Part of the conclusion to the series God: From Magic to Motivation
I want to use two illustrations in this post that I believe offer a way for God-centred religions to get unstuck and survive the current change in aesthetics, away from a language of magic to a language of personal responsibility. These two stories talk about what I call The Last Idols of God. They are both very old stories.
[Note: this is a fun rant and a personal working-out of ideas. Treat it as such.]
There is Muslim story about a man that found he could not believe in God. He confided in a religious teacher. The religious teacher was not troubled at all by what this man said. Instead, he asked the man about what personally motivated him.
“What is most important to you in this world? What is it that you live for?”
“My nephew!” said the man quickly. “He is so bright and curious. I want nothing evil to happen to him. I want to make sure he has the best life has to offer!”
“Go then and treat your nephew as you would your God,” said the teacher. “Do everything in your power to raise the child well. Be an example to him, and make the world a place that will give him everything he needs to live properly.”
The man went away feeling much better, adopting a new attitude towards his life.
This is my retelling. I have lost the original story (or any supposed ‘authoritative’ one). However, the religious teacher in the story was not in any way bothered by the man’s unbelief. It isn’t a threat to the teacher or to the teacher’s religion. It isn’t really a problem at all.
The religious teacher addresses what motivates the man instead of promoting some kind of magic to believe in. He asks the man to identify and explain the embodiment of his motivations. What he finds is that the man’s personal god, the embodiment of what has implications for his behaviour and attitude, is in someone other than himself, something that requires no magic or complicated belief!
At no point does the religious teacher say to treat the child as authoritative. It isn’t a matter of giving the child what the child wants. Instead, it’s a matter of accepting a responsibility.
Gods need no magic and need no authority.
Our personal motivations can still be important to us, but it is time that we stripped them of all authority over our behaviour. Instead of simply confirming our motivations, or letting them rule, we can be honest with ourselves by openly admitting to them and accepting responsibility for how they make us behave.
The boys are brought up to be in fear of the masks the men wear in their rituals. These are the gods. These are the personifications, the powers, that structure the society. The boy, when he gets to be more than his mother can handle, the men come in with their masks, or whatever their costume is, and they grab the kid. He thinks he’s being taken by the gods. Taken out to the men’s new ground, and he’s beaten up and everything else.
But in New Guinea, there is a wonderful event where the poor kid has to stand up and fight a man with a mask. He’s fighting the god. The man let’s the kid win, takes the mask off, puts it on the kid.
Now the mask is not there defeated, and simply said, “This is just myth.” The mask represents the power that is shaping the society and has shaped you, and now you are a representative of that power.
You’ve broken past the image as fact, and understand the image as metaphor. And you are to represent what the metaphor stands for. ~ Joseph Campbell
This ritual reveals how God (the mask) is a construction. It is not a thing that creates but instead a thing created by us. This does not mean it is not real. It does have implications for behaviour (the boys react two ways after all – with fear and with fight). However, it is not the mask that has agency.
This is a very emotional experience for the child, and a brilliant example of how to incorporate disillusionment into the regular culture of a community. Disillusionment is becoming a common and life-defining experience shared by individuals today. Instead of focusing on ‘confirmations‘, god-centred religions need to celebrate these moments of disillusionment. Otherwise, they will continue to lose followers because of the destruction of trust and attachment involved in these emotional experiences. Kids are going away in fear, fight, flight and disinterest. They are walking away from community involvement in apathy or angst.
From time to time, I’d imagine, the masks that were passed from generation to generation would have to be fixed, altered, or remade. The masks, being constructions and having no magical agency in today’s language, are not immune to revision. They need constant maintenance and updating. I think we’ve reached a point where the masks must either be completely transparent or remade by each generation. This means we must remove agency from the make-up the mask. Our motivations are powerful enough already; the last thing we need to give them is their own power to act.
The mask in the New Guinea ritual does not win, after all. It is the child that wrestles and overcomes fear that wins.
Call to Change
The religious have been duped by bad arguments about what makes a God, or a motivation, worthy of worship. To be worthy of worship, a God does not need to exist at all, in some material sense or rational argument. Existence alone could actually make it unworthy.
Only within the bounds of the human imagination, collectively and individually, can we actually construct a God (a cultural embodiment of the motivations that should rule over us) that is worthy and inspirational. There may still be problems with inconsistency or incoherence, but that is the nature of story. That is part of dealing with the flux of new information available. Life resides in the very act of addressing new information.
Only an unknown, unreal and fictitious god (or gods) can now fit this role. No other god can survive the common experience of disillusionment which god-centred religions must address.
I don’t think this is a terrible or disrespectful way to look at religious commitment. People have dedicated themselves towards making the world a better place through adopting many kinds of stories. Instead of fixating on the inaccuracies of sacred texts, the incoherence of magical aesthetics or the probabilities grounding someone’s beliefs, we can instead focus on the consequences of the beliefs. How does a person’s beliefs, how does a person’s motivations, or how does a person’s God even, make them behave?
The last things we should give to our personal motivations is either some kind of sacred agency or some kind of supreme authority over how we collectively behave. These are the last idols of God (for now…).
The world itself wears no masks. We are the makers of masks. We are the ones that wear the masks.
God-dominated religions, if they wish to survive the continued rationalization and technologization of culture, need to abandon their last idols of God, particularly authority and agency.
What do you think?