Contemptus Mundi

Mountain under heaven: the image of RETREAT.
Thus the superior man keeps the inferior man at a distance,
Not angrily but with reserve.

The mountain rises up under heaven, but owing to its nature it finally comes to a stop. Heaven on the other hand retreats upward before it into the distance and remains out of reach. This symbolizes the behavior of the superior man toward a climbing inferior; he retreats into his own thoughts as the inferior man comes forward. He does not hate him, for hatred is a form of subjective involvement by which we are bound to the hated object. The superior man shows strength (heaven) in that he brings the inferior man to a standstill (mountain) by his dignified reserve.

Above is a passage from the Zhou Yi, the ancient Chinese book of changes which served as an oracle and a philosophical paradigm for generations of Chinese scholars.  I think this manner of retreat has been appropriate for religious people for some time, and will become increasingly clear in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision on marriage.

Most religious traditions contain moral and spiritual injunctions against homosexual acts as a subset of sexual discipline generally, and these injunctions predate and logically preempt both the concept of a homosexual orientation and the idea of same-sex marriage.

In other words, from the perspective of most religious traditions, the mere fact that same-sex marriage is an issue signifies that the secular culture is at least two steps removed from religious principles. Now that same-sex marriage has been effectively authorised by the Supreme Court, make that three steps.

It’s hard to argue against same-sex marriage when the underlying divisions cut so much deeper. Good arguments must start from common ground, but the common ground between religious and secular appears scant on issues such as these.

While some Conservatives appear to still be full of fight, I’m more drawn to aspects of my eclectic religious culture that reiterate the ultimate futility and vanity of vying with the zeitgeist, grasping at the levers of political or popular power, when the orientation of our religious program ought to render us almost totally dismissive of such powers.

If you find yourself in a position of political power, then your religious obligations ought to be clear; but that is not the same as having a religious obligation to pursue political power when those powers are hell-bent on an irreligious course.

I might be wrong, but my understanding is that the irreligious nature of “the world” is a given. Also given is that the answer to any religious fear or distress at a decadent social order lies in throwing ourselves deeper into religious practice.

While care for those led astray by the prevailing culture is a valid motive for making our objections known, I think a lot of the opposition to same-sex marriage is entwined with a less noble reaction to the loss of cultural and political power, and (I suspect) a kind of Conservative allegiance to American exceptionalism that is far too temporal for true religiosity.

This is not to say that religious people should disappear or isolate themselves as an end in itself; rather, I think that dismay at the Supreme Court decision and the desire to somehow regain control of the political and cultural order are at odds with a fundamentally religious sensibility. For too long, religious people have been indistinguishable from their non-religious peers, too comfortable and reliant on “the world”, and too narrow in their critique of mainstream society on particular issues as if phenomena like widespread abortion, or same-sex marriage were the causes rather than the symptoms of something terribly awry.

The “something terribly awry” is perennial in a religious outlook on life. It is, in a sense, the whole point of religion. The good news then is that the worse things become in the secular world, the more evident will be the finality of the religious response. Our goal and occupation should always be that supreme good, both transcendent and immanent, that wholly unique being which creates and sustains us, and has ever been the answer regardless of worldly distractions, errors, and cares.

Push far enough towards the Void,
Hold fast enough to Quietness,
And of the ten thousand things none but can be worked on by you.
I have beheld them, whither they go back.
See, all things howsoever they flourish
Return to the root from which they grew.
This return to the root is called Quietness;
Quietness is called submission to Fate;
What has submitted to Fate has become part of the always so.
To know the always-so is to be Illumined;
Not to know it, means to go blindly to disaster.
He who knows the always-so has room in him for everything;
He who has room in him for everything is without prejudice.
To be without prejudice is to be kingly;
To be kingly is to be of heaven;
To be of heaven is to be in Tao.
Tao is forever and he that possess it,
Though his body ceases, is not destroyed.

2 thoughts on “Contemptus Mundi

  1. “I might be wrong, but my understanding is that the irreligious nature of “the world” is a given.”

    Do you mean to say that nature is irreligious?
    Therefore, that human traditions are separate religion?
    Is there any point then to consider homosexual traditions or the historical purposes of marriage* in trying to predict where social mores will go?

    *Apparently, marriage (not so much childbirth) is declining in Europe and becoming more of a upper-middle-class and upper-class trend. This highlights its suitability in preserving assets, as opposed to salary.


    • Thanks for the link. “The world” is a metaphor for all profane i.e. non-religious matters, but should be viewed as part of a dichotomy of God and the world. You’re probably familiar with NT references to “the ruler of this world” and also “if the world hates you for my sake”. Which can be taken in the same spirit as “worldly success” with all the implications of superficiality, vanity, and transience. Likewise “what merit a man if he gain the world but lose his soul?”

      It’s not meant to refer to nature.

      I’m interested in SSM as a reference point for secular/profane society. For example, from a classical Christian perspective the concept of “homosexual identity” does not make a great deal of sense. Classical Christianity draws on a different anthropology in which human beings have a single nature regardless of their predilection for certain acts. If people accept the premise of a homosexual identity they will find the classical ethical framework increasingly difficult to comprehend let alone follow. At the same time, certain things logically follow from the acceptance of homosexuality as an identity…

      I see it as a very complex set of “if…then…” relationships.

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