by Randall S. Frederick
In Western thought, and especially Christian thinking, there is a strong compulsion towards objective, timeless truths because they provide us with a sense of stability and security in an unstable world. Accepting certain creeds or doctrines defines who we are to others, who we can be located and groped with, and ultimately how we see ourselves. We do this for religious as well as sociological reasons. I am second-generation Korean. I attend a Baptist church. I am a vegan. Each are political, social, spiritual, and cognitive declarations. We are who we are as much as who we are not. Where it relates to the religious life, by making pledges or certain confessions, even at times praying, our religious alignment defines not only who we are in relation to one another but who we are in relation to God – ultimately one of the ‘chosen’ or one of the ‘damned’. Along the way to the station of final destination, how we live our lives and go through the quotidian, sometimes meanderingly pedestrian, experience is facilitated by our creeds and doctrinal statements. Nowhere is this more present than the United States.
The Declaration of Independence, a founding document in and sacred text of the American mythology begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”, foreverafter emphasizing the importance of detached ‘truths’ which are self-evidently and objectively manifest. The American landscape of religion is defined by this positional statement. Though political in nature, and directed chiefly at England, the Declaration of Independence has become a framing device for American religion in that we still search for objective, self-evident truths. Detached from one another, we define ourselves in relation to one another as well as in relation to God. Note the irony: it is apart from one another that we define ourselves, others, and God in pursuit of truths detached from ourselves and our experiences, detached from others and their experience, even detached from God (as we see and define our respective “God”) and, going a step further, from sacred texts and traditions. This, we are told, is the only authentic reality; deviation from these scripts of isolation, especially use of the imagination, is a violation of the ways that our communities encode themselves and is punishable by accusations of heresy, political upheaval, and suspicious behavior.
This movement towards rational, objective, self-evident capitalized Truth among the American Founders in the 18th Century became even more important at the turn of the 19th Century. America became first industrialized, then commercialized, and loyalties of the tribe began to divide; one accepted technological advancement or relied on tradition. New visitors became new neighbors, and cultures in conflict began to clash. Sons married daughters who didn’t cook dinner the way mama used to, and traditions became increasingly important to an ever-evolving union of states comprised of autonomous individuals. “Us” versus “Them” became standard practice – racially, culturally, and spiritually. Our parents needed assurance that they mattered, that their culture mattered, that their tradition mattered, and by passing on elitism and racism – even if oppressed – they assured themselves that a successive generation would continue to remain pure, keep the faith, and respect their elders. This was, as might be clear, an exercise in fear and insecurity. It is a symptom of oppression, and not of growth, integrity, strength, vitality, or – for our purposes – creativity.
By holding onto the past, we are blind to the potential of the future. Chaos makes us nervous and we return to the familiar, then we entrench, fortify, and attack. This is not a creative effort, but the efforts of war. And, it cannot be noted strongly enough, those who valued their own experience were swept into the trashbin. True value came when other free-thinking individuals submitted their insight to yours. Claims of mythos and religion were dismissed for, in the end, what evidence could an idea present to verify itself? And what value did myth truly have if it could not replicate itself and contribute productivity to the machine of progress?
Karen Armstrong, in her 1999 essay “Faith and Modernity” writes that
Today people feel that before they live a religious life, they must first satisfy themselves intellectually of its metaphysical claims. This is sound scientific practice: first you must establish a principle before you can apply it. But it is not the way that religion has traditionally worked.
The long history of religion, or the relation of humanity with the cosmos, arcs toward uncertainty. Many point to the nadir right before the Axial Age as the unsettling circumstance necessary for philosophy to “slingshot” forward – the Jewish priest Ezekiel begins to re-appropriate the Levitical teachings, literally rewriting the textbook of faith and practice; Plato assembles the basis for pax romana with his treatise The Republic; Confucius and the teachings of the Buddha begin to divide, then unite the East. Coming out of the exciting mélange of creativity of the Axial Age, who can blame them? Presented with so many choices, we must organize, categorize, and dismiss. Once we reach a conclusion, our self-authentication dismisses all challenges to our worldview. Indeed, those who challenge us are to be executed.
Jesus, though unique in the Christian narrative, goes a step further with these ideas, mixing, borrowing, and blending them until Paul, still uncertainly hammering out a system of ethical behavior, makes the reasonable decision to begin codifying the Christian teachings. His goal? To police different interpretations of Jesus’ teachings and to cut off the rise of Gnosticism. After Paul, the Christians no longer at war with the State, thanks to Constantine continue to recodify their faith by making safe choices on behalf of their benefactor, Rome. The Christians, having begun the migration from provincial chaos to the stability of Rome develop a series of canons, creeds, and councils toward certainty. If there were any doubt of their importance, with the fall of Rome, the Christians find their creeds and canons validated. Even a great power like Rome may fall, but the Christian teachings will endure and see them through these terrible times. Though one might be inclined to see the Dark Ages differently, “civilization” was nursed back to health at the monastery until cultural challenges could once more renew their disagreements on the battlefield for this is the way religions traditionally treat creativity – but naming it as heresy, deviations, and damnable lies, then killing it when caustic argument fails to do the trick. It’s all we’ve ever known. After all, what Rome failed to accomplish with words, religion could finish with the sword. And so, even now, we go to war with those who refuse to think, feel, act, and believe like us. Given the weapons to do so, we will execute them with a swift vengeance and furious anger in the name of our God.
Religion wants tradition because it provides assurance that We are right and They are wrong, and so whoever speaks the longest and loudest – be it a political party, an environmental crisis, film studios, or a debate over gender roles – will win the day and create an ‘orthodox’, traditional, conventional, ‘nuclear’ family of ideas. If this fails, violence can be baptized in the blood of the marketing martyrs and high priesthood of punditry. Which are right. Always. Even as creativity, ingenuity, and innovation are suppressed, labeled as a ‘radical’ position, and swiftly executed.
Continued in pt. II (coming soon)