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Friday, February 27, 2015

The Dude Abides

This week has marked something of an event in my life: I have become an ordained minister. This particular ministry I currently share with more than 250,000 other like-minded individuals worldwide – that’s something over half of the total estimated number of Catholic priests. Mind you, [1]ordination into the ministry of The Church of the Latter-day Dude is accomplished with a few mouse clicks by merely applying for a certificate of ordination on their official [2]website. But the smooth ease of the process does not in itself explain the phenomenon that has come to be known as Dudeism.

Begun in 2005 by the journalist Oliver Benjamin, Dudeism takes its inspiration from The Dude, the ultra-laid-back character portrayed by Jeff Bridges in the Coen Brother’s 1998 film The Big Lebowski.  Dudeism draws heavily upon Ancient Chinese Taoist beliefs and philosophy, and its statement that ‘the Dudeness which can be known is not the real Dude’ is typical of its style. As with the Tao, The Dude simply goes with the flow of any situation in which he finds himself, and we also can find his existential attitude mirrored in the practices of Zen. The Dude does not ‘do’. The Dude simply ‘is’.

The point with Dudeism, however, is not to wilfully emulate the Dude’s lifestyle (a gesture of mere mimicry which would be considered un-Dude-like), but to take his lead in simply being yourself – whatever that ‘self’ happens to be. That, and to resist (or perhaps more accurately, to be impervious to) the social pressures which come at us from all sides to conform to the expectations of others, to consume stuff we don’t really need, to pursue a need for status, recognition and respect from those who in their turn are too busy pursuing these goals for themselves to have time for us anyway.

For whatever reasons the movement began, it has gone on to project itself as an urban counter-culture that finds its expression in disdain for (or, again perhaps more correctly: indifference to) all the doctrinal issues which have caused such deep division between denominations in conventional religious expression. A church which has no doctrine also has no potential causes for friction within its ranks. It has largely been disagreements over points of doctrine which have created the 30,000-odd different Christian denominations, most of whose adherents probably would not worship in the church of a different denomination.

Is it possible to be a Dudeist and still maintain one’s own existing personal beliefs? Certainly. Dudeism, like Taoism, is more of an expression of a way of life, a stance towards one’s own existence, than a religion as such. And unlike one or two of the religions which currently dominate our world, it is gender-blind. Men and women have equal status. A sexist ‘glass ceiling’ does not exist within Dudeism in the way in which it does in, for example, the Catholic Church, in which by Vatican decree the aspirations for women are swiftly reached at the lowly level of the mother superior of a local convent.

In seeking answers as to why Dudeism has taken off in the way in which it has, we might find one possible answer in the alternatives. The current major players in world religions have been with us for millennia. On the one hand this might be seen as a sign of their staying power. But looked at from a different angle, their very longevity seems to square awkwardly with our mercurial 21st-century world. Social concerns and moral values which applied – literally – to the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age, and which were intended to address the issues and the world views of those distant times, do not sit well in a world of apps and wifi.

In stark contrast, Dudeism is very much a product of the Internet age. It not only sits comfortably in our contemporary urban environment: it addresses the issues which make that environment the pressure-cooker of stress which it has become for so many. Attempts to update existing religions only seem to produce churches whose [3]architecture is stridently ‘modern’, or the toe-curling embarrassments that are overtly-Christian rock and metal bands. And other beliefs which have arisen in our own time, and which do come with a body of doctrine, seem not to be able to shake off their cultish mind-control image. I’m sure you can think of one or two examples without too much prompting from me.

Will Dudeism survive? Even to care about the answer to this question seems a distinctly un-Dude-like thing to do. What matters is what is ‘now’. And Dudeism, like Zen, values the Now: the precious present moment which we are all-too-ready to sacrifice in pursuit of those phantoms with which a consumer society distracts us. Dudeism is live-and-let-live. Dudeism is being kind and decent to your fellow human beings without attempting to force your own lifestyle and beliefs upon them. In the catchphrase from the film: The Dude abides. Perhaps he might yet confound us all by ‘abiding’ longer even than his creators might have imagined.

[1] Dudeist ministers actually are allowed to officiate at weddings and other civic functions, local laws permitting. The official website (below) offers support with providing any necessary further credentials. Dudeism has been described as an 'open source' religion. Its adherents may input their own thoughts about it. Put another way: If you prefer to have your thinking done for you by someone else, then you're probably best off with the top-down autocratic structures of existing conventional religions.

[2] Go for it.

[3] I am thinking of my local examples here in the Netherlands. We have one new church on the outskirts of town which looks like nothing so much as the vertical stern of the Titanic just before it plunges beneath the waves: an unintended and unfortunate symbolism which apparently was lost upon those who approved this particular architect’s plans. Every time I drive past I half-expect to see Rose and Jack clinging to the roof.

Photos from The Big Lebowski, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, featuring Jeff Bridges as The Dude and John Goodman as Walter, distributed by Polygram Filmed Entertainment, Working Title Films.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Pandora's Box

We might think that we know the myth. Pandora, the first created woman, arrives from Olympus in the world of mortals together with a box. The box contains all the evils and pestilences which otherwise would plague humankind, but as long as they remain safely shut away then the world is a peaceable place. In her innocence, Pandora peeks inside the box to see what it might contain. Bad idea. The terrible contents are released into the world, and humankind has been afflicted with them ever since. Pandora just has the time – and the presence of mind – to shut the lid before the last thing escapes. That thing is Hope: only Hope is preserved safely, to be nurtured for the times when it is needed.

Pandora opens the box, as imagined by John William Waterhouse in the 19th-century.
The story has a familiar echo. We need only think of that other first woman to be awake to the parallels of both stories. Eve in the Book of Genesis also had her problems with human curiosity, of crossing the line of deific instructions to release blight and death upon all of humankind. In a [1]previous post I have mentioned that this literal reading of Genesis points us towards only a superficial truth. And yet it is this ‘storybook’ truth which has dominated Western thinking – and our attitudes towards womankind – ever since. Eve the Woman is the cause of all our misery, and the active agent in releasing evil into what up till then had been blissful paradise. 

Such shapers of early church doctrine as [2]Augustine and [3]Tertullian were in their writings only too eager to hammer this particular nail home. Woman is evil. Woman is a temptress. Woman is only good for bearing children. That canonical texts appeared to support such rampant chauvinist views gave enough legitimacy to such conclusions, even to the extent that right here in the twenty-first century the ideas of guilt, shame and sin still leave their traces on the minds, not only of the ‘faithful’, but also on the minds of those who seldom if ever set foot in a church.

The sign above this languidly reclining Pandora, painted by Jean Cousin in the 16th-century, makes the parallel with Eve crystal clear. The artist is actually correct in showing this Pandora with a vase or jar. The original myth specifies that it was a jar. It was a mistranslation from the Greek that turned it into a box, and the mistranslation has endured ever since.
That the story of the Fall in Eden can be interpreted in profoundly different [4]ways, and in ways which do not weigh down all womankind with the crushing burden of guilt, has gone largely unnoticed for centuries – mainly because the texts of these other versions were destroyed by the Augustines and the Tertullians of their world. What remains of these other texts has been down to the [5]chances of history, of surviving against all the odds. But we do have them, and they are in our world. But if it is possible to redeem Eve, to come at the story from a radically different angle, might the same be possible for the story of Pandora’s box? Does the apparently over-curious Pandora, that other first woman of Ancient Greek myth, actually display a profound wisdom?

A repentant Eve portrayed by Anna Lee Merritt in the 19th-century. But is such deep and bitter contrition by Eve - and also by Pandora - misplaced? 
All we humans who have come after Pandora might have continued to live in a state of carefree bliss. But is this truly what is intended for us? How can we progress if for us sorrow remains an unknown? How can we taste sweetness if bitter regret also is not part of the human condition? So carefully, carefully, Pandora opens the box, and the world becomes as we experience it, with all its joys and its sorrows, its pains and its heartaches. It is not that we experience pain and loss. It is what we do with these emotions which potentially opens the door to growth of the spirit. But what of Hope?

Hope is left behind, sealed shut. Wise Pandora knows the folly of hope. Hope can be a false god, for so often hope can foster false expectations. Only by relinquishing hope are we truly free to act from a position of strength. With hope we might be fighting with one hand tied behind our backs. Without hope our actions are unlimited by any thoughts of ‘wishing for’, that otherwise might constrain us. As with Eve and her forbidden fruit, perhaps we instead should be grateful to Pandora for opening her box – and also for shutting it just in time.

[1] Please see my post Eve's Story.

[2] Writing in the 5th-century, Augustine said: “What is the difference whether it is in a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman... I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one excludes the function of bearing children.” Augustine was instrumental in propounding the doctrine of original sin specifically as being sexual sin, and the fault of the Woman for seducing the Man. Before Augustine, the sin of Eden was principally viewed as being disobedience to God.

[3] Writing in the 3rd-century, Tertullian tersely commented that “Woman is the gateway of the Devil.” Tertullian is now viewed as the originator of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity – a concept nowhere mentioned in scripture – although the idea of the Trinity is found in the pre-Christian (and therefore pagan) mystery schools.

[4] Please see my posts Adam, the God who Failed, and The Enlightened Insight of the Woman, for two of these ‘profoundly different ways’.

[5] Those chances happened as recently as last century, when many Gnostic texts, both Christian and pre-Christian, were discovered by chance, having been buried in a sealed jar in the Egyptian sands for sixteen long centuries.