Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Devil Is a Gentleman

I finished reading J.C. Hallman's book The Devil is a Gentleman. I've mentioned it a couple of times. Now that I am done I can say with certainty I enjoyed the book greatly. Since it was gifted me by Ella before she moved to Dubai, I must say another thank you to her. What I liked was not just getting a glimpse into so many different religions, though that is the main fascination. The writing is also a pleasure. Hallman does not write from an objective expert's position. He includes himself and his feelings and reactions to the different people in the book. He is unsettled and a little scared the night he spends in the Satanist's house. He is moved during the Wicca ceremony and the services of the Monks at New Skete brought tears to his eyes. But at the same time Hallman is in the book, the book is not the religious groups according to him. He approaches each one with an open mind, participates in their ceremonies, never laughs at them, and is generally curious. And always present is William James. Here is a sample from the Wicca chapter:

I had seen the way in which the old idol of hypothesis verification was its own over-belief, the way it had divvied all of us up into a babble of scientific cants and lingos, had made us fanatics blind even to our own fanaticism, unhappy and seeking, desperate to try anything that tasted like truth. America itself was the sick soul, a divided consciousness, a bifurcated society struggling to climb free of its cold womb. How could you tell another what would ring true to the hot place of their consciousness? Not long after he returned from delivering Varieties in Scotland, James wrote in a letter, "But I am intensely an individualist, and believe that as a practical problem for the individual, the religion he stands by must be the one which he finds best for him, even though there were other better individuals, and their religion better for them."
Hallman uses James as a way to discuss the various groups. Are the groups healthy? Are they really religions? What would James say? As we go from group to group and between chapters, we are led through William James's life and the development of his thinking. No need to have read James before, but I must warn you, if you read this book, you will want to read James by the time you are done. James created the philosophy of Pragmatism and believed in the importance of pluralism. He thought pluralism made people more forgiving, and that
once one believed in the possibility of many truths the fruits of religion were made available to everyone. Too much singularity, in either truth or a Christian God or a Hegelian Absolute, lent itself to fragmentation and division.
I think Brother Marc, one of the Monks at New Skete has it right, and not just about dogs either:
I think individuals have become alienated from the matrix of earth and nature that we naturally arise from. We're living an artificially divided, fragmented life. As individuals, like grains of sand, rubbing against one another, but not really becoming a part of one another. And when we meet up with dogs, who totally accept us just the way we are, we like this because this is what a human being should be able to have from society. We've lost that. We should be able to come to our village, to our extended family, and no matter how good or bad we are, be totally accepted. We don't have that anymore.
One of the things that James discovered, and Hallman reaffirms, is that the healthy religions, no matter how strange they may seem, whether they are waiting for aliens, reverencing trees, or drawing down the moon, provide a place where we can be accepted for who we are and maybe, for a little while at least, cease being irritating grains of sand and become part of one another.