Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Caveman Og and the problem of religious mystery

Rosa Celeste: Dante and Beatrice gaze upon the...Image via Wikipedia
Meet Og.

He is the foil used by a friend when trying to talk about a proto-human way of thinking -- when our brains and minds were in a sense modern but when the basic conventions of culture they would shape were still embryonic.  This is not imply the fallacy of the hapless "unevolved" brute, or to assume that people lived in caves (or even always at camps at rock shelters).  I for one firmly accept the dignity and recognize the capacities of our ancestors.  Many people like to use examples like Og in their though experiments, especially evolutionary psychologists who use Og and his ilk to talk about the environment that shaped our mental evolution.

Og also has something to tell us about the problem of religious mystery.

Cultural anthropologists can tell you how hard it is to see through the "bubble" of assumptions you have ingrained into your view of what the world is like and how it works, and that is just to compare contemporary cultures.  Archeologists can tell you how much harder it is to try to look into the minds of extinct evolutionary cousins and even the minds of members of extinct cultural systems inhabited by our own species.  So we proceed with caution.

Og, for example, likely has no concept of the sky to match our own.  The idea of a round earth, of an atmosphere with gases, or of stars and other celestial bodies -- these are not part of Og's world.  We cannot be certain what the changing colors, textures, and lights in the sky meant to Og, but through analogies with contemporary non-modern cultures in small-scale societies we can have some confidence that Og's view was in these regards not like our own.

So, let's say we want to show Og a photograph produced from a satellite image.  How could we do it? 

We can't use the concept of a photograph.  The best we could do is draw an analogy to a cave painting or rock art.  Many paleoanthropologists suspect that these had significance in a symbolic and perhaps a utilitarian sense, so Og might not get the idea of truly representative art.  That is, of art that is just supposed to look like something in terms of its shapes, colors, and depth.  Who drew this fope-toe-grap?  What are the edges of the symbols?  What do the symbols mean?

Even if we get some of the concept through, of a simple representation, we can't invoke the idea of a machine, or our notion of the sky.  Who drew this picture and what is it a picture of?

Well, we could say it was drawn by someone looking down from way up high.  But what if Og and his people have never been that far up from the ground?  Even today people who live in flat areas who are non-modern may, if taken to a high place, mistake people or animals for insects because their brains have no experience with such levels of depth perception.

Moreover, even if we get Og to accept the ideas put to him so far (and that is asking quite a lot if we consider how we might react in his place), what do we mean "way up high"?  Maybe the local hill is a high place.  Next to it is a bigger hill.  That is high.  The idea that the sky could be a place may be available but limited to the tops of the hills and visible birds.

So, let's see where we stand. Og may or may not be on board with " picture is just a picture" and has a limited and skewed understanding of "way up high".  At bet he is likely highly incredulous because of the certainty we all have in our understanding of what the world is like and how it works as well as the assumption that even if other people can see the world another way they are probably wrong.  We can verify this, like Og most likely would, by using standards of accuracy and reliability that make sense in and reinforce our worldview.

Now Og wants to know if we mean high like the big hill over there.  We say no, higher.  So Og stretches the limits of his known universe and points to the biggest hill he has ever seen.  That is his limit.  It's as far as he can go even for the sake of arguments -- it's the limit of what is possible in Og's world, including his imagination.

So in the end, Og understands satellite imagery as an anomalous drawing supposedly of no symbolism by some unknown artist of some unknown clan who claims to have gone to the top of the biggest hill there is for no reason to draw what he saw.  This is nonsensical because Og knows from a lifetime of experience this is not how and why drawings are made.  And even if someone could make it to the top of the hill what would they find there to draw with?  Absurd!  It is at best an odd and irrational tale told by someone who does not know the workings of the world, perhaps a child's fantasy.  Og is incredulous.

Now we turn to religious mystery.  We use the same reasoning as Og -- we think we know how the world is put together, what is in it, and more or less how it works.  This is reinforced by our own standards of accuracy and reliability that make sense in and reinforce our worldview.  Is something "real" in terms of these standards, or is it "unreal" (or "unlikely")?  Or is it just analogous to or metaphorical about something else we consider to be real?  How can it be placed into our list of preconceived categories and possibilities?  Which pigeon hole should we stick it in?  These are reasonable and typical responses to religious mysteries, much like Og's reaction to our own outlandish ideas.

Yet these reactions ignore the possibility that such mysteries are pointing out the inadequacies our system in accommodating a larger view of reality.  These responses inherently dismiss the idea of letting such mystery expand our awareness and conceptual framework by insisting that mystery be made to fit in our current level of awareness and familiar conceptual framework.  This is done by many who are religious and irreligious.  It is a form of idolatry -- it reduces the fullness of reality to a little caricature which is readily manipulated and denies the boundless wonder and possibility of existence.

This can be observed in classic debates concerning the Paschal mystery both among Christians and between Christians and those who wish to "debunk" Christianity.  Many aspects of the events involved in this mystery were experienced second-hand by the witnesses, and some were observed by no witnesses at all.  The experience of this mystery was passed on through the early Christian communities as best as it could be transmitted.  Even what those present might have witnessed would be beyond their ability to fully grasp and communicate.  Like all such religious mysteries, it violated and offended conventional knowledge and wisdom.  At best it could be described incompletely and incoherently through the worldview and personalities of those involved.  Differing accounts of exactly what had happened and exactly what it meant sprang up.  Some common elements coagulated into the stories that formed the basis of the various Gospels.

To ask someone to believe, therefore, in the truth revealed about a greater reality through the Paschal mystery just because of the accounts that made it into the canonical Gospels is like asking Og to accept the fact and implications of satellite photography based on our odd drawing.  Our "clear" evidence is meaningless to Og. There is a reason why these kinds of events are described as mysteries.  And even the most high-brow, open-minded, creative and inspiring theology is going to fall short.  Chastising a (more or) less advanced theology of such events rather than constructively criticizing it is akin to pointing to the bigger hill and claiming you have a better grasp of sad-alite foe-tob-grappy than your neighbor pointing at the smaller hill.

Given the number of religious mysteries claimed by various sacred traditions, such myopic thinking also accommodates the debate over "which" mysteries point to something valid and which are just make-believe.  It doesn't just accommodate it, it fuels it.  It fuels the need to say my tradition and its mysteries are real and yours are bogus, and then it places the burden of proof on the very kind of evidence an irreligious cynic would find unacceptable in the first place.  All traditions and their experiences would appear to such a one as equally baseless and fantastic.

Humility and patience can go a long way in this regard, as we learn to accept that the greater mystery monotheists such as Hindus, Jews, Christians and Muslims call God is not a thing to be controlled or limited by the human mind or the categories and institutions it creates.  The validity of religious mysteries comes from our participation in them and our resulting transformation.  Not just in our behavior, but in our perception and reception of the world.  In our raised awareness, and in our understanding.  We only really know when we "taste" such experiences ourselves.  No one can argue or threaten us into such insight.

It is the effect of such a direct experience with the larger reality intruding into our (vision of) the world in ones life that is the best argument for others to test it for themselves, to come and see.  This is what humans find compelling.  What kind of argument does your life make?  Is it a long legal summons, a threatening final notice warning, or hand written open invitation?

ADDED:  This kind of idea must be "in the air"...

Jesus Isn't Contained By Our Boxes
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  1. Thanks Blogger. A big chunk of the post is missing and I don't recall what exactly it said. Way to go.

  2. That's great man. Og liked it too

  3. Thanks! I know I am weak on theology and history so I try not stick my neck out too far.


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