Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Universalize Me, Daddy, Infinity to the Bar

While wasting time this evening I came upon an Amazon listing for a book of essays that had garnered one brief review: "This solipsistic writer thinks he is extremely liberal, but tho he claims all religions are valid, he secretly hates Christians."

Reviews like that usually make their targets more interesting to me.  I noticed that it had four comments, so I clicked through and found that the author of the book had riposted:
It has always been my observation that when a book is trashed by fundamentalists it must really be worth reading... especially, I would say, this one, which respects all the great religions and wisdom traditions. Perhaps that's the real problem. Much of the book repeatedly expresses respect for what is universal in Christianity.
Oh, dear.  That made the book less interesting to me.  I decided to see if the reviewer was just a troll; his other reviews indicate that he's capable of intelligent comment, and for what it's worth, I don't believe he's a Christian fundamentalist -- but that makes the review I noticed all the more discrediting to him.  Even if his target hated Christianity, it wouldn't follow that he hates Christians.

The author's reply, however, is not really a defense of his beliefs or attitudes.  "What is universal to Christianity," whatever he imagines that to be, is of little interest.  If I go by what others have meant when they said something like that, what is "universal" in Christianity is a little collection of platitudes -- be nice to people, love love love, and so on -- that don't really mean anything without some idea how to carry them out, and why.  Being nice to people always comes encrusted with exceptions.  (Was Jesus being nice when he threatened the vast majority of human beings with eternal torment?  Was the Buddha being nice when he told a soldier that if he died in battle he would probably be reborn "in a hell or as an animal"?  And so on.)  So does love.  Justice is at least as murky.  And so on.  I don't know if the poet being trashed is Baha'i, but I looked into that sect during the 80s when I was researching religion, and found nothing much there; the poet does seem to be echoing Baha'i doctrine in his remarks, though.  What the various religions have in common probably has more to do with the fact that human beings invented them, and with cross-cultural and cross-tradition borrowing than with any cosmic universals.

The universal is all very well, but I've learned to be suspicious of those who invoke it, whether in art, religion, sexuality, human nature, or most other realms.  Often they seem to be anxious about, if not hostile to, human difference.  From a safe, nose-holding difference, we are all pretty much alike.  But up close, viewed with interest (which is greater and stronger than love), the differences become apparent, and valuable.  If you can't love the differences, then I question the reality or worth of your love, let alone your spiritual wisdom.