Crafting Religion: The Need

Before going into the second post in the Crafting Religion series, I’m going to briefly invite my readers who enjoy fantasy fiction to take a look at the pages on this blog which explore and contain links to my fantasy novels, if you haven’t already done so: The Green Stone Tower and The Star Mages.

Why do we need to craft religion? Why won’t the existing faiths suffice? Or, on the other hand, why can’t we do without religion altogether?

The answer to that second question is that the god sense isn’t going to disappear, and also that human beings are not exclusively rational beings, but have a need for ritual connection to the world as well as for cognitive understanding of it. I think we can certainly do without doctrinaire religious beliefs, and I also think that’s where we’re going. But there is a difference between doing without dogma and doing without myth, ritual, and the connection of the human spirit to the greater universe.

Regarding the first question (why the existing faiths won’t suffice), there is a general answer to that question and also specific answers as to why the need has become acute in recent centuries – and why new religions and new approaches to spirituality are springing up like mushrooms.

The general answer to why there is a need to craft religion is that we are living creatures moving through time. Although the truth revealed by the god sense is timeless and eternal, spirituality isn’t just about that truth. It’s about building a bridge between the eternal and the temporal, between the One and the Many, between All-That-Is and our own daily lives and ordinary consciousness. Because one end of that bridge is situated in a changing world, failure to craft religion leaves us, after a certain amount of time has passed and brought changes with it, encumbered by a bridge that can’t be used. In fact, it leaves us with a prison that only pretends to be a bridge.

Religions become stale. Their myths and metaphors cease to communicate the message they originally did. Worse, they become corrupted by the impulse of some human beings to assume the roles of deities (in effect) and exert power over others. This was an especially serious problem during the thousands of years when an alliance between religion and government was the norm. The state religion, whatever it might be, was charged with the purpose of upholding the authority of the state, which is a goal having little or nothing to do with the god sense and in fact one that profits from suppression of the god sense.

There are so many repetitions in history of this corruption of religions by secular power that it would be tedious to list all of them, from the adoption of Buddhism by the Indian Emperor Asoka to the formation of the Imperial Church by the Roman Emperor Constantine I and beyond. Modern history under regimes of religious freedom and separation of church and state, however, demonstrate that the corruption of initially sound and healthy religious practice – by this I mean mainly the degeneration from something that attempts to awaken the god sense to something that endeavors to suppress it – can happen without any involvement of the state, however much it’s accelerated and made more severe by that involvement. The symptoms of this corruption include hostility to other faiths and (usually even more so) to “heretical” versions of its own, doctrinal rigidity, and the use of coercive methods both physical (excommunication and banishment, or other penalties up to and including death) and myth-based (threats of hell or the equivalent for dissidents and unbelievers) to lock belief and behavior into controllable patterns.

It certainly has helped this problem to separate religion from government and thus deny to religious authorities any secular enforcement powers, but the only real cure for the problem is to periodically (or, better, constantly) renew and restore the input from the god sense. Flush out the pipes. Clear away the deadwood. Promote a turbulent storm of heresy. Let a hundred flowers bloom, however much the priests, bishops, popes, mullahs, imams, Brahmins, and assorted poo-bahs may loathe the scent of them. In fact, the main benefit of separating church and state, aside from reducing the occurrence of religious war, has been denying to any religious authority the power to prevent people from crafting religion as the god sense (however well or poorly perceived and understood) prompts.

Aside from this general desideratum that religion and spirituality should be constantly shifting, evolving, and changing, we are in a particular situation in the modern world (which in this context I would date from about the 15th century) that calls for a radical shift in mythic consciousness. The old myths have not just become stale, but one of the central ideas of man’s place in the world shared by all religions that emerged during the age of agrarian civilization has become obsolete. That idea was of man as the ruler or exploiter of nature, entitled to make use of anything in the natural world as he wished. A concurrent and related idea was the subordination of women to men. Neither of these ideas is any longer viable. Advancing technology gives us so much power over nature that we have become a serious threat to the health of the planetary ecosystem and hence to our own survival. One result of that expanded power has been the proliferation of human numbers to the point where the only practical benefit of subjugating women to male rule, increased birth rates, has become a liability instead of an asset.

But moving away from these ideas on a one-time basis will not suffice; we cannot achieve a healthy spirituality by, for example, replacing existing religions with some New Age or Neopagan eco-savvy and feminist faith. The pace of change in our material circumstances – in a sense, the speed of time itself as it impacts the validity of myth – has increased. The only way to have a body of myth and ritual that serves to connect our lives as they are currently lived with the eternal unity is to have one that is constantly evolving. Input from the god sense needs to be a river, not a trickle.

This of course raises the question of how to accomplish that, which will be the subject of the next post in this series.

 

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Crafting Religion: The Need

  1. And how does midrash fit into this?

    We have, for example, people like Stephen Gaskin — a person who sorted out his ‘psychedelic’ experiencing, concluded that “everyone is telepathic” but that most people’s range of conscious experiencing was too narrow for them to recognize their ongoing unconscious interactions with each other.

    Seeking a blueprint for how a consciously-telepathic population might best regulate the ‘in-each-other’s-faces’ intimacy & mutual influences of that condition, he decided that the existing world religions, in their overlapping ethical core, were actually good rule-of-thumb explorations of that very question.

    Much of that got overlaid, over time, with the sort of ‘authority-over’ politics you mention here.

    But there’s enough continuity and lasting spiritual inheritance from our past religious traditions — that he could plausibly speak of an ongoing spiritual revolution, exemplified by many illuminated souls of the past, still at work in our own intuition that what God wants, long term, is the same justice, mercy, love and beauty, mutual peace and caring — that we long to see embodied in our lives.

    If our ancient spiritual ancestors were following the same ‘Godsense’ we know, then what survives of their literary-memory is unlikely to be useless. What it does need is to be read with Godsense, to have what speaks to us clarified and the obvious miscommunications discounted.

    Your reaction to this?: http://lightthruthepages.wordpress.com

    • Good comment. Yes, I agree that we can still make use of much that went before, and methods such as midrash (which is particularly formulaic in approach and meticulous, but otherwise similar to scriptural exegesis as employed by Christians and, I would expect, Muslims as well — although I have less personal knowledge of that) can in themselves be a form of crafting religion. The mythic power of the great faiths is often such that the core of them lasts indefinitely. The problem, however, is that they accumulate a crust of doctrinal junk like barnacles on a boat, and it can often be hard to separate the good from the bad.

      “God sense” is my own term but other terms exist for the same thing essentially; a Christian might call it the guidance of the Holy Spirit — which is a slightly different concept, but means the same thing in practice. I have known Christians who read scripture with such guidance in mind, and who expressed the fact that a passage might have been opaque to them the first time they read it, but held a meaning that opened up on later and more illuminated perusal; also, that it had multiple meanings that came out over time. Read this way, scripture becomes something like a Rorschach test, or perhaps a meditation mandala, a trigger for understanding that comes from within, and the errors and falsifications it contains become neutralized.

      But an approach like that is both fairly rare and openly discouraged by the authorities within Christian denominations, and the same is true in Islam, Hinduism, and even Buddhism with the possible exception of the Zen Buddhists. I have even seen the beginnings of it, quite distressingly for me, among Pagans. To desire power over others within a group or society is natural for some, and to seek an authority to follow is natural for others, and both of these are deadly. There’s a reason why Jesus reserved his bitterest criticism for the Jewish religious leaders of his time. (And that may in turn have a lot to do with why they killed him.)

      There is nothing wrong with the central myths of any of the great religions today. But they can only work for us if we free ourselves from the attached structure of doctrine that insists on belief without evidence and obedience without question.

      You have an interesting blog with some excellent writing and thoughts. I’m not a Christian or a Jew myself, but I appreciate the link and will be following along. Thanks for that and for your comment.

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