Yet again a group we’d never heard of has become, overnight, the topic of obsessive national discussion. The mass suicide of the Heaven’s Gate “cult” also throws an interesting light on “pluralism.”
Those who killed themselves wouldn’t describe their deaths as “suicide.” The word begs the question of religious truth. Their definition of the act was that it was a “graduation” to a “level above human.” They weren’t ceasing to live, but advancing to a higher life.
Maybe this doctrine is true, and the rest of us have missed the celestial boat. But at a more humdrum level, I’d venture to predict that Heaven’s Gate won’t have the staying power of, say, Judaism.
Days after the Heaven’s Gate graduation, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada created a storm by declaring that Reform and Conservative Judaism aren’t Judaism at all, but “another religion” — even an “alien religion.”
You don’t say such things in this ecumenical age. Reform and Conservative Jews were quick to denounce the declaration. It was doing “damage” by refusing to accept certain converts as Jews, said one Reform rabbi. Another said that millions of Jews find “religious meaning and authenticity” in Reform and Conservative Judaism.
The Orthodox find such objections beside the point. They consider the obligations of the Torah, 613 commandments in all, divinely ordained. It isn’t a matter of feelings, secular utility, or pluralism. It’s a matter of truth.
To the modern eye, Orthodox beliefs may seem as irrational as the creed of Heaven’s Gate. There’s one little difference. Torah Judaism is well into its third millennium. It has proved its power to sustain its adherents. Its “irrational” traditions may be indefensible in terms of modern ideology, but this may merely mean that modern ideology doesn’t comprehend the inner strength of those traditions.
The creed of the sexual revolution, for example, seems like common sense to most educated people today, but it has brought nothing but social destruction. The strict sexual and tribal morality of the Orthodox, on the other hand, has preserved them not only from the curses of disease, abortion, and family dissolution, but also from the deeper loss of modernity: loss of identity.
The Orthodox don’t define themselves in terms of negatives like anti-Semitism, persecution, victimhood, and the Holocaust. They don’t let the Hitlers determine their identity. They define themselves by allegiance to the covenant of Abraham and the law of Moses. And their instinct tells them to preserve their tradition to the letter, against all modern pressures.
To many moderns, the very fact that a belief is old is almost enough to condemn it, or at least reduce it to the status of an uninteresting irrelevancy. This is an amazingly superficial attitude. If we can find historical and archeological fascination in the records of societies long since defunct, we should have not only fascination but also profound respect for an ancient way of life that still works — and may well survive when modern civilization is gone.
Assuming, that is, that when modern civilization goes, it doesn’t take everything else with it. The demise of the Heaven’s Gate cult may prefigure the end of a civilization that has forgotten the most basic truths about human nature in pursuit of a thousand fads. As G.K. Chesterton remarked, when people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they’ll believe in anything.
The faith of the Enlightenment was that once man cast off the superstitions of religion, rational common sense and general harmony would prevail. “Reason” and “science” would improve on tradition and create a better world. That attitude may have been understandable after centuries of religious war. But some people still hold it after a century of wars that make the Reformation wars seem like the Era of Good Feeling.
宗教 can mean many contradictory things, from the latest fads to the most fad-proof fidelity to the eternal. The most ghastly thing about the Heaven’s Gate sect is that its members sacrificed themselves to beliefs so evidently silly. It was like a mass suicide at a 星际迷航 convention. One more warning that it’s risky to roll your own religion.