Coyote, the parable of MetaK and the future of liberal religion - 29 January 2012
Week by week I try to suggest strategies that can help us deal with the religious problem of our age that we face as early twentieth-century religious liberals in Europe and North America. But this week it struck me that I have never simply laid out in a single address what I think the religious problem of our age is and the general approach I'm taking towards it. I haven't done this because I tend to assume everyone knows what the problem is and can, therefore, see the background against which my suggestions are to be heard.
So to the problem . . .
In my opinion the best and most accessible précis of it has been made by James C. Edwards in his excellent book "The Plain Sense of Things - The fate of religion in an age of normal nihilism". In the next few paragraphs (up to the parable of MetaK) I draw heavily, and gratefully, upon some of his actual words and phrases. (In fact this book saved my ministry by giving me a way to talk about this difficult stuff within religious circles in a reasonably comprehensible way.)
The problem centres on the loss of religion's traditional power in *our* culture. This has come about because, firstly to use Nietzsche's very influential language, we have come to see and feel that *every* system of belief is only a set of values posited by the will to power in its attempt to preserve and enhance itself.
Another way of putting it is to say that: when every illuminating vocabulary (Richard Rorty's phrase) is recognised by us only to be *contingently* useful, then how can any cultural symbol retain sufficient power to check our well-documented (and contrary) human tendencies both to addictive, individualist self-magnification and to (equally addictive) totalitarian, fundamentalist rigidity?
So, to sum up, the religious problem we face is: What any more can help us to resist the temptation either to go mad with unlimited self-fashioning or to sink helplessly into an imprisoning and soothing normality?
In our European and North American culture religion was one very powerful force that offered us practical responses to these two temptations and, to some degree, was able to keep them in check. Religion offered us practices that could contain, concentrate, and transmit two key sacramental energies that were (and are) energies for limitation in the face of hubris and for transformation in the face of complacency.
The key significant problem we have in accessing these sacramental energies today is that they seem to be wholly tied up with traditional belief in the stories of the gods/God. However, even when we are within a community that continues to use religion's illuminating vocabulary (which is for us Judaeo-Christian with a strong Greco-Roman influence) most (all?) of us here will still recognise it as only being *contingently* useful. In other words we can take it or leave it and this fact alone reveals that it is a vocabulary that simply isn't sufficiently powerful enough across our culture to help check our human tendencies to addictive, individualist self-magnification and to totalitarian, fundamentalist rigidity.
This situation is what Edwards calls 'normal nihilism' and it effects us all and is the often invisible, normal background of our lives.
On our good days this normal nihilism offers us the possibility to reinvent ourselves as a Christian one day and a Buddhist the next, an ardent atheist one day and a devout new-age practitioner the next and this can feel great. On a sunny day and in good health (mental and physical) it is exhilarating to experience what feels like a great liberation from the oppressive and coercive religious strictures of former ages. We feel free to explore anything and everything and become, or so we think, truly who we are. But to maintain such a full-on peak-experience kind of freedom like this one has to succumb (or even drive oneself) in the aforementioned addictive, individualist self-magnifying way we know humanity is capable of.
I'm sure all of us can see (and feel) that this is an exhausting and not particularly healthy approach to life. Experience tells us that when we become exhausted through such activity there always follow dark times. On our dark days we begin to notice that, because we could be this or could be that (and on an on without check), nothing in this new "free" landscape shows up to us any longer as being *really* meaning-ful for us, as the thing which, for us, *really* counts and about which we *really* give a damn. This realisation opens up before us some profoundly empty and sometimes very frightening vistas. Faced with such a prospect it is no wonder that so many people are tempted to turn to totalitarian, fundamentalist rigidity as a way out of the malaise. A totalitarian, fundamentalist rigidity that appears, of course, in both religious and secular/scientistic forms.
And that, it seems to me, is where we are. Now this might feel bad - and under one aspect it clearly is. But the same situation seen under a different aspect allows new possibilities to shine and show up to us and it is these that week by week I try to encourage us to explore. But to unfold this thought properly I need firstly to tell you a parable based on something that actually happened to me. It's the parable concerning MetaK.
I was in a meeting in which the failure of liberal religion was being discussed. One contributor, let us call them X, announced that one major problem was the religious language we used - it put people off. X pointed on this occasion to our continued use of the word "worship". X claimed that it carried too much baggage and, since in X's mind, "worship" could be described as being an affirmation of a knowledge of something above the everyday, X had coined a new, and what they thought was baggage-free word, MetaK - made up of the Greek word "meta" meaning "after" or "beyond" and the letter K standing for "knowledge". So, "beyond knowledge." (Of course to be able to construct this new word some Greek baggage is required but we'll let that pass . . .). Anyway X suggested that we really should replace the word "worship" on our noticeboards and literature with MetaK - the congregation of the Such and Such Church meets for MetaK at 10.30am and 6.30pm.
I objected - not so much to X's underlying concern, which I appreciate - but to the solution. I pointed out that putting the word MetaK on our noticeboards wouldn't help because no one would really know what it meant - even those with some Greek. X replied that we would explain it to them (assuming, of course anyone hung around long enough to wait for an explanation). I asked X what they would say and they replied that they would tell any inquirer that it was something *like* worship!
The trouble is, of course, that the word MetaK has absolutely no purchase in our culture, whilst worship has, possibly, too much.
Now, given the nature of a church such as this it seems to me that my role, my calling (and I hope your role and calling) is to find ways to inhabit the border-lands between these two extremes. Between, on the one hand, a Greco-Judaeo-Christian vocabulary that still has real purchase upon our culture as a whole but which is often experienced having a too oppressive purchase and, on the other, the wilder eccentricities that come about when people try to create a syncretic pluralist post-religious religion from scratch whose vocabularies have, for the most part, no purchase at all upon our wider culture.
This is deliberately to inhabit a wilderness or borderland between worlds where, to survive and flourish, one must be a kind of trickster character like the Coyote of the Native Americans. (Coyote has sometimes been compared to Prometheus who, like Coyote, stole fire from the gods and gifted to humankind.)
Trickster figures cut surprisingly and confusingly across traditional boundaries and, as they do this, they carry meanings back and forth between worlds and, in this activity, they create the *conditions* where something new and culturally powerful can begin to show up and shine for a whole culture - just like fire - and illuminate new possibilities for living.
The religious project I'm trying to unfold here is something like this. I'm trying to create the kind of space where a new possibility for being religious shows up that allows the sacramental energies of religion (it's fire) to be released from the oppressive grip of the gods/God of old and to allowed to light up a new way of being religious after religion.
It is to begin an attempt to populate the borderland beyond the current fruitless either/or paradigms of our culture; beyond the sterile atheism/theism and religious/secular debates to a truly post-modern place that allows us to be in the world in a radically open-ended way liberal religious way but which does not, at the same time, succumb to our hubristic temptations nor to the empty nihilistic feelings that can come upon us.
Something like religion is required here but it is something that hasn't yet shown up to us - that's what we need to work on and that is what I am working on. (That's why I read the passage from Matthew 11:7-11 earlier because it seems to me John and Jesus were doing this in their own way). We have no choice but to keep using the old language because, if we don't, we can't even begin to articulate or gesture broadly towards the new thing and that's the point about the parable of MetaK. What new word/concept - the new fire - shows up cannot be prejudged by us and nor can we be sure it will even show up but that's the risk of a project such as this. It seems a risk worth taking because our present situation doesn't seem that great, does it?
I need to add at this point that this is a project which is more about waiting, looking and slow preparation than it is about overt activity which tries to create the new world too quickly and which comes up only with things like MetaK - for more on waiting see my post Why wait - and what on earth for? An Advent meditation on meaning-gifting and the world pushing back.
But anyway, and as some of us know only too well, like Coyote, this doesn't always make us friends. The philosopher Iain Thomson observes (whose introduction to his recent excellent book Heidegger, Art and Postmodernity suggested to me the image of populating borderlands and where he meets his own, real, coyote) this is always to risk running afoul of our culture's many border patrols who are after people who have "dared to cross their arbitrary lines in the sand."
To conclude on a personal note, I realise that, on the one hand, for many atheists and humanists this means I'm just too Christian, just too conventionally religious and, on the other hand, for many Christians and those who are traditionally theisticaly inclined, I realise this means I'm just too much of an atheist and a humanist. But my post-religious calling (and again I hope yours) is to remain a kind of religious ducking and diving trickster because I am absolutely convinced that unless we can all become Coyote-like creatures of the borderlands, creatures who are at once both very traditional and also radical and wild enough to cross our culture's many borders, we will neither be able to let a new illuminating vocabulary that has wide cultural implications show up nor find a way to release the sacramental energies our own age and culture requires to resist the temptation either to go mad with unlimited self-fashioning or to sink helplessly into an imprisoning and soothing normality. Surely the risk of this latter fate coming to pass makes the risk I am suggesting worth taking.
I realise that I and a few other religious and philosophical outlaws - you know who you are - may fail in our ducking and diving and eventually get caught and shot up by those cultural border patrols but, as Shane (played by Alan Ladd) says in one of my favourite westerns, "A man has to be what he is" - it's taken me a while to figure out what that is but it's something like Coyote. Why not join me?