Thursday, May 11, 2006

That's not what I meant

It occurs to the Holmes that religion has to be the ultimate example of the limitation of language. Consider: some dude stumbles upon what he believes to be (and for him, may very well be) a means of connecting with God, of interacting with That Which Is Divine. Illumination. Enlightenment. Perhaps he gets down on his knees and talks to his God...maybe five times a day while facing East. Maybe he sits under a tree for hours at a time with his legs crossed and his mind open. Or maybe he spends hours at a time poring over ancient texts, searching for hidden truths...or as in the case of the central character in Tim Thomas's The Empty Bowl, perhaps he inscribes his particular ancient text of choice onto grains of rice, one verse at a time. To quote the character of Anthony from that play:

"Take a verse. See the words in your mind. Take a grain of rice and transfer the mind's picture onto the rice. As you do, the kinetic movement will etch the verse onto your eternal soul. Transferring your brain's thought into your soul's truth."

Whatever the means, he discovers a path and he is changed in ways so deep and profound that he can never possibly go back to being the person he was. And he's so moved, he runs into the nearest village or town square or city center or megamall and starts telling people about his discovery.

This is where it starts to get ugly.

Oh, and before I go on, I apologize for the constant use of masculine pronouns in this post. I just realized I was doing it, but I certainly don't mean to imply that this type of scenario is limited to the hairier sex.

Most of the people that our friend tells his story to just roll their eyes and go on about their business. Some listen intently, some are interested. And a few get it. Like, really get it. Something clicks, the scales fall from their eyes, and they too are changed forever.

The thing is though, not everybody gets it. In fact, some people get it wrong. Horribly wrong, as illustrated by the character of Laurel, also from The Empty Bowl, and her slight theological misunderstanding of Anthony's Biblical rice etching practice:

Laurel: My followers? They will always be your followers Anthony and they would be illuminated the same way we are. By ingesting it. Taking it in, each day.

Anthony: But that is done by personally writing the words upon the rice.
Laurel: And then eating it.
Anthony: No.
Laurel: But you have to eat it. It would be wasteful-
Anthony: Eat it?
Laurel: Yes.
Anthony: No. It's a creation. A small testament I have created on earth to glorify God. The rice is meant to fill the soul, not the stomach. It is my cathedral. Eating my rice would be like eating the bricks of the church building. It's nonsensical. I could never eat it.

And the more the story gets told, the longer it goes on, the more wrong it gets. Sure, more people get it, and that's a beautiful thing, but many just do not. Next thing you know, our enlightened friend's story is being presented not just as truth, but as The Truth. And then it becomes The Only Truth, The Absolute Truth, and The Literal Truth, which isn't but a hop, skip, and a jump to The Only Absolute Literal Truth To The Exclusion Of All Else Lest Ye DIE!

Incoincidentally, lots of people get killed.

How did this happen? How does one person's enlightment and the ideas that stem from it morph and mutate into militancy and intolerance? If I had to venture a guess, I'd say that these spiritual matters, these discoveries, they tap into something so very basic and primordial that it's almost beyond language. As if it's too simple to explain. Somebody can put them into words, but all the words and metaphors and analogies and allegories in the world will only cast so much light. Add to this fact the human condition: we need answers now. And for some insane reason, we are wired to only be able to understand one set of answers at a time. And once we've got our own personal truth worked out, well, all the others must simply be wrong, and they have to be shown the way. I know that last part very well: I used to be that person who was completely confident he had found the way, and everybody else needed to join in or go die. Thankfully, some very good people talked me down off of that spiritual ledge. But that's another story.

That's my guess anyway. And that's all it is right now, a guess. I talk about this magical it like it's something I'm familiar with, but the truth is, I'm grasping for it as much as anyone else.

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