Thursday, December 13, 2007

Catatonically Speaking

Let’s get this out of the way right now: I am a non-theist. This does not mean I am an atheist or agnostic. An agnostic is one who questions the existence of god, indeed leaves room for the possibility that there might be a creator-deity of some sort. An atheist, of course, is an active non-believer. A non-theist, on the other hand, is a passive non-believer. Whereas the atheist energetically and even fiercely denies the existence of god, the non-theist cavalierly dismisses the concept as completely irrelevant to the overall design of things. A non-theist does not concern him or herself with fairy tales and fantasies like the believers, or theists, do, and does not cleave to the conceivable credibility of such illusions like an agnostic does. And a non-theist is not like an atheist whose disbelief is an agenda, an ideology unto itself. No, a non-theist simply goes about his or her life as though the god concept never existed to begin with.

So, while non-theism might seem like dogma to some, in reality it is more anti-dogma, because it doesn’t adhere to any creed at all - it simply posits the idea of no god, and leaves it at that. People who are non-theists don’t participate in any rituals, and nor do they vociferously proclaim their beliefs. Non-theists don’t really “do” anything, other than live their lives passively rejecting the god concept.

Religion, of course, has always been a complex and controversial subject. Mainstream religious discourse usually focuses on monotheism versus atheism or agnosticism, but what about deviants like myself who favor a non-theist, or even more interestingly, polytheist, approach? Do polytheists even exist anymore? Because frankly, I find polytheism vastly more fascinating than monotheism, and wish we’d return to honoring the gods of love, war, nature, and so on. Granted, we CAN honor such gods through acting lovingly and protecting nature, and so on, but I really relish the idea of polytheistic symbols and figureheads. I also find the ancient Aztec approach to religion intruiging - their complex practice merged polytheism with shaminism and astronomy and so forth. Granted, the Aztecs participated in some unsavory human sacrifice practices, but hey - I can think of some humans I’d like to sacrifice, so maybe there is something to it after all.

My affinity for non-theism arose out of my interest in Tibetan Buddhism. For a few years, I was an actual Tibetan Buddhist practitioner - I even took vows in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha - until I realized I was merely supplanting one ritualized religion (Christianity) for another. I had long been deeply disaffected with Christianity and its myriad hypocrises - or, rather, the hyopcrises of many Christian adherents. I found Buddhism to be more palatable than Christianity - and indeed, in many ways it is. Through my Buddhist studies, however, I did discover another dimension to Christianity - Christian mysticism. And so thanks to the writings of Trappist Monk Thomas Merton (who also followed Zen precepts and who advocated inter-religious dialogue), I somewhat made peace with certain aspects of Christianity, through realizing that a more mystical, cerebral approach to all religion can free us from the shackles of mundane literal religious practice. For religion without the spiritual dimension is what most religious people seem to practice - they endure the rigors of ritual without attaching any metaphysical, existential meaning to it all. And from this benighted refusal to imbue religious practice with a spiritual dimension, violence naturally ensues. Note that I’m not just referring to literal violence - we all know that the world is rife with religious wars - but also metaphorical violence: the violence of existential depression.

So anyway, I still have a lot of love for Tibetan Buddhism and its fierce fidelity to principles of peace, as well as its colorful pagentry, and indeed, I continue to draw much wisdom from the philosophical tenets of Tibetan Buddhism and Zen. I also, of course, draw wisdom from aspects of mystical Islam, Judaism, Sufism, Hinduism, and so on, just as I draw wisdom from the Surrealists, and the Dadaists, and the Symbolists, and the existentialists, and any number of secular philosophies.

But I am no longer an adherent of any religion because I don’t need it to affirm my existence. Life is love - I really do think it’s that simple - and so we must practice this ideal as forcefully as we can. I don’t need the idea of god to affirm that - indeed, for me, such a concept interferes.

Within this issue are pieces which delve into the multifarious dimensions of monotheism, polytheism, atheism, and non-theism. There are quaintly reverent pieces, quietly contemplative pieces, and wildly irreverent pieces. As you read these pieces, which include fiction, poetry, essays, satire, and polemics, you are encouraged to have an open mind, from whatever camp you inhabit. Some non-religious types can be just as closed-minded as some religious types, and I do think it’s important to ackowledge all facets within the realm of religious discourse. Even as I decry the tryanny of political correctness and loudly proclaim the inanity and insanity of religious belief, I am also ingrained with a certain tolerance toward sincerely religious types, those who persistently practice benevolence and compassion. Don’t get me wrong, of course - we should not coddle religious radicals such as theocrats and creationists. I would never suggest that, because these extremists (of all religious ideologies) are the root of much evil that occurs in the world.

Anyway, may the gods and goddesses/non-gods and non-goddesses smile on you as you make your way through Issue Seven.

1 comment:

Daniel said...

Congrats to you Alison, on a another great issue of The Clockwise Cat!

It's intriguing that we both have been influenced by Thomas Merton, though we are at the opposite ends of the cosmos in understanding the ultimate.

Have you read Merton's very short booklet called Contemplative Prayer? I read it over every year or two to inspire and challenge me.

Here's a Merton-like long quote from Paul Tillich that you might find interesting:
Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned…But man, in contrast to other living beings, has spiritual concerns—cognitive, aesthetic, social, political. Some of them are urgent, often extremely urgent, and each of them as well as the vital concerns can claim ultimacy for a human life or the life of a social group….”You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Deut 6:5. This is what ultimate concern means and from these words the term “ultimate concern” is derived. They state unambiguously the character of genuine faith, the demand of total surrender to the subject of ultimate concern…For faith is a matter of freedom. Freedom is nothing more than the possibility of centered personal acts…Faith Is not an act of any of his rational functions, as it is not an act of the unconscious, but it is an act in which both the rational and the nonrational elements of his being are transcended….Man is able to understand in an immediate personal and central act the meaning of the ultimate, the unconditional, the absolute, the infinite. This alone makes faith a human potentiality. Human potentialities are powers that drive toward actualization. Man is driven toward faith by his awareness of the infinite to which he belongs, but which he does not own like a possession…The unconditional concern which is faith is the concern about the unconditional. The infinite passion, as faith has been described, is the passion for the infinite…the ultimate concern is concern about what is experienced as ultimate.

This character of faith gives an additional criterion for distinguishing true and false ultimacy. The finite which claims infinity without having it (as, eg. a nation or success) is not able to transcend the subject-object scheme. For that is the difference between true and idolatrous faith. In true faith the ultimate concern is a concern about the truly ultimate; while in idolatrous faith preliminary, finite realities are elevated to the rank of ultimacy.

The human heart seeks the infinite because that is where the finite wants to rest. In the infinite it sees its own fulfillment. This is the reason for the ecstatic attraction and the fascination of everything in which ultimacy is manifest.

If faith is understood as belief that something is true, doubt is incompatible with the act of faith. If faith is understood as being ultimately concerned, doubt is a necessary element in it. It is a consequence of the risk of faith.
Paul Tillich

*Catalonia-speaking (in other words in the spirit of Miguel Unamuno, the Spanish philosopher),

Daniel Wilcox