Saturday, September 07, 2013

Theological Dichotomies are Neither Good Nor Bad

Good vs. Evil
I love Star Wars. It is possibly the greatest myth of my time. And it has had a lasting impact on my spirituality. It contrasted good and evil using the metaphors of light and dark. Even the all-powerful Force that moved through all things had its own dark side. As a result, the good guys were good, and the bad guys were bad. Lines were clearly drawn and the two were not confused.

At least that's how it was in the first Star Wars trilogy (which is really the second, except for the fact that it was made first). It seems that the second trilogy confused all of this. Was Anakin a good guy, or a bad guy? What about Mace Windu? He seemed kind of suspicious to me. The second series appeared to have adopted a vastly different philosophical framework. When it came out, a lot of people wondered what happened?

I have my thoughts on that, though they are just conjecture. Nonetheless, I suspect some of the problems that Lucas struggled with while expanding his story was that he may have grown as a person. Black and white moral schemes naturally break down as people mature.

As human beings grow, they go through developmental stages. In the earlier stages, we live in a black and white world. There is good, and there is bad; there are good deeds, and there are bad deeds. Once one moves beyond that stage, however, the whole black/white dichotomy starts to disintegrate. We realize that not all good deeds are really all that good. Sometimes, supposedly bad deeds are seen as necessary for the greater good, which actually makes them a kind of good deed themselves, from a certain point of view. It turns out that people aren't good or evil in themselves, but just people, like the other people around them. What seems "good" to some, appears as "evil" to others. Good and evil, right and wrong, light and dark; it all becomes relative.

Religions wrestle with identifying the light and the dark in the world. Part of their struggle is that they a exist in a world of grey. Actual black and white scenarios are rare. Still, they try. And once they have done this (or think they've done this), they then need to communicate the light they bear to the world in a way that the world can understand it. This is where theology comes in.

All communication has to start somewhere. Usually when starting to explain anything, simpler is better. Therefore, it seems best that theology start with simple, stark contrasts. We can easily wrap our minds around extreme good, and just as easily do so for extreme evil. One of the reasons we can do so is because we often understands concepts by what they are not. Obi-Wan Kenobi is obviously good; Darth Vader is obviously evil. The personalities of the two are at separate ends of the spectrum. Obi-Wan is (in part) understood by the audience as "not-Vader," and vice-versa. Humans process identities through similarities and contrasts, a task that is easier when the similarities and contrasts are more stark. The more contrast, the easier it is to learn the basics.

Theology, then, does well to emphasize the strong contrasts within its truth. In Christian theology, we have contrasts between ultimate states of being:
  • God vs. Satan
  • Holy vs. demonic
  • Heaven vs. Hell
The contrast between the light and the dark portrayed in those theological examples helps us get started. One might say that this is the universal narrative of "how things are 'really' working." Once we have this universal framework, then we can start to bring it down to earth. Beginning with the good/evil dichotomy of existence, we can  then use that dichotomy to understand our own existence and how we relate to existence itself. Again, the best place to start seems to be with simple dichotomies:
  • servant vs. lord
  • spirit vs. flesh
  • grace vs. judgment
This either/or thinking pattern gives us clear options. Shall I "lord" over people or be a "servant" to them? Well, according to Christ (who came in the form of a servant and gave his life for all), I should function as a "servant" in the world. Whereas to be a "servant" falls under the "holy" label for existence, "lordship" falls under the "demonic," since it is the polar opposite of a servant. This is a great start to reorienting one's life.

But what happens when the dichotomy falls apart? When a woman suffers from spousal abuse, is it a holy thing to submit as a servant? Of course not, but there are religious traditions that uphold that it is. While in a conversation with a woman (part of another Christian tradition) who was being abused, I found out that she had already gone to her pastor. He prompted her and her husband to go into a form a Christian counseling. The Christian counsellor told her that she could not leave her husband who was beating her, because he was the head of the household and it was her duty to submit to him. All she could do was to separate herself from the situation for a couple of hours to allow him to cool off before she returned home. Meanwhile, the counseling would continue. I was appalled when I heard this story. This is where theology justly comes under attack. What was once meant to be a life-giving frame of reference, had become a force for destruction. And worse yet, it had somehow attained official theological status within that tradition.

This is just one example of how a religious belief system has been used to justify abuse. The most vocal critics of organized religion right now seem to be the militant atheists. My introduction to this group came through Sam Harris' The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason in which he argues that religious belief (often mis-identified as "faith") is ultimately a harmful force that needs to be held accountable for the damage it has done and continues to do. His goal is to destroy fictitious thinking with the power of reason (and arguably shame). His primary targets seem to be: the theistic God, the Bible as the Word of God, and faith (by which he means religious doctrine) as an inappropriate basis for decisions. This is a fantastic book, and I recommend it to anyone who wants a solid (albeit extreme) critique of religious beliefs and practice.

Too often theological dichotomies are blamed for the problems that religions bring into this world. This seems to be especially the case with the current atheist critique. If only people wouldn't believe "that," the world would be a better place, they argue. What religious critics often forget is that all human beings go through stages where dichotomies are an important part of growth. Not everybody emerges through those stages well. Indeed, at least some of those who decry religion because of its false dichotomies often herald a science vs. religion one themselves (an irony that often seems to be missed by them). Furthermore, I don't believe that dichotomies are just for developmental stages, but are also an important part of early stages of learning in general. No matter the subject matter or the age of the person, we all have to begin to understand something new in part by what it is not. Stark contrast is a tool that helps us to get started.

What I find interesting is that all of Harris' intellectual targets (at least as I recall them from reading the book years ago) participate in theological dichotomies. Does God exist? Is the Bible the Word of God? Is the doctrine right? Harris and those who participate in an attack o religion seem to argue that these theological dichotomies themselves are the problem. Get rid of them and you get rid of the problem.

Despite what the critics say, however, the real issue is not with theological dichotomies. They are not the source of the social problems that the critics are ultimately trying to address. They are neither good nor bad in and of themselves. The real issue is that people can become developmentally stuck in them. They fail to see that the Light Side of the Force and the Dark Side of the Force aren't as clear cut as they would like to think. This is a spiritual developmental issue. And when people operating out of early developmental stages start wielding power in society, disastrous political and legal situations can indeed arise.

The solution, then, is not found in the approach of religion's critics, which is to denounce the truth of the black and white dichotomy, or the yes/no and either/or answer. Rather, it is found in nurturing those dichotomies in ways that transfigure them. After all, the dichotomies are meant become a relative guides for navigating a spiritual journey in the messiness of day-to-day life. Yes, this transition is difficult and filled with growing pains. But those who emerge on the other side are healthier spiritually. Once theological dichotomies are perceived as tools rather than prescriptions, we are better able to make wise spiritual decisions, to the benefit of not just ourselves but all of those around us.


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