Thursday, November 20, 2008

Why Grant Morrison is wrong about religion (and right about ontology)

How did I miss this one? At Newsarama, Grant Morrison talks about religion, spirituality, and God. It's a bit annoying, frankly, mostly because he starts out with this:

I think religion per se, is a ghastly blight on the progress of the human species towards the stars. At the same time, it, or something like it, has been an undeniable source of comfort, meaning and hope for the majority of poor bastards who have ever lived on Earth, so I’m not trying to write it off completely.

But it soon becomes clear that when Morrison says "religion" he means "church." Unsurprisingly, he doesn't like hierarchy, but he most certainly does believe in transcendence.

As I’ve said before, the solid world is just the part of heaven we’re privileged to touch and play with. You don’t need a priest or a holy man to talk to “god” on your behalf just close your eyes and say hello: "god” is no more, no less, than the sum total of all matter, all energy, all consciousness, as experienced or conceptualized from a timeless perspective where everything ever seems to present all at once. “God” is in everything, all the time and can be found there by looking carefully. The entire universe, including the scary, evil bits, is a thought “God” is thinking, right now.

Which is, in my mind,is pretty spot-on. It's an old idea called panentheism (not to be confused with pantheism), and it's been appearing in writing—religious writing—for centuries. What are process theology, Kabbalah, and Sufism if not religious? Morrison, it seems would call them "spirituality"—and he argues that "Religion is to spirituality what porn is to sex."

I've always found the distinction between "religion" and "spirituality" unsatisfying. It's like people who argue that they hate science fiction, but that they love Orwell (for instance), or Margaret Atwood. 1984 and The Handmaid's Tale aren't SF, and why? because people who aren't SF fans like them. Their picture of SF is a caricature, just as the picture of "religion" as a cruel hierarchy is a caricature (and a mostly outmoded one at that. The most politically conservative churches have no hierarchy.) 

To Grant Morrison, to all those who draw a line between religion and spirituality, I say: it's okay. "Religion" is bigger than you think. There's room in here for lots of ideas. Just as the universe, in a panentheistic system, is part of God, spirituality is part of religion.

He talks about All-Star Superman some, too, and whether or not Superman is a Christ figure. Read that segment of Newsarama's 10-part interview here.

This post previously appeared in an ever-so-slightly different form at SF Gospel.


Pastor Gavin said...

You know, I watched an interview with an artist/calligrapher working on "The Saint John's Bible", a present day illuminated manuscript. He talked about the distinction between religion and spirituality. I began to roll my eyes. But then he said something amazing. He said he was merely a spiritual man, but the monks he was working with on the Bible were religious. He was spiritual in that he believed in God and such, but they were religious in that they structured their lives around that belief. In his mind religion was a fuller expression of one's spirituality. It made a lot of sense.

You mentioned that Morrison was a panentheist. I swear, as I was reading the quote, I felt that he must have looked up the definition of panentheism and written it down so he could describe his belief in those terms. But it fits. I remember back when he was writing JLA. There was an early issue about angels attacking the world. It began by suggesting that Heaven and Hell aren't separate from this world but a part of it, and if you slide sideways you will see them. Interesting stuff, though I do find it a bit off base. At the same time, separating heaven and hell completely from the earth is also getting it wrong.

Elliot said...

Whoa!! Holy coincidence, Batman! Ian got me reading that interview series a few weeks back, and I was thinking about Morrison's religion comments just yesterday and today. I'd had a little e-mail conversation with Ian about it recently and was just hashing out a possible HH! post on the topic in my head. I was going to ask you for your input - but now you've saved me the trouble! I'll just add my two cents instead. :-)

"Panentheist" is exactly the term that came to my mind as well. He plays with those ideas in The Invisibles.

Morrison is of course a chaos magician and ontological anarchist, and has expresed his hostility to 'organized religion' before, so that part wasn't really surprising. Saying hyperbolic things against 'religion' seems to be obligatory for cool UK people nowadays. Personally I suspect that the difference between 'religion' and 'spirituality' is mostly just an arbitrary language game based on a person's life experiences and preferences and posturing - people define them however they want. (I tend to think of religion as the gnarled old tree and spirituality as the sap flowing through it.)

His comments reminded me a little of my JW upbringing - these are the people who used to carry placards saying "Religion is a snare and a racket," which actually meant "Any religion BUT OURS is a snare and racket." So he sounds a bit like a radical Protestant.

And the attitude of dissing 'religion' while labelling your own spirituality as 'science' is also an old one - like in Scientology, Anthro/Theosophy, hermetic and astrological traditions. To put a positive spin on it, I'd say it's a statement about process- trying to choose open-minded inquiry versus static dogmatism. His spiritual beliefs are evocative and insightful, but we'll see in forty or fifty years, once science has progressed, whether they're best categorized as 'science' or as 'science-ficion-inspired spirituality.'

Regarding his characterization of Christ-figures and Superman: I understand why Morrison would get annoyed when people try to claim Superman as JUST Christ, but I think he's downplaying the complexity of the character. Yes, Superman is indeed a solar god, yes, Superman is definitely an ideal Renaissance/Enlightenment human. But over the years there's a lot of Christ-symbolism that has been loaded into Superman as well, and I think mighty Morrison has made use of that as well as anyone has. Christianity does include strong traditions of Christ-as-compassionate-exemplar and Christ-as-Satan-fighting-victor, alongside the dominant theme that he criticizes, the suffering-and-dying-God-man. Those three archetypes are all quite old and there are biblical roots for each one.

Morrison certainly knows about the Harrowing of Hell and all that (he talks about it in the published script for Arkham Asylum, for pete's sake.) And this is the guy who puts explicit crucifixion imagery in most of his major projects. I can think of eleven or twelve examples from throughout his career. (At some point I'll put up a post detailing them.) So really, if people think they see Christ-imagery in his work, it's understandable. There's some precedent for it.

Anyways, in the end I don't really want to box him in or try to appropriate his work for any particular tradition. The man uses mythical archetypes and religious symbolism so very well - he knows how to convey these ideas in narrative form. If he wants to label them as 'raving lunacy' or 'cheeseburgers and fries' I don't much care - as long as he keeps telling his great stories.

Elliot said...

PS: About the conservative churches, Gabriel, I would say: if you mean evangelical mega-churches, they do have a hierarchy, but it's usually a stealth hierarchy. It's not really advertised. Someone who pastors a 20,000 person church is really a bishop, and his pastor's assistants and small group leaders are the priests/ministers and deacons.

D. G. D. Davidson said...

Of course, panentheism is a heresy, or so says my conservative hierarchy.

Eve said...

I like the Atwood/1984 point a lot, in this post, and also really like Elliott's tree/sap metaphor.

Elliott's comment about "Arkham Asylum" (which maybe I should re-read? I remember thinking it was pretty but incredibly self-indulgent... but then, I have a hard time with Batman in general) made me really want someone to do a noir Harrowing of Hell. "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean"....

And on the tangent about hierarchy: Doesn't EVERY group have a hierarchy? When it isn't explicit, it's usually on the basis of popularity/charisma, or persistent ability to monopolize conversation, or something of that kind. Any meeting of any "non-hierarchical" left-wing organization will provide ample evidence. OTOH perhaps it's simply a matter of semantics.

I hope you do that post on Morrison's crucifixion imagery. "The Coyote Gospel" was _fantastic_, one of the best things I've ever read in comics.

Elliot said...

Eve: Arkham Asylum comes early in Morrison's career and IS very self-indulgent. And I think it dates from that early-Vertigo era when all you needed to be as cool as shaggy Neil Gaiman in a leather jacket was weird art, gruesome wounds, a truckload of pop psychology, and a bit of mysticism. It's not terrible, just dated. Maybe borrow it from someone rather than buying it.

Noir Harrowing - intriguing idea!

I'm going to try to do the crucifixion post this month - it's really quite amusing when you begin counting all the times he's used it.