And the Cool Became Flesh, and Dwelt Among Us
I think one of the main reasons for this is that, just as, say, much of the Islamic world is a "shame culture," we in the United States have a "cool culture." To put it another way, we are terrified of appearing uncool. Uncoolness is a shameful state. There is no question that this is a powerful motivator. Indeed, many liberal stances can be comprehended on the basis that the adherent believes it would be uncool to believe otherwise. Gay marriage? Cool! The military? Uncool!! Environmentalism? Cool!!!
Back when I was a liberal, I basically adhered to the cool agenda. I thought the US and USSR were morally equivalent empires, that corporations were bad and greedy, that guns were evil, that capital punishment was murder, etc.
As far as I can tell, the coolness fetish began in the 1950s as an adolescent phenomenon, and then spread to the culture at large in the 1960s and '70s. By the time I was around ten or eleven years of age, I began to see that religion was very uncool and therefore to be rejected. The phenomenon of Christian rock is a very uncool attempt to make Christianity look cool. But Christianity is way cool already, if you know where to look.
A case in point is this editorial by Heather Mac Donald, a secular conservative woman who is very uncomfortable with what she perceives as the dominance of the conservative intellectual movement by the Christian right. You know, those uncool nerds like John Ashcroft:
“Upon leaving office in November 2004, Attorney General John Ashcroft thanked his staff for keeping the country safe since 9/11. But the real credit, he added, belonged to God. Ultimately, it was God’s solicitude for America that had prevented another attack on the homeland.
“Many conservatives hear such statements with a soothing sense of approbation. But others -- count me among them -- feel bewilderment, among much else. If God deserves thanks for fending off assaults on the United States after 9/11, why is he not also responsible for allowing the 2001 hijackings to happen in the first place?"
Being detached, skeptical and ironic is the essence of cooless, so it is understandable that the above approach to religion doesn't pass the coolness test: “Skeptical conservatives -- one of the Right’s less celebrated subcultures -- are conservatives because of their skepticism, not in spite of it. They ground their ideas in rational thinking and (nonreligious) moral argument. And the conservative movement is crippling itself by leaning too heavily on religion to the exclusion of these temperamentally compatible allies.”
You can see this battle in miniature, say, in the difference between an uncool conservative such as Sam Brownback and a cool one such as Giuliani. Interestingly, the cool liberal media are convinced that conservatives are way too uncool to vote for a cool guy like Giuliani. But at the same time, liberals are about to reject a cool black guy and nominate one of the most frigidly uncool women you could imagine. Go figure.
MacDonald provides a worthy and thoughtful critique, not at all like the angry and unsophisticated atheists of the secular left. Still, it seems that her only exposure to religion has been to the kooky and/or superficial kind, but it should go without saying that kookiness and superficiality are most certainly the norm in virtually all human endeavors. One might just as well reject music on the basis of the aural droppings that deafecate from the radio these days.
LIke many reasonable people, MacDonald seems to have the greatest difficulty in reconciling an omnipotent God with the existence of evil. For example,
“The father of Elizabeth Smart, the Salt Lake City girl abducted from her home in 2002, thanked God for answering the public’s prayers for her safe return.... But why did the prayers for five-year-old Samantha Runnion go unheeded when she was taken from her Southern California home in 2002 and later sexually assaulted and asphyxiated?”
But this simply highlights the incoherence of a particular religious view that reduces God to an omnipotent anthropomorphism. This is closer to the unsophisticated manner in which uncool Muslims view Allah, as “vertically” causing everything to happen on a moment by moment basis. I have heard many Christians of this temperament say words to the effect of “everything happens for a reason” -- i.e., God caused it -- which has never made any sense to me either. In my opinion, Mac Donald is correct to reject such an uncool view.
For my part, I am drawn to religion because it is a much deeper and more sophisticated metaphysic, and explains much more than any secular philosophy. It also illuminates cool dimensions of reality that will tend to go undetected or undeveloped in the absence of religion -- the holy, the sacred, the existence of grace, etc.
But the idea of an omnipotent personal God that answers to one’s beck and call seems to me fundamentally unchristian (and certainly un-vedantic). After all, in Christianity, God himself is crucified in history. What do you think that means, that God himself fully submits to history, to the relative, to the temporal, but is ultimately victorious over it? The whole point is that The Cool became uncool so that the uncool might become Cool.
As I have emphasized before, a merely mental understanding of God is entirely insufficient in my view. Anyone who reduces religion to a mere literalism has given the game away to the cool rationalism of the uncool ego.
In the past, I have attempted to discuss this dilemma in terms of the bi-modal logic of the mind. Our little surface ego moves and has its being in the bright and well-lit world of classical or Aristotelian logic. I will be the first to acknowledge that the world accessed by the ego represents a world. But by no means does it represent the world. Rather, the ego gives access to one plane of being. I won’t say it’s a low flying plane, because, as a psychologist, I am fully aware of how many people with weak and undeveloped egos fail to get off the ground due to various developmental issues and fixations. But it is an intermediate world, with degrees of being both above and below.
In the esoterist view, the planes above the ego are developmentally later but ontologically prior, and therefore more real. Every "below" in the cosmos is contained within a more expansive above, while, at the same time, the Absolute above is uncontainable and necessarily present “within” the below. To animals, the ego is clearly both “higher” and more inward. This is why dogs think humans are so cool.
But we must never forget that the epic story of cosmic evolution does not end with the ego’s exteriorization of its limited understanding -- its colonization of a small portion of consciousness. Think of the ego as analogous to a bright flood light in the dark. Wherever the light turns, there is an area of bright illumination. But we must not be fooled into believing that the foreground of illumination -- the little spot lit up by the ego -- is all there is to reality.
As Kant properly noted, the ego creates a world in the form of its own sensibility (the phenomenal world) and then takes it for the real world. Therefore, it is as if we dream a dream and then inhabit the dream as if it were real. The ego becomes thoroughly entangled in its own exteriorized and reified fantasies. This is what it means to be a fallen ego in a fallen world. The fall is both literal (i.e., vertical) and metaphorical.
With the scientific revolution in full force, Kant saw what was coming and was actually trying to rescue the cool realm of religion from the uncool predations of a cognitively greedy scientific rationalism. Since the ego ultimately has access only to its own phenomena, this left the infinitely greater reality of the noumenon untouched, unknown and unknowable. This is precisely where Kant erred, because in saying that the noumenon was unknowable, he essentially reduced religion to a mere uncool sentimental fideism. It would simply be a matter of time before it became wholly irrelevant to cool and "sophisticated” moderns.
Again, either religion embodies real knowledge that surpasses our egoic understanding, or it is simply an absurdity that is defiantly embraced by uncool people in the teeth of reason and logic. But if it does embody real knowledge, what kind of knowledge is it? Is it mere information, occupying the same horizontal plane as factual scientific information, like saying “water freezes at 32 degrees and Jesus walked on it,” or “the ribs enclose the chest cavity and women are made of one”? In my way of looking at things, this is a gross confusion that simply invites cool people not to take religion seriously.
Let us imagine that the totality of reality constitutes a vast field of consciousness. In navigating its dimensions and coordinates, there are two principle dangers. One involves being shipwrecked on the rocks of a rational but fixed and “frozen” mental conception that ultimately forecloses spiritual evolution. The ego stakes out its little piece of territory. It knows what it knows, and that’s all it wants to know. The vast majority of cultural and religious beliefs are of this variety. Some belief systems stake out a slightly wider area, but each, to one degree or another, places an arbitrary boundary around reality.
The other danger is to become lost at sea with no fixed coordinates at all. This is to be engulfed in the symmetrical unconscious with no bearings to guide one’s journey.
Religions are indeed fixed, and must be so. However, they are not fixed in order to reduce reality, but in order to navigate through it and ultimately to colonize more of it. They are not the destination, but the means of arriving there -- at one’s deustination.
Therefore, the question is not, strictly speaking, whether or not this or that dogma is true or false, in a narrow, purely egoic way. Dogma is critical for the same reason that a ship is -- not merely for the purpose of floating statically on the water, but moving through it.
As you x-seekers know, vaulting yourself off the virtual ramp of dogma and getting some sick air in hyperspace is very cool.