Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Idolatry in a Land without gods

Historically, it seems the VAST majority of people (or better, people-groups) have had some kind of super-human entity/entities** as a part of their understanding of the world/universe.

(Western) Modernity has put forth a variety of methods to negate the need or connection with all things more-than-human. My assessment is that this comes from the voracious drive we had (and have largely satisfied) to control . . . everything! [for those that chew on such statements, I think 'prediction' is a form of control]

So here's my theory on the usefulness of a deity/deities. It is a theory that, for the moment, ignores the question of the existence of deity(ies) and the question of whether deity-existence is innate to humans or created. This only looks at utility/usefulness.

As far as I have read, seen, been told, etc. a spirit or god is really important for those parts of life that we cannot control but rely upon nonetheless. Weather, war, & women (that's funny - 'women' can be men and children, too, but they don't illiterate :: 'weather' can be food, too) being the most common.

What these super-humans hold is two things: power and information. What Western Modernity has attempted to accomplish is actually a two-fold feat: massively and rapidly increase knowledge to the place where the sum of information & wisdom can actually become a power in itself. Somewhat similar to how energy and matter become roughly the same thing in "E equals m c squared." as if we attempted to make "Power = Information Application squared." Not sure it worked (nor are most postModern philosophers), but it has largely satisfied a centuries-old desire.

Then came the more subtle shift in what we call 'epistemology' (how is truth determined to be truth). In the Classic period (for discussion, ~500 B.C. to ~500 A.D.), 'truth' is a rationalized ideal, Medieval truth came from authority, with Modern truth swinging back to ideals. What caught my attention is that what was swinging was not just epistemology by itself.

In the Classic period, truth was bigger than the gods, but the gods had Power. Medieval truth came from the humans who had some power, but not much. (the following only works if your browser allows a fixed-width font like Courier)

Truth Power

Classic people gods

Medieval (human)demigods people

Perhaps in Western Modernity we were able to fully collapse Power and Truth into one source. "Information is Power" sums up the belief that Truth is either equivalent or a subset of Information and that it is convert-able, back and forth, with Power ( I=PA^2 like E=mc^2 ). People, if we work hard enough and 'smart' enough, will eventually conquer all Information (from sub-atomic physics to biology to psychology to sociology to astrophysics). Then, we can become all-powerful (modified by the assumption that prediction is a form of Power).

Then we hit relativity, in all its forms. Philosophically (in my opinion [sic]), 'relativity' means each person lives as if they are the final judge on what is True or not; that we are not hypocrites when it comes to Truth (as if we are fine holding onto something we absolutely know to be false).

Practically, if I can get enough information, I can be all-powerful ('enough' being, ironically/recursively defined by 'me'). So I gain Information, mastery, etc. of what I think is important and, thus, fulfill the role that used to be ascribed to deity(ies).

So as the West moves towards a practical (if not real) atheism, we are turning our lands into Mount Olympus where each person thinks of themself as Zeus.

No wonder religions of any kind are having a bit of hard time during these last days of Western Modernity... any god, set of rules, etc. that places itself over Me, King Zeus Himself, is my enemy and must be pummeled like the Titans!

[Note: this is, in good David Malouf fashion, just the beginning of a thought. I'm not sure I like it... yet. Please feel free to interact with me in the comments, personally, email, etc. !!]

** deity, super-human, spirit, etc. are all considered the same thing in the context of this post precisely because this post only looks at the utility of any kind of being/entity, not the essence.

1 comment:

Sacha said...

It's quite an accurate description of modernity seen by "traditional man", as Eliade or Guénon have defined it. However, I would question the need to look at divine beings under the angle of "utility". Utility is inferior to the religious drive or the metaphysical quest. It is part of profane life, of the unfolding of time, cause and effect. Bowing to the divine is not done, in principle, for the use it can have. Of course there are many rites that aim at a practical outcome but this is secundary, a sort of side-effect of religion/metaphysics.