The World's Most Dangerous Book [Part 3] by Alan Watts

1885 Still Life with Bible
---Still Life of the Bible by Vincent van Gogh

[Part 3]
It should be understood that the expression "son of" means "of the nature of," as when we call someone a son of a bitch and as when the Bible uses such phrases as "sons of Belial" (an alien god), or an Arab cusses someone out as e-ben-i-el-homa "son of donkey!" or simply "stupid". Used in this way,"son of" has nothing to do with maleness or being younger than. Likewise, the Second Person of the Trinity, God the Son, the Logos-Sopia, refers to the basic pattern or design of the Universe, ever emerging from the inconceivable mystery or the Father as the galaxies shine out of space. This is how the great philosophers of the Church have thought about the imagery of the Bible and as it appears to a modern student of the history and psychology of world religions. Call it intellectual snobbery if you will, but although the books of the Bible might have been "plain words for plain people" in the days of Isaiah and Jesus, an uneducated and uninformed person who reads them today, and takes them as the literal Word of God, will become a blind and confused bigot.

Let us look at this against the background of the fact that all monotheistic religions have been militant. Wherever God has been idolized as the King or Boss-Principle of the world, believers are agog to impose both their religion and their political rulership upon others. Fanatical believers in the Bible, the Koran and the Torah have fought one another for centuries without realizing that they belong to the same pestiferous club, that they have more in common than they have against one another and that there is simply no way of deciding which of their "unique" revelations of God's will is the true one. A committed believer in the Koran trots out the same arguments for his point of view as a Southern Baptist devotee of the Bible, and neither can listen to reason, because their whole sense of personal security and integrity depends absolutely upon pretending to follow an external authority. The very existence of this authority, as well as the sense of identity of its follower and true believer, requires an excluded class of infidels, heathens and sinners people whom you can punish and bully so as to know that you are strong and alive. No argument, no reasoning, no contrary evidence can possibly reach the true believer, who, if he is somewhat sophisticated, justifies and even glorifies his invincible stupidity as a "leap of faith" or "sacrifice of the intellect." He quotes the Roman lawyer and theologian Tertullian Credo, quia absurdum est , "I believe because it is absurd" as if Tertullian had said something profound. Such people are, quite literally, idiots originally a Greek word meaning an individual so isolated that you can't communicate with him.

Oddly enough, there are unbelievers who envy them, who wish that they could have the serenity and peace of mind that come from "knowing" beyond doubt that you have the true Word of God and are in the right. But this overlooks the fact that those who supposedly have this peace within themselves are outwardly obstreperous and violent, standing in dire need of converts and followers to convince themselves of their continuing validity just as much as they need outsiders to punish.  Mindless belief in the literal truth of the Bible and furious zeal to spread the message lead to such widespread follies, in the American Bible Belt, as playing with poisonous snakes and drinking strychnine to prove the truth of Mark 16:18, where Jesus is reported to have said: "They [the faithful] shall take up serpents: and if they drink any deadly, thing, it shall not hurt them." As recently as April 1973, two men (one a pastor) in Newport, Tennessee, died in convulsions from taking large amounts of strychnine before a congregation shouting, "Praise God! Praise God!" So they didn't have enough faith; but such barbarous congregations will go on trying these experiments again and again to test and prove their faith, not realizing that by Christian standards this is arrant spiritual pride. Meanwhile, the Government persecutes religious groups that use such relatively harmless herbs as peyote and marijuana for sacraments.

What is to be done about the existence of millions of such dangerous people in the world? Obviously, they must not be censored or suppressed by their own methods. Even though it is impossible to persuade or argue with them in a reasonable way, it is just possible that they can be wooed and enchanted by a more attractive style of religion, which will show them that their unbending "faith" in their Bibles is simply an inverse expression of doubt and terror a frantic whistling in the dark.  There have been other images of God than the Father-Monarch: the Cosmic Mother; the inmost Self (disguised as all living beings), as in Hinduism; the indefinable Tao, the flowing energy of the universe, as among the Chinese; or no image at all, as with the Buddhists, who are not strictly atheists but who feel that the ultimate reality cannot be pictured in any way and, what is more, that not picturing it is a positive way of feeling it directly, beyond symbols and images. I have called this "atheism in the name of God" a paradoxical and catchy phrase pointing out something missed by learned Protestant theologians who have been talking about "death of God" theology and "religionless Christianity," and asking what of the Gospel of Christ can be saved if life is nothing more than a trip from the maternity ward to the crematorium. It is weird how such sophisticated Biblical scholars must go on clinging to Jesus even when rejecting the basic principle of his teaching the experience that he was God in the flesh, an experience he unknowingly shared with all the great mystics of the world.

Atheism in the name of God is an abandonment of all religious beliefs, including atheism, which in practice is the stubbornly held idea that the world is a mindless mechanism. Atheism in the name of God is giving up the attempt to make sense of the world in terms of any fixed idea or intellectual system. It is becoming again as a child and laying oneself open to reality as it is actually and directly felt, experiencing it without trying to categorize, identify or name it.

This can be most easily begun by listening to the world with closed eyes, in the same way that one can listen to music without asking what it says or means. This is actually a turn-on a state of consciousness in which the past and future vanish (because they cannot be heard) and in which there is no audible difference yourself and what you are hearing.  There is simply universe, an always present happening in which there is no perceptible difference between self and other, or, as in breathing, between what you do and what happens to you. Without losing command of civilized behavior, you have temporarily "regressed" to what Freud called the oceanic feeling of the baby the feeling that we all lost in learning to make distinctions, but that we should have retained as their necessary background, just as there must be empty white paper under this print if you are to read it.

When you listen to the world in this way, you have begun to practice what Hindus and Buddhists call meditation a re-entry to the real world, as distinct from the abstract world of words and ideas. If you find that you can't stop naming the various sounds and thinking in words, just listen to yourself doing that as another form of noise, a meaningless murmur like the sound of traffic. I won't argue for this experiment.  Just try it and see what happens, because this is the basic act of faith of being unreservedly open and vulnerable to what is true and real. Certainly this is what Jesus himself must have had in mind in that famous passage in the Sermon on the Mount upon which one will seldom hear anything from a pulpit: "Which of you by thinking can add a measure to his height? And why are you anxious about clothes?  Look at the flowers of the field, how they grow. They neither labor nor spin; and yet I tell you that even Solomon in all his splendor was not arrayed like any one of them. So if God so clothes the wild grass which lives for today and tomorrow is burned, shall He not much more clothe you, faithless ones? . . . Don't be anxious for the future, for the future will take care of itself. Sufficient to the day are its troubles." Even the most devout Christians can't take this. They feel that such advice was all very well for Jesus, being the Boss's son, but this is no wisdom for us practical and lesser-born mortals. You can, of course, take these words in their allegorical and spiritual sense, which is that you stop clinging in terror to a rigid system of ideas about what will happen to you after you die, or as to what, exactly, are the procedures of the court of heaven, whereby the world is supposedly governed. Curiously, both science and mysticism (which might be called religion as experienced rather than religion as written) are based on the experimental attitude of looking directly at what is, of attending to life itself instead of trying to glean it from a book.  The scholastic theologians would not look through Galileo's telescope, and Billy Graham will not experiment with a psychedelic chemical or practice yoga.

Two eminent historians of science, Joseph Needham and Lynn White, have pointed out the surprising fact that in both Europe and Asia, science arises from mysticism, because both the mystic and the scientist are types of people who want to know directly, for themselves, rather than be told what to believe. And in this sense they follow the advice of Jesus to become again "as little children," to look at the world with open, clear, and unprejudiced eyes, as if they had never seen it before. It is in this spirit that an astronomer must look at the sky and a yogi must attend to the immediately present moment, as when he concentrates on a prolonged sound. Years and years of book study may simply fossilize you into fixed habits of thought so that any perceptive person will know in advance how you will react to any situation or idea. Imagining yourself reliable, you become merely predictable and, alas, boring. Most sermons are tedious. One knows in advance what the preacher is going to say, however dressed up on a fancy language. Going strictly by the book, he will have no original ideas or experiences, for which reason both he and his followers become rigid and easily shocked personalities who cannot swing, wiggle, lilt or dance.

In this connection it should be noted that the blacks of the South swing and wiggle quite admirably, even in church but this is because the preacher, starting from the Bible in deference to his white overlords, very soon reverts to the rhythms and incantations of some old-time African religion, and there is no knowing at all what he is going to say. This is perhaps one of the principle roots of conflict between whites and blacks in the American South that the former go by the Book and the latter by the spirit, which, like the wind, as Jesus put it, blows where it wills, and you can't tell where it comes from or where it's going.

Thus, we reach the seeming paradox that you cannot at once idolize the Bible and embody the spirit of Jesus. He twitted the Pharisees as today he would twit the fundamentalists: "You search the Scriptures daily, for in them you think you have life." The religion of Jesus was to trust life, both as he felt it in himself and as he saw it around him. Most of us would feel that this was a ridiculous gamble to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness but, come to think of it, is there any real alternative? Basically, no human community can exist that is not founded on mutual trust as distinct from law and its enforcement. The alternative to mutual trust, which is indeed a risky  gamble, is the security of the police state.

—Alan Watts (Dec. 1973)

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