1:02 p.m. - Thursday, Nov. 20, 2003
Speaking of religious experiences . . . yesterday I stumbled across a few lines that really struck me:
War and adventure . . . demand such incredible efforts, depth beyond depth of exertion, both in degree and in duration, that the whole scale of motivation alters. Discomfort and annoyance, hunger and wet, pain and cold, squalor and filth, cease to have any deterrent operation whatever. Death turns into a commonplace matter, and its usual power to check our action vanishes. With the annulling of these customary inhibitions, ranges of new energy are set free, and life seems cast upon a higher plane of power. The beauty of war in this respect is that it is so congruous with ordinary human nature.
* * *
But when we gravely ask ourselves whether this wholesale organization of irrationality and crime be our only bulwark against effeminacy, we stand aghast at the thought, and think more kindly of ascetic religion. One hears of the mechanical equivalent of heat. What we now need to discover in the social realm is the moral equivalent of war: something heroic that will speak to men as universally as war does, and yet will be as compatible with their spiritual selves as war has proved itself to be incompatible. I have often thought that in the old monkish poverty-worship, in spite of the pedantry which infested it, there might be something like that moral equivalent of war which we are seeking. May not voluntarily accepted poverty be "the strenous life," without the need of crushing weaker peoples?
William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience
Well, here it is a century later, and we have yet to find the moral (or psychological, to use the modern term) equivalent of war. One might think that organized sports have provided that equivalent, but evidently they are inadequate to satisfy the soul of particularly blood-thirsty people such as us Americans. It isn't that we lack religion, as a nation; in spite of our materialism, we are unusually religious among Western nations. And yet religiousness and blood-thirstiness are never mutually exclusive. But neither is religiousness either a necessary or a sufficient condition for murderousness: one need only look at recent secular states such as Stalin's Russia or Pol Pot's Cambodia. I remember reading somewhere (if I could remember where I read half the stuff I read ... umm, I'd be able to cite the author properly) that the defining characteristic of the most bloody episodes in human history has been the desire to create an ideal on earth — for example, the ideal of a racially pure world for the Nazis, the ideal of the workers' paradise for the Communists, the ideal of a Christian world for the Crusaders. When the focus is on this existence, this physical world, this society, the problem inevitably becomes — other people. Which is why the American kind of Christianity, which tends to seek a theocratic state, is no impediment to war when it's being fought against people who are different from us.
Geez, what the hell has gotten into me? I'm talking like a college freshman's essay. My deepest apologies. I will be back to my usual silly self VERY SOON, I promise.