The Culture Trap

Peter and Paul argued bitterly about how tight a connection there must be between Judaism and what later would be known as Christianity. Granted the Gospels couched the story of Jesus in the metaphors and motifs of the Hebrew Prophets, Paul felt the Messiah was reaching out to the entire world and saw himself as the Apostle to the Gentiles. According to the Acts, Peter had a dream in which he saw every kind of animal on earth entering Noah’s Ark. He took it as a message that all the different tribes and races of mankind were meant to follow Jesus and no one needed to first become a Jew. Okay, Paul.

This problem of central philosophy or vision being wrapped in a cultural package had occurred before, with the original Captivity bringing Assyrian and other elements (like Angels) into the Mosaic, er, mosaic.

And it occurred afterwards, when the Roman Empire, and the much later Spanish and British Empires, whose conquests spread the Gospel cooped up in definite and some very narrow cultural boxes, dispatched believers who were helmeted prisoners of their rigid political loyalties. Maybe Islam’s ties that bind to Arabic is the best and most enduring and dangerous example of this crippling constriction.

Originally Indian and Persian in flavor, Buddhism, less defined and historically bound to a general narrative, became Chinese and Japanese and, ultimately, Hawaian and Californian.

The enlightenment and industrialization and its later forms of modernization and globalization covered these templates of feeling and structure with the bloodless categories of logic and number and materialism. They coexist today uncomfortably as in the evolution and stem cell tensions, Freud’s use of myth and Charcot, Jung’s fantastic forays into mythological anthropology, and today among the techno-romantics who see immortality as an achievable cascade of downloadable software.

What to throw out as dated and locally rooted folklore and nomadic or pastoral patriarchal relics and what to preserve as part of perennial wisdom? What modern insights to incorporate and passing fads to dismiss demands both indifference, in the positive sense, and discrimination in the learned sense.

If there is a God, he or she or it or they do not wear ethnic costumes.

Freud said that he unfortunately never experienced the “oceanic” feeling of those who were mystically moved by the infinity of the stars at night and the shared immensity of the seven seas, but he recognized that it was a genuine emotion in others. It was not, he cautioned, to be confused with the religious impulse, which was the opposite. By which he meant that religions seek to tame and trap in our little cultural cages the terror of the unfathomable universe.

Life is so astonishingly beautiful and thus heartbreaking and yet randomly cruel and thus heartbreaking. We must cope with its rending contradictions honestly, and this forces us to abandon both our cribs of self and the false comfort of our so local idols.

I do not know enough to be an atheist and I cannot ignore enough to be a simple theist of any heritage.