Sunday, May 23, 2004

From Bret Harte to Elaine Pagels:

In my latest fortune cookie:
You can depend on the trust of the collective.

What to make of this plain language?

It is peculiarly Eastern in its outlook, urging me to subjugate my will to that of the wider society around me. Should I rebel? No. Should I question? No. But what if their ways are dark? What if they are heathen and peculiar? Ahum - no.

Having read Dan Brown's intriguing book The Da Vinci Code in one gulp several weeks ago, it reminded me that I had several books in the basement I had been wanting to browse through again. Chewing old cud, as it were.

Elaine Pagels' staples: The Gnostic Gospels, and Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. An excellent series from the George Braziller house on religions - Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Catholicism (sorry no link to be found, out of print). And one to get lost in, The Nag Hammadi Library.

There is some very interesting material in here about how we perceive chance events and our reaction to them. For example, in AE&S Pagels refers to a 1937 study by Evans-Pritchard describing an event where people of the Azande tribe were killed by a collapsing grain silo in Africa. While the Azande culture completely understood how termite rot could cause a structure to collapse (and kill those sitting nearby), the Azande culture automatically took the further step of asking "and why did the collapse occur at that particular moment?" The answer to the question depended on the character of the deceased, and eventually some fault in their past behaviour or their character was blamed for the particular timing of the event. In the West, that kind of question would only be asked by failure analysis engineers, if at all, and the answer would be very different.

We might dismiss the Azande explanation out of hand, but Pagels points out that this in fact goes to satisfying a very deep need in human nature that is often not fulfilled - having a full explanation for events around us that conforms to our world view. This not only applies to assigning guilt to others for these chance events, but is rooted in the almost pathological need to assign guilt to ourselves when these kinds of things occur. She writes: If guilt is the price to be paid for the illusion of control over nature...many people have seemed willing to pay it.

In most of the world, that explanation is supplied by some form of religion. "It is God's will that you be crushed by a ton of millet, because you are a wicked person." "Poseidon was irked at your father's lack of sacrifices to him, and sank your ship." "Toutatis is miffed because he has been forgotten, and caused your airport terminal to collapse." -- In each of these cases, some greater power controls events that impact our lives. (Pagels' thesis is that Augustine fundamentally altered the path of Christianity by putting original sin in this role, and providing a world view where all Christians can assume guilt rather than feeling they have no control).

In the West, we are somewhat disconnected from this, and our need for an explanation is not satisfied with a simple "In'sh Allah". We do not accept helplessness easily, and eagerly apply the toosl at hand (usually technology and analysis), whether or not they are actually capable of improving outcomes. I suspect that the ongoing 9/11 commissions here in DC and in New York City are going to run into this. There are some things, like confusion during a crisis (war included), that are fundamentally NOT FULLY FIXABLE.

In the West, we are more and more willing to point a finger at an individual to fulfil this need to assign guilt, whereas in other cultures it is socially acceptable (and in fact often required) to assign such guilt either to an uncontrollable external entity (an Act of God), or to a particular act by a known or unknown individual (either unconscious, in the case of forgetting to make an offering, or conscious as in the form of a curse).

That's my (somewhat wandering) submission to the collective, and I'm sticking to it.


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