Thursday, May 07, 2009

I return - to a religious mishmash

Jesus the cutely meditating Essene Nazarean

Thought I'd lost my blog there.

I've been awol for a while, trying to write essays for The Faith Hope, The Book.

This leads me to read all sorts of stuff I wouldn't usually read. Journey of the Magi by Paul William Roberts, has some good humorous bits in it, but it's an odd and unconvincing mixture, part travel novel, part speculative thingy [about inter alia the influence of Zoroastrianism on Judeaism and so Christianity], part satori, part mockery of Marco Polo, part spruik for Zoroastrianism and eastern-style Christianity as opposed to the nasty materialist Roman Catholics, and I'm becoming less and less interested in the evidence-free dogmatism - for example, on Zoroaster, he writes:
It is... worth repeating the traditional account of the prophet's life - since there is no doubt that he lived one, and lived it under very human conditions, too.
He then goes on to point out that nobody knows when and where the guy lived, and that claims about the dates of his life vary by a millenium or so! In fact nothing is known about his life, and he seems to be as shadowy a figure as Homer. The 'no doubt' claim is simply absurd. What's more, Roberts also has no doubt that Jesus was a 'pure Essene rabbi' - having read three quarters of the book now, I'm still waiting for a skerrick of evidence to support this. Many of Roberts' conjectures are interesting and even ingenious, and certainly he knows far more about Judaic and early Christian history than I do, but I detect a clear bias. Organised religion generally repels him, but he's drawn to the unorthodox, idiosyncratic religions, or dimensions of religion, such as Sufism, Zoroastrianism, Eastern Christianity and Essene Judaism. He depicts Christianity as being hijacked in the west by an orthodox, power-hungry clique who divested of its real essence. He writes of Eastern Christianity as the Truth and Western Christianity as the Lie. Naturally this doesn't convince me, as I don't find anything 'true' about religion, though it might be sometimes appropriate to talk about authenticity versus cynicism or disingenuousness. Clearly though it's the authoritarianism of established religion that gets my goat, while I find individual mystics merely quaint, or sad - and sometimes, admittedly, impressive, For example, I'm not sure if Leonard Cohen would want to call himself a mystic but he has that aura of calm and strength about him which is just what you need from a guru, and it clearly engenders great respect and love. And does no harm that I can think of, which is far more than you can say about organised religion.

So I've been reading the passages in Roberts' book which deal with the histories of these religious movements with increasing skepticism, and boredom. And when I got to this infuriating passage I really wondered whether it was worth continuing. He is writing about his differences with Dead Sea Scrolls scholar Barbara Thiering:

As brilliant as many of her interpretations are, Thiering's major shortcoming is her inability to realize that the "Eastern" gnostic, or Magian, or Nazarean Essenes were not superstitious fools: they opposed Pauline Judaeo-Christianity for the very reason that, by removing doctrines and practices regarding the subjective experience of "Truth", it would end up as little more than the secular humanism Thiering herself seems to have arrived at - besides creating a society governed increasingly by political or personal expediency rather than eternal spiritual values and truths.
Now this really is a load of tosh. What are these 'eternal spiritual values and truths'? Apparently they're arrived at through doctrines and practices dealing with the subjective experience of truth. Basically he's lost himself in a mire of theological claptrap - amazing how you can do that in one short paragraph - and the onus is on him, as it is upon any theological spruiker, to let us know what these eternal spiritual values are. As for the political and personal expediency that, he intimates, flows from secular humanism, we've all heard that one before. It conveniently ignores the fact that all our laws are secular, and those that haven't been, historically, have generally been bad laws. Even if you look at the decalogue, the commandments that are most convincing and 'eternal'-seeming are the least 'spiritual' - thou shalt not lie, thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal. That's because they're based on a common-sense understanding of how we are to best survive and thrive as social beings.
I've been reading Geoffrey Robertson's important book Crimes Against Humanity, and in it he traces the history of human rights since the Universal Declaration, that monument to secular humanism, came out in 1948. As he points out, many nations with poor human rights records signed up to the document cynically believing it to be a paper tiger, but the tiger is beginning to grow some baby teeth. I think it has largely defeated claims about western bias and 'Asian values' and it still stands, in fact more so than ever, as a model to aim for, and to measure performance against. Enforcement is of course the primary problem, but the human rights model, it seems to me, has a solid basis in our practical understanding of what it is to lead a life of value. Whether they embody 'spiritual values', I don't know, as I've never understood what that word means, but they do embody 'eternal' values, at least for as long as human beings go on being human.



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