Got into a pretty heated and long discussion though PMs and e-mails about my definition of religion and the morality of being here in Angeles and stuff like that. I was so enthralled by it and it reminded me of some of my college studies I thought I would share some of these thoughts.
This column will probably be way too deep for most and if you’re not in the mood for some very philosophical debate I encourage you to leave this page and go to one of our galleries and not worry about this drivel.
However if you want a laugh or some serious stuff to read, venture forth my brothers…
It has long been known that Alice in Wonderland is a giant metaphore for religion. You can find this relationship even in popular movies like Dogma and The Matrix.
While most refer to the rabbit hole or the tale of the Walrus and the Charpenter I choose for this column to look at the trial scene itself and compare there.
In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll wrote of a trail in which the Knave of Hearts was on trial for some petty crime. “The Queen of Hearts, she made some tarts, All on a summer day: The Knave of Hearts, he stole those tarts And took them quite away!” All evidence during his trial sounded futile, as the pre-drawn conclusion seemed to be death. The Queen of Hearts, every moment she got, shouted out gleefully “Off with his head!”
The White Rabbit, acting as prosecutor, was responsible for the damning evidence, which started to pile up against the nervous Knave. While Alice watched and tried to make sense of the trial, the macabre scene continued undaunted.
The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?” he asked.
“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
That is what I will try to do here to explain my viewpoints. To actually go to the beginnings of my faith, my sense of the word religion, and try to explain it in a few words.
What relation, if any, does the literal meaning of the word “religion” have to us? The choice for us is to simply stand dumbfounded, like Alice, or try and make sense of our lives and become our own best character witnesses.
The comparison of this fictional scene to defining religion seems appropriate. For is not the relationship between God and us a trial, with its opening arguments, numerous character witnesses, a prosecutor, and the final closing statements?
We’re taught by religious scholars that those who excel at “re-reading, re-choosing, and re-binding” to that relationship, have the better chance of a favorable verdict from whatever jury might pass judgement on them.
Continuing to act as prosecutor against the Knave, the White Rabbit read what appeared to be an obscure irrelevant poem. Afterward, the King triumphantly exclaimed to the court. “That’s the most important piece of evidence we’ve heard yet,” said the King, rubbing his hands: “so now let the jury—“
“If any of them can explain it,” said Alice “I’ll give him a sixpence. I don’t believe there’s an atom of meaning in it.”
The jury all wrote down, on their slates, “She doesn’t believe there’s an atom of meaning in it,” but none of them attempted to explain the poem.
“If there’s no meaning in it,” said the King, “that saves a world of trouble, you know, as we needn’t try to find any.”
This scene in a child’s book explains the nature of my concept of the word religion. To define religion only seems non-sequitor. To try and find significance in my relationship between any Ultimate Source and me lessens the importance of the search and the important evidence gathering, much less the validity of any end trial.
Many religious leaders have searched for some meaning to religion and found what they declare is the meaning. They then insisted that others adopt that same meaning and brought untold misery to those of other beliefs. Bloodshed and torture became common instruments in the enforcement of the leaders’ idea of the correct religion. At all costs, the Christian zealot must convince heathens and atheists that God exists, in an attempt to save their souls. In true reciprocity, at all costs, the atheist works to convince the Christian that the belief in God is but a childish and primitive superstition, doing enormous harm to the cause of true social progress. The two will combat endlessly.
The denotative meaning of religion, “re-read, re-choose, and re-bind”, however, does have a certain draw for me. For instead of waiting for God to descend from on high, as many denominational religions profess He will, I feel I should deliberately create a sense of an Ultimate Source within myself. This “sense” will not come from rational thought processes. It will come from re-choosing to acknowledge my connection to life. It will be strengthened through re-binding myself to this connection through meditation and contemplation. And it will become unbreakable through re-reading and re-studying the holy texts that describe many religious practices. One book alone can never do this, be it the Bible, the Torah, or the Koran.
An observation that is attributed to Thomas Aquinas says, “Timeo hominem unius libri” or “I fear the man of one book.” Centuries ago, Aquinas knew those basing important issues on a single source generate a spectrum of human response that runs from fanaticism to ignorance.
In A History of God, Karen Armstrong writes that the increase in technology has lessened the importance of the link between people and religion. “One of the reasons why religion seems irrelevant today is that many of us no longer have the sense that we are surrounded by the unseen. Our scientific culture educates us to focus our attention on the physical and material world in front of us. This method of looking at the world has achieved great results. One of its consequences, however, is that we have, as it were, edited out the sense of the “spiritual” or the “holy” which pervades the lives of people in more traditional societies at every level and which was once an essential component of our human experience of the world.”
Is this misguided editing? Perhaps not if it eliminates the bloodshed and torture that plagued people in earlier centuries and continues to torment them in many parts of the world today, where zealots and idiots use violence to spread their belief systems.
However to completely eradicate and ignore this connection to life and God can become dangerous. As Armstrong goes on to write: “By the beginning of the nineteenth century, atheism was definitely on the agenda. The advances in science and technology were creating a new spirit of autonomy and independence which led some to declare their independence of God. This was the century in which Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud forged philosophies and scientific interpretations of reality which had no place for God.”
There is a story that one day in Auschwitz, a group of Jews put God on trial. They charged him with cruelty and betrayal. Like Job, they found no consolation in the usual answers to the problem of evil and suffering in the midst of this current obscenity. They could no longer find any excuse for God, no extenuating circumstances, so they found him guilty and, presumably, worthy of death. The Rabbi pronounced the verdict. Then he looked up and said the trial was over: it was time for the evening prayer.
The original idea for this column came quick. However, the execution came, as always, much slower since there had to be time to distill the books on religion with the writings of Great Teachers and the belief systems instilled over the length of my life. The essence of my definition of religion can be summed up in the debate between the occidental agnostic and the Western positivist.
The occidental agnostic will say, “By simple Aristotelian logic, we know that either God and therefore religion exists or he and it doesn’t, but we do not have confirming evidence one way or the other. Hence our only rational recourse is to suspend judgement on the matter until further evidence becomes available.”
Suspending judgement is a feeble approach to solving the question of the existence of some Higher Force. Rather than retreat form the essential question, I liken myself to the Western logical positivist, though perhaps for different reasons. If asked whether or not God and therefore religion exists, the logical positivist declares the question meaningless because the word “God” is not clearly defined.
Now, if the question really has no meaning, then I would be quite happy, since then in a truly Taoist frame of mind I would reply: “If there’s no meaning in it, that saves a world of trouble, you know, as we needn’t try to find any.”