Good ReligionSteven Lieberman
Enough of politics… This season has created division, disparagement, and indigestion. For today’s blog, let’s talk about something noncontroversial: religion.
A couple of disclaimers just to know where I am coming from: Some intellectuals detest religion. They feel it is medieval, codified superstition, coercive and, in the final analysis, just kinda silly.
Other intellectuals are extremely dismissive of all other religions save their own. Theirs has the rigors of intellectual legitimacy, while others are pagan at best, power and enslavement vehicles at worst.
Then there are cats like me.
I love religion. All religions. Yep… even the ones that are “disfavored” by others, I still find beauty. There is a transmutative nature to us silly humans and our ability to create a cosmology that also instills guidance in life.
I also like philosophy… To be honest, my area of interest in philosophical pursuits has not been to find the answer to the “good” as most philosophers or religious ethicists have for the majority of time we have been pondering such things. My interest has been to discern, or at the very least, see how others have discerned the idea of “freedom”.
You see… at a very basic level I don’t trust the validity of people, especially people who have egos and agendas.
I truly believe in self-interest.
I also know what I don’t know… and seek counsel from those who supposedly do. Then I question (rigorously) their advice.
Let’s talk about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave:
Plato came up with this cool concept. He believed (or at least articulated) that everything existed in an ethereal world in a state of perfection. A chair existed somewhere in “perfection”. A person existed in some netherworld in “perfection”. An idea existed somewhere as the “perfect” idea. These perfect “forms” were called just that, Forms. Inside of a cave was humanity. They were chained to the ground and forcibly kept looking at the back wall of the cave. Behind them (between the opening of the cave and their backs) was a huge bonfire. Between the bonfire and their backs the “Forms” drift around aimlessly. These Forms cast a shadow on the back wall of the cave that the humans observe. Some chained people are able to predict… or at least appear to be able to predict… the way the shadows will move across the cave wall. These people are honored and respected. Others just are overwhelmed at the seemingly randomness of the movements. A philosopher is able to break his mighty cables, turn around and see the Forms for what they are and, frankly, ignore them. She is far more interested in walking out of the cave altogether and basking in the “real” sunlight.
Sounds kinda cool, no?
It is an interesting way of explaining our human dilemma. As an aside, Plato suggested that philosophers, those who could break their chains, should be the “Philosopher Kings” in their societies and rule pretty much as a dictatorship. Democracy was a dirty word to Plato and his student, Aristotle. See what I mean about self-interest?
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While the Allegory of the Cave is interesting… it is just that… an allegory. It was not meant to be a scientific study of nature, though some have done just that.
I see religion in much of the same light. Be it Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism (Mahayana, Therevada, or even Bay-Area), there is a certain amount of poetics necessary to explain cosmological concepts.
Even my area of religious interest: Aboriginal and nativist religions of the American West, requires a firm understanding that narratives, even fantastical narratives, drive cosmological concepts. These concepts, when put into a moral framework, create the conditions necessary for a society to function without the large-scale imposition of force by a controlling government.
People behave because it is simply “expected” that people will behave.
When we look at the cosmological complexity of Catholicism (one of my other favorites… I went to a Catholic university, and some of it clearly rubbed off) we see a certain level of elegance that goes far beyond the structural nature of the Church itself. Specifically, I have always been fascinated with the level of depth that thinkers placed on the hierarchy of angels. From regular pedestrian angels to their commanders, the archangels, and even specifically named angels with eternal occupations in God’s Kingdom… Angels have inspired us, terrified us and, in our modern age, comforted us. They also serve the same roles as the “Great Tree Spirit”, The Brahman Ataman, and The Pantheons of gods on Olympus. They are our guides, theoretical or allegorical, who help us through our brief journey on this planet.
We should be open to their guidance, whether it is from our own faith tradition or that of others. As I mentioned above… while I don’t trust others… sometimes they still do have lessons to teach me, even if that was not their actual intent.