Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Theatrics of Organized Religion

There is never an end to my discovery of things I didn't know about early Judaism, Christianity and Samaritanism.  Part of what makes religion so interesting is that there is just so much that has been written about it - it diverts your eyes from the meaningless of actually being in the world.  When anyone of us goes into a McDonalds, when we clean our child's diaper, mow the lawn, break bread - none of these actions has any meaning.  Nevertheless it is to our betterment that various religions come along and offers us narratives and written testimonials which offer up something which each of our lives individual can never hope to have - truth.

Now of course when you go to a religious service - you will inevitably be told that this or that person was filled with the knowledge, truth, 'holy Spirit' of the blessed narratives which are counted as scripture.  The rabbi, priest or imam will inevitably make a connection that these saints or holy men became something more than Walmart shoppers by being made aware of the truth contained in the scriptures.  Of course they will inevitably stress that the key difference between saints and holy men and philosophers is that the 'good guys' followed this up with action - 'healing the sick,' caring for the poor etc. - and this in turn translated their otherwise meaningless existence into something worthwhile.

All of these 'lessons' are said with such assurance and conviction that most people in the pews actually believe it, even though very few of them will ever understand the truth contained in the scriptures let alone heal the sick.  The only person who seems to have any doubt is me.  I wonder to myself why it is that no one catches on to what is really going on here.  The real point of this 'lesson' is that as long as we live in the world our life has no meaning.  It is only once an artist comes along and adapts our empty existential carousing into something idealized and essentially untrue  - in short that we become a sign or symbol rather than real person - that we attain the blessed state promised us by religion.  

Why don't other people see this?  For instance whatever Jesus was it isn't what is described in the gospel.  This narrative is hagiographical.  It represents what Mark and later the other 'improvers' who came along after him decided to 'distill' from a historical event - however inaccurate.  It is amazing to see how much disagreement there was in antiquity over who or what Jesus was.  Nevertheless contemporary scholarship oftentimes acts as if some sort of 'historical understanding' can be taken from layer after layer of artistic license, embellishment and reworking.  

The point is that scholars are going entirely against the flow here.  The whole point of religion is to promise the faithful that they can give up history at the door.  The life of the saint has been entirely stripped from the reality of the actual person.  Indeed in its place we find the barest outline of the original person reshaped according to a template which was established thousands of years ago.  This is what religion promises to do for us.  It is almost written in a bold label on the packaging.  

I have often struggled with whether it is better to live your own life or strive after the ideal one proscribed to us by outside forces.  I say 'struggle' not because I think I could live my life in any way than I am - but because people ask me for advice and I sometimes don't know what to tell them.  The real truth is in my opinion is that our character is our fate.  We can't change what we are.  People who pretend that they could do otherwise just enjoy the attention they give to themselves when they deliberate.  Their lives are little more than a series of prolonged dramatic pauses.  

But that's also the funny thing.  We are stuck being who we are and yet so many of us enjoy pretending that it could be different.  The whole point of society is to give us the pretense that there are 'other options' besides dying in our own skin with the same awareness we always had since birth.  Now it is one thing if people carry on with this hyper-dramatic sense throughout their lives but it is another thing entirely when scholars seek to study this cultural phenomenon and 'take it seriously.'  What is there to take seriously?  The study of religion is little more than taking at face value the vain imagining of intellectual drag queens.

Yes to be certain there are books, traditions and customs which can be studied.  But let's be honest - there is no reality here.  Most of the writings of the Church Fathers are hysterically over indulgent flights of fancy.  They typically take a text which was written before them and twist them completely out of shape in order to make everything conform to the writers inherited presuppositions.  Yet if we good scholars go back to the earliest material and actually explain what they are telling us, the answer is quite simple - become an actor.  Learn to act the part of a 'good person' that is - memorize meaningless cliches, overused phrases and in general as a rule of thumb, master the art of hypocrisy.

I don't say this with any spite.  I am a hypocrite - that is an 'actor.'  We are all actors in one sense or another.  But religious gathering are particularly annoying because it seems everyone is trying so hard to outdo each other in demonstrating the real means by which we are all saved -  a highly developed dramatic sensibility.  The bottom line is that we don't matter.  God knows that, we know that.  But religious people have to pretend.  They gather together en masse in effect in order to demonstrate they are making progress getting rid of their 'old self' and putting on the 'new man.'  

Of course someone should tell these people that the magic only works if you succeed in becoming an anecdote - like Jesus.  You know 'the crucified guy,' they guy who died for our sins. Does anyone actually think about all the stuff that has become the foundation of our religion like the 'sin offering' stuff in the Epistle to the Romans?  There's a guy dying a horrible death and then there is Paul painting a masterpiece.

The point is that salvation only works if there's some guy writing a screenplay about your life.  Only then are you transformed into a holy symbol which can be used to convince other passive observers that 'un-selfing' yourself actually works.   It's a never ending chain of actors always looking for eager understudies.  Everything else is mysticism which translates to 'living in your own world.'  With this path you have acknowledge you will never matter and you will ultimately die alone.

So ready on the set everyone!

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Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
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