Thursday, February 13, 2014

So (explitive) Pious

Some recent Troll activity on my blog has got me to thinking, so thank you anonymous Troll, you've actually helped me to generate content. One term which came up, time and time again in this childish tantrum that was supposed to come off as "comments", was piousness; specifically my own. It was used in an effort to deride, and I find this rather confusing: when did piety make the transition from virtue to vice?

The context tended towards the adjective "fucking" with the coordinating conjunction "so". I believe the fault may lie with the Troll, who just tacked on pious as some abutment to the real insult, sanctimony. Generally for piety to be insulting or used to damage ones honour, it requires a proper noun to imply a more problematic state: "pious fraud" or "pious hypocrite". Both of those phrases are certainly equivalent to the state of sanctimony, so using them together is rather redundant. Certainly this followed, as the word sanctimonious did pop up in one or two of the diatribes, but again it beguiles one as to why piety would itself be considered problematic?
Pious (from the Latin pīus, derived from the pIE-*pey) is the quality of piety [reverence or devotion to something (generally a deity)] one has. It has been a hallmark of the character of an individual or group as it relates to being in good standing with the gods (or later God), and so has generally been an uncontested virtue, as far as virtues go. Pietas, (i.e. piety) in the Roman world was often contrasted with superstitio (the root of the English "superstition", but different in meaning) which was a slavish devotion borne out of fear of the gods anger. The former is virtuous because it encourages behaviours which foster the proper relationship one ought to have with the gods; whereas the later is a vice because while it too engenders devotion, it is a devotion rooted in a dysfunctional relationship with the gods. How then have we gotten to a point where piety is something which is in itself problematic?
Well, by arriving at a cultural view where everything and everyone are inherently corrupt or flawed to some degree, and so thus rendering piety as sanctimony. This is interesting, because the two terms are related, and so this is a visible descent within the context of language. There was a period when sanctimonious (from the Latin sanctimonia, holy/sacred action) was cognate with pious; at some point, however, the term became synonymous with false piety. The idea that an individual or group was putting on airs to appear pious, but that their actions were not at all reflective of such a state of being. Perhaps this new found disdain for piety itself is simply a continuation of this descent. Though, and this is where things start to branch off, piety is not the only term which (may) be one so loaded with cultural baggage that for many coming from minority theological positions, that it isn't worth "saving".
This touches on a much wider theological discussion (one which is to some degree or another ongoing among polytheistic and Pagan bloggers), but a conclusion which many seem to reach is this: having these discussions is, while not difficult, complicated by the predominant theological framework our language (in this case English, but it could be extended to any Western one, Gaelic [broadly] being no exception) and culture are beholden to monotheism and especially Christianity. Piety, Worship, Prayer, Theology, Holy, and so forth, are all terms that in popular parlance are loaded with preconceptions rooted in Christian tradition.
Herein our troubles begin, because this cultural view is pervasive and dominant, and even those smug Atheists (not all Atheists. NOT ALL ATHEISTS. Just the smug ones (like the troll I mentioned above) who find it necessary to belittle theism and theists of any and all stripes) find themselves couching terms and arguing from presuppositions. To the extent that being held to be pious from such a perspective is but a breath away from being labeled "holier-than-thou". The phrase betrays a theological (and widely cultural) perspective that makes many assumptions, and holds them to be more true than not. The expression refers to an attitude or belief (as reflected in thought and deed) that one holds oneself as being morally superior to another; this sentiment is almost always attached to feigning said morality. This sentiment has descended to a state where morality can not be measurable and so necessarily, to hold that oneself as being more moral than someone else, is being sanctimonious. Except this argument is bunk, hokum and falderal; logically there are people who are demonstrably more moral than others. This stance on behaviour and superiority/failing ties back to a much earlier post I wrote about why the faculty of judgement is good, and that such a perspective can trace its origins to Christian theology. What follows is a bit of a digression, but is nonetheless pertinent to the topic at hand, so please bear with me.
In the past (recently no less) I would have made an argument about Christians holding people to be worthless, because of sin, and in that state of worthlessness, all are equal and none have the right (or ability) to judge anyone else. In fact this issue sort of came to a head in a discussion I was involved in relating to the use of the term "worship" (which I will touch on below). Someone called me out on my statement (being seen as just another "attack" on Christianity). Having myself to have taken a step back, because it occurred to me during the discussion that I had grossly generalized a much more complex state of affairs. Christianity may be monolithic, but the religions(et. denominations) that make up the whole of Christendom are hardly unified. Protestantism itself seems to be as highly fractious as Paganism (and some may argue that this fractiousness among Paganism is in fact a holdover from this religious perspective, but perhaps more on this some other time). With this in mind, the understanding of concepts like "sin" and "atonement" vary wildly among Christians, and so trying to form a cohesive pronouncement on the entire group is fraught with peril. I think my perspective has been greatly coloured by my time spent on interfaith web forums, where the natural state of affairs is that Evangelicals tend to dominate the Christian communities, and given their influence (or visibility) in media, this can most definitely create theological tunnel vision, where this is Christianity. So when asked to provide an example of a religion where people were undervalued (or held to be worthless) my immediate response was 'Christianity".

This needed to be qualified, and my visceral reaction was grossly unqualified. It appears at first blush to be more accurate, a core belief even, than not so. Given the idea of human agency having little actual impact in a good number of Protestant religions (particularly those who accept "free grace" theology), when it comes to positive moral action, even to the extent of being able to accept Christianity (or specifically their salvic figure) without some divine mandate, it stands to reason that humans as fallen, generally miserable creatures, are not presented, nor held with much esteem. It is easy to then turn and say, "Well if people are held to be intrinsically terrible, it stands to reason that they haven't got much worth. This is why the idea of 'Grace' is so appealing, because even though humanity is not worthy enough to be saved, the Christian god is merciful enough to give it none the less." This was my general stance towards Christianity in general then, and to be fair I think many among us would reasonably reach this conclusion if this was the message that the Christians we knew personally, discussed religion with regularly, or were exposed to via multi media constantly were presenting to us. Then again, simply because one perspective is the most noticeable, it is by no means the largest, let alone only one available.
The truth of the matter is that "Free Grace" is something which is a core doctrine of only some Protestant churches, not all, and this does not then account for Catholicism nor the Orthodox church. The idea of personal atonement, penance and restitution through the actions of both the laity and the clergy, as well as the acknowledgement that humans have moral agency, stands in stark contrast with the assertion I made in the context of the conversation I mentioned above. Religions are no so simple, and theology and doctrine are complex enough to stymie easy answers and gross generalizations.
Having said all of that, there is no doubt in my mind that the attitudes among many folks presently with regards to attitudes like "don't judge me", "being holier-than-thou" and "so (expletive) pious" can trace their origins to some of the cultural baggage of Christian theology/doctrines like sin, guilt and religious hypocrites. The gospel authors have seen to it that the Pharisees have been one of the most maligned historic figures, well ever. The term itself is synonymous with sanctimony, but the cultural impact of the idea extended far beyond the first century CE. As my troll illustrates and as a generalized sentiment I have experienced time and time again, there is a deep mistrust of people who are seen to be "too moral", almost to the extent of it manifesting as misanthropic glee. A holdover from anti-clericalism perhaps, or a natural result stemming from a never ending cycle of clerical betrayal. In such a context, it is fairly understandable; a sacred trust which is continually betrayed is hardly any sort of trust and certainly not sacred. Reverence and deference to moral authorities have been superseded by a deep seated cynicism to the extent that for many anyone who appears to be moral for the sake of morality (or devout for the sake of the gods) is automatically red flagged. Even if that person is not in a position of authority, the general sentiment remains. It is a very regrettable state of affairs.
It is regrettable because the simple state of virtuous living can be looked at askance and made to seem wrong. It is my opinion that this position is based largely on an individuals insecurities being projected onto those they deem as making them feel insecure in the first place. People are also often fully justified in their cynicism, and it is remarkably easy to just abandon standards and expectations (either of oneself or others) and just "get on with it".
And yet ease is not necessarily the most effective measure of quality. I think that striving for a better state of affairs, again personally or collectively, is a worthy endeavour and living a virtuous life is an important part of that endeavour. Human flourishing will always be worth the effort one invests to attain it, and for me (and others like me) piety is one of the virtues which encompasses a good life. I am unabashed in my devotion to the dé ochus andé, and I would think that such a position is patently obvious to anyone who reads this blog. Having and fostering standards of ethical behaviour is not, and will never be problematic. I suppose that, given everything I've said that I am, in fact, so (expletive) pious.