In the ensuing commentary to my post on Christian/Pagan dialogue, I noted something strange. I found an apparent tendency to apparently interpret the words “many” and “valid” in the statement that “we acknowledge that many systems of belief are valid” as the words “all” and “true.” This changes the meaning of the sentence radically. It turns a rather bland, almost trivial statement into something far more absolute.
Let’s start with the word “valid.” This doesn’t really mean the same thing as “true,” especially in philosophy. It’s closer to soundness or reasonableness than “truth.” In this context, I basically intended to say that “many systems of belief can be considered appropriate ways to respond or relate to Divinity.”
I’ve covered some of this ground in a (ahem… cough) less well trafficked or sexy post, but I will reprise my basic position here. The Universe is what scientists call “very large.” The human psyche is very small, and susceptible to outside influences, particularly cultural ones. So I find the probability that any one group or individual has discovered “The Ultimate Truth” about the Cosmos or Divinity close to zero. I think it far more likely that individuals have peak experiences and then put their own cultural gloss on it after the fact. Then, through pressure and luck, it becomes the dominant religion of a society. Many times, it develops over time into a useful, beneficial means of relating to divinity.
Many times, not all. This is why I used the word “many” the first time around. Human beings have, quite frankly, developed a lot of utter bullshit out of their encounters with the Divine. There is no one group that is exempt from this. Bullshit is part of not knowing everything, which is the one art that all humans excel at without acknowledging their genius.
If we want concrete examples of “invalid” expressions of spirituality, we need not look too deep in history. I hardly think it controversial, for instance, to say that ramming an airplane into a building for God constitutes an invalid approach to spirituality. In fact, it might only incite anger for being far too understated.
When you get to the point where you’re willing to use violence to “defend” abstractions, it means you’ve forgotten that you don’t know everything. And by violence I do not only mean terrorism, but also the use of the State to enforce the doctrines of one group over another. In this case, the violence is done on the religionist’s behalf, but it still constitutes an infringement on the safety or sovereignty of another individual.
But back to the main point. The notion that accepting other ways of relating to Divinity as valid means acknowledging that all religions are true or good results, I feel, from an overadherence to Aristotilean either/or logic. In this frame, their exist only two values, one or zero. This works fine for singular objects (a toaster clearly is not a television absent extensive modification) but it fails utterly when dealing with complex abstractions. Many have suggested a “fuzzy” or multi-valued logic, in which you can place the truth or probability value at some point along a continuum. In this case, the term “many” would lie somewhere between “one” and “all.”
It is easy to be coerced by our own values. Pagans value a plurality of views, and can thus be lead into de-politicizing serious issues by bigots who demand “tolerance” for their beliefs. This generally means not calling them on their bullshit. But this bullshit is but one aspect of their faith, and it is their own minds which cannot separate themselves from their dogma.
The Culture War is a real political struggle with real consequences. Women, homosexuals, and people of Paths not deemed acceptable to the Religious Right stand to lose homes, rights, even their freedom. The Religious Right stands to lose nothing but privilege and domination. Pluralism is a value, one rooted in the simple fact that we do not know everything, and cannot say for certain that one Path is “true” or not. What we can do, is recognize the expressions of spirituality that involve real violence or are likely to lend support to it. Indeed, it is our responsibility to call others, and ourselves, on bullshit whenever it shows itself.