The title of this post is taken from a rambled run-on sentence that I awoke to find scrawled on a yellow note-pad just a little while ago this morning, presumably written down in the wee hours while I was finishing up some work (e.g. drinking Midnight Moonshine and watching the sky make fun colors as morning approached) before crashing out for a nap.
The note reads like this:
“Faith community and concept without compromise of self, without loss, only gain. Polytheism without relativism — PSVL wrote about this?? — and the “many” without the loss of “one”. Celebrating diversity and variance without losing the proverbial balls of one’s own expression of a truth”.
Now, I don’t remember writing this, and I can’t really posit a guess as to what I was thinking of at the time. (There is a good chance that it involved gods, though.) However, on finding it this morning, I went on over to PSVL’s “Queer I Stand” column at Patheos and found the article referenced in my note: “Polytheism is not Relativism“. A lot of important points are made, and e does a good job of summarizing many of my thoughts on religious pluralism, and the linking of theological “manys” to the “manys” of physical and biological sciences. So as I sat sipping my coffee and reading eir article, I asked, “do I have anything to add?”.
Why yes, yes I do.
There seems to be this sentiment in many “progressive” and “diverse” movements and modes of thinking and engaging that relativism (e.g. everything is relative to the cultural or chronological perspectives that bore it into the world, and there are no absolutes, and all things are therefore equal within a relativistic examination) is somehow the best (or even the only) way to actively engage and relate with our own values and devotional or gnosis-born relations. 101 classes on moral theory and ethics in a university’s philosophy department introduce within their curriculum young would-be-scholars to various theories of moral process and procedure, including the concept of moral relativism. This theory suggests that we should consider the context from which a person’s behavior is based before casting moral judgment upon it (and thereby increasing the amount of collective/inter-cultural tolerance to be expected).
Tolerance is great. But acceptance is better.
And that’s my problem with relativism. It is an excellent tool for suspending rash judgment and initial executions of moral absolutism (or theological absolutism, or intellectual absolutism, or sexual absolutism, etc), but it falls wicked short of the mark when it comes to how we navigate our own on-board value systems. By not challenging or debating things that we do not find ourselves agreeing with, we lose the precious opportunities to be introduced to parts of ourselves we didn’t know we had. The oft-quoted Delphic Maxim comes to mind and heart now: “Know Thyself”. Now, I don’t normally quote scripture, for this cannot be done without cherry-picking the parts we like from those that we do not — for example, “Rule thy wife” is another Maxim, if memory serves — but in this instance I think it an important value to set up as “good and important”. Knowing one’s own self, one’s own worth, one’s weight in this world with regard to one’s own moral caliber, social temperance, political maneuverings or hierarchical agilities, is a pretty important thing. Some would even argue, rightly so I think, that a major theme within engagement with the divine Mysteries is indeed to be introduced further and deeper to a more masterful understanding of yourself, through service and engagement with the divine Powers. (No, that doesn’t mean that Mysteries are about “Self > Gods”, but rather, that a relationship is always and ever a two-or-more-way street, even one with clear hierarchical and axial structure.)
My point is that, in my experience and observations, those who over-indulge in (the idea or even facade of) relativistic outlooks basically hide behind a sense of faux-tolerance, as if having judgments or opinions different from the mainstream would be earth-shattering. Similarly in my experience, it WOULD be earth-shattering for a great many people: unresolved personal issues and areas of self-ignorance would come to light, judgments that we cast upon ourselves and then disjointedly project outward at others would rise up and boil stinkily over into the fires of self-evaluation. But I’m all about uprisings and shaking the earth. What is the point of relationship if everything remains static?
And that’s the thing about relativism as it is popularly practiced: its deployment seeks to establish a “static” (artificial) understanding of things. “Tolerance” is in this context and my estimation just another way of saying “Hey everybody, let’s try really hard not to rock the boat, because then we might have to actually do the real work of bringing about change and an increase in knowledge!”. Relativism is a toolset for suspending one’s own judgment in the pursuit of understanding others; it is a FIRST look, a FIRST step, not the whole damn process.
When you look at some DNA pulled from the bedsheets of a murder scene, you do so using various technological means that zoom in real close-like. Microscopes and digital representations and so forth. That’s important. But it is only one step amongst many. The next step may be to have your spatter analyst play cat’s cradle with a bunch of red or white string to pinpoint place of origin for that fluid discharge, or to call in some dogs to sniff out an invisible trail, or to go vigilante and take boots-and-bats to the street to seek out some old-school justice of your own devising. It doesn’t really matter. The point is that there’s a process here, not just one step.
But most people seem to stop at whatever their first step is, and forget that we have a system of sequential numbers specifically to help organizing our thoughts and actions at a rational and practical level so that we don’t become thusly confused and turned around.
Relativism is “Step 1”, and it prevents you from socking a motherfucker in the face with a 2×4 when they say or do something that you don’t like or find moral (or psychological or cultural or theological) dissonance with.
“Step 2” might be “sock the motherfucker in the face with a 4×4”. It might also be “pinpoint origin and trajectory of spatter” if your day to day interactions with people are anything like mine. Or, alternatively, it may be “sit the motherfucker down and pour them some motherfucking whiskey and have a fucking talk about what the godsdamned differences are, so maybe some fucking shit can be learned“.
Because holy shit– learning. That’s a thing. Or at least, I hope it is still a thing. (We still care about learning, right? From people other than ourselves?)
A good place to lob “Step 3” categorization at might be “process and digest” whatever the fuck “Step 2” was, (or in the case of spatter trajectory, wash your hands).
And so on and so forth down through the ages.
But people don’t seem to want steps. They want big-red-buttons that are self-validating and basically masturbatory in their mirrored brilliance. We want to tolerate others only insofar as it makes use feel like the bigger shinier most progressive motherfucker in the playground. We want to share with others only insofar as it makes us feel really fucking charitable or kind or “Christ”-like. Relativistic thought without subsequent other steps/actions/processes is just a bunch of bullshit meant to make us feel collectively comfortable without over-emphasizing the “collective” quality, because then we’d have to face the fact that we as individuals matter a whole lot less than we’re comfortable reconciling. That’s the whole point of collectives, after all.
Or is it?
There seems to be this fear that acknowledging and exploring deeply the meanings of collective dynamic threatens one’s own individual self (which is what all of these BS unconscious “tolerance” bullshitteries are about — preservation of concept of self), rather than helping to emphasis and illuminate the ground on which one stands (and similarly shares with others). Don’t get me wrong; I am not actually saying “let us all be intolerant douchebags”. Instead I am saying, “let’s use relativism, or at least a bit of self-control, to regulate our behaviors toward one another for a period of judgment-and-comfort suspension, in order to actually learn from that thing that we might otherwise be judging the shit out of because of how damnably uncomfortable it makes us feel inside”. Then move the fuck on to “Step 2”, and be sure to wash your hands when you’re done.
Another way of summarizing all of this is that I think the majority of human behavior is completely bullshit and I’m a cynical, critical, socially bastardly idealist who believes adamantly in both absolute unwavering polytheistic devotion to a host of many gods and spirits and forces well beyond human ken, as well as the various systems of human-oriented engagement (in terms of process and mechanics) and I think that it would be fucking great if we fine-tuned our systems of relating and considering and engaging and communing and to fuck with tolerance I think we should work on assessing our true value systems and then beat the shit out of the places they hide within us (rather than projecting that at the poor fucks in the world who remind us that we’re not static absolute machines of perfect functioning fluid working order). Let’s light a whole shit ton of torches and march into ourselves, guided by both gods and by reason and by this wonderful thing called learning in the pursuit always of further learning through the fire-lit and fire-burned self-spelunking that makes even my balls recoil up into the back of my throat because damn we live in a complex world, and there are always stones of vulnerability and frightful response to be overturned inside, if we leave ourselves open (and what is the point of religion and relation if not opening up to something outside of yourself?) to their discovery. Oh and also, though it probably doesn’t sound like, I’m filled with hope for humanity and have a genuine heart-centered love for my species and all the lofty places that it can go, once it finds a basic familiarity with acknowledging the awful places it has already been and in so many cases continues to reside in the present.
We spend so much fucking time and energy hiding from ourselves — and hiding the process of self-hiding under layers of self-deception and misdirection and outwardly projected asshattery and then developed complex systems of relativistic process-nullifying-tolerance-hugs-and-bunny-cuddles — that the only thing that frightens us more than an authentic and uninhibited view of our own true interior landscape is the terrifying reality of our collective (pluralistic, system-relational!) quality as both individuals (who are made of billions of parts, including multiple souls and trillions of behavior-modifying bacteria and so on) and as outer systems and communities. “Poly- means many”, as we polytheists say so regularly to those who seek to apply a reductionist idea of religion or divinity upon our models of faith engagement and devotional piety, but this manifold quality is not limited to the external. Things are a lot more complex in their design and grand architecture than most are comfortable enough to acknowledge, and in that chaotic perfection there is a certain blessed simplicity if you step back far enough and relax your damn eyes and let the Magic Eye poster of it all just come into profound slap-you-upside-the-heart focus.
But what the fuck do I know? I fell asleep drinking moonshine and haven’t finished my coffee yet.