I’ve been thinking about a few ideas about philosophy and religion, trying to draw them together in a sharper synthesis. It is a good exercise. What follows is not meant to be a polished essay, not even a draft, more of an exploration. I might do a few more like this and try to tighten up the ideas as I go.
Man is the animal that wonders.
Human beings wonder about the world in which they live, and about their own existence in it. The primordial question: why is reality this way? When they wonder about themselves, they ask what separates men from the rest of reality; on the one hand we are immersed in the world and dependent on it, on the other we have the capacity of abstracting ourselves from it, of stepping back and regarding it and ourselves. This power of abstraction gives humans the capacity to speak, create, form societies, and tell stories.
Other beings do not do these things. Humans alone are capable of wonder, and wonder is the source of the human notion of the sacred.
Humans almost universally express wonder through myth. Myth is a “sacred” story, which means that it deals with the origins and foundations of reality and in doing so provides a template for human action. The sacred story is necessarily ahistorical. It does not take place in the quotidian, “profane” world. No one who told the stories of Zeus or Loki thought these things really happened at some point in human history, rather they see the myth as taking place in a dreamlike golden age, or “time before time” or outside of time. The myth is a timeless archetype beyond daily life, to which daily life should conform. Myths are ritualitic: the ritual serves to create, within profane daily life, a space in which profane reality is made to conform to the archetype.
But myth tends to be unsatisfactory: the dreamlike narratives don’t add up to a coherent whole and resist systematization. And while they serve a purpose for explaining why reality is this way, and not another way, there is still a deeper question that can be asked: why reality, and why not nothing.
In the seventh and sixth centuries BC there was a widespread reaction against mythology which took place in several unrelated cultures, and the anti-mythological movements took three forms which form the basic human attitudes towards religion to this day. These attitudes are not mutually exclusive, but only one can be dominate in a given religion.
1. Mysticism. The mystic is a conservative: he wants to keep the myth in place, but he redefines it as a vehicle through which the worshiper comes into contact with a deeper, unknown and unknowable reality, the very roots of being which simply “is”. It cannot be known, but the mystic has the experience of being united to and blended with this ultimate reality. This is because just as all myths are vehicles for encountering the ultimate reality, so all individual beings are illusory expressions of the one ultimate reality. The mystic is a pantheist. This is typical of Hinduism and late Classical religion.
2. Rationalism: The rationalist simply decides that the myths are false. It is not a matter of saying “they never happened” because even the mythologist never believed they “really happened” in our world. Rather, the rationalist no longer sees the use of the myth beyond an allegorical or sociological role. In the ancient world the rationalist was often called an atheist because he rejected the common mythologies, and there were ancient materialists, but the ancient “atheist” was just as likely have been something like what today we would call a Deist. (The distinction between materialism and deism in the ancient world was not clear.) Rationalism was typical of ancient Greece.
3. Faith: This approach to religion came about in ancient Israel (and perhaps in Persia with Zoroaster). It is the claim that the myths are false and must be rejected because now the real God is present and is speaking to us. Unlike the myths, this god is intensely personal, active in human history, and interested in individual human beings. Since he is personal, the essential religious act is not mystical experience, nor rational contemplation, but faith, which is an interpersonal act. The main tension of ancient Judaism is between the tendency to mythologize Yahweh, to cut him down to being just any old mythological divinity, and to believe in him.
As I mentioned above, the ultimate question about the world is: why does the world exist, and not nothing. For the rationalist, who tends towards materialism, the question is unanswerable: the world just is, there is no ultimate reason for it. All the human mind can do is move from one curious question to the next, with no terminus, because underneath all the complexity and apparent order there is just matter in a state of chaos.
For the mystic, who tends towards pantheism, the answer is nearly the same: the world just is, rational explanation is impossible, there is only the experience of unity. Underneath the apparent complexity all is but an expression of the One.
For the believer there is an answer: God simply is, there is no reason for his existence, because he is reason, he is goodness, he is being. The world exists because he wants it to exist.
Since each of these approaches deals with the problem of “why being”, each claims universality in spite of the fact that they are all local cultural phenomena: Socrates, Zoroaster, Democritus, Isaiah, Jeremiah and the Buddha are all products of unique times and places. None can claim to have the default position, but they all claim to have the basic answer to human wondering.
At first glance, the mystic has the best claim to universality since all religions and human experience can participate in his claim that all is one and mystic experience is the key, with the exception that he cannot really believe in any of them. A religion that makes interpersonal faith its essential act cannot be subsumed into mystic pantheism. All religions are equally good for the mystic, except ones that claim to be true.
The rationalist proposes the rules of logic and evidence as being universal, and this would be convincing, except that humans all have the same rational tools of logic and observation, and yet come to radically different conclusions because their points of departure are different. This is because rationalism is only about the tools of the human mind, it has very little to say about where the tools come from or where they should go. But because he is convinced of his intellectual superiority, the rationalist will always assume that his point of departure is the default one, when it is not.
Faith has no claim to being the default human position. It can only claim to be a concrete, historical group of believers living in specific times and places. Nobody can think it up out of nothing, someone else has to tell him about it, share the Good News, as it were. Were it not for those pesky Jews, none of the contents of the monotheistic religions would exist. But as the Jews came to the conclusion that their god was not the best god but the God, they become conscious of the notion of a universal vocation: the Jews become a sign among the nations, the bearer of a message with a universal responsibility that went beyond simple cultural chauvinism. As a result, history itself takes on a meaning and a direction: there is a mission and a goal towards which God is mysteriously drawing the whole of humanity through his suffering servants, through his community of believers.