Thursday, June 02, 2005

Mysticism & predicting the politics of religious folk

I was provoked by this uninspired LA Times Op Ed, which I read about at All Intensive Purposes, to make my own attempt at fingering the distinction between religious people on one side of the religiously hot political issues--stem-cells, abortion rights, same-sex marriage--and the religious people on the other side. By convention I think we distinguish one side as "the religious fundamentalists." But that seems like more of an operational definition than an explanation, and it also seems to credit some sects as better grasping the essence of their scripture.

In past posts here and elsewhere I've attributed opposition to stem cells and to early abortions to belief in a soul or souls. Now I think it may be more exact to attribute the opposition to something vaguer--mystical belief. Many people, whether they practice organized religion or not, believe that some physical things in the world (e.g. their own bodies) have, in addition another unmeasurable, unobservable, uncharacterizable, unintelligible ("ineffable" or "divine") aspect, which they believe (or at least believe they believe) is as real as the bus that might be about to run them over. In the case of live and thinking human bodies, and in particular their brains, the ineffable divine stuff is their souls--or else the universal soul. Soul seems to be associated with nerve cell signals and circuit architecture, with the underlying biological tissue and with embryonic clusters of undifferentiated cells and biological derivatives thereof. In regard to those books that say "Holy Bible" on the cover, the divine stuff is "the Word," which is in the ink and/or in the paper and/or in the abstract information expressed by the text and/or copies and translations of that text. So divine stuff has a mishmash of superficially, physically inconsistent relations to things, which goes along with its ineffability, and to regard it as real is an extraordinary mental feat. The people who pull this off I would label "mystics" or "mystical believers."

That said, I don't think you need to be a mystic to be a fundamentalist or to vote fundamentalist. You might just belong to a mystical denomination. Most religious traditions seem to have now or have had in the past a mystical branch (e.g. of the Sufis, Tantric Buddhists, Hassids). The evangelical tongues-speaking Christian churches that Americans call "fundamentalist" sure seem to qualify as mystic. And we know where they stand on the issues cited up top.

Given that many people I am placing in the mystic camp are simply followers and not mystically minded themselves, I suppose my politically distinguishing principle isn't any more pure and psychological than the one the Times Op-edder proposed, which was affiliation with one of two stances toward scripture...which goes with denomination. I guess all I have to add is that I'd call one of those stances or styles "mystic." Where's Karen Armstrong when you need her?


t.s. said...

I think it has to do with modernity. Fundamentalists, and those of their ilk, want things to be the way they were before modernity and social change and technology started upsetting things. I'm sure someone, somewhere, has said this better than me, but I don't know who or where. (And that LA Times article doesn't work that much for me, the more I think about it. Although there's something to the idea that social conservatives will accept traditional rules just because they are the traditional rule, whether or not they seem to make sense.) And now I've gone on too long and am loosing my thread, if there was one.

Murky Thoughts said...

I think it's reasonable to point to modernity, but note that fundamentalists aren't exactly resistant to all its manifestations. e.g. They don't protest airlines, subway travel and telecommunications (i.e. to the extent Janet Jackson's breast isn't broadcasting).

t.s. said...

No, because fundamentalism is a modern phenomenom.

The 9/11 hijackers used box cutters, not daggers. Fundamentalism mixes the old and new, with a veneer of sentimentalism.

Murky Thoughts said...

Fundamentalism is new? What about the Elmer-Gantry type revivalists, 1492 Spain, the Crusades, etc?

Mystic's Maze said...

Karen Armstrong couldn't help you on this one. Surprised to run into this topic. Fundamentalists, or evangelicals as we generally call them in this country would be horrified to be associated in any way with the word mysticism - its a dirty word to them, akin to witchcraft and devil worship, but you are on the right track in using it the way you are. Each sect is based on some person's original spin on avoiding an afterlife in "hell," and their process for how followers can link to the "miraculous" in their everyday life - which develops into a dogma and goes no further. The fundamentalist worships, primarily, the body. The true mystic (Jesus, Buddha etc.) tries to communicate the power of psychological unity to affect physical reality and they all have different mental purification processes which share the same goal of overcoming the illusions of the ego (stupid belief systems) which is EXACTLY what the fundamentalist needs. But, the focus for fundamentalists is on getting into heaven (9/11 is one charming example) through avoiding "sin" - often linked to sex which makes them a wee bit homophobic - but, it is their "bodies" that they are obsessed with, hence the anti-abortion, etc. cell worship. The body as "the temple of god." The idea that they believe in some ineffable divine spirit would be blaspheming! That's a new-ager thing to them. God is a powerful invisible person who can keep them safe if they are good, and someone to fear - if they are to avoid his punishment of being burned alive eternally. The best that these sects offer is community support for people in need, the worst is "group think" based on self-righteous nonsense which makes them harmful in large numbers.