12 April 2008

Feral Protestantism and the Leaking God

You can't stub your toe on a religion.
The artifacts of a religion—a church, a temple, the eleven hundred kilo gold-plated statue of the compassionate aspect, bound books of teachings—sure, but the religion itself is an inherently intangible thing.
Which means that whatever religion you've got, you've made up. (In the precise same sense that everything in your head is a made-up model of your experience of the world; the world itself is not in there, it wouldn't fit.)
Sometimes this is a side effect of transformative experience, but almost always it's from various component parts that are provided, often eagerly provided, by other people who want you to be part of their clade of religious ideas. (It's difficult unto impossible to have everyone following the same religion, but the point of a religious tradition is to try, and common tradition is a real and powerful thing in pretty much any context.)
Which is all well and good and basically human—what makes us human is other humans; bootstrapping social intelligence in one generation functions poorly—but it does have failure modes.
One of the failure modes if the falsification of components; we can see that going on right now with the whole notion of biblical inerrancy running into a much better, verifiable, and repeatable notion of how the world works. So that brick, that often foundational brick, in the Lego set of the particular religion, is either not there anymore, and the structure you can build must change, or the brick is asserted to be there, and the mechanism of building must, also, change, into a much less honest one.
That's a fairly easy failure mode to see; it's common to organizational transmission in all parts of life, and it happens at many scales, so people have a pretty good idea that there are limits to the utility of pretending that something non-factual is true and then proceeding on that basis.
Another failure mode is that the bricks, by the each, go feral.
This is a lot harder to see, and in many ways I think much more dangerous, because there's no longer any necessary constraint of structure. If you're trying to build a Methodist religion out of the Methodist religion kit of Lego blocks, or an Anglican, or an Asatru (most of those blocks are at least known to be missing....) you have some existing idea about what the result is supposed to look like.
It's hard not to notice if, metaphorically, you were trying to build a model of Chartres Cathedral and what you've got has a stern paddle wheel, cargo grapples, and a steam-driven Wurlitzer in all the bathrooms. Whatever that is, it's not Chartres Cathedral.
If you don't have the preexisting model, it's very hard to notice the feral Lego blocks, because you have this axiom, permeated through your culture, and no other axioms against which you can check it for fit.
And context of axioms is very important.
One of the basic Protestant axioms is "be like God"; whether this is God-the-Father or God-the-Son or a less relentlessly gendered God or just what is up to the diverse Protestant traditions, but the idea is there, and gets loose, and is, without all the other ideas to give God some kind of shape—a perpetual act of metaphorical sculpture goes on, with a living tradition—really dangerous.
One way in which it is dangerous is that it can give axiomatic force to anything at all; anything that has, for an individual, some element of the divine in it, can be connected to that feral Lego block, and become an axiomatic unconstrained good, against which anything done in the way of words or actions become an absolute evil.
This happens, has happened quite commonly over historical time, with ideas like "profit" and "safety", but it happens with all sorts of ideas, that become axiomatically good-without-a-context. Since the world has always got a context, and error bars, the results are, soon or late, bad ones, and that particular line of cognitive descent tends to end. (Or get severely pruned back.)
Another way in which it is dangerous is by leaking.
What is God like?
Most basically, God -- God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth, and of All Things Visible and Invisible -- can do anything. ("That ye may know that I am Eru, the One..." and creation happens, all of it, that angels may be educated in some ineffably necessary way.)
People though, people are finite. They can't do anything. They can't do anything at all by unmediated will; they can't do anything that takes living a thousand years; they can't do anything that takes bathing in molten lava or breathing in the abyssal ocean water or dwelling naked in vacuum or dancing on a -- one, singular -- molecule of water. They most certainly cannot know the precise shape of the future.
People are finite. They have a scope, a scale, a sphere of action.
They can also have that feral Lego block, without its context of tradition—which to say, the accumulated bad experiences, work-arounds, clever thoughts, and compromises with being finite and tangible generations of people have accumulated—telling them to be like God, who can do anything.
Which leads to relatively harmless things, like space exploration triumphalism—the reason why we don't have colonies on Mars is a lack of will, not the enormous cost and extreme difficulty of the problem—and excruciatingly harmful things, like people who can't forgive themselves for having not known the specific future, or being arbitrarily strong in childhood, or some other painful aspect of finity. If only they were a good person, they would be like God, and that particular finity would not be true.
The Lego block can be a fine thing, when it's in the structure of tradition; it's got something to give it shape, and limits.
All by itself, a lurking dark mass in the foundations of how you imagine the world, you can stub your toe and break your leg.

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