We all want to be saved. Okay, many of us don’t care. Those of us who wish to be saved also often wish to know what salvation means. Some with a passing interest in the meaning of salvation also often want to know how we may possibly obtain salvation, and may even have an interest in who is the real messiah.
This desire for ultimate answers is a central problem of human psychology. It keeps shamans and tricksters in business, peddling the snake oil of hoax and fakery to gullible suckers. The art of the messianic hoax, explaining once for all the true path of eternal life, is a central standby in world literature, based on the observation that nothing improves the credibility of fiction like claiming it is fact.
Those of a scientific rational mindset often consider that modern physics has largely solved the secret mystery of the universe. Methodical observation and analysis continually expands the frontier of our knowledge of truth, with science providing the basis of progress. Anything else, including all metaphysical speculation about salvation, looks very much like huckstery against the real achievements of materialist science.
Yet, so many people yearn for something more. The Bible tells us that God’s only begotten Son was made flesh and that believing in him provides eternal life. Miguel de Cervantes picks up this yearning for an enchanted world of eternal life with his masterpiece Don Quixote
. Cervantes spins an enchanting tale of how our imagination can reach so much further than our observation if we cut loose from moorings in reality. Don Quixote
is a moral parable of why we should not believe fanciful tales, however confidently they may be told. Cervantes establishes his lesson by mocking the beguiling confidence of the hoaxters who passed off their romances of chivalry as historically true. If these charlatans are so unreliable, what does that say about all the other claims that people believe on equally flimsy evidence?
We may be tempted to see tales of chivalry as just light entertainment. Cervantes says there is something more, because the old stories of knights in shining armour reflect a coherent narrative vision of the world, an underlying mythology. Their stories tell of who is good and who is bad, what to do and what to avoid. They establish a mythic theory of value. But the values of chivalry are an unreliable guide to life. The mockery of the medieval value system in Don Quixote
was an early indication of an emerging modern rational worldview that culminated in the scientific enlightenment with David Hume’s condemnation of ‘monkish virtues’ and Immanuel Kant’s covert secular atheism, framed by the moral law within and the starry heavens above. Kant, the all-destroyer, completed the mission of disenchantment started by Cervantes. The determination of Descartes to only believe clear and distinct ideas provided a parallel in philosophy to the sceptical narrative that Cervantes had pioneered in literature.
I must here confess a guilty secret. I have a sentimental fondness for the idea of the mythic enchantment of the world. Further, for me this sense of enchantment is expressed most vividly in the philosophical system articulated by Carlos Castaneda, author of the The Teachings of Don Juan
and numerous subsequent books. Since I was given a dog-eared copy of Castaneda’s Tales of Power
in 1982 - by Leif Christiansen, a German hippy visiting my home town Sydney, living in my girlfriend Sue’s terrace house at 100 Wigram Road in Glebe, - I have avidly devoured every book by Castaneda that I could lay my hands on. The consistency and beauty of the cosmology of the nagual somehow sucked me in from the start. This moral universe, described with such compelling elegance, provided a separate reality for me, and for millions of other readers. Carlos’s explanation of the lost secret wisdom of indigeneity seemed to establish a philosophy that could rival the heartless path of science and logic.
Last week I bought a book called The Don Juan Papers – Further Castaneda Controversies
, by Richard de Mille. This collection of essays is devoted to the argument that Castaneda is a fraud, that Don Juan is a fabulous concoction dreamt up in the UCLA library, that the claims are just a fictional confection of European philosophy, eastern mysticism and native American mythology, designed more to be plausible than to be true. Despite this condemnation of the books as a farrago of lies, de Mille observes that to Castaneda’s credit as a shaman, he stuck consistently to his story until his death. Measured by scientific criteria, the stories of Don Juan seem totally incredible, and UCLA looks like gullible dupes for giving Castaneda his doctorate in anthropology based on a work of fiction. By social standards, Castaneda displays an evangelical confidence to rival Billy Graham.
It is interesting here how easily the will to believe can overcome reason when ideas are packaged to respond to our desires. For me, with a romantic interest in indigenous spirituality and alternative philosophy, Castaneda seemed entirely credible, despite the suspension of disbelief required to follow the fantastic events he relates. In the jargon, his ontology of the tonal and the nagual seemed to reinforce the phenomenological critique of linear analytical reason, explaining the error of disenchantment. I am still interested to return at some point to a comparison between Castaneda’s magical ideas and Martin Heidegger’s theme of nothing as a problem for reason.
De Mille says that as a shaman, Castaneda has an ambivalent moral standing. His brilliance in getting away with systematic deception may be justified in some way by the moral content of his ideas, which he could certainly not have conveyed to such wide popular acclaim without the device of the narrative of Don Juan as a plausible story. The question of the moral content is separate from the morality of packaging them in a format designed to convey them to as wide an audience as possible.
A similar argument can be applied to the New Testament, whose authors avow that their sole purpose is to get readers to believe them. There is no evidence that the Evangelists wrote the books to provide an accurate historical story, as is often assumed. In fact, it appears that like Castaneda, the Evangelists were motivated more by credibility than by accuracy, given the complete absence of any evidence for the historical existence of Jesus Christ. Like Castaneda’s successful deception, the Gospels may well have perpetrated a successful messianic hoax. It seems the shamanic authors of the Gospels accomplished an impeccable feat in presenting a tale that billions of people would accept as credible over thousands of years. Their sandwich method, locating wise moral teachings within a believable narrative, seems just as morally ambiguous as Castaneda’s Yaqui sorcerer Don Juan Matus, whose teachings of impeccability present a similarly coherent morality.
Jesus and Don Juan are both a bit like Cervantes’ Don Quixote, a messianic figure who preaches a salvation derived, in his case, from following the dream of knight errantry. Although Cervantes bores his readers with his repetitive statements that his tale is completely historically true in all respects, as do the acolytes of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Carlos, Cervantes provides a modern ironic narrative twist, in his obvious confession that he has made it all up as fiction.
The spirit of modernity involves the refusal to accept ideas on face value. Scepticism makes the mainstream of modern culture largely impervious to messianic hoaxters, especially since the Germans fell for Hitler. But it leaves me wondering, this sceptical, even cynical, sense of disenchantment leaves us without any vision of ultimate purpose and meaning and belonging in the universe. Is there a risk that our postmodern ironic detachment is missing something essential? Is salvation really just so last millennium?