, there has been a casting about for a new term.  “Judeo-Christian-Islamic” and similar locutions have been tried, but are cumbersome.  Finally, the term “Abrahamic” has been coined as a way of embracing the commonalities of all three religions.  In this case, I think the term is good and useful.  It is this which I wish to discuss.

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