Playing the Indian Card

Thursday, July 05, 2018

The Meaning of Life: Not 42

Not all religions are equal. Why would they be? How could they be? All religions may and must include all that is needful, but if they are different, they cannot be equal. I have studied all the major world religions, and, while I love them all, I frankly do have favourites.

Traditionally in Western thought, starting with Plato, with traces back to Parmenides, there are three transcendentals: the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. These are the three qualities that abide in all things, and to the degree that they subsist in something, give a thing its value. In other words, they are the measures of all value. Put another way, they are the proper goals or objectives of human life.

Is this an arbitrary list? I cannot feel so. It seems to me that the proposition is self-evident once proposed. One cannot seem to superimpose some other, external standard by which goodness or truth can be measured and determined to have or not have value. Other, that is, than in terms of one of the other transcendentals. And so as well with beauty. These seem to be genuine a prioris. There may be others, and others have been proposed, but at a minimum, these three.

Now, given that these three are what they appear to be, the goals of existence, a religion can be evaluated on the basis of how well it recognizes and accommodates all three in its concept of God or the sacred, and of righteous human life.

On this score, I think Catholic Christianity has to ge the highest score, objectively. It is the one, to my eye, that most fully emphasizes all three aspects of life and of the divine: the faith, the morals and the ceremonials and sacramentals. I felt this in a deep, intuitive way before I thought to apply the doctrine of the universals, but the doctrine of the universals confirms it.

Take Islam first, as a comparison, since it is so much in the news. I find it bereft of a proper appreciation for Beauty. It is deeply suspicious of the arts: of painting, music, dance. Walk into a mosque, and there is very little there but bare walls. To me, this makes it feel barren and lifeless. 

Radha, image of the devotee, with Krishna.

Now take Buddhism or Hinduism. They seem to avoid the issue of the Good. They lack a strong moral dimension. Buddhist seems stronger on the Truth, Hinduism on Beauty, but both are relatively lacking in moral emphasis. To me, this makes them feel ultimately unserious, ephemeral. For East Asian culture in general, this lack is made up for by Confucianism, which emphasizes the Good without touching much on the True or the Beautiful. A relative lack of emphasis on Beauty in Buddhism is made up for in East Asia by Taoism. Bundled together, they work well. On the other hand, transporting Buddhism to the West without the other two does not work out well.

Judaism seems to me pretty solid. In theory, it should resemble Calvinism or Islam in discounting Beauty, since it shares their iconoclasm. But this does not seem to be the case, at all. Within Judaism, this seems to remain a prohibition against images of God, not against the arts. Which is, indeed, a separate and unrelated position. Judaism has a rich tradition of sacred storytelling. To the extent that a minority culture can, it also has a rich tradition of sacred music, sacred dance, and so forth. The only problem with Judaism in this regard, perhaps, is that it is ethnically and culturally based, and not easily available to us non-Jews.

Calvinism, within Christianity, seems to me to sadly lack both the Good and the Beautiful. No art, anything that smacks of art is of the devil; and no free will, so no moral issues. It seems to me only marginally religious. The Episcopalians, with their doctrinal looseness, seem to me weak on the Truth issue; it seems as though to them Truth does not matter, as long as you have Beauty. In Canada, the United Church as it now exists is similar, but without the Beauty. Good is all that matters. And so forth for other denominations.

To be fair, I can think of one area in which I find Catholic Christianity relatively lacking, and one or two other traditions stronger: humour. There is, within Christianity, a sense of scandal at laughter in a religious context. It feels blasphemous. I think this is wrong; Christianity is uptight here. It deprive God of some of his true personhood. Buddhism, by comparison, is full of jokes. Judaism enjoys a good knock-down argument with God, which seems to me healthy. Islam has the comic figure of Nasruddin. Hinduism has its “theology of play.”

Perhaps humour counts as a fourth transcendental: the Good, the True, the Beautiful, and the Funny.

And I feel there is a fifth transcendental, on which Christianity excels: Love. Or perhaps love is better defined as the proper response to the transcendentals, that of absolute attraction, of seeking them with your whole heart and your whole mind, to the neglect, if necessary, of everything else. I think it is fair to say that love is an important element in all religions: in Buddhism, in the doctrine of the Bodhisattva, in the figure of Guan Yin. In Hinduism, in the figure of Krishna, in the doctrine of bhakti yoga. In Islam, in Sufism and the Sufi poets. In Judaism, in the concept of the Shekhinah; you see it in Song of Songs.

But you can't beat the Christian formulation: God is Love.


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