Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Dichotomies and their reductions...can we re-mythologize?

Jay Parini, in his recent book, Jesus, the Face of God, seeks to re-mythologize Jesus, following decades of scholarship that has sought to de-mythologize Jesus, through history, through anthropology and linguistics and a rather profound process of deconstruction.
It was Graeme Green who responded to a question from a grade twelve student in a Canadian Writer's Day forum who asked, "What do you think about the process of taking a poem apart as a way to study it?..."Well, you have to murder something in order to dissect it?"
It was a diminutive nun, speaking extemporaneously in a Family Violence workshop who uttered these words, "The  greatest violence we do to each other is contained in the reductions we impose on each other."
Women have for nearly a half century been wailing about how men "objectify" them, by acting as if they cannot see past their physical persons. Recently, the inevitable echo has been creeping out of the men's corner, also complaining about objectification by women, primarily into the role of cheque-writer, provider, without the accompanying "full recognition" of the complexities of our masculinities.
I once asked a bishop to describe the spirituality of a serving warden in a church to which I was about to be assigned, as a student intern, and was going to a breakfast to meet the warden. His reply, in one word, was "Red Book"...and in the Anglican tradition that is code for "traditional, and supportive of a theology that emphasizes the sin and depravity of humans through both prayer and liturgy, as compared with a different emphasis in the "Green Book," the more modern edition of prayers and liturgies, over which hours if not days, weeks, even months and years of time have been wasted in the Anglican tradition in Canada, over how to worship God. Not only were Anglicans skilled in dividing themselves and their fellow pew-sitters into 'high church' and 'low church' (more code for more and less "bells and whistles" respectively in the liturgies) but also into "liberal and evangelical", but into Red and Green Book Anglicans....
The problem with dichotomies, "either-or's," is that individual people do not fit entirely into the categories to which others assign them, and that by over-simplifying for the purposes of making sense and of managing differences, we "pigeon-hole" people, and institutions, as well as neighbourhoods, schools, towns, cities and even nations and ethnicities into such cardboard stereotypes that we suck the life-blood, their complexity and their eccentricity and their uniqueness and even their 'right' to be who they are, especially if we do not see 'eye-to-eye' with them.
Our public discourse, commonly referred to as political punditry, and commonly gathered from sources like television, newspapers, magazines and social media, is broken down into some easily grasped dichotomies, right versus left, corporate versus socialist, worker versus employer, Canadian versus American, American versus Chinese, radical versus moderate, Sunni versus Shia, Russian versus Ukrainian, Afghan versus NATO. Our political parties, and the economic world view of our parties is another of the dichotomies into which we "de-mythologize" their positions, into such phrases as higher taxes (NDP) and more jobs (Conservatives) and balanced approach (Liberal) as if to make such distinctions is to provide the electorate with signals for identification, for the purpose of casting a ballot, and for the political class to be armed with "conventional" talking points that, once again reduce all issues to debating points, for the purpose of ultimately gaining power, and implementing that cardboard agenda, once again a reduction of what might be required, given the dynamic of changing circumstances.
One of the really dangerous dichotomies of discernment is that between mentally ill and not mentally ill, and given the multiple applications of dichotomies to all other aspects of modern life, in our adolescent and frighteningly lazy and immature pencil drawings, and lists of duties, chores and responsibilities we are dangerous vulnerable to adopting the vocabulary of the psychiatric profession and applying that vocabulary to individuals as if we were capable of discerning the full meaning and complexity of those "diagnoses" that might be found in the DSM-5. Furthermore, we reduce all psychiatric illness to a form of demonology, rendering a public fear unleashed with impunity, and thereby either hospitalize or medicate our illnesses, in order to manage our fears, more than to treat the person who suffers from whatever illness.
Aristotle was insightful in finding and naming family, phylum and species...of plants and animals, for the purpose of what has become centuries of scientific study. Similarly, Freud and Jung were brilliant in their pursuit of the unconscious, as a primary motivating force in the lives of individuals, and even of communities. However, Freud and Jung did not agree on the role of sexuality in the human psyche, and ultimately neither could prove the other wrong.
Nevertheless, in spite of the libraries filled with definitions that attempt to discern nuances of difference between species, and ethnicities and cultures and anthropologies and theologies, and ideologies, we are in danger of worshipping at an altar that can and will only divide and not unite in common purpose. Intellectually nuanced and highly articulate debates over how many angels one can place on the head of a pin were perhaps somewhat useful when we were sophomores. "Is God dead?", another simplistic dichotomy, makes a good cover story for Time, perhaps starts some people thinking about their relationship to a deity, and for such a limited purpose, perhaps has some limited value.
However, applying hard and distinct definitions to abstractions, in a compulsive attempt to gain control over those abstractions, is a fool's game of self-delusion. And when it becomes a mass-movement, mostly unconscious and mostly unchallenged, the participants run the serious risk of substituting delusion for reality. Some of us used to joke that, as Anglicans, we were very conscious that "in heaven, there was neither a red nor a green book"! For those who needed the protection of a label, our joke was quite uncomfortable.
However, it is not a joke to tell someone, anyone, "You are not spiritual enough!" when such a judgement is code for "not charismatic enough" or not "high church" enough, or "not evangelical enough" or not "obedient enough".....
Nor is it a joke to label another person "evil" or another nation or religion, "evil" simply because they do not subscribe to a similar set of tenets and dogma as the one subscribed to by the speaker.
Abortion is a case in point. There are good people on both sides of this festering debate, especially in the United States, given that most other countries have settled the issue, in so far as legislation and public debate are concerned. The Roman Catholic position is absolutely opposed, and those who frame the issue as a "woman's right to self-determination" are considered 'evil' in the light of the Roman Catholic position. The argument will not be put in that language. Those who campaign for the right to life will argue that it is not their opponent they wish to demonize, but their position which they oppose. They do not hate the sinner, but they hate the sin.
Is not "sin" another attempt to impose a hard, finite and thereby presumably enforceable definition on an abstraction? Is that not at the core of our criminal codes, that some behaviours are defined as wrong, in the hope that we will be able, as a society, to eliminate, or at least to control such behaviour in our attempt to provide peace, order and good government (words from the Canadian constitution) or the right to pursue prosperity, liberty and happiness (words from the U.S. Constitution)
What if those definitions of "crime" are nothing more than a limited attempt  to define, from a limited and frightened perspective, the root causes of those behaviours, using almost exclusively observable data, without actually taking into account a full disclosure and study of the human being? What if our laws, including our attitudes to mental illness, are nothing more than an overt expression of our fears of the unknown, and are so incomplete and so dangerous that they are counter-intuitive to our common goal of reducing their impact on our society?
What if, in our pursuit of perfection, as our misguided way to please God, we have over-reached in our generation of a civil society, and produced more repression and regression and more criminals and more criminal behaviour, as our way of sustaining the nobility who first wrote those laws and those conventions?
"Go and sin no more!" were the words ascribed to Jesus in his encounter with the prostitute.
How many gallons of ink, and eons of public debate have we held in our compulsive-obsessive pursuit of a society free of sexual misconduct, including 'the oldest profession'? Who do we think we are, that we would impose more embarrassment and more contempt and more judgement on the prostitute than was imposed by Jesus? And what God is it who demands such an attitude? And what heaven are we aspiring to enter by subscribing to such contempt of the other, whose behaviour and whose attitude may not agree with our personal code, but whose choices we know so little about, and are so resistant to actually listening to, that we might preserve our little comfortable bubble, outside the reality of that prostitute?
It was the Pharisees who questioned Jesus about the picking and eating corn on the "Sabbath" and were rebutted with, "Was the Sabbath not made for man, and not man for the Sabbath?"
In our narrow, frightened and judgemental pursuit of our own perfection, are we not in serious danger of over-subscribing and over-defining what and who God is and what a deity means to a human being?
What does it mean I have come that you might have life and have it more abundantly, if we are imposing our meagre and poverty-based, scarcity-engendered definitions of that life, as our way of making ourselves 'holy and pure'? What would happen, for example, if we were to re-write our psychiatric manuals and our criminal codes with a full recognition of, not merely the social need for moderation and propriety, but also for the fullest development of each individual in the most tolerant and supportive culture we can both imagine and create together? What would such a project do to those who attempt ultimate control? What would such a project do to those governments that reduce their responsibilities to the latest GDP numbers? What would such a project do to those churches who, by infantilizing their adherents, reduce the relationship of a human being to God to that of mere obedience to a code of conduct?
It might well be worth the serious consideration of those who reflect on such things, to consider such a proposition in the next century or five.

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