Posted by: dswerling | February 18, 2008

False Idols

My beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath: For the wrath of man produces not the righteousness of God.” –James 1: 19 

            As humans, we have created many things. We have created many different values and value systems within cultures that seek to create meaning. These value systems are not limited strictly to religious principles; consider all the things that we are bombarded with and have been bombarded with for ages through whatever form of media has been prevalent during a certain time frame. For example, consider values like chastity, honesty, strength, and bravery. For ages, these values along with traits such as intelligence and confidence were considered the ideal values for a human being to have. We were expected, as people, to always strive to behave according to these values or to search for these principles. Though education was not available to all, qualities such as being a hard worker were also considered highly important. These values make up what I will here call the “honorable” man. By “honorable” I do not even mean to say a perfect man, for surely a perfect person would not truly be human, and one of the traits of the ideal “honorable” man is to be able to forgive others as well as himself. This concept is known by many names in many religious traditions, such as the “Superior Man” in Confucianism, Halakah in Judaism, or Brahmin in Hinduism. For the sake of this essay, the listed values above will make up what we might call the “honorable man.”

  

            Recently in the United States, a tremendous turnaround has occurred in what is considered the “ideal” for a person to be. Chastity is certainly no longer valued, indeed, as young people we are very strongly encouraged to seek out the opposite sex and act upon our lustful instincts, not worrying about whether it’s “right” or not, and not worrying what the cost may be to ourselves and our partners later on. Similar to this, values such as honesty or hard work are becoming obsolete. Our commercials and magazine articles constantly force products into our faces that may be utterly worthless, but that we are desperate to believe will cure what ails us. Consider “Kinoki Footpads” (put them on your feet at night, and in a few weeks your entire quality of life will be improved!) or “Hydroxycut” (diet and exercise doesn’t work, but these pills are guaranteed to cut off 30 pounds within a year!) or even Enzyte (the once-a-day tablet for natural male enhancement.) Now, any reasonable educated person with a brain knows that these products are, frankly, total hoaxes. No footpad can bring you love or true happiness, the only way to truly lose weight is to exercise and be disciplined, and we are born with the penises we have and no pill can change that. However, for some reason now, we are accustomed to being lied to. Even the most uninformed people in the United States know that these products are utterly worthless, but we are so desperate that there may be some other way to success besides hard work, so hopeful that there is just that undiscovered natural remedy for what ails us, that we allow these sponsored lies to be put into our magazines and television sets. The ideal for an American teenager is no longer to live his own American dream, it is to do well in school (not because doing well in school is the “right” thing to do, but because it will help us in the future) so we can go to college so we can get a high-paying job and get all of our “stuff” that will make us happy. Surely this is where true value lies, in cheap thrills with big toys and gorgeous men and women. These are the things that we are told will make us happy.

            This turnaround in the public ideal, the desire to only accrue material wealth, had always slowly developed with the “American Dream,” but we have reached the point in today’s culture where accruing wealth essentially is the American dream. We must ask ourselves  why, after ages and ages of searching for perfection, are we as Americans suddenly just giving up and living according to our whims and desires, not worrying about “right” and “wrong” but trusting our instincts and not our consciences? To me, the only logical answer is that Americans have finally realized that “honor,” and that “honorable man” that I previously mentioned, does not exist. I remember well the time when I believed all of the ideas that are traditionally thrust upon our youth about their country, about how it is perfect, always acting for good. As humans, we may naturally want to believe this, but I believe that in recent years, Americans have woken up, as I have, to some embarrassing truths about their country, and I believe there has almost been a “national loss of innocence,” a disillusionment from the idealism of the old. This disillusionment in and of itself is not such a bad thing, but we are now witnessing this process going too far the other way. As young people, we have finally realized that our elders were not entirely honest about their pasts, and in their own time they made the same mistakes, did the same shameful things, that we may catch ourselves doing now (which is not to say they do not deserve respect, love, or affection, only to say that in their time our elders were equally irresponsible as we are now). The stories we heard when we were little of Knights of the Round Table going off to perform heroic deeds and fighting for what they knew to be right were all fairy tales, and George Washington never cut down a Cherry Tree with an axe. This realization has, I believed, sunk too deeply into the skins of many Americans, and particularly my fellow young Americans. Many Americans feel detached from the policy-making process, recognize the faults of the system without noting the benefits, or genuinely don’t care about the issues because they are so used to a comfortable lifestyle. I can say for myself that most policies passed in my lifetime, even broad ones such as the Patriot Act and No Child Left Behind, have not had a direct effect on me, or if they have I have not noticed them. Americans are content with the way things are, and see thinking about political issues as unnecessary and even annoying.

            Similar to this loss of interest in their country’s politics, many young Americans do not have much interest in ultimate reality, usually for one of two main reasons. Certainly there are a multitude of problems with all organized religions, and some people choose to doubt or to not believe because they make the logical assumption that since religion often looks like a force of evil in the world today, it must only serve bad. For religious people, it is important not to be offended by this view. Religion is a source of division, and like other sources of division, it creates conflict. For us to attempt to deny this fact looks downright hypocritical. The reason for atheism or agnosticism that religious people must address is the reason many young people use to justify their atheist views, consciously or not. Religion, unfortunately, is not “cool.” It is simply not “cool” to think about issues, it is not “cool” to have an eternal judge of standards deciding that what young people do may be wrong, and it is not “cool” to believe in something greater than yourself. The “honorable man” I mentioned before has not died; he has just changed into something different. Today’s “honorable man” is not worried with such inconveniences as morality or reason; instead today’s “honorable man” is more concerned with conquering as many women as he possibly can. It is also exceedingly important that the “honorable man” does not work within the framework of a social system. The “honorable man” serves himself, and does not have time to be concerned with the good of others, or what is considered fair and legal by the state he lives in. Most importantly, it is fitting that the “honorable man” must, “take no shit” in the vernacular. Should another person insult the “honorable man” in any way today, the “honorable man” must make sure to deal with said person, preferably with violence or insult. Therefore, the most important trait of the new “honorable man” is to never lose face, because face is the most important thing now.  Many people complain of this problem of course, particularly parties who suffer at the hands of the “honorable man.” However, culture does not dare to question the “honorable man” in the end, and this is shown by what we are entertained by these days; for example, though rap music and advertisements may degrade women, millions of women still listen to rap music. Though the “honorable man” may shoot up an entire family rather than lose his precious face, we are wonderfully entertained by violent video games and movies such as “Rambo” and “Grand Theft Auto.” Whether or not these video games and movies actually cause more violence is irrelevant; it is only important that we recognize that the fact that we are so entertained by said violence shows that we, in the end, have put our stamp of approval on the new “honorable man.” “You may shock me, offend me, scare me, or even hurt me, but God forbid you ever bore me.” This is the new mentality people seem to live by today.

            But this has made it all very apparent to me that therefore every value we create, everything we worship, is utterly worthless without ultimate reality. I laugh when I hear about someone defending their “honor.” Can’t you see that honor does not exist? Why, in several decades, we have had a complete 180 degree turn around from what was formerly considered “honorable” to what is considered “honorable” today. As humans, we gave our honor such high praise, and we even connected our honor to God and ultimate reality, but I here intend to tear down that false idol. If we can so easily change what honor is, or what it stands for, then we have clearly created it, which makes honor something entirely relative, dictated only by our cultural standards and values. This makes honor a worthless concept that should be ignored, and totally forgotten, because as long as people have conflicts trying to defend their “honor,” there will never be peace. As long as people would rather be hurt themselves or hurt someone else before they would have to forgive someone or admit that they were wrong, lasting progress cannot be made. I believe it is time for people to stop tuning into their televisions and iPods and video games and tabloids and magazines; time for people to stop worshipping the new false gods we have created, the false gods of glamour and beauty and perfection that will never exist. It is time for people instead to turn to the beauty of reason, of learning, of listening, and of finding value in those things that truly have value. For in the end, all the things that you have done here on this earth will truly mean nothing. You may run a four minute mile, a three minute mile, and you may be the wealthiest man to ever live. You may be the most beautiful woman or the most handsome man who ever walked the earth, and you may have created a name that will last forever. But whether or not your name or your accomplishments last, you will not. Your body will pass away into this earth, become the soil from which grass and trees grow, become the food that a new generation eats. Nothing you create will ever have meaning, and nothing you do will ever matter. It is ultimate reality, whether it is God or Yahweh or Allah, or even the monist force that permeates all, that creates meaning. But all the other concepts we create have no meaning. For human beings, we see that the moon and sun create the seasons and tides, and the clouds and air create the weather, but we are powerless to change these things. Similarly, it is ultimate reality that creates meaning, and it is ultimate reality that creates “value.” Humans are as powerless to control this process as we are powerless to prevent a hurricane or earthquake.

             

            In conclusion, I do not mean to convert you, reader, to Christianity, Islam, Judaism, or any other religion that exists. I do not intend to patronize you, or make you consider yourself you are somehow evil for following cultural norms. Cultural norms are completely natural for humans and it is healthy that we create them. I only hope that having read this, you will find yourself open and thoughtful to new ideas. The final irony I will discuss here is how I see that people who hold a rigid view of my own Christian religion and the people who hold a staunch Atheist position seem to have more in common than they would like to admit. Being absolutely convinced that the Bible is the infallible word of God and that it is sin to question anything it says is, in my opinion, very similar to being absolutely convinced that all religion is evil and dangerous and to have faith in any sort of higher power is nothing short of stupidity. Both roads lead to the same destination of close mindedness, dismissal, and rejection, and I feel that this is what the divine wants least for us. Instead, I believe the most important thing for us to do now is to always remain thoughtful, always open minded, always listening to every perspective that we are confronted with, no matter how offensive we may find it, and no matter how much we may disagree with it. If we stop listening, we stop learning, and inevitably we stop thinking. This is the vicious cycle that destroys nations and empires, and I pray that anyone who reads this will remain thoughtful and open and willing to learn, because if we do not learn, we will inevitably have no future.

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