Monday, January 04, 2010

Mission Statement

First: I only attack causes that are victorious; I may even wait until they become victorious.

Second: I only attack causes against which I would not find allies, so that I stand alone – so that I compromise myself alone. – I have never taken a step publicly that did not compromise me: that is my criterion for doing right.

Third: I never attack persons; I merely avail myself of the person as of a strong magnifying glass that allows one to make visible a general but creeping and elusive calamity.

Fourth: I only attack things when every personal quarrel is excluded, when any background of bad experiences is lacking. On the contrary, attack is in my case a proof of good will, sometimes even of gratitude.

- Nietzsche


To expand a bit upon a recent discussion with a friend:

It's amusing to make fun of religion. But even as much as I enjoy it, I have to admit it's an easy target, at least in America. The cultural center of gravity has shifted here, so that "spirituality" has the sort of authenticity cachet that religion no longer does. In my opinion, the respect paid to religion here has just as much to do, if not more, with basic politeness and force of habit than any heartfelt conviction. In an interconnected, multicultural village, it's just passé to claim that one belief has an exclusive lock on the truth.

Therefore, in an attempt to somewhat live up to the above principles, I find it more relevant to attack spirituality. That's where all the cool kids hang out these days. So what exactly is my problem with it?

Most importantly - and I'm generalizing here, of course, by necessity - the fact that it retains the same metaphysical concepts, the same theoretical constructs, as traditional religion. The "spiritual-not-religious" trend is a superficial rebellion, a rebranding of the same old product, a way to give the appearance of freethinking individuality without having to actually risk the disorienting vertigo of true intellectual independence. As I just mentioned, it has more to do with a passing nod to current social norms of individuality and cosmetic diversity than any radical rethinking of values. Find me a self-described spiritual person who doesn't share with any hidebound Christian most, if not all, of these same basic concepts: souls, an afterlife, some type of moral yardstick against which human lives are being measured by someone (God) or something (karmic law), a teleological progression to existence. The only significant difference I see is that they like to cherry-pick other cultures and religions for concepts and terminology they can use to buttress their pre-existing conclusions without actually challenging any of them. All those different traditions have "important lessons" to teach us on our "spiritual journey", don't you know. But metaphysical bullshit is still metaphysical bullshit whether it comes from a fundamentalist Christian, a Tibetan Buddhist, a Sufi mystic, or even an evolutionary psychologist.

More to personal taste: I've always been irritated by how often people split the difference between two sides in an argument in order to pat themselves on the back for their reasonableness (as opposed to the irrational fanatics on either side of them). This person believes the Bible is the inerrant word of God, that person is a strict materialist, therefore they must both be equally wrong! Well, no, Goldlilocks. Truth is not always equidistant from two points of view of your choosing. I suspect that people frequently retreat to some vague concept of spirituality because the idea of outright atheism seems too certain to them, even if they can agree with most of the criticisms of the idea of a personal, loving god. As to why being certain in this regard is thought to be so foolhardy and reckless, I would suggest that even people who weren't raised as doctrinaire Christians have internalized the idea that one of the most offensive things you can possibly do to the Christian God is doubt his existence, however meekly and hesitantly. Safer to go with Pascal's wager.

And of course, the word "spiritual" itself just has too many metaphysical overtones for me. It implies the same old mind/body duality that has always plagued Western thought, the idea that our most cherished concepts, like beauty, truth, and joy, are somehow distinct from the everyday world, rather than arising from it and contingent upon it just like everything else.

I enjoy thinking about the big picture and my place in it. I experience states of mind that any mystic would recognize. I retain a sense of wonder about the mysteries of existence. And I cheerfully accept that none of those thoughts and feelings are going to survive the death of the brain and sensory organs that give rise to them. I just think that worldview is more properly described as "philosophical", or "reflective", or "contemplative", not spiritual.

3 comments:

Pangloss It Over said...

"a rebranding of the same old product, a way to give the appearance of freethinking individuality without having to actually risk the disorienting vertigo of true intellectual independence."

So, the only way one is not "spiritual" is if one has true intellectual independence? Does that mean one cannot follow anyone's previous teachings or beliefs? Even those of atheists such as Nietzche or Dawkins? :-)

OK, so I'm going with "mystical" then. It encompasses philosophical, contemplative and reflective, with a hint of magic thrown in for good measure.

Plus it's more marginal, more intellectually independent. Though I'll join in with the sufis and St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross and Allen Ginsberg.

The Vile Scribbler said...

No, we can't help having influences, of course, and we don't want to be the kind of knee-jerk contrarians who stop enjoying something because too many other people have discovered it. I don't mean you have to be pathologically averse to finding kinship with other writers and thinkers.

By "intellectual independence", I mean being vigilant against lazy thinking, avoiding cliches like the plague, and always looking to challenge even your strongest convictions. Of course I don't mean that you have to start every day as a blank slate, needing to rediscover everything anew, just that we're always prone to seeing what we want to see and hearing what we want to hear, so we should periodically make ourselves look harder at things we take for granted.

I mean, yes, Nietzsche is one of my biggest influences and favorite writers, but I'm always aware of things I disagree with him on. As he said himself, you repay a teacher badly if you only remain a student!

(Part of why I quote him so much is just as a sort of game, to see how many of his sayings I can apply to whatever I'm writing about. A hell of a lot, as it turns out.)

Anonymous said...

I enjoy thinking about the big picture and my place in it. I experience states of mind that any mystic would recognize. I retain a sense of wonder about the mysteries of existence. And I cheerfully accept that none of those thoughts and feelings are going to survive the death of the brain and sensory organs that give rise to them. I just think that worldview is more properly described as "philosophical", or "reflective", or "contemplative", not spiritual.

What do you mean by 'big picture'? Could a movie with serious existential themes be considered a 'big picture'? Have you seen the 1946 movie 'The Best Year Of Our Lives'? Here's an assignment (if you're game for a challenge): Rent and watch 'The Best Years Of Our Lives' three times. Then ponder the following quotation from Jean Paul Sartre's work 'Being and Nothingness':
'Ultimately, it makes no difference whether one becomes a drunk or a leader of nations'...
Then write and post a 2,000 word blog: 'Thoughts On A Big Picture'... It would be interesting to find out if you get more comments or feedback by employing such an 'objective correlative' (T.S. Eliot) to frame your contemplative speculations... What do you say?!