Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Four dimensional religion and being human

William Blake wrote that the core of the religion of Jesus the Imagination was the forgiveness of sins that liberates one into a commonwealth of love, freedom and equality. Walter Kaufmann in his provoking and beautiful text - Religions in Four Dimensions (existential, aesthetic, historical and comparative) would agree with Blake that our essential sifting criteria should be love and justice but Kaufmann would be hard pressed to find this in the Jesus of the New Testament who (in Kaufmann's portrait) is surprisingly unconcerned with either morality or justice and more concerned with whether people believe in him as a saviour. If one does so  believe, you get an eternal life (in an other worldly place remarkably undefined) and if you do not not, you get eternal torment. This is a picture of Jesus as morally repugnant and, as the great Zen Buddhist scholar, D.T. Suzuki, suggested it would be the responsibility of every Buddhist to go to this hell and rescue souls from this 'god'!

Now Kaufmann's point here is not necessarily like a 'New Atheist' to reject religion per se but is to notice, as a philosopher should, that our pictures of religion (and it simply happens to be Christianity here) are often carefully selected portraits (or readings) of what we want to see (and many there are who are quite content with consigning myriad 'others' to eternal hellfire even now and every justification for seeing this in the Gospels)! It is to remind us, forcefully, that frankly in the historical unfolding of every religion (including in its origins) there is much that is doubtful and, frankly, rubbish!

We read out of our own state of being and consciousness and our loyalty to a religion helps to create readings that are genuinely inventive and supportive of that state of mind. Kaufmann rather interestingly (and compellingly) takes both the Jewish prophetic tradition and the Buddha seriously in questioning everything that has been revealed to us as 'truth' and testing it on the anvil of his own reasoned experience (including arguing with God when God fails our own notions of compassion and care). This undoubtedly carries with it his own limitations and yet he has the courage always to unpick his own, as well as others', convictions. Our own reading may be more compelling and will certainly be different but we must remain always aware that it is a reading, an enterprise after truth, not 'the truth' (a thing, the possession of which tends to legitimise all kinds of horrors)!

He has happily reminded me that it is more important to explore one's way into what it might mean to be a compassionate human being here and now, thirsting for a justice shared by all, than identifying oneself with a tradition and puzzling over whether your beliefs are 'correct'  (or indeed you have been saved) and that not all religions are 'the same' nor one better than another, what matters is one's humane humanness to the discovery of which religious insight can undoubtedly contribute.

But so to, as Kaufmann also reminds us, can picturing a human face or a natural or human gift of beauty. Kaufmann's book is hauntingly accompanied by hundreds of his own photographs, some of which are illustrative but most of which simply seek to illuminate facets of the world. His most compelling are of the poverty he sees (mainly in India) of beauty beheld in a child's face and defiled by their condition. It is a witness to the most necessary thing of all - a world lived in human dignity and the gift of creation - a world still far off .


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