Permanent Change

Maybe you’ve experienced it too.  The sense of change in a large city like New York is palpable.  Although I don’t commute in much any more, I noticed it when I made daily treks to the city—change is constant.  If the skyline’s forever evolving, on street level things are more than keeping pace.  In the seven years of my daily commuting I saw buildings built and razed in the same location.  Scaffolding is a constant hazard.  Public art pieces are placed and then replaced.  Change.  I was reading about Yijing, better known as I Ching, the other day.  One of the spiritual classics of China, this “Book of Changes” reflects a worldview common in eastern Asia that is quite at odds with that that developed in ancient Greece.  Many Greeks believed permanence was reality, those in China who read the spiritual masters believed that change was reality.  The older I get the more I think the author(s) of Yijing got it right.

I’m not an expert on the religions of southern or eastern Asia, but I have studied the major ones.  To those outside the field of religious studies, it may be surprising that the field is as large as it is.  In the United States alone there are an estimated 40,000 denominations, and that’s just within Christianity.  To be an expert in any one takes years of study.  Add in the many religions of other locations, such as Africa and Asia, and you’ve got more than one lifetime’s worth of work lined up.  A common—the most common, in fact—course in collegiate religion curricula is “World Religions.”  I’ve taught it myself.  The problem is nobody’s an expert in all of them.  Still, I found reading about what used to be called “eastern religions” (with that poisonous cultural bias that the unchanging west is the correct vantage point) full of surprises.

Scientists well into last century liked the idea of a steady-state universe.  Permanence.  When Edwin Hubble noticed other galaxies were moving away from ours (and, by the way, first noticed that there were other galaxies), the Big Bang theory developed to explain this motion.   Change, it turns out, is constant.  It may be slow at times, and at others it’s like the skyline of a major city like New York, shifting several times in a single lifespan.  I’ve read some of the spiritual classics (in translation) and I always come away with a new sense of wonder about the many ways of understanding the world.  And I ponder what it will take to change the attitude that religions aren’t worth studying.

Holy Castle

ManHighCastleReading about Philip K. Dick prompted me to read one of his novels. But which one? Some Amazon pick-up lockers on the way to work are painted with a mural of The Man in the High Castle. I haven’t seen the series, but there was the paperback, facing out, at the local independent. It’s been a while since I’ve read Dick, so I have to find my legs for his style. I’m surprised at just how much religious language he uses. Our cultural biases tend to insist that intelligent people aren’t hoodwinked by religion, but it does, nevertheless, appear. The premise of Dick’s novel is based largely on I Ching, the “Book of Changes.” Indeed, the conclusion of the novel relies heavily upon it. Along the way, however, Dick shows his sacred mettle when it comes to Judaism and Christianity as well. His prose is sprinkled with biblical quotes.

More than just a surface awareness, The Man in the High Castle offers some deep reflection for the reader. Mr. Baynes, seated on the rocket to San Francisco, ponders the Nazis who’ve won the Second World War. Reflecting on their hubris he considers how they’ve come to think of themselves as divine. “Man has not eaten God; God has eaten man.” This gave me cause for pause. Apart from Dick’s narrative, the idea of divine anthropophagy is in keeping with much human experience. We often consider ourselves masters of our own fates. Many, however, find themselves dangling like a spider from a web over the fire. Not that of Edwards’ Hell, but simply that of human circumstance. The Nazis didn’t win the battle, but listening to today’s political rhetoric, they may have won the war.

Nobusuke Tagomi explains to Baynes how I Ching, a 5000-year-old book, is alive. “As is the Christian Bible; many books are actually alive.” Far from poking fun, Dick suggests there may be something to all this mumbo-jumbo after all. We are conditioned to mock, dismiss, and ignore religion in this world where rationality leads to presidential races such as this one we’re currently suffering. Follow the trail back, I suggest. Look for clues. Philip K. Dick isn’t the only secular writer who knew more than the average person about what fascism looks like, and about the role of religion in its downfall. The novel may not be easy to read. It demands much of those who approach it. Nevertheless, it preserves the truth that many books, indeed, are alive.