Friday, January 18, 2019

For the Love of More, And Its Costs. Another Long Note to Myself

I write this morning because I'm working out two stories in the "news." The first is personal but one I think we might share in with some common interests. I mean to say something here about Hindu pilgrimage, the practices of darshan, and all that comes with making this a journey of self. For me, this is nothing less than obsession but I collect obsessions the way obsessives collect whatever it is they are obsessing over. I want only more until there's just the end and I'm gone from this life. The second story involves yet another piece in the news where, once again, I am deeply offended by matters involving religion, education, and the absence of self-critical thought.

First things first, and the happier of the two stories.

We have again returned from India and another rich, evocative, truly wonderful pilgrimage. Darshan is the centerpiece of that effort and the effort itself invites an ardor that's, for me, never enough. I like that it is physically, mentally, emotionally demanding, in every way demanding, that it takes something of you and from you, I like that it's no day at the spa even if there's time along the way to have a day at the spa. The point of pilgrimage is to make a vrata, a vow, a commitment to _see_ and to do what it takes to have experiences of seeing. With that comes the body---pain, health, illness--- and involves all of the other senses, the imagination and all of its powers, the mind and all that is demanded from within a context that _means to overwhelm_ one's capacities, all of them, all of the time. Too much of everything is just enough.  I will get on that bus again and again until I can't walk, I will go find another temple, look for another god, goddess, demon, and demigod, and I will ask for arhati and make darshan. There's never enough for me. It's like poetry, art, music, and literature. It's like the study of science, history, culture, and human possibilities: I am insatiable, I like it that way. This is not going to end until I end. I'll go alone if no one else wants to come.

I am wholly convinced that the reasons I love Hindu pilgrimage and darshan have little to with what the majority of other Hindus are hoping to receive from the practice, though I think it's plain enough that we do share many comparable _feelings_. I have no qualms identifying as a "Hindu" since those are the very signs we pass as we enter the shrines. They say, "Hindus only beyond this point" and while I may not identify with others' beliefs or values, I must admit that we share the same ritual shapes and destinations. We all _do_ the same things and the beauty of the practice itself is that there is no one to dictate what anyone is meant to believe or think or feel. What's required is a shared respect and, above all, a shared behavior that extends into gesture, movement, dress, marker, and, above all, an application of the rules, explicit and implicit. For newbies this orthopraxis has to be learned and mimicked if one wants the shared participation.

I am a creature of ritual, which invariably demands an imposition of protocols that place boundaries and terms on our behaviors. But I am no less a creature of the rigors of critical humanist thinking and the deep evocative powers of mythology to cull the heart's desires, feelings, and mysteries. As I learned Rajanaka that meant wanting _all_ of these things, with all of the complexity, paradox, contradiction, beauty, and strangeness that accompanies a life rich and well-loved, outside and in.

I remain a student of religion because religion is the human endeavor that has had the most to do with our histories of creativity, it has been a repository for the creation of art, beauty, wonder, sensuality, peace, courage, the entire array of the rasas---just as it has been a nearly inexhaustible resource for the manufacture of hatred, sexism, bigotry, manipulation, and false hope. (I feel just as committed to science but far less adept.) To say that I am conflicted over and about things that come from and work through religion is merely to describe my entire personal and professional life.

But I mean to go further: without all of that discomfort, contradiction, ambivalence, horror, and challenge I would want nothing to do with the things-of-religion. Or anything else. Without conflict and shadow, without rage and disdain, without passion and love and hope and softness, these practices that move through religion along with all their forms and stories would be ruinous and, for me, just plain false, nonsense. No one escapes moral compromise or lives without a tincture of hypocrisy. That itself is an idea that religions cannot seem to admit as honestly as I would hope. We are not sinners to be redeemed. I want no redemption or forgiveness. I want to make these facts of life livable, something I can manage to bring into every good thing I seek. Without the strife there's nothing.

So the second story. It's about how Vice-President Pence is offended that we are offended that his wife the art teacher chooses to work in a Christian school where, "The school’s employment application asks applicants to initial a passage stating that they will "live a personal life of moral purity.” The “moral misconduct” that disqualifies potential employees includes “heterosexual activity outside of marriage (e.g., premarital sex, cohabitation, extramarital sex), homosexual or lesbian sexual activity, polygamy, transgender identity, any other violation of the unique roles of male and female, sexual harassment, use or viewing of pornographic material or websites, and sexual abuse or improprieties toward minors as defined by Scripture and federal or state law.”"

Let's not mince words here. These people _are_ Christians because they say they are. There isn't anything like a "real" or "true" Christianity just because you too by be offended by theirs. I am often offended by Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, you name it, just about everyone who practices or claims some belief or behavior on the basis of their religious affiliation that I find less than commendable. I have no qualms about feeling offended or how my feelings and thoughts are matters of judgment. We all judge, no matter what we claim, and the issue at hand is so what about that.

Let's return to Pence. I know, I know but this isn't about that story. It's about what that story claims. This school claims to offer "religious education" and that, I assert, is an oxymoron. Pence wants us not to be offended by what they believe. I am merely offended _that_ they believe though _what_ they believe is reprehensible and moronic. It's not as if I don't have opinions. You may notice this as we continue.

There is no such thing as "religious education" though plainly we can be educated _about_ religion. There is only religious inculcation, even within the most critical and self-examining traditions. Christian scholastics, Buddhist logicians, Kashmiri Shavites---not _one_ them is willing in the end to change their views on the basis of further evidence and experiment.

Further, religious views are not merely captive of language or vocabulary. Rather, the problem is that the method of enquiry does not permit subversion _as the method of enquiry_. And Madhyamaka Buddhist method notwithstanding, they invariably reach their desired conclusions. Madhyamaka is built on the theory of impasse or prasanga, which claims that all argument ends without ultimate certainty. However, ultimate uncertainty is ultimately true---and what if it's not? It's not merely _that_ question that pushes the matter forward it is that provisional-only worlds undermine their claims of what Buddhas know. However they cherish human beings, they are not humanists bent upon the acknowledgement that we reach no "awakened" end game that leaves us all flawed, incomplete, and shadowed. The claim of awakened beings is anti-human, it is sexism and classism, it is merely false, religious nonsense---and, worse, it is dangerous for its manipulations.

The humanist cannot claim the methodologies of skepticism and incomplete knowledge are superior except insofar as they refuse the privilege endemic to religious conclusions. Matters are as true as the best evidence invites us to experiment with the notion of truth. This doesn't mean that everything is opinion or that there is no such thing as "truth." Rather it means that the processes of discovery are themselves subjects of inquiry _and_ that the best (provisional) conclusions are reached when evidence is examined without predisposition for certain outcomes.

As much as the religious might employ strategies of doubt, their ultimate end is self-verification and the reclamation of basic dogmatic assertions; to wit, conclusions are foregone _because_ they are religious objectives. You're not about to convince the Dalai Lama that there's self anymore than the Pope will admit that Jesus was merely human and did not rise from the dead. Don't equivocate over whether this is allegory or symbolic language---the claims themselves are not _replaceable_ no matter what questions are asked or evidence revealed. When Einstein pulled the rug from under Sir Issac, well, that was that: certain _fundamental_ claims in Newton's theories were understood to be faulty or just plain false. What people believe is not the same as what we might discover to be the better truth we can share.

What's at stake is not mere veridical conclusion. "Truths" invoke _feelings_ that may have nothing to do with being rational. How we prefer to feel or what we feel may be all the truth we need to believe some or another truth. But how truth makes us feel may have nothing to do with the facts, with truths we agree are the true explanation. Remember that Charles Darwin withheld his theory of natural selection because he rightly feared that the _facts_ of his discovery would prove deeply disturbing to theists, offend their sensibilities, and provoke backlash. He was right. Again.

Religion comes hand in hand with tender sensibilities; it is the place where we keep many of our most cherished desires, preferences, and feelings about family, tradition, history, our identities. When we are offended it is itself an insight into how we have been made and can make ourselves human. Whatever else might be said, to be human is to explore what moves us to feel, to think, to contend with our mortal selves. Without the contest, the challenges, and contradictions, I have no reasons left to live. Love is not enough even if we can hope to love more and better. Life's never just one thing. It's a maze, a prism, a mirror of selves unfinished, incomplete, and journeying until they are annihilated by the gift of life that made them.