Tuesday, August 14, 2007

"religion is not primarily about God"

"but about the sacred"

Please, please, please read this essay by Roger Scruton! Excuse my enthusiasm, but this is my thing, I wrote like fifty papers on this exact topic, on the persistence of sacred myths in secular literature, I am thrilled to see Scruton write such a wonderful piece on the topic.

Some more key quotations:

"A myth does not describe what happened in some obscure period before human reckoning, but what happens always and repeatedly. It does not explain the causal origins of our world, but rehearses its permanent spiritual significance."

"you could subtract the gods and their stories from Greek religion without taking away the most important thing"

"According to Girard, the need for sacrificial scapegoating is implanted in the human psyche, arising from the attempt to form a durable community in which the moral life can be successfully pursued. One purpose of the theatre is to provide fictional substitutes for the original crime, and so to obtain the benefit of moral renewal without the horrific cost."

"The experience of the sacred is not an irrational residue of primitive fears, nor is it a form of superstition that will one day be chased away by science. It is a solution to the accumulated aggression which lies in the heart of human communities."

" the experience of the sacred can be suppressed, ignored and even desecrated (the routine tribute paid to it in modern societies) but never destroyed. Always the need for it will arise, for it is in the nature of rational beings like us to live at the edge of things, experiencing our alienation and longing for the sudden reversal that will once again join us to the centre."

There's much more, please do check it out! (h/t: ALDaily)

UPDATE: Here's something I wrote a while back on Moby Dick which I think is relevant:

"Finally, at the chapter’s end [the chapter 'The Whiteness of the Whale'], he discovers the answer, and the answer to Melville’s central question about the ongoing human reliance on mythology: Ishmael’s greatest fear is not that the whale represents any one thing, but that it represents nothing. He senses that there is nothing there for it to signify, that there is nothing meaningful in the 'heartless voids and immensities of the universe,' nothing except a pointless and inevitable 'annihilation' (282). It is not a specific sinister meaning that he fears, but the absence of any meaning at all; it is 'atheism from which we shrink' (282). The chapter ends with his fear that color (and thus meaning) is but an illusion that the human mind imposes on a colorless (meaningless) world, that beauty and purpose are not innate to nature but 'only laid on from without' to mask 'the charnel-house within' (283). Like those who insist on masking the blinding whiteness of the sun with colored glasses, so Ishmael senses that humans mask the emptiness of life with myths of meaning. The 'Albino Whale' is the symbol of this blinding whiteness, of the indifference of the universe to man’s storytelling, and that is why he is so feared and why he must be killed.[1]

Melville’s Moby Dick portrays mankind’s fundamental need for meaning, which it creates through myth. The only thing more frightening than an inescapable fate is no fate at all, and Melville shows that men will drive themselves to madness and death in the creation of myth, rather than face the void of an existence deprived of meaning. But there are some funny parts, too!

[1] The irony being that Moby Dick has already become a myth in himself. This shows that myths will never die: even thoroughly anti-mythical figures will end up being thought of in mythical terms. "

UPDATE 2: And an excerpt from an introduction to a paper on Melville and James:

"Rather than have their unwitting heroes inadvertently play into the hands of inescapable fate, their protagonists are deliberately and self-consciously mimetic. This is not Oedipus, fulfilling the prophecy of the gods despite himself, but a modern-day protagonist in a world without manifest gods or fate nonetheless choosing to live as if prophesied. This idea of accepted, even expected, fate permeates Melville’s Billy Budd and is present to a lesser extent in James’ The Portrait of a Lady. In either case, classic, ancient tragedy – the inability to escape the fate assigned by the gods – is supplanted by the absurd, modern kind: the enthusiastic acceptance of divine fate in a world without gods."

UPDATE 3: Thank you to Ambivablog for the link and the kind words! Please see her post for links to much better posts on the topic.


amba said...

Just from your post, that looks completely awesome. I must prevent
myself from getting lost in it, since I have a lot of work to do for
the next few days. But I am . . . can a brain salivate? . . . with

David said...

I've often thought these very thoughts, but could never have dreamt of putting them so well.