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Pantheism

What to Make of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (aside from the obvious: Dinner) — Part 2 of 2

In Part One, the Flying Spaghetti Monster helped save the children of Kansas from a sinister Trojan horse called “intelligent design,” whose only real design was to sneak a specific fundamentalist Christian creation story into the state’s official science curriculum. Having done this, His Noodly One could have returned to the Great Italian Restaurant in the Sky, but he chose to stick around as a defender of our cherished religious freedom, and to inspire a community of freethinkers to form and honor his noble deeds. In doing so, His Delicious Sauciness demonstrated the power of mythic images to unite people over just about anything, including disbelief. Meanwhile, I explored the rift between religion and science, and found that fundamentalism on both sides is their common enemy. I also offered an unscientific theory that what we call the “supernatural” is our mind’s attempt to rationalize glimpses of non-dual Reality.

PART II

“Our religion, like Christianity and other mainstream religions, is based not on a foundation of evidence, but of community. The Pastafarian church was built and its legitimacy formed by people tired of being disenfranchised for thinking rationally. We have every right to exist and form a religious community.” –Bobby Henderson, from the official website of the Pastafarian Church

fsm

Henderson is absolutely right about Pastafarianism, the religion built upon His Noodly One. In and of itself,  as a theological concept (and all anthropomorphic jokes aside), the Flying Spaghetti Monster has as much of a leg to stand on as any other deity. All Pastafarianism lacks to become a major world religion is centuries of bad translation, rumor-mongering, misunderstanding, a little imperialism, and paperwork.

It also has a founder who seems scared half to death of this actually happening, which one would think is a good step toward forestalling it. My fervent hope is that Henderson succeeds in failing where other “prophets” succeeded, and Pastafarianism never rises beyond its status as a useful illusion, comic relief from the unnatural disaster of mainstream Christianity’s aggressive power play in the theater of American politics.

I have reason to think that His Noodly Appendage has already overstepped those ideal bounds, however, and that the FSM will suffer the fate of other gods who came before him, taken a little too seriously and a lot too literally. The culprit is always the same: a virulent strain of duality that has plagued humanity since Adam and Eve went for the wrong apple. Belief is the currency of dualistic religion, and it is a poor substitute for faith, as Henderson tries to show us by building aspects of a faith community on an elaborate satire of belief. But disbelief is just the other side of the same coin. If it can do nothing other than shift the population along the belief-doubt axis, Pastafarianism cannot be more than part of the problem.

It is my hope that sharing a gentle and genuinely concerned critique of his religion from a pantheist perspective– something I am going to guess has never turned up in his website’s “hate mail”– can help the Flying Spaghetti Monster become part of the solution.

BELIEF AS AN OBSTACLE TO FAITH

First, I need to do something not so gentle. This will likely tick off any conservative religious people in the audience (assuming there are any; if they read Part 1, any Bible-believin’ Christians probably got off this ride when I compared the Church to Goliath). It is not my goal, and I don’t take any joy in doing it, but sometimes, when an institution gets large enough and places itself between you and the Truth, there is no good way around it anymore; you just have to barrel right through it.

The defining characteristics of fundamentalist religion are a slavish devotion to staying exactly where it is, proving itself by self-reference (“I believe the principle behind this verse in the Bible because it’s in the Bible”), finding strength in numbers, and endlessly pointing out the falsehood of all that does not conform to its truth. But what they posit as strengths are the fundamentalists’ ultimate downfall– if the goal of a religion is to prove the objective reality of a specific identity of a Creator, teach that reality as if it were inviolable history, and worship in the name of that identity, then Yahweh and Allah and all other gods are on equal footing with a flying plate full of pasta. To the extent that they have refused to develop a common ground foundation with their neighbors, the fundamentalist belief traditions all have nothing to stand on but themselves. Henderson called the fundamentalists’ bluff, and their house of cards has to fold.

There is zero evidence outside of each tradition itself pointing to the historical veracity of any one tradition over all others– which, by the way, should be good news even to theists, because that was never supposed to be the point anyway.

And I don’t want to hear the tired line about how long the tradition has survived etc. To limit God to an image we construct from the words of a book is to worship that book, not God. It was idolatry then, and it’s idolatry now, and all it proves is how susceptible we are to the power of the graven image. Two millenia of wrongs don’t make a right.

Not to mention that “living on faith” is the exact opposite of proving objective specificity. Faith is openness to new and continuing revelation, with the deep trust that all is well amid constant, sometimes chaotic change. Belief certainly enables some people to have faith, but faith is independent of belief and can be cultivated without any specific beliefs at all. Not only are belief and faith not synonymous, but they can be at odds with each other as well, as in the case where a specific belief makes one unable to accept anything to the contrary. (Can I get a witness, Young Earth Creationists?) We have used “belief” and “faith” interchangeably for so long that no one questions the spurious conflation of the two by literalists selling their gospels as history. But the sad fact is that fundamentalists have been killers of faith from the get-go in their quest for certainty.

Now, I am going to take an important step back from this scorched earth theology and tell you where I disagree with Henderson: a religion is more than just a social club. Community is but an aspect of its function, and not even the most important one. For that, you can join the Rotary Club, or any number of organizations like Lions and Elks and Moose. (Oh my!)

Religion offers a sense of community as well, but the basis for community comes from the shared experience of its primary function. First and foremost, religion is a teaching institution that aims for a radical transformation of the path and priorities of the individual human being. It prepares us for a revolution of the mind, a change in the way we think, not merely what we think.

Metanoia is the word used in the original Greek New Testament. Conveniently mistranslated as “repentance” by church lawyers who focused on behavior modification, the true meaning is much more like this transformation of the mental landscape (just as the Greek sozo, rendered as “saved” in the context of Jesus’ mission, actually means ” to be made whole,” another nuance of meaning lost on the modern church).

A Hindu or Buddhist would call this transformation samadhi; there is no essential difference. Neuroscientists studying the brain activity of people engaged in various spiritual practices have observed consistent and very real neural patterns across cultural differences in belief and methodology. And the first-hand reports from these test subjects all corroborate an experience encoded by the mystics who wrote the scriptures that preserved these practices: they report a diminishment or erasure of the sense of a boundary between self and other [1]. Cultural interpretations abound from this point, but the essential experience of oneness shared by all is real and demonstrable.

These experiments, along with a fair extrapolation of their significance in the context of a worldwide phenomenon crossing all cultural boundaries, suggest both a reality to the substance of the non-dual experience in religious practice, and a complete mutability of the practices themselves.

metanoiaI anticipate that some people will read this and immediately think “brainwash”– and I’ll define that vague term as “to indoctrinate with the notion that one’s universal experience is true, but only as manifested in a very specific reality defined by a particular cultural interpretation.” Belief, not faith, is the basis of brainwashing, because it fixes the attention to the verbal, symbolic expression rather than the pre-verbal, direct experience that engenders faith. The believer then attributes a very real neurological experience to a specific set of symbols and words taught to him by religious training, and that is where the trouble begins. The interchangeable is deified along with the Changeless.

But let’s be honest enough to admit that writing all religious experience off as brainwashing is also an interpretation without a rational foundation. It is the bias of a subculture that has an urge to deny any reality to the transformative religious experience at all. Frankly, there are many such deniers who have never made a sincere effort to test the efficacy of spiritual practice and thus have no basis for their firm conclusions. Yes, brainwashing happens, unfortunately, though I’m going to pin that exclusively on the idolaters whose religious experience depends on their theistic identity, their scriptures and their tradition being the only valid, historically correct one –such a viewpoint can only be maintained through some amount of brainwashing. This is an all too common way to experience religion, but it is not the only one. To suggest so is to make the same mistake as a disgruntled Kansas School Board member charging those who believe in evolution with creating a bleak wasteland without purpose [2]. The fundamentalism on both sides needs to be called out, because this hand isn’t over. There is still a trump card up religion’s sleeve called metaphor, and it is yet to be played.

DOES THE COLANDER OF TRUTH HOLD WATER?

For now, I propose this general rule about theism: all theistic constructs are equally valid— they stand on their own merits as limited “binders” of people, as preservers and conveyors of mythic images that both teach subcultural values and point toward a universal Reality beyond them; fables without objective specificity, but a deep sense of purpose that can only come from being rooted in Truth — but they don’t all have the same value toward the primary goal of the transformation of mind that is meant by metanoia. Value is subjective by nature, but this generalization will hold true across the board: value for a religion lies in the efficacy of the practice to pierce the veil of duality and guide us through the non-dual experience so that, if/when we return from it, we feel it was positive and we want to go back to it. Efficacy will vary by the individual’s personality and other cultural factors, but the goal of all paths is union of the seeker and the Sought.

If you must, think of it like an LSD trip. It is well known that proper conditioning and guidance can create a “good trip” whereas lack of proper conditioning and guidance can lead to a “bad trip” from the same dose. A theistic construct, then, has the task of making sure our non-dual experience is a good trip.

From where I sit, with total Swiss-like neutrality toward all theos yet wanting to find value in all of them, I see some foundational principles we can apply without tipping the balance of bias very far. As I’ve expressed elsewhere, in this age, with a rigid strain of strict materialism spreading virally and calcifying our minds, I believe it is urgent that religion engage our imagination –and by that I mean, in most practical terms, while giving us something that feels Good and True to hold onto, it also should give us plenty of empty space around that Truth to dance, examine it from different angles, interpret it artistically if we’re so inclined, or just relax and breathe. If we recognize the same transformative experience in our neighbors of other faiths, and realize that the teachings that bring us to this Truth are mutable and not the Truth themselves, our devotion can turn to the imaginative process itself– the art, not the artifact. Clinging to the symbol like a lifeboat in an ocean of doubt will only make that boat a shiny new idol.

Religion also needs to elevate the conversation. In The Even Better News: an Avant-God Manifesto, I laid out a metaphor about metaphors (a metametaphor?) describing how they are capable of doing that interior grunt work of changing the way we think, not simply filling our head with new information. A religion that merely gives us something new to believe does not elevate the current mindset above idolatry –again, it just gives us a new idol. But teaching religion as metaphor, as opposed to history, is what distinguishes it from other educational modes that can only spout facts and influence opinions. When we as a society are open to new theistic ideas that emphasize their metaphorical meaning over the literal, we have the opportunity to change that clingy mindset and move us en masse toward metanoia.

Lastly, and this one is somewhat subjective as a pantheist, I believe religion should engender communion –it should steer us in the direction of seeing our common ground rather than sewing a new layer of division.

For example, the Satanists who want to build a statue of Baphomet at the Oklahoma statehouse –I’m sorry, but as much as I empathize with their stated mission [3], it is hard to get past their deliberate choice of an image so steeped in binary conflict with their opposition that it seems the intent was to not only maintain but exacerbate the irreconcilable differences that exist in the Christian mindset. If that was the intent, I see little to no theological value in it. If it wasn’t, well, I guess they just have some ‘splaining to do (and yes, I do have a little devil running around on some of these pages, but I’m also expending great effort and verbiage to reconcile those differences, and as you’ll see, the heretic is loyal to his opposition).

So how does Pastafarianism hold up as a theistic construct?

sworn-inDoes it engage the imagination? Yes, very much so. We’re talking about people who wear colanders on their heads for driver’s license photos and, in at least one case, while being sworn into elected office. Enough said.

Does it elevate the conversation around mainstream religion? I actually believe it does, much better than one might see at first glance, but not as effectively as it could.

This is where the satirical element of FSM is most effective. By demonstrating the ridiculousness of idolatry, literalism and objective specificity of religious symbols, Pastafarianism does encourage partisan religious folks with critical thinking skills to apply them to their beliefs and hopefully steer them toward ones with, shall we say, a little more intellectual integrity. It’s that same phenomenon where needling the kid with the swim fins in the shallow end of the pool encourages him to test himself and go deeper, if just to prove he isn’t a baby. Of course, if the teasing is too harsh and too persistent, it may feel like bullying, and the kid might just leave the pool; that does nothing to help the conversation. That’s a fine line, and some Pastafarians probably cross it, but I don’t see much evidence that Henderson does. What looks like a sword to some, I see as a rapier wit that keeps the satire alive.

On the other hand, I found this entry from the About page very interesting. I’m guessing this is Henderson providing the answer:

Q: In 1000 years will FSM be a mainstream religion?

A: This is something I think about constantly and it keeps me up at night. I sometimes wonder what the Church of Scientology — or lets say the Mormon Church looked like 5 years after Joseph Smith transcribed the scriptures out of the hat with the seer stones. What worries me is that right now I can be pretty sure there aren’t a lot of dogmatic nutty FSM people around, but what about in 20 years? What about in 50 years? What about when someone figures out a way to make money out of this and turns it into some new age spiritual enlightenment thing. There are billions of Christians who are crazy serious about their religion who don’t necessarily believe the things in the Bible actually happened. So .. yes, I do worry where FSM will go. My hope is it continues to be a positive force in the world. We will need to keep an eye on it for sure.

This concern has some merit, despite the redectio ad absurdum qualities of its premise. (The Orwellian words of Tertullian echo in my head: “I believe because it is absurd.”) And forget about 50 years from now, the problem that could cause it has already taken root: less than ten years into its existence, Pastafarianism already has a gospel, and is already self-referential (or “reverential,” as it were). Even Christianity can’t say that.

I think writing the Gospel of FSM was a critical mistake –not a fatal one, but it didn’t help his cause. I read that his publisher gave him 80,000 reasons to do it, in the form of an advance, so sure, that would be hard for anyone to turn down. But it started the franchising of Pastafarianism (TM), and I’m afraid that can and will have some unintended ill-effects. Henderson already ran the risk of attracting atheist bullies who wanted an emblem to help show their superiority to believers; now he faces the likelihood of being taken too seriously by friends and foes alike, and when satire is taken seriously, its metaphorical power is nullified.

he-boiled-for-your-sins-320Yes, I know, the Gospel is all part of the satire. By creating a mock scripture to lay out the fine print of his mock theology, Henderson is demonstrating the danger of becoming self-referential and self-corroborating. That’s a very important point to make, and he made it well in his open letter to the Kansas school board. But now, having galvanized a community around this vast lampoon, I see some danger signs of Henderson becoming what he mocks, which is what happens when satire is stretched too far. This business of him pretending to be a prophet, for instance –still well within the scope of satire, and that is supposed to be safeguarded by the principle that the only dogma is that there must be no dogma. All well and good, but when a prophet tells you “thou shalt have no dogma,” that can start to feel like a pretty solid piece of anti-dogma…and now suddenly any idea that doesn’t fit our anti-dogma criteria is suspect as detrimental to the Cause…..see where this downward spiral is going? Not a good place for a non-prophet. If dogma is the enemy, there is wisdom in loving it and finding a use for it instead of rejecting it. We solidify what we consistently reject.

One other aspect that may restrict the usefulness of Pastafarianism to the greater good –and I can’t quite make up my mind so this is going to be an open-ended question: is Henderson friendly enough with religion to make fun of it this much?

Here’s the best known example, and this is a controversial subject in which my opinion is by no means the “right” one: we all know that some African-Americans sometimes call each other “nigga,” and whether it offends our sensibilities or not, I say they can do it if they damn well please because they are taking ownership and dismantling a word that was used to oppress them –their use inverts the word into a badge of respect over shared hardship. We even see in pro sports where some white athletes are given leeway to use it with black teammates as a sign of having earned their respect, and that there is a brotherhood that crosses color lines. But when a white person says “nigger” out of hostility or indifference, as in the awkward case of NFL player Riley Cooper? Entirely different story. What should be clear as day from this is that it isn’t the word itself, but the intent communicated by it. And friendliness of intent gives us much more latitude for communication, especially in forms that otherwise may be perceived as derogatory.

This is where I’m undecided on Pastafarianism, or at least with its founder. Does he have a reformer’s zest for his opposition’s best interest behind this facade? Does he really want to see more enlightened religious institutions, kinder and less imperialistic churches? Or are he and his cohorts playing with believers like bugs in a jar for nothing more than amusement and a little revenge?

I understand the urge to “set fire to the preacher who promising us hell” (to borrow a classic line from Conor Oberst), but it’s an urge that needs to be curbed if we’re ever going to get past this great divide. There may need to be a place for us “lost souls” to vent the centuries of frustration over disenfranchisement by the various orthodoxies, and maybe Pastafarianism wants to be such a place and nothing more. If so, that’s fine, but it’s disappointing.

In “The Gift of Heresy,” I discussed the difference between a heretic and an apostate:

Contrary to common misuse of the term, a heretic is not someone who denies the beliefs of the orthodoxy altogether –that, according to Orthodoxwiki.org, is an “apostate.” Neither is a heretic the kind of Lutheresque reformer who is partisan to another set of rules and uses them to challenge orthodox authority –that is a “schismatic.” Apostates and schismatics abound in the modern world; true heretics are hard to find. For they must have the mental dexterity to look at the beliefs of the local orthodoxy and see something of the Truth in it….and then look at another orthodoxy, see past the conflicts it has with the first one on the surface, and see something there too –something pointing back to the exact same Truth.

 

Chris Rock in "Dogma" as Rufus, the 13th apostle. Bethany: Wait a minute. Christ. You know Christ?  Rufus: Knew him? Shit, nigga owes me 12 bucks!

Chris Rock in “Dogma” as Rufus, the 13th apostle. Bethany: “Wait a minute. Christ. You know Christ?”
Rufus: “Knew him? Shit, nigga owes me 12 bucks!”

If there were a church dedicated specifically to healing racial tension and promoting “color-blindness,” Chris Rock would be one if its heretics; the guy walking around dropping N-bombs and looking for a fight would be an apostate. Henderson comes across as a very likeable guy, much more like the former than the latter. Yet there are elements to his satire that have convinced a lot of people that he is an apostate, and their views are not unfounded. I hope this is an unintended effect.

This segues nicely into the last of my bullet point-phrased questions: has Pastafarianism engendered communion across the typical battle lines of the world? Is it building any meaningful common ground?

Here is where I find Pastafarianism most lacking. Regardless of intent or the sincerity of the effort to keep it all in good humor, there is no getting around the fact that the result is just another theology of division –those who get the joke on one side, and those who don’t on the other. A sadly typical sense of ego inflation permeates much of the discourse on the website, and in this sense it mimics the orthodoxies rather than satirizing them. Henderson seems a little too proud of the crosshairs he bears.

The most unsavory manifestation of this is the page where he posts the, shall we say, variously literate critiques of his theology he receives —“Hate Mail” is what he labels it uniformly, although by his own admission a lot of it is unhateful, constructive criticism– along with occasional responses [4]. Here is one not so unhateful entry from a very irate “Christian” that stood out:

“You sicken me with the fact that you now have my best friend believing in your stupid, sick, blasphemous crap you call a religion! I can tell you what it really is, BLASPHEMOUS, MADE DURING A DRUG BINGE, IDOLATRY THAT WILL HAVE YOU BURNING IN HELL OR ON THE TABLE AFTER THE LAST WAR!!!! I am furious about the fact that there is a religion DEVOTED to SIN OF ALL THINGS! If you don’t change you and all your followers will be in a special place in hell just for IDOL WORSHIPPING, SIN LOVERS LIKE YOURSELF!!! You disgust me and I hope you see the truth before it’s too late.”

The response:

“I need more information on this “special place” in hell you refer to – will there be cake?

Interested, Bobby”

Now that’s hilarious. By the law of the jungle, the writer deserved to be smacked down in some manner. Fighting fire with humor is certainly a vast improvement over fire too….but when I finished laughing at it, it felt kind of hollow. What did it really prove, other than that their god is a humorless bastard while his is a righteous dude –which we already knew anyway. That doesn’t make him evil by any means, but it does make me wish His Noodlyness had preached to him some variation on turning the other cheek, maybe some Taoist wei wu wei verbal aikido move to diffuse the flames of hate that were surely fanned by the cake comment.

th_pastafish4Or maybe Pastafarians could learn something from their near-namesakes. Sure, the Rastafarians are a little goofy with the Haile Selassie thing, and American hippies have turned the ganja sacrament into a kind of fetish. But Rastafarianism has also given us one of the most important theological concepts ever recorded: “I and I.” As a way of identifying oneself in sincere co-mutuality with another person or thing, it is a total duality smasher because it goes all the way back to the most elemental and universal formulation of duality in the human experience, that primordial assumption of “self” and “other.” To the Rastafarians, there is no other, only one self expressed in distinct ways by individuals. There is no better equivalent in the Western traditions to the Sanskrit expression “namaste” which holds much sway in the East, and translates roughly as “the Spirit in me sees and honors the same Spirit in you.”

The Buddha put sums up non-dual relationship between people like this: “If you see yourself in others, whom would you harm?”

And finally, there is Jesus of Nazareth, who taught that there are only two commandments that are worth their weight in stone tablets, one of which is “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Practice the supernatural art of seeing I and I.

I wonder how the FSM would taste with that as a main ingredient.

It’s a question worth asking. I don’t want this to end with a bad taste in anyone’s mouth. Pastafarianism is a solid effort and a much-needed fresh voice in the monotone world of Western religion. There is room at the table for deities of all food groups. It just suffers from an excess of what it was ultimately created to critique: binary logic. Does it advance our understanding of God? Sure, in some very important ways, I’ll give credit where it’s due. But as it is now, it feels like a one-step-forward, one-step-back kind of movement, maybe even two-back in some ways. Not forward enough.

I would love to be persuaded otherwise. Since Pastafarianism started with an open letter, let’s consider this an open letter to Bobby Henderson, or anyone else who wants to speak for the faith. Tell me what I’m missing, I am all ears. I’ll pour an empty glass of some fine Napa Valley cab sauv, and we can talk. Over pasta.

FOOTNOTES

[1] Most of my information on the study of neuroscience and spirituality comes from Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief by Andrew Newberg, M.D.; Eugene D’Aquili, Ph.D.; and Vince Rause (Ballantine Books, 2001). It’s a fascinating read that doesn’t shortcut on the science.

[2] From Wikipedia article on “Kansas evolution hearings:” “One of the members who lost her seat, Connie Morris, a conservative from St. Francis in the northwest corner of the state, pointed to the ‘liberal media’ for her loss, noting that ‘liberal opportunists’ do not mind ‘slandering people and harming their families and their reputation and their business and their communities and their state … It’s a shame, and I feel bad for them when they face God on Judgment Day.’ Although four born-again Christians remained on the Board, she believed that the new board would waste no time adopting new science standards, expecting that in the following January, when the new members are sworn in, the Board would rescind existing standards and adopt new ones that ‘let government schools teach children that we are no more than chaotic, random mutants.'”….Somehow I doubt that specific teaching is part of the Kansas science curriculum.

[3] This is from the “Beliefs” section of The Satanic Temple’s website: “The Satanic Temple seeks to separate Religion from Superstition by acknowledging religious belief as a metaphorical framework with which we construct a narrative context for our goals and works. Satan stands as the ultimate icon for the selfless revolt against tyranny, free & rational inquiry, and the responsible pursuit of happiness.” Pantheism has no quarrel with a single word of that. But then it continues: “In theological terms, the mythology translates thus:

Satan rouses the Fallen AngelsGod is supernatural and thus outside of the sphere of the physical. God’s perfection means that he cannot interact with the imperfect corporeal realm. Because God cannot intervene in the material world, He created Satan to preside over the universe as His proxy.

This is where they lose me– not any worse than traditional monotheism does, but that’s not a high bar to clear. The natural/material world cannot be separate from the supernatural without defying the very meaning of supernatural. The finite is a container within the infinite, not outside of it; this is not a binary relationship. The assumption that it is binary is the product of duality in our minds, and is what creates a need for a proxy. And every proxy becomes an idol. If Satanists ever become influential enough, so will the image of Satan presiding over us, and this would be the next tryannical theos from which we need liberation. Honestly, it’s also a good try, a commendable effort at inverting the dominant paradigm and thereby reclaiming the dignity of the maligned loyal opposition. It’s just trapped by its own binary logic.

[4] I’ve noticed that the most recent entry under Hate Mail dates to August 2011, so he seems to have curtailed this practice. So if Henderson recognizes that this is divisive and distracting from the sense of community he’s trying to build, why not remove that banner and replace it with something more innocuous? He should heed the advice of Judas in The Last Temptation of Christ: the only thing worse than a bona fide martyr is one who lost the stomach for it but goes through the motions anyway.

Originally published 04.07.14

Revised 04.08.14

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