I have been following (from a safe distance) news stories about ISIS destroying ancient statuary and other art stemming from religious traditions other than theirs, yet another iteration of fundamentalism run amok, like the taliban destroying Buddhist statues carved in 500 C.E. or monks with Cortez burning Mayan libraries or so the list goes on. Trying to eliminate the devil’s influence by destroying art somehow seems counter-productive to humanity; likewise destroying art in the effort to control what others think and believe is far down the road to insanity. Consider Laszlo Toth, who in 1972 took a hammer to Michelangelo’s Pieta shouting that he was Jesus resurrected.
Then contrast this with statements from some humanists, such as firebrand atheists like Chris Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, who have said that eliminating religion would not be good if it meant losing the works of art it has inspired, such as the Sistine Chapel and the Pieta.
I have written before of Susanne Langer’s thought that two dialectics govern humanity, one between the soma and intellectual flight through symbols and the other between a society and its creative individuals. She said, as have others in other ways, that balance was key and further, that there is no guarantee that balance will be maintained. Ignorant fundamentalists who think they know some ultimate truth are unerringly destructive of humanity’s balanced achievement, and individuals who become too ensconced in their own hallucinations (and I am not talking just of insanity here) are similarly destructive.
And then I read a recent story in the NY Times about the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama. Whoa, how to catalogue this bit of intellectual hooliganism? Probably in the comedy section under tragedy. Here’s the link:
The Dalai Lama, long exiled from his homeland, has wondered if he were going to be reincarnated and so continue as the head of Tibetan Buddhism. The Chinese government upon hearing this criticized his frivolous irresponsibility, to wit, “Decision-making power over the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, and over the end or survival of this lineage, resides in the central government of China,” said Mr. Zhu, formerly a deputy head of the United Front Department of the Communist Party, which oversees dealings with religious and other nonparty groups.” As the Times points out, here is an atheistic government insisting on a religious continuance. Of course, they had captured the child who had been designated as the monk reincarnated to find the next Dalai Lama and killed his family and have since been indoctrinating him to find the person they want in order to further subjugate the Tibetan people. Talk about no sense of irony–this is a serious failing.
The Romans were partly successful in building their empire because they adopted/co-opted the gods of people they conquered. They said in effect you can believe anything you want and we will join you, if only you render unto Caesar what is his (taxes). This did not work with the Jewish people because their religion forbid mingling with the other group and so Rome had a real struggle on their hand there. (An interesting read on this is Selina O’Grady’s And Man Created God: A History of the World at the Time of Jesus ).
So different organizations have taken charge of different things and been quite mistaken. Consider the Catholic church and the solar system, Copernicus and Galileo. Best to recognize your limits and stick to what is really under your purview. And, most importantly, keep a sense of irony about your limits. This man surely does.