Sunday, December 24, 2006


IT’S NOT QUITE THE WORD I want, of course. Devotion, etymologically, has to do with vows: it’s the attitude accompanying the carrying-out of one of those vows. I’m thinking about it because it’s Christmas, and I always feel somehow more spiritually aware at Christmas, though I’m not what you could call a Christian, because I don’t accept him as a saviour, because I don’t feel I need salvation, because I don’t agree with the concept of inherent sin.

I went to a religious college during my freshman year, and the first course — a required course — was in the psychology of religion. We had two textbooks: William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience and James Bissett Pratt’s The Psychology of Religion (first published in 1907). Looking back, I’m surprised; these are enlightened texts; I hope they’re still used today.

I’ll never forget Pratt’s definition of religion; it’s etched into my brain. Religion is the serious and social attitude toward that which is conceived as having control over one’s destiny.

Even at Christmastime I’m a confirmed anti-monotheist; I think much of what’s wrong with the world, speaking of social and political matters, is the fault of the near total dedication of the West (and the Western East — all of Asia Minor) to monotheistic concepts. If you want a good read next month, during the rainy days of January, get a copy of Gore Vidal’s novel Julian, a historical novel first published in 1964. It’s about the Roman emperor now unfortunately best known as “Julian the Apostate.”

His uncle, the emperor Constantine, famously established Christianity as the sole religion of the Roman empire; Julian, who had a fascinating upbringing that left him well schooled in Hellenic science and philosophy, tried during his brief reign to return religious freedom to the empire — allowing the various “pagan” cults, as well as the more enlightened Neoplatonist philosophy that Julian himself seems to have favored.

Vidal’s novel argues persuasively for Julian’s point of view, and I wish it were better known these days: there are too many parallels between the fall of the Roman empire and the events of our own time. (Julian himself died of treachery during an ill-advised military campaign in Mesopotamia: at least he led his troops personally, unlike our own Commander in Chief.)

Last year, in an op-ed piece in the New York Times on the occasion of the death of Arthur Miller, Bob Herbert quoted the playwright as saying he felt, among other things, that most men and women knew “little or nothing” about the forces manipulating their lives. Like Vidal, Miller was one of the great mid-century (that is, post-World War II) American writer-thinkers, a man and an artist who knew that one good way to make an intelligent citizenry think about the big socio-political issues of their day was to wrap ideas in engaging narrative.

But what an interesting pair of citations: Religion the serious, social attitude toward the the forces of destiny; People in our time and place unaware of the forces manipulating their lives. If you can’t accept the realities controlling your life and death, well, best to make up some acceptable mythos. That’s what happened in the turmoil of the rise of the Roman empire, a few years before Jesus was born; it attended the turmoil at the fall of that empire, only four hundred years later. (Our own system of government has already run half that term.)

Well, as I say, I can’t be a monotheist. Yet part of the complexity and contradictions of Christmas, even for me, is that matter of Devotion. When I drive past a crèche, no matter how crudely executed, something responds. I suppose even I am, in some way, devotional; perhaps even devout. I just have to figure out what it is I’m devoted to.

No comments: