Ever eager to find profundity in anything connected with my dearly beloved iPhone 4, I took a look at a self-portrait I snapped yesterday -- using my phone's forward-facing camera held at arm's length -- and realized how much it had to say about my preferred approach to religiosity.
My wife detests this shirt, which I recently bought from The Territory Ahead after they enticed me with a Sale! email. As soon as I opened the UPS package, Laurel said "you should return it."
It wasn't her style. I usually trust my wife's taste in clothes, which almost always is better than mine. But after contemplating how the shirt made me feel (like a gaudy parrot, basically), I decided to keep it.
A few days ago I wore it in public for the first time. Given Laurel's reaction to the shirt, I kind of expected that children would run screaming into their parent's arms when I walked into a store, or I'd hear unbelieving gasps of horror from fashionistas.
And as the day wore on, with my new shirt and me becoming steadily better acquainted, I realized that it mattered not at all what anyone else thought of my clothes choice.
What counted was how the shirt made me feel. Which is exactly my attitude toward religion, spirituality, mysticism, and philosophy these days: there are no absolutes here, just likes and dislikes.
"Do your own thing."
That was good advice in the '60s, and the spirit lives on today in open-minded circles -- such as the marvelous Oregon Country Fair outside of Eugene which I shared photos of on my other blog.
Walking through the Fair, it doesn't take long for a visitor to see that the only dress-up rule is anything goes. If a guy feels good wearing only a clingy white slip and black cowboy boots, hey, that's great.
Self-expression rules the day/weekend. But when Monday comes, most of the wild and crazy Oregon Country Fairgoers take off their outfits and put on different attire.
The way I see it, expressions of religiosity and spirituality should be much the same: easily worn, and just as easily altered or discarded. Again, we're not talking absolutes here. There's no demonstrable objective truth in the sphere of godliness, divinity, and meaning-of-life'ness, just as there also isn't in the sphere of fashion.
This morning I re-read the final chapter of Owen Flanagan's "The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World," a book I liked a lot and quoted from earlier in the year. What Flanagan says is well worth a re-quote.
What sort of theism can co-exist with the scientific image? What I mean by theism is a set of propositions about the existence and nature of God or gods.
...But theism of the sort that takes certain texts as authoritative, that asserts that certain facts that cannot possibly be known by humans to be true are uncontrovertibly true, is a problem. Assertive theism, but not what I will call expressive theism, is epistematically irresponsible and dangerous to boot.
...But since expressivism is not committed to truth, not even to reasonableness, the story can be as wild and imaginatively rich as one pleases. Forces of good and evil, multiplicities of gods -- a transfinite number of divinities in transfinite universes creating transfinite numbers of new worlds through worm holes between universes enacting the most fantastic battles between forces of good and evil. Whatever you wish that feels compelling, satisfying, rich and deep. We are only talking about stories.
...Because they are untestable, such stories can be said, expressed, even embraced, but they cannot be asserted as worthy of true belief. They are not evaluable in terms of the "true" and the "false." But you can like your story so much that you treat it as true, even if it can't be evaluated as such.
Or at least, something like this might be the best way to describe the self-understanding of the persons who tell a certain story that they conceive mythically: They do not quite believe their story to be true (they can't responsibly do so), but they believe that belief in their story is beneficial.
Again, it's like wearing clothes that appeal to us, and make us feel good. There's no way we can claim that everybody should like those styles, or that they reflect some sort of universal fashion truth.
Yet we enjoy them. They help us express ourselves, communicating something to both us and others about who we are and how we see the world.
Here's another way Flanagan says what he said above:
Asserting is different from stating or saying, in that asserting is governed by epistemic standards of warranted assertability. Stating or saying is epistematically free range. Self-conscious "myth-making" is an elaborate form of saying without asserting.
You can say anything you want, including all manner of false and foolish things. It's a first amendment right.
...Here are some things that ought not to be asserted (nor proposed as reasonable for others to believe true):
You should not assert that any creation story you believe in is true, or even that it is made up of "warranted beliefs."
It follows that it would be irrational to demand, let alone expect, others to believe the same story you do.
Although you can't assert that your creation myth is true, you can assert that belief in its truth benefits certain folk.
Do not give "supernatural forces" genuine causal explanatory force when making assertions of the form "phi explains omega." That is, do not assert that "Allah created the universe" is true.