Sunday, January 3, 2010

Three Layers

Yesterday’s posting on the Papal initiative—to invite dissident Anglicans to join the Catholic Church—prompted me to ask myself why that event struck me as pleasing. The event may also be viewed in entirely in negative terms, of course. The Anglican congregation is dividing over a major conflict triggered by the ordination of women and gay clergy. Anglicanism, along with other mainline Protestant denominations, has been drifting into a social gospel for many decades already without that trend, which strikes me as much more serious, having caused any active rifts. The Papal initiative may also be viewed negatively as a power-grab. I’ve always viewed the exclusion of women from the priesthood as due to an arbitrary patriarchal bias rooted in the distant past. Similarly, I am persuaded that homosexuality is not a willed choice but a biological fact; fairly decent theories of how it arises are on offer; in other words, Dante to the contrary notwithstanding, it is natural. It occurs in nature, not by free will. The development of a celibate clergy also strikes me as a strange cultural aberration. You might say, in other words, that I don’t have a dog in this fight.

Pondering this, I realized that my pleasure came from another source. To put it briefly, the Papal initiative suggests a movement in the direction of genuine reform. If something like that inspires a realignment of the religious layer of our culture in the long term, it will be beneficial for this grouping of humanity, the West.

I came across this concept of layers in a quote from Ali Hujwiri (990-1077), a Persian Sufi, teacher, and writer. He said: “There are three forms of culture: worldly culture, the mere acquisition of information; religious culture, following rules; elite culture, self-development.” This was written in Hujwiri’s Revelation of the Veiled, and I saw it quoted in Idries Shah’s The Sufis more than thirty years ago. It struck me as true and appropriate—the more so because in the Sufi realm of thought, each individual is counseled to follow the appropriate requirements of each layer of culture, and these layers are conceived of as linked and ascending, like stairs to a summit.

The religious layer of culture, in other words, has a meaningful, elevated, role in the shaping of human values—and behaviors based on these values. It is a necessary element in human life. When this layer becomes deformed, trivialized, or sinks into the one beneath it, that spells trouble for the society—and individuals in it, of course. A single, coherent faith system is better than a carnival of competing beliefs. The reunification of Christianity is therefore desirable. That in turn implies an institutional organ at its peak which is sophisticated and appropriately tolerant of diversity beneath—and Benedict XVI’s initiative, if it succeeds, also suggests changes in that direction ultimately if unity is to be achieved. Hence my favorable reaction to the news.

Now, needless to say, the other two layers in our culture are not exactly exemplars of coherence and order either. And the relationships between them are correspondingly troubled. But the general trend of things, it seems to me, is better now, despite the seeming chaos, than it was in Dante’s day.

The trouble with this medium (blogging) is that it takes multiple passes to develop ideas. Or maybe that is the medium’s virtue. I’ve yet to make up my mind.

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