Religion, Art, Morality Part 2


Note: this was the second in a series of discussions about religion, art and morality. It is rather lengthy so I have not posted much else while I compile this diatribe.

There is a loss of genuine emotion in society; people have been made numb. It is a culture-wide phenomena where institutions of many stripes whittle down emotions and instinct altogether. Human characteristics are replaced with rulebooks and programable codes — tangible items that are quantifiable. If it fits in the accountant’s book it is real; if it can’t be measured it is ignored. With unmeasurable abstractions such as love, compassion and honesty out of the way the door is open to protect child abusers who are measurably expensive to defend in court.

Think of the Catholic rule regarding condoms and HIV. I am sure lots of study has been done on the theology of pregnancy and I do not care to address it. Whether you argue for contraception or against it you still fall into the trap that most of us fall into. We start playing the game by institutional rules.  Ancient institutions have set the stage for all discussion by establishing ownership of the issue through the body of scholarship they have generated. The tone and quality of debate always reverts to the institutional model because it is the familiar, go-to resource for discussion. Most of us are novices in this environment despite the familiar seeming context and are easily dismissed by the professional scholars of the church.

God Jesus Ghost

They have created a structure of theological scholarship that is based upon a central assumption: God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost actually exist. And, that the Jesus third of the triumvirate once existed in human form from a virgin’s unwitting supernatural pregnancy, died, was reborn in mystical form, and sits on God’s right hand (cue the eyebrows). The central mystery of the church is its foundation which guides all discussion.

I respect the right of anyone to have whatever belief they choose. I am not qualified to judge the validity of one mystery over any other. The appeal of mystery is that it is mysterious. It’s the bureaucracy that flows from the belief in a mystery, that is the problem.

The Christian religion is an inverted pyramid resting on this central point of belief: Jesus exists. Early practitioners of what became Christianity took all the best elements of all the popular religions of the time and re-packaged them under this marketing tool: Jesus really existed, he is not just a myth like the other gods. The metaphorical conception of “god” became actual. The fledgling church merged all the various start-up versions of an “actual” deity into one by codifying the basic myth and dogma. Paul managed to get them all on the same page through his letter-writing campaign that has become the bulk of the New Testament. Over time, layer upon layer of argument, justifications, rules and edicts were built up on top of the point of belief guided by the ‘revealed’ word of a deity. For example, the concept of a ‘Trinity,’ was added to the pyramid in the fourth century, it is not mentioned in the scriptures. The rational for each theological question requires academic answers that reach deeply into the bureaucratic structure for justification, latching onto preceding ‘revelations’ and arguments based upon the central assumption at the inverted pyramid’s point. Each answered question and its associated scholarship solidifies into a new layer of the structure extending slightly beyond the previous layer making an up-side-down pyramid shape. The inverted pyramid manifests as a striking facade, even though it is constructed solely from rhetoric based upon belief in a mystery. Followers refer to the prior massive volumes of rhetoric as if the bulk of the rhetoric itself verifies the belief. The rhetorical weight is so precarious that even a mere bird landing on the top could throw it out of equilibrium; all that weight pressing upon a point of mystery makes it unstable. External supports are necessary to keep the facade from collapsing under its own weight. The inverted pyramid now rests on those supports; it no longer needs the foundational structure to balance all of its proclamations. The new foundation provides a solid, material, footing so a single point of balance isn’t required. The Church has become fully supported by buttresses. The tiny point of belief in a mystery has done its job, it is now a point of reference, not of structure.

[For those who don’t know, a buttress is the structure on the outside of the cathedral that counters the weight of the arches in the roof. Stone cathedrals require a big interior space, but a roof covering that much empty space is too heavy for walls alone to support, so architects created the buttress which holds the weight. One type of buttress acquired the name “flying buttress” because they look like wings attached to the exterior wall of the cathedral. The Presbyterian church of my youth had small buttresses that didn’t really fly and were purely ornamental; the building had a steel superstructure that did not require a buttress. These superficial flourishes of the architect were a facade applied to the structure to make it seem more grand than it really was. As an architectural design feature, it enhanced the feeling of awe as one approaches the building. Even the facade of the church wore a facade.]

Now that the inverted pyramid of Christian religion is a structure resting on buttressing supports independent of its foundation point, all sorts of irrelevant arguments can be made that are totally reliant upon buttresses alone. The inverted pyramid continues to grow but each argument based upon a buttress diminishes the significance of the main point.

Magritte

As I write this description I can’t help but envision what a picture of it would look like. First, we take a photograph of one of the great pyramids of Egypt, cut it out of its background, flip it over and have it rest on a new surface. As we try to do this we realize that the point is missing, it has been worn away over time so you have to position the pointless image so that it appears to rest upon the empty space where the point would have been if it still existed.  At this moment the image looks rather surreal — like a rock or bowler hat in a Magritte painting — just floating above the ground. Then, we find pictures of cathedrals and copy just the buttresses (flying or otherwise) and paste them into our image so that it looks like the buttress holds the up-side-down pyramid off the ground.

Okay, so, now we have a Magritte-like pointless pyramid inverted over the ground, being supported by an odd combination of whatever buttresses we could find. As we look at our collage we realize that the missing point metaphorically describes the theology of the church accurately, but alas, not so historically.  So, we need to go back and examine what the point actually is.

I became a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church for a few years. I like their philosophy to an extent because it encourages its members to find their own spiritual path and it avoids dogma. There was a major controversy in our small rural congregation about a sign one of its members had donated. The sign said, “God Is Love.” U.U.s don’t deny the existence of God but they don’t require belief in it either. The Humanists in the congregation objected to the sign and the believers defended it. I was on the Humanist’s side saying that the sign should read: “Love is god.” My version supported the possibility that a god did exist but didn’t state it directly. Our version converted their declaration that: “God is …” to the suggestion of a metaphorical god which includes the possibility of an actual God. Maybe this conflict provides a solution to our pointless problem.

If we are going to finish our collage-style illustration we will need to fill in the missing point. We will need to illustrate “God, Jesus & The Holy Ghost.” That is, after all, the point of this hodgepodge of supports and structure. How are we going to do that? We could photoshop some more rocks into the shape of a point and paste it into the picture but that would be like saying that the point is the same thing as the structure: argument, dogma, justification. Is God & Co. the same as the church? Is God & Co. an unwieldy compilation of arguments built upon itself then supported by supplemental constructions?

I am going to ask you to imagine as John Lennon did in his song “Imagine.” Imagine “Love” as the new point of the pyramid. Love is god. Is that too radical an idea? What happens if we just go with the possibility that love is love? Would the church structure change? Take for example the condom situation, if love is love then there is no longer justification to deny life-saving condoms to lovers. That would take a big unnecessary chip out of the pyramid. All the other arguments built upon those justifications would become invalid too, causing a large destabilizing gap.

The thing is though, buttresses have staying power. The buttresses in this metaphor are the assets of the church: its buildings, its gold, its art, its power, and the appeal of its ritual and its bureaucracy. These tangible assets support the inverted facade of an ancient religion.  Only surface appearance seems to matter because that is what is celebrated in the mass. The substance behind the facade is hidden and it is used to protect child rapists; it is corrupt. Its own “Theo”-logic has whittled away its point. Faith clouds more than academic judgment here because it ignores genuine love of fellow mankind: our children. Wouldn’t Love provide a more substantial point to start from?

Imagine if we get rid of the old structures altogether and change the shape of our new construction from a pyramid into a ball of light like the sun and make the center “love” then place this ball of love in the middle of a radiant matrix so that every idea, justification and person could have direct access to the center instead of some intercessional bureaucracy. What would that be like? Could you then wear a condom if it kept you from dying? Could Love be God?

So, what's on your mind?