Thursday, July 5, 2018

Fact and Metaphors, When Your Religion Is Your Metaphor and When it is Not

As I work through again---for the 330 millionth time---the Gita and a host of traditional commentaries I am reminded how history and culture determines meaning and the complexities of conversation. When you have a lifetime of study, particularly the languages, you're always asking that very human question: What do they mean? If this is what it says, _how_ do they mean it?
I was also reading about certain Christianities  yesterday and their particular needs and claims. Later in the day I engaged a very Catholic friend of mine, educated, serious, and still very Catholic. By that I mean she said to me, "What if I told you I take these beliefs seriously? That He _really did_ rise from the dead? And the rest of it." I did my level best to keep that Spock eyebrow from rising to the point of "...fascinating," which was Spock's way of saying, "you gotta be kiddin' me." So what _is_ literalism? What is metaphor when claims are treated as facts? Fascinating.

Yesterday I wrote a piece, not wholly well-received, in which I argued that everyone---whether they admit to it or not, and however they try to deny it---has a "religion." I wasn't arguing for any traditional religious identity but only that religion is the duck in the duck test: it's whatever makes you waddle, quack, wear feathers (think it could be golf: your yoga lifestyle, and even Cuban heeled boots---and I'm not even kidding. Well mostly not.) If you have deep feelings tied to values and convictions, likely too you have community, then I'm ready to call _that_ your religion. But it still raises the question, how does your religion _work_ for you, that is, how does it tell its truths. We call claim the feeling and the experience of _truth_ but what we think truths are depends on how we think they operate, how they _work_.

Let make this point in a simple, contestable binary: we _treat_ truths as if they are facts OR as if they are metaphors. Facts don't need to stay true, they can be revised by better facts, but so long as we feel, operate with them as if they are facts, then we measure them by the results we want, we experiment with them to test them against other facts. Think of "facts" as the shortest distance between you and what others should agree to. For example, it takes the principles and facts of quantum physics to make your cell phone work because its signal _really does_ go through walls. We may also deliberately resort to metaphor---we could also call that indirect thinking or what my teacher used to call "the long way around" in contrast to facts. In this case the thing in question (person, place, thing, the noun) is symbolic and functions to tell a story. A myth then is at its best when we know that it is a lie told in the service of a deeper truth, that is, when we know it's not functioning like a fact. I've lectured on this obsessively for the past 20+ years of Rajanaka in public and since ever as a religion professor in the quiet confines of the classroom, so I think you got the point.

When I say "metaphor," I might as well be saying "myth," but not in the usual pejorative sense that we nowadays use the word "myth," because I mean it is a gateway to an experience of truth, deeper truth, which means that ideas, images, and relationships have consequences. What we think and feel _matters_ to us and it will guide how we act towards nature, society, each others, and how we treat ourselves. Facts matter. Where are those separated children? Myths matter. Justice is blind. Again, I think we're not confused about the difference this difference makes but we are not clear about what's fact and what's myth.

Yesterday I also wrote a piece about how I have more than one religion. At last count, at least three. I would regard myself a Hindu but that's in light of the fact that on February 9th 1964 at 8:12pm the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan, opening their set with All My Loving, and I found my true religion. It is rock n' roll. And I'm not kidding. I said I had a third religion but I'm conflicted. (That was a joke.) I wrote that rambling paragraph about the religion of rock n' roll to make a point, and it wasn't about my tastes in music or lifestyle passions. I wanted to look like, talk like, think like, write music like, _be_ all FOUR Beatles, but that too isn't my point.

My point is that here in the 21st century it's hard to impossible to take much about religion as fact. (Fact as defined above.) Jesus rose from the dead. Krishna manifested his cosmic form. Moses talked to the bush. God spoke through the Prophet. You get the idea. Science is real because facts do their job. That truth may be incomplete, unfinished, even _untrue_ because it is found out to be incorrect or just wrong or we were lied to, but that is not the same as metaphor---and you know it. So are these claims _both_ fact and metaphor? My Spock eyebrow raises and if you say "yes," then I must say "fascinating," because I must take you at your word.

People _really do_ believe things that you, in your own heart and mind, think are _not facts_ but rather myths that guide their lives (somehow, to some degree). So we must take, say, evangelical Christians at their word _and_ we don't have to condemn any beliefs that don't impact by imposing on others. Putatively, there is room in the world for not-facts, or to put it bluntly, falsities, things that are not factually true but aren't necessarily a menace. Metaphors can menace too but only if people turn them into behaviors that become delusional fantasies in the world. Dressing up as Spock isn't a problem for me unless you think you're really mind melding with me. Then I think you've gone a step too far.

When I wrote that Rock n' Roll is my religion I was putting myself in good company. No less than Stevie Van Zandt makes the same claim, and I think for many of the same reasons. But I have a few other points.

In the 21st century your religion is about metaphors and symbols because otherwise it's factual nonsense, or most of it. You can live _by_ factual nonsense and it can guide you morally and practically to live a worthwhile life, one that doesn't even hurt others. Go for it, if that's what you want. The rules of 21st century facts _still apply_ no matter one's literal religious fantasies or what they do for you.

Hitchens, Dawkins, and others always maintain that people who believe factual nonsense are always dangerous and prone to sticking others with the consequences of their beliefs, especially politically.  But is this always true?  I would largely agree with them because beliefs do have consequences. Think about the current battle for the open Supreme Court seat. But it's still possible to have religious beliefs taken to be fact that aren't so imposing or interventionist in others' lives. If you can keep your fantasies---literal or metaphorical--- less intrusive, I'd be grateful.

My religion not only contains metaphors and uses facts (like February 9th 1964) it _is_ metaphor. When religion _is_ not about metaphors but is metaphor that's a whole'nother story. Rock n' roll is metaphor--- it is filled with stories, myths, rituals, and players about freedom, rebellion, love, peace, fury, beauty, loss, death, cars, sex, you got it. My religion needs to be metaphor because I have facts, and particularly science, for other things I need. Religion you need too for a life lived as you love it. Science is not its enemy unless your religion claims facts. Science and religion work find together so long as you try keep a naga's worth of space (that's as much room as a snake needs to move) between them and then work that seam, keep that naga moving. Ha! Metaphor never ceases because we're going to need it to explain facts. And vice-versa. Hold that paradox. Carry on.

Love your life and all of your metaphors will be keys to your "salvation" even if there is, well, factually speaking, no salvation. So while you are loving life on this mortal road to death, find the way you like to really live. That will involve making what you do---say, yoga, rock n' roll, political activism, golf, going to sci fi conventions, really anything you really really care about---your religion. And you can have as many religions as you like because metaphors, unlike facts, don't demand that others take you as seriously as you take your metaphors.