From the dawn of written history, from the time of Zoroaster and Ahura Mazda in the district called variously Mesopotamia, Persia, and Iran, through the Bogomils, through the Cathars, through today’s religions, especially those that adopt a rigid mindset with no room for slack of any kind, the unfailing symptom is this: Leaders urge the idea of either/or: Either Behavior A is good, or it’s bad. Either it’s black, or it’s white. There is nothing in between.
Our recent blog on Othering versus Togethering got some of you really going. We’d like to continue in this vein for a little longer, today applying the concept specifically to the religious or spiritual plane of experience.
Many of the early sects were dualists in that they thought of the spiritual world as wholly good and the materialistic earthplane world as wholly evil (sound familiar?). The Cathars*, whose religion was violently suppressed in southern France, were perhaps extremists in this regard: they would not eat anything that was the result of copulation, because copulation involved the physical body. Even such things as milk and cheese were off their diet plan. Further, they denied that Jesus ever was born in the flesh, because flesh was evil: He was only a spiritual being. Thus they were, if you like, a 12th-century forerunner of a vegan’s vegan.
At that time the all-powerful church was reaping the benefits of what is called the Medieval Warm Period (when farm products exceeded the needs of the populations, and churchmen of the day took advantage of the surpluses to live in corruption and luxury). Cathars striving for purity presented a visible reminder that the way of poverty and asceticism was more Christlike and less self-indulgent than the decadent path of the Christian church of that day; consequently they had to be eradicated.
This is an extreme illustration of othering. The Cathars were a good people trying sincerely to live by their beliefs, yet they were killed by the thousand because they believed in dualism and strove to live more humbly, as they imagined Jesus had lived.
Why was it impossible for people to meet halfway? In a Monty Python feature, inside Castle Perilous Michael Palin’s character begs, “Can’t I have just a little peril?” If the Cathars had been willing to bend their rules just a little bit and the churchmen of the day had been willing to forgo some portion of their great greed, somewhere between there could have been common ground and people would not have had to be tortured and killed … though it was always done in a pious way, of course, “for the good of your soul”. (Lady, deliver us from centralized power!)
Today the Taliban’s following of strict religious rules is an example of those who cannot adjust by even so much as a gnat’s eyelash. And consequently we have world war. As St. Jimmy Buffett might say, “Lighten up.”
As we Frosts drive around our little sphere in West Virginia, we see sprouting on increasing numbers of lawns little signs resembling those signs that appear during political campaigns. Instead of doing a fanfare for a candidate, though, today’s signs display something called Ten Commandments. Yvonne can’t resist composing her own Eleventh Commandment, worded to this effect:
You run yours, and I’ll run mine.
The same principle might well be applied to good effect in such cases as assisted suicide, gay marriage, abortion, stem-cell research … you get the idea. Optional is not mandatory.
* Cf Greek catharsis: a purification.