Religion: You are your own sole authority
Recently I was involved in a group conversation about religion that ended up centering on the issue of the “pick and choose” approach, in which a person explicitly chooses which tenets, doctrines, etc., to adopt and which to reject among a given religion or group of them. A number of participants criticized this approach on the grounds that it represents human hubris, that it is “man’s attempt to play God” and all that, and advocated by contrast the approach of surrendering one’s autonomy to an authority higher than oneself, such as the Bible (conceived as inerrant and supernaturally authoritative), or Jesus, or God.
Now, I myself am certainly no dogmatic supporter of the modern-day cafeteria-style approach to religion, although I have fiercely cherished my own personal freedom in this domain. There really is something vitally important in the recognition of a force or truth or principle or reality that transcends, dwarfs, and encompasses your personal, individual selfhood, however you may conceive that ultimate whatever-it-is.
And yet . . . and yet . . . I grew up with the evangelical Christian version of the “surrender your self and your autonomy” message being proclaimed all around me, and I still hear it being proclaimed today by a great many Christians of various stripes (and also by adherents of other faith traditions). And I can’t help taking serious exception to it, or at least to the version that’s almost always put forth.
Because in point of fact, nobody can actually achieve the epistemological-metaphysical feat advocated by the surrender-yourself camp. Nobody can really submit ultimately to a supposed ultimate authority, because the very recognition of such an authority is an a priori impossibility based on the brute fact of human self-consciousness and the human epistemological position.
This objection, not incidentally, goes much deeper than the positions expressed by the participants in the conversation that originally got me to thinking about all this. It goes deeper than the assertion that it’s right or wrong to pick and choose cafeteria-style between various religious texts, beliefs, doctrines, worldviews, etc.; deeper than the standard argument that develops when one side claims to choose from various possibilities and the other claims to forego this in favor of surrendering to an external authority.
The depth of what I’m talking about is expressed with exquisite clarity, and in terms that are universally applicable, by Richard Tarnas in his masterful intellectual history, The Passion of the Western Mind. In the section of his book devoted to explaining the post-modern viewpoint, Tarnas writes, “The fund of data available to the human mind is of such intrinsic complexity and diversity that it provides plausible support for many different conceptions of the ultimate nature of reality . . . . Evidence can be adduced and interpreted to corroborate a virtually limitless array of worldviews . . . . Because the human understanding is not unequivocally compelled by the evidence to adopt one metaphysical position over another, an irreducible element of human choice supervenes.”
An irreducible element of human choice. Aye, there’s the rub, and also the hub. Applying Tarnas’s statement — whose fundamental truth is self-evident — it’s obvious that the very decision to surrender one’s authority in matters of ultimate belief is actually an act of assertion and interpretation. Because to claim that you’re surrendering to a metaphysical or moral authority outside of yourself is merely to say that you are choosing, under your own sole sovereignty, to elevate that belief, doctrine, church, ideology, principle — whatever it may be — to the normative status of your highest ruling principle. The belief-doctrine-worldview-etc. doesn’t come with such authority pre-stamped, as it were, onto its invisible ideological visage, which you have somehow mystically managed to recognize, and which many millions of people who believe otherwise have somehow managed to miss.
In point of fact, the act of surrendering to religious authority — say, for example, by espousing a belief in the supernatural inspiration and absolute inerrancy of the Protestant Bible, or at least the original autograph manuscripts (which are conveniently lost to history [!]) — is just another case of the same ideological sleight-of-hand that has always been involved throughout history in the political arena in the “divine right of kings” shtick. It’s blatantly obvious to pretty much all of us that such a maneuver was and is a mere gimmick by which entire populations have invested certain people and social structures with authority over them, but have then chosen to believe that the authority is simply “natural” and “God-given.” But amazingly, the same principle at work in contemporary religion somehow slips under the radar of a great many moderns. Who knows, maybe an unconscious recognition of it accounts for the fact that a goodly part of the modern post-1970s evangelical explosion has been devoted to perpetuating outmoded monarchical images and stereotypes for describing the deity.
This is seen especially in contemporary evangelical music with its fetishizing of the kingly image of Jesus. Consider the titles of many popular praise choruses: “All Hail, King Jesus,” “Worship His Majesty,” “King of Kings and Lord of Lords,” and so on. I think this phenomenon is due to more than just the simple fact that such titles inarguably represent valid New Testament-type language (although it’s significant that in the four canonical gospels Jesus frequently and vociferously refuses kingly labels). It’s likely that the monarchical thrust of so much modern evangelicalism comes from the sense of dislocation and the loss of the “sacred canopy” (as sociologist Peter Berger famously called it) of shared cultural religious meaning that has so afflicted the modern world at least since the 19th century, when Nietzsche correctly pinpointed nihilism as the spiritual virus that would come to define the 20th century. Today’s evangelicals fight that sense of dislocation and meaninglessness by simply trying to assert divine authority, according to their own interpretation of the matter, back into existence. And you can witness this very thing at work not only in their music but in the mountains of theological and apologetic writing they have produced, and continue to produce, in defense of the indefensible.
(At this point I’m ineluctably led to quote Tom Ligotti, from his wonderful, brilliant short novel My Work Is Not Yet Done, from the portion where the narrator lays out the three-point view of reality and the “grand scheme of things” that has come to define his outlook:
A: There is no grand scheme of things.
B. If there were a grand scheme of things, the fact — the fact — that we are not equipped to perceive it, either by natural or supernatural means, is a nightmarish obscenity.
C: The very notion of a grand scheme of things is a nightmarish obscenity.
It was this passage, with its arch-Ligottian twist on an idea that’s more familiar from post-modern philosophy, existentialism, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and elsewhere, that I turned to when I was searching for an appropriate title for my currently unpublished private journal, There Is No Grand Scheme. And for a detailed explication of my interpretation of the quote itself, you can check out a post I made to Thomas Ligotti Online early last year.)
(I suppose my attitude is also related to the classic statement about religious authority that is an oft-quoted part of the Buddhist scriptures, and that is supposed to have come from the mouth of the historical Siddhartha Gautama [i.e., the Buddha] himself:
“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense . . . . Believe nothing on the faith of traditions, even though they have been held in honor for many generations and in many places. Do not believe a thing because many people speak of it. Do not believe on the faith of the sages of the past. Do not believe what you yourself have imagined, persuading yourself that a God inspires you. Believe nothing on the sole authority of your masters and priests. After examination, believe what you yourself have tested and found to be reasonable, and conform your conduct thereto.”
This has always resonated strongly with me, which probably explains, or at least illuminates, my antagonistic feelings toward the more authoritarian religious traditions.)
So that, in a very large nutshell, is my problem with the surrender-yourself attitude. But as I said at the beginning of this screed, I also accept that the recognition of a transcendent reality that encompasses and supersedes one’s individual selfhood is quite valuable. So how do I reconcile these attitudes?
In part, or maybe in whole, I do so in quasi-Zen terms, in the language and from the viewpoint of nondualism as articulated, for example, by Douglas Harding in his philosophy of headlessness, which seeks to awaken people to the paradox of their simultaneous first-person and third-person modes of existence, the former of which is the center and essence of conscious personal identity (and from which viewpoint one manifestly, in actual present experience, does not exist, but is instead a spacious absence). This recognition and/or approach runs all through the mystical literature of the world, finding exquisite expression in the West in, for example, the many writings of Meister Eckhart and Plotinus, and more recently in the writings of Eckhart Tolle, Ken Wilber, and others. It’s how I’m literally forced to understand things now, based on my own personal experiences, insights, and understandings. But of course that’s the type of statement that would lead a surrender-yourself evangelical or fundamentalist to criticize me for relying on my own judgment. As if I have any other choice.
In a related but distinct vein, I also reconcile these aspects of my understanding by making recourse to the daimonic theory of personal selfhood and ultimate identity. But that opens up another can of daimons altogether.