June 22, 2014

Religious and Literary Metaphors

I think that we all agree that a metaphor is an implicit comparison. The “pale, dead face of the unveiling moon” sort of metaphor is too common a literary metaphor, so I will not add any remark on the value and various functions (ethical, cosmological, aesthetical etc.) of metaphors, in general terms, because this is commonplace for any high-school graduate.

The best thing to do now is to give a metaphor a literary reading, then read the same metaphor in religious terms, and see what the main difference is.
As you all know, Uncas’ Mohican name was Bounding Elk, which is a metaphor. Indian Americans are/were so bound to their environment that their very names are symbolic of their gratitude and love for the natural landscape, which is the basic material for any living mythology.

1) So, let us first read Bounding Elk as a literary metaphor. We understand from the story by J.F. Cooper that Uncas was young and brave and that he was able to surpass any follower. He was a real athlete and, in our modern context, he would be an Olympic. Now, we can see that. And we, as modern and “civilized people”, very fond of literature, cannot but be overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of a wild, natural, untainted character. So: this is a good story with good heroes and bad guys. It’s about sacrifice, honor, courage – all kind of things that make up good literary stuff. But whereas for us Uncas as the Bounding Elk means power, speed, courage, endurance, purity, for Uncas himself Bounding Elk meant something deeper than this, namely – a religious metaphor, wherein the reference is designed in a way of maintaining the whole levels of the life of the person permanently connected to a reality of a transpersonal order.

2) Therefore, if we then turn to the other side and read Bounding Elk in terms of religious connotation
, we go to a deeper level of understanding: Uncas was not only fast, but he felt directly related to the animal world.
In Indian American mythology, the hunter is either the brother/sister or the descendant of his prey. The life of humans depends on the cyclic reemergence of the animal, which is expected to reappear after it is being killed and consumed.
The ingested animal is assimilated and thusly becomes the human body, so the animal is venerated, praised and the act of killing itself is ritualized because the Native American believe that they share with the animal the same life mystery and the same sacred source, which give itself willingly in the form of an animal, to humans, so that humans can survive.

Therefore, whenever the killing is necessary and performed, you will always have an accompanying rite, whose main function is the reconciliation of the brutal act of killing with the life energies that give themselves to humans, as the animal, to ensure the survival of the human species. The rite means reconciliation, gratitude, love to the animal (and, in fact – to the life source that sustains both the animal and the human community depending on it), and contains the invocation addressed to the animal to re-emerge during the next hunt.  As universal rule, rites are reenactment of symbolic deeds or actions that occurred at the time of the beginnings, when the first animal and the first hunt took place, and are always intended to sustain this eternal cycle of death and rebirth.

The main difference, therefore, between “literary” and “religious” metaphors consists in the possibility of a religious metaphor to 1) act as a transforming tool for the deepest levels of the psyche and at the same time to 2) represent a central pillar (axis mundi), a harmonizing factor, in both mystical and socio-psychological terms, of a given society. This is the “hub of the wheel” for an entire community.
A religious metaphor, as compared to a literary metaphor, has therefore the constructive and destructive potential of the atomic energy in comparison with conventional explosives. It can be the dividing and uniting factor for an entire society,  it can make you feel special whereas its proper use can make you able to recognize yourself as the other, as “thy neighbor”, as ONE with the UNIVERSE. And so forth. But everything - on a global scale. This is what can be called a "proper reading of religious metaphors".

I also want to point out that “secular” literature with all its symbolic references is a relatively recent acquisition of our human species. “Secular” realities and activities started to appear when humans became “urbanized”, as it were, when we became inhabitants of urban areas and the distinction between sacred and profane (realities, activities, gestures etc.) has become obvious..
In earlier times, when hunters, sheep herders and gatherers were still walking the Earth and even later on, in Neolithic, in the period of the first permanent settlements, there was neither “secular” literature/art nor “literary metaphor”, because any archaic tradition regards the entire Universe as cosmic sacredness in itself. Therefore, in a traditional, archaic community, there was no distinction between a “literary” and “religious” system of symbolization. The archaic symbology was no less coherent a system of vivid symbols than any modern valuable literary work but you must bear in mind its multi-functional scopes: religious, scientific, philosophical, artistic, entertaining etc. Whatever we now try to explore using the tools of natural and social sciences as marvelous means of objective knowledge, in ancient times an all-integrating but nonetheless inquisitive religious consciousness was striving to articulate as myths, which comprise a science of an intuitive and subjective order, which, however is no less experiential.
The difference between literary and religious metaphors is not one of the essence, but the distinction lies in their social and psychological impact. With respect to literary metaphors, I think that nobody will confuse the metaphor with its transpersonal reference. Nobody will try to demonstrate that there is no such a thing like an "unveiling sorrowful, pale face of a dying moon". I bet nobody will kill me for this. Moreover, nobody will venerate me for this.

When literary metaphors like Sauron or Darth Vader become "culturally and aesthetically significant", that is: accessible to an entire community of people - and they are praised, criticized and discussed for decades, they become religious metaphors. They transform the way in which people perceive the world and themselves.

These are the myths of our modern era, our Iliads and Odysseys: The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars, among others.
Any myth and any religious symbology (including the related rites, which are only reenactments of a mythic gesture or story) are only an attempt to organize, socially, the experience of the numinous, to make it accessible to the community. The experience of the numinous, which in Mircea Eliade's works is called "the sacred", is some sort of experience that is not confined, of course, to the "classical" religious area or to music and art,  it is indeed a very common sort of experience. It can be triggered-off by a sunset, by a tremendous fear, even by all kinds of daily so-called “secular” events. I personally got stuck once in a broken elevator for two hours between two floors of a building, while one half of the maintenance crew was trying to pull the elevator a level up and theirs other half was trying to pull it a level down... There, alone, in the dark, I spent one of the happiest two hours of my life, because of the possibility for the elevator to fall all its way down and having me killed as well. There was no more concern for past and future. Nothing but my breath in total darkness. What can be more wonderful? So, the experience was there, but no metaphor will try to render it, no religious symbolization and no ritual will propagate it within an entire community, because nobody, including myself, will not purposefully repeat this kind of experience. Except, maybe for Bear Grylls, he might be interested…

It is, of course, very difficult to understand the mechanism by which, this experience of the ineffable infinity, which is the sacred, is somehow projected by the human mind unto the field of empirical phenomena. We cannot see how the numinous crosses the threshold of eternity and erupts into the realm of manifestation, which is defined by pairs of opposites. The "religious metaphor" of Joseph Campbell is called "hierophany" by Mircea Eliade. Hierophany translates as "manifestation of the sacred". It is the same thing.

Experiencing the timeless dimension in the field of time - this is the ultimate mystery of the numinous and of the human consciousness as well. And it can be described only by means of religious metaphors.
They are indeed references to that timeless dimension.
While the experience of the numinous is non-mediated, it is just sheer rapture, - recounting, conceptualizing, conveying, socializing this sort of experience is the function of religious metaphors.
Quoting from J. Campbell, I will conclude: "A metaphor is a mask of God by which Eternity is to be experienced".

May 31, 2014

Why the afterlife idea as a fake remedy for fear is the worst definition of religion?

The idea of a Santa Claus is marvelous until it kills the very idea of generosity, on the grounds that Santa Claus doesn’t really exist.

When speaking of the afterlife projections and everlasting life expectancy, we tend to identify the birthplace of religion in our fear of death. But our problem is not fear. The major problem is its source. Fear lives on expectation and uncertainty. And this is all that a possible future afterlife is about: hope and fear, that is – expectation. Religion is not a cure for fear; religion is a cure for expectation.

We cannot get rid of our fear of death so we discovered a substitute: the afterlife. Is it so? I don’t think that the “afterlife” idea is very good, in the first place, because this isn’t proper medicine, it is L.S.D. It could be good material for mythic stories, but not a good rendering of a factual reality. The afterlife scenario will always leave considerable room for doubts. The idea of the afterlife is the very pillar that stands between you and life. Placing an obstacle between you and a possible total annihilation might seem reassuring, but is, in fact, a dream full of horrendous possibilities.

We should bring the so-called “afterlife” here. Those insightful people whom we call saints or rishis experienced personal epiphanies and recounted visions of the “afterlife” not because they were hoping to survive somehow after death, physically or even spiritually, but because they dropped-off expectations and replaced the “after-life” with “life”. To them, the blissful and timeless “afterlife” had been already here.

And anyway, religion cannot be reduced to the idea of the afterlife, it can’t be explained only by our fear of death, because religious human behavior doesn’t deal solely with the idea of an “afterlife”, religions’ scope comprises also the idea of reconciliation between fragment and totality, time and eternity, flesh and spirit.

The idea that the afterlife projection can cure the fears and unhappiness of the present moment is flawed by the simple fact that the incessant movement from the present moment to an ever projected “future better life” or “the afterlife”, or whatever is better than the present moment doesn’t make the present moment satisfying for too long. “The afterlife” is just an idea in the mind and just as any other idea - it cannot quench the human thirst for eternity for too long. It’s only a substitute.

The Buddha refused to answer any questions regarding the realm of the afterlife, not because he denied the afterlife itself, but because in terms of both rationality and imagination we tend to perceive “timeless” and “eternity” as mental projections of an “ever-lasting” experience of some sort.

We tend to empirically project realities of a noumenal order. And it is wonderful that we can do this, unless we contemplate our source, the numinous as a hard fact-sort of reality, which somewhere, “out there” and “then” or “afterwards”.

We forget that the circumference of our circle of life is only the reflection of the center.

 “Out there” imagined things are meant to drive your attention “in here”. The “afterlife” is meant to make you focus on “life”. I always try to avoid reductionist approaches, but if I were asked to say in one sentence what religion and mythology is all about, I would answer that it’s about walking the circumference of the circle as long as you need to figure out the right direction to the center. We need to the find the center, not another point on the circumference. 

“But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the kingdom of God” (Jesus Christ)