Ritual, Relativism, and Absolutism

In the discussion between Absolutism and Relativism, it may prove to be particularly revealing to discuss the nature of religious ritual. Indeed, in my view an inappropriate understanding of ritual is very much at the heart of the Absolutism/Relativism conflict.

Let us suppose a religion for a people called the Boogees. In one of their many practices, the priest must wash his hands before handling the Sacred Bowl. It has been their practice for the past fifteen hundred years. Needless to say, they are not prepared to change it. However, the recent invention of hand-sanitizer (which we will assume is more effective than water alone) brings exactly this point up for debate. Although water has been used for hundreds of years, if it is a question of cleanliness, hand-sanitizer offers a more robust option. Although, since it is a religious ritual, the replacement of water with hand-sanitizer faces resistance, most especially from longer term members of the faith. Yet, eventually, the reformers prevail and the water is replaced with hand-sanitizer. What does this mean?

At this point, I agree with the relativist to a certain extent. Clearly, since the water was replaced, it was not sacred in itself. The ritual can still go on while using hand-sanitizer. The sacredness of the ritual does not change in spite of this difference. How can this be? Only if the sacredness of the ritual is dependent upon something other than just the elements themselves. What is this something? I put it to you that it is the piety of the individuals involved in the ritual. It is this spiritual devotion to a higher power that is important, not the nitty-gritty details of the ritual that expresses this devotion.

Does this hand the relativist victory?

No. Emphatically, no.

Although many different rituals exist across the spectrum of human religion, it is the piety that transcends and unifies them all. And it is piety that stands as the absolute value of most common concern when one is discussing ritual. Perhaps, one might object that since rituals allow for a nearly limitless spectrum of possible expressions of piety, any and all such expressions are equally valid. Hence, there is no discernible moral difference between religious rituals. Rituals are relativistic things, all of which equally express the concept of piety.

If that is true, then there is no discernible difference between the Aztec ritual of human sacrifice and the Catholic ritual of Communion.

In one sense, that is true: the Aztec priest and the Catholic priest both perform their rituals with (probably) equal levels of piety.

But the comparison is still ridiculous.

The reply to the relativist is that he is confusing morality with piety. Morality has a much larger scope, of which piety is but a small part. There are more virtues to the human person than mere piety: mercy, love, compassion, respect for life, etc…. And in my view, respect for life is of greater moral significance than piety. Piously killing people is a grave error.

Of final interest is what I call the ritual hard-liner. Basically, these are the people who will probably take comfort in the relativistic stance. They don’t want to change the water to hand-sanitizer. Indeed, they refuse. Because it is their sacred ritual that they have been performing the exact same way for the past fifteen hundred years. And no one else has the right to tell them to perform it any other way.

To them, in the case of the water/hand-sanitizer issue, I’d make my case once, then leave them alone. They aren’t hurting anyone.

But in the case of Aztec human sacrifice, a different response is required. Historically, the different response was war, and it resulted in the destruction of the entire Aztec culture. Perhaps such is regrettable; but given our current struggles with Isis and Islamic extremism, perhaps not. I do not mean to impugn or threaten all Muslims, just the idiots who think strapping on a suicide vest is a good thing.

Anyway, prior to war (which is too late now), morality insists that we try to argue with them. Yes, I know it is their beliefs and they have the right to decide what they believe and don’t believe; but if they endorse suicide bombing I will not choose to remain silent.

Book Review: After the Darkness by Rev. Joseph M. Esper (3 ½ *’s)

I recently finished reading After the Darkness by Rev. Joseph M. Esper. It is a fictional novel about the, as he puts it, “The coming of the antichrist and the end of the world.” The copyright is 1997, so, giving about a year or so for the final organization of the book, everything in it after 1996 or 1995 or so is completely speculative. And he admits that fact in the Introduction saying that his work is NOT an attempt to predict the future. I think he merely intends to give his fictional account as a means to stress the seriousness of the topic and to exhort us to a deeper spirituality. Or something.

There are three parts to the book. The first is a fictional history of events written in “2061” about the preceding 65 years. Part II consists of journal entries from the life of a mystic and seer covering another twenty years. Part III consists of diary entries from the False Prophet; the antichrist’s right hand man.

For myself, I found the book an interesting read because he bases a good portion of the events in the book on actual prophecies of seers and prophets who have lived. And it’s all footnoted. He’s got stuff from the Bible, of course, as well as Marian prophecies, Nostradamus, and many others. I used to be a prophecy buff. As these prophecies all relate to the end of the world and the antichrist—an issue, as readers of my blog are aware, I struggle with—I’ve found it an excellent resource for such. And, having read the book including all those prophecies, I can safely conclude that many of them do not apply to me. Most specifically, I can quite emphatically state that the prophecies concerning the political career of the antichrist do not apply to me at all. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), this may be the result of my choice. There was a brief period of time where I considered pursuing a political career. Only God knows what would have happened, if I had. For myself, I’m inclined to think the prophecies noted above describe the political career I would have had, if I had entered politics. So, I can’t use these prophecies to argue with myself that I am not the antichrist (hence, the descriptor of ‘unfortunately’). However, as I now have no intention of entering politics (partly because I think I’m the antichrist), I can declare those prophecies avoided. Hah! A victory for the good guys.

Anyway, back to the book. Overall, it was okay, but not great. If you’re interested in prophecies, it’s a great resource. However, as a story, it was nothing spectacular and at times even seemed a little cheesy. The writing was fine; there were only a few typos here and there; and, overall, the presentation was original and good, it was just a little lackluster. Ultimately, I’ll give the book three and a half stars out of five.

Alien Leaders Are Schmucks Too!

One of my favorite programs on TV is Ancient Aliens. For those who aren’t familiar with the program, it explores the hypothesis that extra-terrestrials have been visiting Earth and interfering in the affairs of humanity for thousands of years. They go through the evidence, examine the theories, and generally turn alien intrigue into entertainment.

Anyway, the other night I watched several episodes. According to the program, sometime in the 1950’s, an alien being named “Valiant Thor” landed on planet Earth and had a meeting with the President of the United States. Basically, the alien wanted to convey extra-terrestrial concern over the development of and use of nuclear weapons. Watching the program was the first I’ve ever heard of “Valiant Thor.”

Surprised?

One of the more common theories concerning aliens is that the U.S. government knows far more about aliens than they are letting on. Theories abound—and the occasional rebel official validates—about how the government has numerous contacts with multiple alien species. But they are keeping it secret from us. Because, well, they’re a bunch of jerks. Complete and utter schmucks.

If aliens are out there, and they’re visiting Earth, and our government knows about it; we, the population of the United States, have a right to know. We’re big boys and girls. We can handle it. There is no good reason for the government to keep such information from us.

Now what about the aliens?

Can’t they settle this mystery and just land a spaceship on the White House Lawn in broad daylight? I mean, all things considered, our tech is getting pretty advanced. We’re almost at the point of the commercial exploration of space. Well, maybe our super advanced fighter jets scare the alien spaceships away … but I’m not buying that, as their tech probably blows ours away in spades. Regardless, at the very least, don’t you think that the aliens could hijack a TV signal or something similar and announce their presence to our population? Why wouldn’t they?

The only reason I can think of is that the aliens, too, want their existence and identity to remain hidden from us. In which case, I am forced to conclude that the alien leaders, too, are schmucks.

I Have A Mathematical Mind

I have a mathematical mind. It is the curse of being a philosopher, or rather, having a philosophical bent. I studied mathematics and philosophy in college. Then, I went back and studied computer science. I’ve had more logic than I know what to do with. And sometimes that is a severe disadvantage. Because a mathematical mind is often an inflexible mind.

In my case, I look at things as either true or false. In mathematics, for example, most problems have definitive answers. If you do the work and follow it, you can establish the truthfulness or falsity of an assertion with certainty. When the answer to a mathematical question is found, it is established and irrefutable. Math is the only science like that; math is the only science in which the term “proof” has its truest meaning. Unfortunately, it is an open question whether or not the field of mathematics actually applies to the world. Back when I was studying philosophy, there were basically three (or was it five?) theories on what mathematics actual is. There was Plato’s view of mathematics; that is, it is about the eternal relationships between real properties (Plato’s Theory of Forms). There was Kant’s view of mathematics; that is, it is really the result of the structure of the human mind. And there were three other theories, I think, although I remember only one: that mathematics is just a game. In my view, the solution is either Kant or Plato. Either two plus two equals four because the property of twoness always leads to four when it is doubled (Plato), or because we can’t see the relationship any other way, because our minds are structured that way and limited. As far as math being a game … that never satisfied me. I’ve gone off on a tangent here; let me try to get back. The original point was: How does math apply to the world? If Plato is right, it is a part of the world. If Kant is right, it’s a part of our minds. If the game theory is right, it is an invention of our own making.

Once I was in a stock room trying to put together a shelf. The shelves didn’t quite fit right. I could tell by looking at the shelf that the angle was off slightly, and that geometrically, the shelves would never fit. Hence, it was no use trying to make them fit and I gave up the cause as hopeless. Whereupon, my boss and another individual promptly forced the shelf into place through brute force and completed the shelf. As rigid as metal is, it does bend; it is not as rigid as a perfect geometrical line. Metal can be distorted. Errors can be forced. So what was the geometry of the situation? It could describe the shelf effectively, but in a manner that led one to believe the problem had no solution. In such a situation, it doesn’t seem that the mathematics was “real.” Brute force could conquer it. The real world could resolve the problem where math indicated there was no solution. Upon reflection it appears that geometry, my Euclidean understanding of it, anyway, was derived from the real world; that pure math exists only in the  human mind. That said, if pushed, I can give you a few examples from Number Theory where the opposite is true; situations that absolutely can’t be forced, where a mathematical determination of “the solution is impossible” guarantees that the solution is, in fact, impossible. So, what is mathematics? I don’t know. All I know is that I tend to think along mathematical lines.

It’s great to have an analytical mathematical mind, but it also stinks like a rotten egg; I have the common sense of a stone. I’ve spent most of my life proving that last and it’s something I don’t think I can change.