There is a school of thought which supposes that St John, the author of the Book of the Apocalypse (AKA the Book of Revelation) took hallucinogenic drugs prior to embarking upon his literary labours. The reasoning is something like this; St John reported visions while on the island of Patmos, some hallucinogenic plants grow on Patmos, therefore the former was an effect of the latter.
This is not one of those theories confined to the fringes of the internet it has had mainstream outings as well such as in the UK Channel 4 documentary The Doomsday Code. What is interesting about this is that many, if not most, of those who propound this notion discount out of hand the contents of the Bible in toto on the grounds of insufficient evidence. Yet here they will happily embrace and propagate an idea for which there is, quite literally, no evidence whatsoever; it is at best a plausible hypothesis. A close reading of the highly structured text of the Apocalypse in the context of its historical situation and the literary genre to which it belongs suggest that its plausibility is extremely limited at that.
One of the self-conceits of educated people in the West is that we live in a scientific rational age and that intelligent people form their opinions and decide upon their beliefs on the basis of provable fact. This is nonsense on stilts to the power of ten. As in every other age people’s beliefs and opinions are based upon what they want to believe. Evidence is used, misused, discredited or ignored in order to fit in with a preordained belief. In this instance the same existing opinion, a dislike of organised Christianity, is the cause both of disbelieving scripture because of insufficient evidence and believing in John’s acid trips despite the absence of evidence.
Do people develop their their initial point of view through the use of the discursive mind applied to provable facts? No, of course they don’t. In large part they believe what their surrounding human environment encourages them to believe. Not that they necessarily make a conscious decision to adopt the opinions of family, friends, role models or colleagues. It is rather that their emotional response to events, institutions and people is unconsciously absorbed from their surroundings and that their conscious application of reason to issues necessarily makes use of the mental tools with which they are provided. Such tools are not invariably neutral things but are often structured in order to arrive at the conclusions which they do in fact arrive at.
Does this mean that people have no free will, that their circumstances determine their conduct? No, one’s social environment may play a determining role in framing one’s consciously held perspective but while it may dictate what we are likely to believe it does not dictate how we are to hold that belief nor how we shall act upon it. These things depend rather upon an act of the will.
The will is formed through our unmediated response to the stimuli which we encounter. Granting the hypothesis advanced by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics that each human is motivated in their acts by the pursuit of happiness then it is that motivation which governs our primary response to the persons, objects and ideas which we encounter. There are really only two possible responses to such things, we can view them as means or as ends.
Viewed as means the persons, objects and ideas we encounter will be used by us as instruments to deliver to us happiness. Such an approach can only deliver pleasures within the sensual realm so happiness is conceived of as exploiting others to deliver to us what we want from them. Viewed as ends the persons, objects and ideas we encounter will be seen as having an existence separate from us with distinct objects and purposes of their own. Our relationship with them, then, is founded upon respecting their independence from us and living our lives in respectful cooperation and partnership with them. Happiness is then less of a sensual object than a mental or spiritual experience of achieving a harmony at the highest possible level between as many different persons, objects and ideas, each pursuing its own independent end, as is possible.
So, while a community may have a 100% success record in producing, say, Muslims or agnostics from among its children it cannot determine what type of Muslim or agnostic it produces. That is, each individuals repeated acts of the will are the decisive force in how they understand and handle the belief system they find themselves in possession of. Those who see the belief system as a means to achieve personal satisfaction will be very different believers, while nominally holding the same ideas, as those who see it as a framework within which each person can attain whatever legitimate end God or nature has designated for them.
It is, then, useful for each of us to examine ourselves and to ask not so much what we believe, or why we believe it but more what is the purpose which we wish to achieve through our beliefs. It is upon the primordial act of the will underlying all our conscious activity that we ultimately depend. Happiness is only open to those who recognise that our universe is not a means to our ends but is a self-sufficient end in itself which invites us to share our lives with it.
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The painting is from a triptych by Hans Memling