Sunday, November 23, 2008

On Lighting The Lamp

When Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his dead business partner, Jacob Marley, Scrooge taunts the apparition:

...a little thing affects [my senses]. A slight disorder of the stomach deranges them. You may be a bit of undigested beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There's more gravy than grave about you, whatever you are!

That all could be true, and yet he keeps talking, and is profoundly changed by sunrise. Does it have to mean that ghosts walk the earth literally? Is a belief in ghosts necessary to touch the meaning of this story? Certainly not. Believe in them, or don't believe in them; the point of the whole thing lies elsewhere.

Writing for Parabola magazine in 2003, David Fideler made a succinct presentation of this point:

One of the most persistent human problems is the tendency toward literalism, and the perceptual habit of looking only at the outermost surface of things. This can't help buit lead to trouble because the world is not shallow but deep and complex; it requires multiple ways of knowing to unveil its inner dimensions, and to perceive the relationships that bind the world together as a meaningful whole.

Nowhere is literalism more of a problem than in the sphere of religion, where a certain subset of believers assume that sacred scriptures are just a collection of "facts" -- reported like a newspaper story from on high -- and that scripture should be understood, and acted upon, in the most literal and concrete way possible. In this approach, however, the more subtle shadings of meaning evaporate, for meaning is never a question of simple facts, teachings, or injunctions, but of relationships that bind things together at deeper and more intimate levels.

Il che yu shim jo, and at the risk of tautology, our experience of the universe is our experience of the universe, nothing more. It comes through our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind. Since our encounter with the Absolute takes place no other place than here, and no other moment than now, the material and the "profane" is, in fact, how we understand and act upon the esoteric meaning and the "sacred."

Whatever we believe, let us use our concepts well for the benefit and happiness of all people.

In 1757, after narrowly escaping a brush with death at sea, Benjamin Franklin responded thus:

Were I a Roman Catholic, perhaps I should on this occasion vow to build a chapel to some saint; but as I am not, if I were to vow at all, it should be to build a lighthouse.

1 comment:

Wonji Dharma said...

Zen Master Ben Franklin has a sharp tongue like Chan Master Zhàozhōu! A lighthouse indeed!