The traditional Kerygma walks through salvation history from the Creation story in Genesis up through the Gospel. This sense of history is not common at this time inside or outside the Church. We can no longer assume a culture familiar with this and, in fact, many Catholics are unfamiliar with it. In previous posts in this series, I’ve suggested that there was a Golden Road in all world religions, parallel to this Kerygma. All humans think of this road as universally true. In case you don’t believe in some sense of absolute truth, I made a reductio ad Hitlerum in the last post to trigger your realization that, at least in some cases, you do believe in an objective standard (beyond our personal likes and dislikes) to which you must appeal. There were no trigger warnings. The post was intended exactly to trigger.
Unless you are completely disconnected from everything and everyone around you, any appeal to “fairness” or “social justice” is, in fact, such a claim. If social justice is only a matter of personal choice, then every form of activism is a species of cultural imperialism. That’s a claim I don’t think anyone will accept. We all work for what we think of as “Justice” – be that a right of choice for women or a right to life for the unborn, be that freedom from slavery or the right to own human beings – we all assume that our version of “justice” is, in fact, right by some objective standard. The only other option is “I’m right because I have the gun-power to enforce my choices on you.” This is not a restatement of the old saw that “Saying there is no absolute truth is an absolute truth.” My intent is to point out that none of us really means “my truth is only relative”. We fail in the logical process of that. If anyone really believed their truth was only relative they wouldn’t care to debate you about yours or even care to assert theirs at all. We fail in the logic of “relative truth” because we don’t actually believe it. At best we usually mean, your truth is relative. What keeps others from realizing the pure logic of our clearly right choices?
What on the Golden Road prevents us from agreeing and realizing this justice that we imagine is universal? What prevents us from just all sitting down and agreeing on what is just and fair in society and what keeps us from implementing it?
In the East, the Hindus have the least (by my lights) enjoyable answer to this line of questions: essentially what is down in this life may be up in the next. Another world can come into being that will repair things the next time Brahman blinks. The way things are, here and now is just the way things are here and now. That’s not changing. Dalits and Brahmins all get what they deserve. It’s a failure to accept what you get that makes things difficult and may make your next life even worse. Working to change this world is kicking against the goads, it’s best to let it all stand and hope to pull yourself out of the torturous cycle.
Taoism has what seems to me to be the most beautiful answer – although it may sound like more of the same it is subtly different: water flows down. It pours over rocks (and wears through them) if they are in the way. It fills the pools at the bottom of the valley – but eventually, the water fills the valley itself. Water, rocks, pools, the valley, gravity, daylight and night, the animals and air all remain true to their nature in this. Working together all things balance and achieve their proper ends. It is possible to step away from our natures, though, from the intended flow of things. This is a philosophical path, but it overlays the most ancient animism of China. (In this respect it is like very like Shinto in Japan, which, in fact, uses the same “tao” character 道 to indicate the second syllable of the name, although the Japanese manifestation begins to be codified about 1400 years after the sage Lao Tzu lived and wrote.)
Buddhism says the real issue is desire itself: want. So the on-going goal is to get rid of desire and to release self into the oneness of nirvana. In the end, even the desire of nirvana must be released and then the desire to release all desires. A failure to do so results in a continuing cycle of rebirth (which arises from the desire of parents).
Confucianism takes Taoism and says, yes, water flows down, etc. It also acknowledges the social structure. Then it adds a series of complex rules, a hierarchical ballet that governs all social interaction in an attempt to control everything. Solid and stable to the core, this prevents change but offers no final end or goal. The ancestors play a living part in this dance.
Shintoism is actually a partial codification of animism into what we might see as a historical religion. Since animism is prehistoric in all ways, Shinto adds writing and ritual codification to create a world that would be recognizable to any pagan – but very high class. The spiritual powers of this world are very important as are the ancestors.
Laying aside, for a moment, the other two Abrahamic faiths which are also eastern at the core (as is Christianity) the Church would agree with all these eastern faiths on several points and would disagree on several others. Yes, we will always have the poor with us, but we are to help them. Society is hierarchical, but all are equal before God (and in worship). Yes, we have our individual natures, part of the wider nature, but humans have an assigned duty to rule. Yet, we are out of step both with nature and with our duty. Christianity does acknowledge the spiritual powers of this world as well as our ancestors but it has a specific place for both. Christianity would not deny desire is a problem for humans but would point out disordered desire as the real issue: when we desire what God wants for us we are on the right path.
There is another level of confusion here: for our modern culture corrupts all of these (including Christianity) with some form of the Prosperity Gospel. Much of American Buddhism is filled with acquisition and positive thinking: gone are the renunciations required of traditional teachings. “Mindfulness” is not a way to achieve detachment from all the stuff of illusion, but rather a way to get ahead in business without really trying. The West is incapable of entering into an understanding of the polytheistic paganism of Hinduism and so has turned the ancient spiritual practices of yoga into weight-loss programs. Taoism does not even hit the radar of most folks and when it does (such as in the I Ching) it turns to fortunetelling instead of enlightenment. All of these paths combine – together with much of Prosperity Christianity and Western Animism – into what is called the New Age. We hear it expressed in A Course in Miracles, in Madonna’s version of Kabbala, in much of neopaganism including the Celtic flavored Wicca that I followed for ten years. We find it expressed in Ceremonial Magic, in many fraternal rituals, in the writings of Crowley (which are over 100 years old and so, the whole thing is not so new anymore). It comes to a head in The Celestine Prophecies, The Secret, and a current presidential candidate.
What else should we expect, though? Our culture has made a religion out of technology, data, and science. We solve everything by application of more of this Holy Trinity – digging ourselves into worse situations instead of digging out of the crap we’re in already. Of course, we’ve found a way to turn mankind’s most esoteric, spiritual pursuites into profit-making schemes. When was the last time “more technology” did not cause more trouble? (Or even when was the first time?) Thus it is our chosen deity in these latter days. Got a problem? We have an app for that – and if we don’t have an app, give me 20 mins and a million or so in venture capital and I will have an app for that. We even have apps for prayer and meditation, for mindfulness exercises and confession preparation. When we need more stuff, the application of technology works best: how many single-used appliances are there available at WalMart just now? Do you really need a blender and also a juicer, a smoothie maker, and an ice cracker in your fridge? Do you need a stove-top range, an electric skillet, an extra induction cooker, and all the pots for each?
Desire (in the Buddhist sense) says, “I want something.” Disordered desire says, “I want something more than God.” This is our root issue: even when we recognize the Golden Road, even if we acknowledge God (I remember I have that still as an undefended given) we take all that and say, I desire this more. Generally, we don’t desire religion – we desire to appear religious.
To a Christian, this is called Original Sin. It’s the one doctrine that is empirically verifiable. You can see this ontological selfishness in play every day. We are selfish even when it might be to our own detriment as in the case of addiction. We are selfish from the first moment a baby learns O that feels good! The wordless scream and hissy is the ontologically selfish assertion. We hear it from babies, adults, and that hybrid known as world leaders. It is sometimes our first breath and our last gasp. More on this, though, in a later post.
Today it’s just enough to see the problem clearly: we all think that – at least on some topics – there’s actual Truth. Yet we can all see that we fail – even in the first person – to live up to that idea.