I thought love was only true in fairy tales
Meant for someone else but not for me
Love was out to get me
That’s the way it seemed
Disappointment haunted all of my dreams
Then I saw her face, now I’m a believer.
Using their favoured allegorical method the Monkees here advance a number of theses. Of these the two most significant are, I think, these-
- There can be no belief without form.
- The more highly structured the belief (symbolised here as ‘face‘) the stronger will that belief be.
These theses are important since they both refute and affirm the theosophical idea that all religions are basically the same and they provide an answer to the question often asked by members of the chattering classes in the West to their peers who are eccentric enough to have a confessional faith; namely “you don’t really believe that stuff do you?”
To take the second point first. Among intelligent and educated Westerners the default position is agnosticism tending towards atheism. It is borderline acceptable to accede to the possibility that, in theory, there may be an uncaused First Cause. However, it strays beyond the boundaries of acceptable thought to assert anything positive about such an hypothetical Being and it bounds effortlessly into the camp of weirdness if these assertions are based upon the texts or traditions of pre-scientific spiritual schools.
The Monkees allegorise the vague thoughts which we may spontaneously generate about an uncaused First Cause as ‘fairy tales’ and ‘dreams.’ This differentiates between more or less consciously generated mythical narratives which serve to describe some kind of relationship between the immanent and transcendent realms, that is, those produced by our discursive mind, and unconsciously generated images of that relationship, produced by our deep emotional longings.
Contrasted with these is ‘face,‘ that is, a concretely perceived and clearly delineated reality external to the observer. It is this face which prompts not merely belief as such but belief of such power and strength that, as the Monkees go on to say-
Not a trace, of doubt in my mind
I’m in love, and I’m a believer
I couldn’t leave her if I tried
In order for a thing to be capable of being believed it must have a form of some kind. Now, fairy tales, dreams and faces are all forms and therefore capable of inducing belief. But it is the most fully formed, most concrete and most embodied form, the face, which is capable of inducing the strongest type of belief, usually characterised as faith. Why is that? Because humans are themselves fully formed, concrete and embodied and they respond to that which they are more than they respond to that which they are not. The major world religions have developed narratives, rituals and daily disciplines which reflect all these features and thus engage the entire person, providing a useable bridge between the immanent and transcendent realms and a bridge, moreover, whose efficacy can be experimentally proven. Believers who accept the narrative, participate in the rituals and practice the disciplines find that tangible results flow from all of these things taken together.
So, the answer to the “do you really believe this stuff?” question can very easily be “yes, yes I do.” And why? Because it works, it does what it says on the tin. Certainly, some religious believers accept these beliefs as being metaphors and not full realities, that is, ‘faces‘, but these are, I would guess, an absolute minority since for every human who can dispense with clearly defined forms there are probably hundreds or thousands who cannot. The further questions about truth, “is your belief really true?” and “how can you prove its truth scientifically?” appear as irrelevant to believers, however well educated or intelligent they may be, because the answer “it works, it does what I want it to do, it gives me peace” is all sufficient. The experimental truth of a proposition is that it produces the results which it promises to produce and that is precisely what the ancient faiths do for those who adopt both the beliefs (orthodoxy) and the practices (orthopraxy) of a faith with the intention of accessing the spiritual realm from our position situated in the material one.
Which brings me back to the “all religions are basically the same” assertion. It is true to the extent that they tend to have the same effect and that, therefore, we can suppose that there is an ‘essence of religion’ which is common to them all. It is false, though, to the extent that people believe it possible to extract the essence and create a universal religion that everyone can sign up to. Such a process effectively erases the face, it de-structures that form which belief requires. The narratives, rituals and disciplines, the saints, heroes and martyrs, don’t spring from an abstraction, from a dream or fairy tale, they spring from a face. The specific face is not a dispensable addition, the Monkees didn’t fall in love with woman as such, they fell in love with a specific woman like the Pandavas did with Draupadi.
Does adherence to a single dogmatic or narrative structure necessarily give rise to sectarianism and religious conflict? The standard argument in favouring either treating religious truths as metaphors or creating some sort of theosophical super-religion is that it eliminates rivalry. My contention would be that it only eliminates rivalry because it makes religion wither away and disappear which, contrary to the New Atheist position, I would see as a great loss to humanity.
An alternative approach would be this, taking myself as an example (though its more an imagined self than the real deeply flawed one, but bear with me here): As a Catholic I believe that the dogmas of the Church are true and that the sacraments of the Church and its spiritual practices, such as the rosary, strengthen me and lead me closer to God through Christ. It follows then that I must think that the orthodoxy of others faiths is less true and their orthopraxy is less efficacious. But it does not follow that I think them to have no truth and to be of no effect. If a tree is known by its fruits, and if you judge a belief system by its best and not by its worst adherents then clearly the world faiths produce people who can speak with knowledge about the transcendent realm, because they have accessed it, and who operate in the world with compassion and kindness.
I know from personal experience that Catholicism works and I deduce from observation that other systems work too. My belief, which is unprovable, is that my system works better because my truths are more true. Therefore I see it as a good idea to convert people from their system to my system since it improves their chances. However, I see it as being perfectly reasonable for them to do the same to me and for the same reasons. I’m right and they’re wrong but this can be proven only by the experimental method not by mere assertion. And the experiment is this, to see the face, to become a believer, to fall deeply, hopelessly in love. And may the strongest, most enduring love win.
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