Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Curry's Dangerous Question: Whose God is it Anyway? 

As I noted last week, Adam Curry challenged the “godcasters” to address the question of “whose god is responsible for the tsunami?” To me, Adam’s question is an exceedingly dangerous one. Not that it shouldn’t be asked. But because I believe it is a gauntlet that only too many leaders will be happy to pick up.

Where Should We Look for Meaning?
My closest affiliation to religion would be with Quakerism. I went to a Friends school and it was a terrific experience for me. So when it came time for K. and I to decide where we wanted to make a donation, I expressed a preference for donating to the American Friends Service Committee. I feel very positively about Quakers and about the fact that, I the Friends do not proselytize as they serve around the world. They simply serve. K. wanted some reassurance of this and so I set about searching the Web for appropriate references.

As I did so, I chanced into Larry Ingles’ 2001 lecture on Richard Nixon as a Quaker. It’s an interesting reflection about the difference between Eastern (East Coast) Meetings for Worship and their Western (West Coast) counterparts. Quakerism changed as settlers moved across America. Unlike some of their more dour Pennsylvania Protestant counterparts, the Religious Society of Friends allowed for ongoing influence into their faith in practice. As a result, different sects arose over time. Ingles’ holds that the Friends’ most infamous 20th century member, Richard Nixon, is an example of a member failed by a community that failed to provide strong enough guidance for him to be positively influenced enough to be able to navigate rough moral waters. (While this may be true, there is increasing evidence to suggest that Nixon was pretty crazy from a psychological perspective. I don’t think the Friends should hold themselves responsible for that.) Personally, I feel that my Quaker experience (combined with my parent’s influence) provided a pretty strong moral compass. But part of that compass tells me that in looking for meaning in the tsunami, I have to find my own meaning.

Is God Still Publishing?If So, Where Should We Subscribe?
Carl Jung’s collaborator Marie-Louise von Franz addressed this issue of finding personal meaning in one of her books that I was reading just as the tsunami hit. The book is a transcript of a series of lectures she taught. During one of these lectures, a participant sets a dialogue with her that feels straight from Plato.

The participant identifies himself as a theologian and he takes issue with an illustration she has given about a monk who is struggling with sexual feelings. Dr. von Franz suggests that the monk may as a introvert require a concrete experience to help him resolve his issue.

The theologian is clearly stunned by this suggestion and says, “…I can say dogmatically that a theologian or a priest of the Church, if he goes out….and has a relationship with a woman - that is going to be wrong.”

Dr. von Franz replies, “Yes, because you do know what God wants in each case, but we do not. We always try to ask him first from within.” At this point, von Franz expresses the heart of her point of view on relating to God. “To us the experience of God is greater and more unknown and therefore we consult Him again each time. We have not the idea that He has uttered His last word. That is the great contrast between [Jungian] psychology and theology. We think of God as a reality who can speak in our psyche.” In my reading of the text, her interlocutor becomes increasingly agitated as they continue to lock horns.

He challenges her by asking, “Are there limits to that?” She responds, “No, there are no limits, one cannot set limits for God. We have a much humbler attitude than theologians. We simply say we should wait and see what God has to say about the situation in each case. We make no assumptions as to what he is going to do, so each human life becomes a unique spiritual and religious adventure, and a unique meeting with God….You think that God has published general rules which He keeps Himself, and we think He is a living sprit appearing in man’s psyche who can always create something new.”

The theologian replies, “Within the framework of what He has already published.”

Before returning to her lecture’s topic, von Franz closes their argument remarking, “To a theologian, God is bound to His books and is incapable of further publications.”

S/he Told You WHAT?
While I am partial to von Franz’s point of view, I am aware that there is a large portion of the world that wants to “go to the text” for an answer. Or as von Franz might say, to read what’s already been published.

There are many challenges in attempting to do this. Beyond the fact that the texts have already been published and therefore cannot comment directly on modern events, fundamentalists who view their religions texts as being the literal Word of God and literal documentation of historical events face some common issues. Who wrote the text? In what language? How many times was it translated? Who edited it? When? What was left out?

Although it’s common in my experience for American Christians to ignore the fact that their Bible has multiple versions with different texts and varying interpretations, after 9/11, I learned that they are not the only ones to be so poorly educated in their beliefs. I learned that many of my Muslim colleagues have no idea that there are Seven Readers of the Koran, descendents of whom transmitted the text orally for generations before the use of alphabets. They were therefore unaware that each of the seven texts differs in part because each of readings were first captured without the use of vowels, and that those vowels later had to be interpolated, all of which leads to many variances in interpretations within the “original” seven Korans.

I suspect that the vast majority of people who define themselves as religious have given over their responsibility for understanding their religion’s teaching to others. And this commonality of having mediators (e.g., mullahs, priests, rabbis) brings a real problem with it: how do you know they are transmitting the truth? Not just about the larger issues of right and wrong, but the truth textual sources that they use to reinforce their points of view. If you haven’t read the text with which your religious tribe affiliates itself, you are slave to those who claim they have. And if you don’t know the history of the text, its discovery, translation, editing and adaptation, you are entrusting your spiritual wellbeing to someone who “seems trustworthy.”

Who’s Behind the Curtain, Anway?
In the December 6th issue of The New Yorker, Burkhard Bilger wrote an interesting profile on Ole (pronounced Oh-lee) Anthony, the founder of a Christian group that (among many other things) exposes fraudulent televangelists.

If you’ve never watched a televangelist, you really should. When I was an actor, I got turned on to Robert Tilton, “The Prophet of Prosperity.” Wowza. I learned a whole heck of a lot about acting from him, boy. He was one of the ballsiest showmen I’ve ever seen, “speaking in tongues” and doing some real chewing of the scenery. His ministry was based on exhorting viewers to “sow a seed of faith” by sending him money. Tilton also used direct mail in incredibly creative ways (do a Google search and find some of his unbelievable materials).

Ultimately, Ole Anthony’s organization unmasked Tilton. And yet, he’s back in business. I guess most people just like someone else to “do the work” when it comes to interpreting the text for them.

Lessons From a Relevant History
So let’s return to the Pacific Rim and the phenomenon of the tsunami. As it happens, I had just recently read Simon Winchester’s fascinating micro-history Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883.

In the book Winchester explains that Indonesia sits in one of the most geologically active areas of the world. Several types of tectonic plates meet there and grind together. One plate is forced downwards, the other upwards.

The overall effect is one of geological recycling: one plate is forced to the hot center of the earth and new matter is churned to the surface from the earth’s core in the form of lava. Winchester noted throughout the book that the area was primed for another major shift sometime about now. As it happens, we got an earthquake and tsunami to the east of Indonesia instead of a volcanic eruption immediately to its West. (Who knows? That might still be on its way.)

Winchester treats an a broad swath of topics within the book, including how Krakatoa was the inaugural event of worldwide media reporting, launched the Hudson River School of painting, and caused global climate change. (When it comes right down to it, Krakatoa is chock-a-block with the sorts of interesting facts that data hounds like me live for.)

Amongst the sociological effects of interest is the change the explosion of Krakatoa wrought in Indonesian Islam. Prior to Krakatoa, there had been a tolerant form of Islam practiced in the islands. However, the enormous scope of the eruption was seized upon by the mullahs as an opportunity for power. They preached that Krakatoa was a sign that Allah was furious with the islanders for allowing European colonials to rule their lands. Immediately, a spate of attacks against the occupiers began in the name of Allah.

I do not question that colonial rule was not good. This history may be instructive, however, in exploring of Adam’s original question: “Whose god is responsible for the tsunami?”

The Danger is the Answer
Based on the history, it seems improbable that no one will claim their god was responsible for the tsunami. In fact, all over the world religious leaders are interpreting the tsunami for their congregants. For centuries religious leaders have interpreted geological perturbations as signs from heaven. Why would that change now?

As someone who relates to von Franz’s point of view, who believes that there is no final text, and that we are all responsible for turning within to find our own answers, my concern is not that no religious leaders will answer Adam’s question. My concern is that many people will do it. (And they will probably do it via podcasts, too.) My fear is that instead of turning within to find answers, instead of reading the text ourselves, too many people will find it easier to listen to those who answer (whether or not they heard Adam’s specific challenge directly) the call. And that they will say, “My god did it. And here is why…”
Excellent post. If you didn't already here it, you might enjoy a piece that "The World" did on religion and the tsunami last week. If you go to the link and scroll, it's the second piece on the roster:


Take care--

jm @ houseinprogress
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