Thoughts (and Misgivings) about “Zeitgeist”

The authors of this film, in spite of their sophistication about many important issues, unfortunately seem to be totally clueless as to the nature and purpose of religion. If one were to take their argument in Part 1 and apply it to science, it would be like saying that science should be shunned because the scientific method is part of a conspiracy by scientists to create ways to blow things up and control people with fear. Should we ban science because it is used to make bombs? Science has done good things AND bad things. The same is true of religion.

They leap from their critique of organized religion to an attack on theism itself. This will turn off a lot of people and cause others (like myself) to be embarrassed by the know-it-all attitude of the narrator. Parts 2 and 3 include important material, and I want to recommend this film, but Part 1 makes me cringe.

They also fail to reconcile Part 1 with the montage of images and commentary at the end of the film, which includes many highly theistic religious figures, including none other than Jimi Hendrix, a very religious man, whose statement about the “power of love” vs. the “love of power” is one of the most potent and concise of the entire sequence.

The authors appear to be completely unaware that religion is primarily about personal spiritual values, in the same way that science is about physical things, and philosophy is about the meaning of it all. Religion, in spite of its myths and abuses, functions as the conceptual repository for the VALUES of civilization. And this is especially true of PERSONAL religion, which is practiced completely apart from religious institutions.

The ability to appreciate love and to recognize what is good and true requires the development of a concept registry, just like an understanding of physics or an examination of the merits of Plato. Science, philosophy and religion ask different kinds of questions and look for different kinds of answers, but it takes all three to get a full picture of reality.

Philosophically, the film seems to advocate “being” over “becoming,” as if we should only do one and not the other. Why not BOTH? “Becoming” suggests direction, growth and being alive. From the perspective of personal growth, the notion of the sun as a metaphor for God seems quite apt and even artistic.

To the person who thinks independently about these things (apart from church dogma and doctrine) the idea of God usually suggests, at the very least, the idea of a “higher self.” We become what we worship.

If a person “worships” power and wealth, then that person’s life will become focused upon the acquisition of power and wealth above all else. If a person thinks of God as the personal inspiration for all they hold to be good, true and beautiful, then that person will grow spiritually in those directions.

Values — good or bad — are expressed personally, in personal relationships and by institutional constructs that are created and agreed upon by PERSONS. Values are meaningless apart from their personal and societal expression. It’s impossible even to think about values without imagining their personal implications and consequences. How can there be love if nobody’s home?

Is it surprising that God is thought of as a personal presence? Meeting someone that we respect and admire brings out the best in us. A list of virtues written on a piece of paper does not have the same kind of transformative effect. But where do we look to find someone who is truly worthy of worshipful regard? Do we abandon the idea because human company inevitably comes up short?

What would this film have us do? Give up our reach for higher spiritual values? Throw away our relationship to God? To be replaced by what? Where else can we look to find a living reality that has the power to inspire and transform the way we relate to ourselves and to each other?

If we are “all one,” as the film suggests, why is there so much conflict going on? How does this idea accommodate our difficult but meaningful personal relationships and an independent point of view? Without individual selfhood and personal relationships, how can we learn to love and grow?

The film does not bother to define the term “God” or explore the depths of its possible meaning. Instead it sadly attempts to discredit relatively advanced religious belief (that God has something to do with love) by associating it with primitive religious beliefs (like hell and damnation). It also makes no effort to sort out and separate church dogma from useful religious concepts.

In the rush to make their case that Jesus never existed, the authors of the film completely overlook his extraordinary and unprecedented teachings about the nature of God, as recorded by his early followers. Church legends ABOUT Jesus WERE plagiarized and added into Christian doctrine in order to win converts from the existing cults of the day, which included Judaism and Mithraism. This is an old strategy that not surprisingly explains the historic repetition of mythological ideas. Paul’s atonement doctrine (“Jesus died for your sins”), for example, is nothing more than the ancient Jewish belief in blood sacrifice, carried forward in new form. Jesus did not teach any of these things.

Our problem is not that theism is a fraud, although it HAS been abused in the ways that the film describes. Getting rid of religion is not the solution, what we need is BETTER religion, just like we need better science, better philosophy and better government. Just as getting rid of science would throw us back into the arms of superstition and ignorance, ridiculing people’s sincere inner reach for higher values does NOT make the world a better place.

REAL religion (true spiritual values) may in fact be our most effective leverage for recapturing and restoring the “Zeitgeist.”

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