Watts: “Once there is the suspicion that a religion is a myth, its power is gone.”
In reflecting on the first part of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, I have already considered the idea that religion is based in or at least largely conditioned by myth – the language, stories, beliefs and judgments we use to “make meaning.” Well, more than just consider the possibility, I have embraced it entirely – you might even say enthusiastically.
Alan Watts was schooled in the tradition of Anglican orthodoxy, which is decidedly different from other Christian denominations in the way it organizes and carries out its purpose, but nevertheless shares the foundational stories of the Christian worldview. These foundational stories are its mythology, and because the Christian doctrine of God is derived from this mythology, the Christian God is mythological.
Yes, Nietzsche would go on to say that my mythological God is an untruth; but I’m okay with that, too. I should hope that the reality indicated by my doctrine of God and the stories that inform it is beyond my perspective-dependent definitions. However, according to Watts, the moment I suspect that my stories are human projections and not supernatural revelations, the game is over (their power is gone).
Hold on a second. Nietzsche was the son of a Lutheran pastor, and Watts was ordained an Episcopal priest. Is it possible that the views of both men were shaped as reactions to the dogmatic heavy-handedness of their parental religion? And maybe I am sympathetic because I, too, was raised a pastor’s son and worked as an ordained minister for a decade and a half. I will confess that much of the doctrinal inheritance of my Dutch Reformed tradition seemed heavy and depressing. The dogmatic orthodoxy derived from the vibrant narratives of mythology was comparatively inflexible and boring. Did I leave church ministry because my religion lost its power?
Not exactly. Long before I made my break – before even I entered seminary – the untruth of doctrines and the pretense of the stories behind them was evident to me. I really think it is evident to most of us. We just don’t want to admit it, for once we do, the game might be over. If the God I believe in is thoroughly mythological, and if mythology is really the narrative projection from a historically limited perspective (of others who lived long ago and far away), then God doesn’t really exist, right? And if God doesn’t exist, then what’s the point in going on? It’s all meaningless.
Agreed: it’s meaningless – if we’re talking about the mystery of life beyond our foreground meanings. On this side are all the opinions, myths and theories we use to make sense of the mystery. They are NOT the mystery, but only a perspective on it. But if we mistake our perspective for the reality, our meaning for the mystery, we might be inspired to do all sorts of things in the name of our “truth.” Why not go out and persuade others to take our perspective (which isn’t a perspective, remember, but truth-itself)? Why not threaten them if they refuse? Why not blow them up and wipe them out if they won’t agree with us? There is power in religion, in the way it can entrance us, cement our convictions, compel us to violence, or justify our complacence.
If THAT game is over, then we all stand a chance.