Ocober 11, 1999. What is the measure of "holiness"? Different traditions seem to have different standards.

Most of the measures I will discuss can be seen as variations on obedience. There is some Supreme Authority, and holiness consists of obedience to this authority; hence "holier than thou" directly means "more obedient than thou". But the variations can be significant.

I first learned about spirituality from Ananda Marga (a sect in the Hindu tradition) in the years 1974 through 1979. The underlying metaphysical story was that in the beginning there was only pure undifferentiated Divinity, and the Divinity was bored. So to entertain itself, it divided into a myriad parts, the self-imposed challenge being to pull everything back together into divine Unity again. Spiritual progress meant progress toward merging back into the pure divine, ending your separate existence; this was not just what human life was about, it was what the Universe was about. You made progress by applying effort in that direction; "sadhana" is Sanskrit for "effort". Ananda Marga taught a comprehensive system of different kinds of Sadhana- spritual practices to develop your divine inner nature. Most of it was classic Yoga; ethical rules, asanas (postures), meditation of multiple kinds, devotional practices, and social-service work. In the earlier years, only a few practices were obligatory, and the atmosphere was exciting and fun. Being holier meant doing more sadhana, and more advanced and difficult kinds of sadhana. So, holiness was not so much obedience as a kind of athletic development. We worked at spirituality as if we were training for the Olympics. After 1977, though, the Guru and his heirarchy of monks and nuns asserted their "divine" authority boldly, demanding much stricter observance of multiple lists of rules, more work, more contributions; they wanted you to organize your life around maximizing your contributions to Ananda Marga- ideally, all your time, all your money, all your thought. "Holier" inescapably became "more obedient".

A somewhat different emphasis can be seen in orthodox Judaism. I am hardly an expert on that tradition, but it seems there "holier than thou" means "more observant than thou". Holiness is measured by how many rules you follow. The purpose of the rules is to maintain purity; the sacred is divided from the profane by rules defining which is which, the rules coming partly from "revelation" in the scriptures, and partly generated by new rabbinical interpretations of how to apply the spirit of the rules to new situations. The more rules you define and follow, the purer you are, and the dirtier the rest of the world is, by definition.

In the Catholic tradition there was a time when "mortifying the flesh" was considered a mark of holiness. For a period of about 200 years, "holier than thou" meant "more ascetic than thou". Monks would practice self-flagellation, wear devices meant to inflict pain on the wearer ("Hair shirts" being the best-remembered today, but there were many others), practice fasting for long periods, go without bathing for years, allowing lice and leeches to live on their bodies. In my humble opinion, this was an unhealthy development in the history of Christianity; one could say pathological.

I practiced vegetarianism for a number of years, and found that some people make a religion of that; there are degrees of purity (possibly asceticism) there also. The varieties of vegetarianism spring from different theories amd motives, but a scale can be drawn, measured by how many foods you abstain from. Red meat, all meat, all animal products; beyond that there are different spiritual grades of plant food. At the extreme are a handful of folks who live on alfalfa sprouts and water, and aspire to "breatharianism".

The defining characteristic of fundamentalism is having faith in the plain, literal meaning of the scriptures; in the words of Cal Thomas, "God had enough strength left over after creating the Universe to cause his prophets to write down his words accurately." Some apply this only to the original manuscripts, some also claim word-by-word divine inspiration for a particular English translation. Since the Bible is often NOT literally true, in many places is self-contradictory, and in many places barbaric, this requires the fundamentalist to ignore evidence and logic, to reject science, to practice rationalization, to become a "fool for Christ". Instead of mortifying the flesh, they mortify their intellect. Their leaders praise them for this; "holier than thou" effectively means "stupider than thou."

If anyone thinks I am being too harsh here, consider the article "Darwin's Rib" by Robert S. Root-Bernstein in the Sept. 1995 issue of DISCOVER. (See the archives at www.discover.com.) The author is a teacher of biology (including the theory of evolution) in a midwestern college. He writes: "I have come to expect 10 percent of each class to tell me that men and women differ in rib count." In other words, women have one more pair of ribs than men, because God took a rib out of Adam to make Eve. They learned this in Sunday school. I do not think this is due to any conspiracy of preachers who got together and said, "Let's see if we can make them believe something REALLY stupid." This is just the sort of thing we would naturally expect, if "holier" means "more faithful to the literal reading of scripture" and there is disdain for evidence and logic. In the newspaper (Roanoke Times Oct 10, 1999) I read that Creationists are beginning to attack the Big Bang theory of cosmology; they say "there are legitimate scientific doubts that the universe is more than several thousand years old."

Once they develop the habit of being righteously stupid regarding the scriptures, fundamentalists discover that they can be righteously stupid about other things- politics, law, education, medicine, child-rearing, crime control, anything. In my humble opinion, this is also an unhealthy development in the history of Christianity.

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Tags: holier, than, thou

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