Vestigia

I.

Two men stand by the cliff’s edge. Ahead of them and down, the most desolate of landscapes, a stark, dry wasteland continuing unbroken on either side as far as the eye can see. But on the other side—a few hundred meters away, perhaps—it ends abruptly in another cliff face, this one too tall and sheer to be believed. They are looking into a canyon.

It would be better not to have to do this—but there aren’t many options left at this point.

It has been decided. Something is precipitating, taking a more definite form—a boulder now stands beside the men. One is holding a large hammer. With a powerful swing, he sends the boulder tumbling down into the canyon below. It picks up speed as it barrels across and slams against the opposing wall with a blow that can be felt throughout the whole landscape.

The wall reverberates, dust falls—but something more is happening. A column of dust-filled air is separating itself from the cliff face, from the bottom all the way to the distant top. It is a long, thin tornado, but more than a tornado. It is a snake—a cobra with its hood spread, standing and watching. Waiting.

To challenge a god to a contest of skill, I know, is hubris; to challenge one to a game of chance is merely disreputable. Unless, of course, you happen to share monsieur Pascal’s opinion.

Below the serpent lies the boulder. It has become pocked and sharp-edged from its rough journey—practically cubical. It is, in fact, a six. That was its roll, and it means there’s about an even chance of doing better. The scene fades out—elsewhere, the world is in chaos, and I’m out there somewhere, fighting, gathering people together, trying to figure out what’s important. Things look bad—and yet there’s something I did back in the very beginning, before any of this started, that will soon prove very helpful.

I can’t remember what it is after I wake up, but the feeling is still there. Confidence—happiness, even. Deep down, I know something that keeps this drama from being as terrible as it appears. Maybe I was witnessing something that has already been played out to the end; maybe it’s just that I never had anything to lose. Maybe it’s because, one way or another, a chance is all anyone ever gets—or at least anyone who’s made an enemy of fate.  But one way or another, I know there’s nothing to be afraid of.

II.

Any comprehensive discussion of dreams will have to turn to their religious significance sooner or later—even if you’d rather it didn’t.

Religion is an awkward topic in today’s multicultural society. It isn’t just that it requires people to admit to someone’s face that the most fundamental thing in their life means nothing to you—or, perhaps, requires you to speak of the most fundamental thing in your life to an indifferent audience. The very words we have available to us practically guarantee misunderstandings. They all implicitly endorse one viewpoint or obscure others, and their inadequacy  is not often acknowledged, possibly because it requires admitting that some of the disagreements between viewpoints are not only real but incommensurate. It doesn’t mean we can’t all still get along—that’s a matter of good will and tolerance, not agreement—but it does mean that we need to be aware of the language we use and what it hides before we do anything important with it.

Consider:  if you look at the population of people who are interested in dream-interpretation, you’ll quickly discover that they are not representative of the population at large. If you wanted to put a name to the differences, you might say that they tend to be introverted, conscientious, sensitive, imaginative, emotionally-oriented, spiritual people. And the ‘spiritual’ does not seem to be an independent trait so much as an umbrella term implying the rest of them to some degree. It’s a nebulous sort of word that doesn’t respond well to conceptual poking and prodding. Even in context, it’s often difficult to tell whether it describes a person’s beliefs or their temperament.

This seems to suit most people fine—not making distinctions seems to be a big part of the spiritual attitude—but the dark side of that is that the temperament, the easier of the two to observe, often seems to be taken as shorthand for the rest. And if it’s absent, you are stuck with the antonyms of “spiritual,” which are without exception words that you would never choose yourself.

And consider the word “religion.” It’s not much better. It may look okay in the dictionary, but it too is an umbrella term, and it is often unclear how far the umbrella extends. A religious studies class will probably cover at least a few, but a religious bookshop will probably cover only one—the religion that, prior to the last 100-some years of Euro-American life, was synonymous with “religion.” When William James wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience, nobody would have found it curious that a book promising variety should step outside a Judeo-Christian context so rarely.

But the real trouble is that “religion” often extends so much farther than the person using it knows that it ends up meaning “Christianity, those other monotheisms, and whatever it is you other people do.” If we can talk about them all using the same word, they can’t be too different, right? They’re all the same kind of thing—maybe even identical at some level (say the spiritual folks).

And actually, many rational, scientific folks seem to believe that, too. How else could you justify trying to disprove all of them in one swoop? But “I have an argument against religion” usually means “I have an argument against Christianity that also works pretty well against the other monotheisms, and all you other people can consider yourselves refuted as well.”

It is also problematic in that the people who are “spiritual but not religious” are so laissez-faire about definitions that nobody has figured out what the Venn diagram looks like. Does spirituality encompass religion, or overlap with it, or represent something distinct? I don’t think anyone who identified himself this way would, if asked, deny that religious people can be spiritual—but nevertheless, the word in its actual use often seems to imply a hard distinction.

Perhaps that is why people now like to talk about faiths instead of religions. “Faith” does not imply that one belongs to an established religion, but it clearly applies to those who do, and it also has a generally nice feel to it. But this one also has a downside:  faith isn’t actually a big part of some religions. And, surprise, the only ones for which faith is central, the only ones for which it makes sense to be used as a synonym for religion are—Christianity and those other monotheisms.

Okay, then. What about truths? Everybody has truths—some of them are religious, some of them are spiritual, some of them are neither. The word doesn’t imply whether you hold them from faith or experience or habit—it doesn’t imply that you hold them in common with anyone or that you don’t—it doesn’t even imply that you personally think they’re true when you attribute them to another. This is so clearly inconsistent with its customary usage that there’s no mistaking what is meant by it, even if the dictionaries haven’t quite caught on yet.

But this is also the problem. It implies a relativism that does, in fact, alienate those who belong to a religion of truth—which is another way of saying a religion of faith, which is—well, you know the drill by now. If you imply that the truths they put their faith in are relative, subjective truths, then you’re calling them lies, which is presumably something you went out of your way to avoid by using this particular term.

And for those of us for whom truth is relative, whether we’re religious or not, it’s a little strange to give it the centrality the expression implies. The word may pick something out, but not what it’s supposed to. For that matter, I’ve also heard the expression roundly criticized by a room full of philosophy students— possibly because for them, truth is something you search for rather than something you have.

Whatever you want to call it, we as a culture clearly don’t have a good way of talking about it yet. It’s only a small minority who actually try to offend people in a different camp (although the military connotations of the word may surreptitiously imply otherwise). But even mutual good will doesn’t stop every attempt to inquire about others’ religion from being as awkward as when Gretchen posed the question to Faust. Or maybe it’s just me.

In any case, there are real differences between viewpoints. This is something that’s especially clear when you come at the question from a Buddhist perspective—when you’re a practitioner rather than a believer, and when all the language in common currency was never meant to convey what you’d like to say with it. Of course, the most important things aren’t the ones you talk about most, but communication and compassion are too closely intertwined for you to simply give up and leave the misconceptions unchecked.

And because there are real differences, there are also real choices. This is something I’d especially like to stress to those coming from the “spiritual but not religious” camp. I’m really coming from somewhere different than you. Yes, it is possible. Sorry. If it’s any consolation, I’m going to be offending just about everybody by the time this is done.

But this is an essay about dreams—and here too, sooner or later, you have to make choices. You can only work with dreams for so long before you find yourself with a practical question that can only be resolved through adopting a definite metaphysical stance. Depending on your religious, spiritual and philosophical background, it may be the first time such a question presents itself to you this way—a practical question, a question of how to act rather than a “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” kind of question.

Our culture disposes us to view such questions as matters of truth. This implies that a satisfactory answer can be reached through the testimony of an appropriate authority, or faith, or rational inquiry. But your dreams are uncharted territory. The familiar landmarks aren’t there. The familiar logics don’t seem to apply. You are going to come up against situations—possibly important ones— where you don’t know but still have to make a choice.

But there are better ways to explain—ways that don’t rely on questionable concepts that were never meant to communicate what I have to say. Instead, I’m going to tell a story.

 

sidewinder
(Image Source)

 

To Be Continued (someday)