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  • Writer's pictureCrone

Religion of self

This post will appear angry and bitter, I fear. Self-righteous too. For that is how I feel today and perhaps my self-edit facility is not so attuned in these moods.

Plato had the concept of Ideals: the transcendent forms that he saw as the idealised archetypes of what is on fallen earth. There is a concept of the Good and of the Table; the Republic and the Just. These things are outside normal human knowledge - we see but shadows in our cave - while the sage, who has clambered outside might see the sun and the really-real of the Ideal.

For theists, that role of eternal perfection is filled by God. That which cannot be defined but towards which the righteous strive.

Scientists, the hard liners, see the perfection of mathematics and logic, of reason and rationality. Here lies the eternal and the true. This is the only domain in which there is evidence, in which progress is possible.

A poet might find transcendence in his art - like Baudelaire or Rimbaud. Wordsworth found it in nature and Tolstoy in the nature of the peasants. Hegel in the dialectic of history and Marx in the socialist utopia. Economists in the free market and libertarians in free speech. Spinoza had some intellectual ideal and Nietszche the union of good and evil; Kierkegaard espoused faith and Bentham utility.

All this, all this, ways to find meaning in something not just greater than the self but Supreme. The very best thing, the one thing, the really real thing that really matters, before which all should be subsumed.

There's another trend, which runs alongside, the myth-makers and story-tellers, like Jung and Frazer, like Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade, who seek to weave a complex web of meaning encapsulating all wisdom into one narrative. It's a more generous trend in some ways, but no less dependent on the single vision of the progenitor. The web has a pattern, an arc, a telos, a narrative seen by this single human mind. His vision (it seems always to be his vision) becomes, as it were, the mirror image of God's, drawing all of creation back into a First Cause.

Interestingly, the word for 'I know' in Ancient Greek is the past of to see - 'I know' means 'I have seen'. Knowledge as much as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it seems.

There is a drive in all these cases to find something worth relying on - and there is a certain arrogance in the project of knowing in that it is, for all proponents, about what they have seen. And yet, at least, all that they strive for and hold up to the light as the flag to follow into the battle with the future is something external and out there and as attainable by others, given the intelligence or reason or faith or education or insight or intuition or talent or will.

And now what is the single vision of what is worth fighting for? The self. The identity. The authentic me. I who will speak my truth. I who must be respected for what I believe. I who have rights. I who should never have to compromise. I who am unique. I who am the subject, object and all of my world.

It is understandable. For the world is so complex and there seems to be so much uncertainty. The great truths of religion and scientism have broken on the rack of our quest for knowledge. Language, even, is seen to be untrustworthy. Politicians are untrustworthy. Institutions are distant, abstract and cold. The nation state is in flux. Globalisation is threatening. The natural world is rebelling. Families and communities seem to have broken down. Technology brings danger. Capitalism leads to harsh inequality. racy isn't direct enough and the leaders don't listen to us, to me. Who can I rely on except myself? What can I know but what I have seen? And what can I see in this confusing world more clearly than me?

This comes up in politics, with the rise of National Populism, where those who vote for Trump and Brexit feel that they are unheard, undervalued and threatened by change that does not conform to 'who they are' as nationals of a given state. They want to feel important. They want a voice - and, for the disenfranchised in society, they have some valid cause to feel overlooked and underrepresented. But what they want is a nation that is shaped by who they are and always have been - their essence as traditional Americans, as Brits. Of course, one could likewise claim that the liberal elites, with their more internationalist and multicultural leanings, their quest for tolerance, are seeking too to make the state conform to their vision. We want, all of us, a nation that mirrors, on a large scale our personal values. Because our values are the right values. But where is the compromise in all this?

That's where we dive down to the individual level. Talk to people seeking a partner and listen to what they want: me. Not me, The Crone, you understand - but a reflection of they who are seeking. They do not wish to compromise lifestyle, values, location, interests. They want to be entirely heard and respected by this other whose entire focus will be on valuing and entertaining them in the way that they wish to be valued or entertained. Just imagine were someone to say, 'I am looking for someone who will challenge my accepted beliefs and help me see that I am not correct and perfect in all ways.' It does not happen. When it comes to the role of the other in one's life, the self does not need to be improved; it needs to be nurtured. The self does not need to be restrained; it needs to be respected. The self does not need to be educated; it needs to be worshipped.

The other side of this religious fixation with the self, which the other must see as authentic and therefore ideal, is the sense of personal responsibility. Now, you would think that this would encourage some kind of drive to self-transformation. But what is one to do? Pull oneself out of the quicksand by one's hair? Real change demands the action of the other and the world. This kind of modern personal responsibility cannot involve such barbs as shame and correction - for they could damage the precious thing that is the self. No, it is all about self-enhancement. Polishing what is already there into a glittering brilliance that blinds the observer to the reality of the inevitable human flaws and failings of the self.

Every time one hears self-justifications and post hoc reasoning, one is reminded of the lengths religious scholars have gone to explain the inconsistencies of the Bible or the problem of evil in a world created by a loving God.

And one wants to say, for God's sake, give up the effort, What you have created as your glittering vision is not gold.

Yet, I understand that there is a tradition in which this transcendence of the individual can appear to have merit. I've been reading about Kierkegaard who developed a kind of triptych of development. The aesthete is the person who lives for the moment, who respond immediately with pleasure and pain to the world. See a flower - joy! Watch it wither - despair. And so they live life to find pleasure and beauty, distraction and enjoyment, chasing the momentary thrill until death. For them, boredom is the worst possible experience. Kierkegaard makes a radical twist to this concept as he sees philosophers, too, as aesthetes, in that they, rather than being and living in the world, watch the world with a kind of theoretical detachment. To be in the next phase, the ethical, one has to look at life face to face, as it were, and choose to live it as oneself. And then there's the religious, and here's where the individual really comes into being. To be religious does not mean just following orthodoxy, in his terms, Christianity, but breaking with even the traditional moral code at the call of his deepest soul. The individual always transcends the collective. There is fear and trembling as one faces one's self and makes a decision, a choice, in which one thus denies oneself certain possibilities. But one can never be certain if if is an act of the deepest personal religious impulse or an act of despotic egotism. Still, it is the courage of the action that is this ultimate moment of existence and creation. One has this profound faith accompanied by devastating terror - and one chooses oneself.

But is this what we are seeing in the religion of the self as I see it played out in society?

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