Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Moving Beyond Imagination

Beyond Effort of Imagination

By John Taylor; 2010 Jan 19, Sultan 01, 166 BE

Religulous, by Bill Maher

Religulous is not a movie I would pay to see, but as soon as I stumbled upon it yesterday in the Binbrook Library I borrowed and watched it. Comedian Bill Maher made this documentary as a statement of belief, and a way to convert theists to atheists, and atheists to anti-theists. It has a few funny moments, but mostly this comedian is deadly serious. His argument is summed up with a chart that he shows at one point comparing the number of non-believers in God (almost one in five Americans) to the number of gays, blacks, Jews and other groups. All of these are far fewer in number but far more influential in pushing their agendas. Why are non-theists, atheists and agnostics, so disunited and uncommitted?

Why indeed.

Surely it is one thing to not believe in something and quite another to stand up for it. It is contradictory base faith on a non-conviction. If such a thing were possible, I could make withdrawals from a bank account that I know does not exist; I could build a luxurious mansion on a piece of land that does not exist and that I do not own.

As a former anti-theist I am well familiar with the intellectual ammunition that Maher uses against religion. I used it myself when I was fifteen years old. Of course he presents it well, with modern multi-media illustrations. He enjoys stumping Christians with the many self-contradictions in the Bible. Jonah's being swallowed by a whale is similar to Santa and the tooth fairy. He heaves on their heads the bomb of the non-originality of Bible stories. Elements of events surrounding the life of Jesus are also found in the CV's of preceding gods, such as Horus, Osiris, Mythros, Krishna and various others. Therefore Jesus was not God.

When I see that old objection presented now, all it seems to prove is that story elements repeat. Plot devices are reused by storytellers over and over. There has to be a reason for that, especially when a movie or comedy routine like Maher's own seems dated after only a decade or two.

At my age and after a thousand brain draining migraines, details flow over me like water, but my daughter Silvie is quite sharp. She has become adept at pointing out repeating plots in everything we watch. For example, recently we viewed the Whoopy Goldberg comedy "The Associate," and she pointed out that it was the same story as an episode called "Todd," in the animated series "Dilbert." We rewatched the episode and noticed that Scott Adams had actually improved on the older story by introducing a satiric echo of God into the story of an imaginary partner who takes on a life of his own.

Last night we saw an episode called "The Child," in the second season of Star Trek, The Next Generation. It was about a benign "energy being" style of alien that decides to contact the Enterprise by impregnating a female crew member and running the child's pregnancy and childhood in fast forward. Then it finds its presence is harming the ship, so the kid voluntarily dies to save the ship. Both Mom and Sis were in tears, Dad and brother less so, but still interested.

Silvie pointed out that later on the Star Trek Voyager series repeated almost exactly the same story in an episode called "One." Is she refuting Star Trek, in the same way that anti-theists like Maher think they are refuting Christ? Or does the fact that the same story moves people to tears over many generations and millennia only prove that there is an element of truth, a characteristic of God and the universe that we all respond to at a deep level?

As if to back that idea up, Maher in an attempt to mock Christianity shows a modern passion play in a hokey Florida "Land of the Bible" theme park. An actor playing Jesus covered in dye is raised on a mechanical cross while a jet airliner crosses the sky in the background. The camera pans over to a small, elderly audience of fat tourists in deck chairs, most of whom are in tears. To me that just says, the story still works after two millennia. Why? The only conceivable reason it still moves is that it must be based on something real.

Maher has the same approach throughout. He does not take his arguments to learned or distinguished representatives of Christianity, Mormonism, Islam and Judaism. Rather he seeks out fringe elements and makes fun of their ignorance. At the same time, he does not attack really pathetic believers, like the dirt poor living in slums and favelas with their dreary lives without worldly hope but God. That would be just too pathetic, though they are the majority of believers, and of the human race.

Instead he goes to ignorant folk in America, who in a land of infinite opportunity openly reject science in exchange for religion, as if such a trade were necessary or even pleasing to God. Even so, he often tricks or bullies his marks into dropping their guard and saying something ridiculous. In spite of the deck being stacked against them, they sometimes do score points off Maher. The best riposte comes from the Holy Land theme-park Jesus, whom Maher interviews in full costume, as if he were talking to Jesus in the flesh. When Maher mocks the trinity this "Jesus" comes back with the response,

"The three in one is like the three phases of water, ice, liquid and vapour. It is always water, though it takes on different forms according to the ambient temperature."

Later Maher admits that he had been taken aback, saying, "It is nonsense on nonsense, and I am far from convinced by it, but I have to say I was not expecting that." I do not think that an idea like this is going to convince an atheist either, but it certainly shows that acting in a passion play makes you think about the story you are telling.

Abdu'l-Baha did talk about sacrifice being like the seed that sacrifices itself in order to become a tree, so the idea of God being like different states of water is not wholly ridiculous. However, in explaining the trinity he did stick to the Bab's analogy of the image in a mirror.

"But as to the question of the Trinity, know, O advancer unto God, that in each one of the cycles wherein the Lights have shone forth upon the horizons ... there are necessarily three things: The Giver of Grace, and the Grace, and the Recipient of the Grace; the Source of the Effulgence, and the Effulgence, and the Recipient of the Effulgence; the Illuminator, and the Illumination, and Illuminated." (Abdu'l-Baha, Tablets of Abdu'l-Baha v1, p. 117)

He also explains the trinity in Some Answered Questions, but I will not cite it all, only a very telling sentence that, I think, also hints at why these story elements are repeated so often, and why they have such an impact on the soul.

"A thing cannot be grasped by the intelligence except when it is clothed in an intelligible form; otherwise, it is but an effort of the imagination." (Abdu'l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 115)


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