“Art is the way to the absolute and to the essence of human life. The aim of art is not the one-sided promotion of spirit, soul and senses, but the opening of all human capacities–thought, feeling, will–to the life rhythm of the world of nature. So will the voiceless voice be heard and the self be brought into harmony with it.”
- Bruce Lee, The Tao of Jeet Kun Do
In case you were wondering, this is my second Thought in what will be an indefinitely long series of Thoughts about expressing life (faith, loosely based on Gareth’s description in “Faith as Art”) and systems of life expression (religion, according to a broad definition of my own). This one is particularly interesting to me (though I have a feeling I’ll be saying that about all of them) and has helped me understand the development of religious thinking much more than I had previously.
When there is some type of situation between ourselves and the world (simply defined as “not ourselves”), how does the situation proceed? How do we move forward from our present position to a new position on the other side of the situation? When we interact with the world, how exactly are we interacting? It is always, and only, through morality. Morality is a means of setting the world, ourselves, and our beliefs in motion with each other, a way of motivating interactions, and a tool for giving situations movement. Individuals as well as systems of faith all have moral systems, even if those systems aren’t acknowledged, and even if the core of the moral system is simply to “make it up as you go.”
When we think of moral systems, though, we typically think only in terms of ethics (which Ken talked about in “Sam Harris and the Moral Landscape”). That is, we think of how we should conduct ourselves and on what basis our decisions should be made.
And that is a good thing to think about. Systems of ethics are vital to being human, and if there wasn’t a way for us to, at least in principle, orderly understand what we ought to do in any given situation, there would be no way of building functional human communities.
But let’s look again at this term “ethics.” “Ethics” has at its root “ethos,” which essentially means “self” in ancient Greek. From this we can understand ethics as a means of determining how the ethos should affect the cosmos, a sort of “rules of engagement” we have between ourselves and the world around us. And many people are fine with thinking of morality only in this direction.
But what about the other way around? What about how the cosmos affects the ethos? Are there any principles for that side of the relationship?
Introducing “comsics,” the other half of the moral equation.
Just as systems of ethics are a way of determining how the ethos should affect the cosmos, systems of cosmics are a way of describing how the cosmos affects the ethos.
In other words, as we’re speaking with our actions, what is the world saying back to us?
“Now no person knows what delights of the eye are kept hidden (in reserve) for them – as a reward for their (good) deeds.”
- As-Sadja, 17
Every, and I mean every, moral system includes cosmics, even if those cosmics are implicit. Traditional religions have historically had explicit teachings about reward, punishment, and the like, but, no matter what, all moral systems do have these systems of cosmics somewhere in mind. And with good reason.
You see, cosmics are the “why” of a moral system.
To illustrate, imagine that you’re a missionary trying to share your faith with someone else.
After hearing your explanation, they ask, “So… why should I do this?”
Then you respond with… what? Really think… Why should they do this?
Whatever your answer is, no matter what you could possibly say, it is a cosmic or system of cosmics. There is nothing else it can be.
To further illustrate, here are some examples of ethics in popular religion:
- accept Jesus as your savior
- practice all of the Sacraments which apply to you
- do not eat cows
- stop whatever you are doing five times every day in order to pray
- meditate for fifteen minutes every day
- don’t drink, smoke, cuss, or chew (or go with girls that do)
And here are some examples of cosmics:
- to revive your dead spirit
- to avoid Hell
- better reincarnation
- to be considered righteous
- eliminating suffering
- to avoid judgment
While the study of ethics is extremely important, I say that cosmics is, at the very least, equal in importance. Once you understand the feedback systems of a given faith or moral system you will understand why anyone practices any faith or adheres to any system of ethics. This is why practitioners of traditional religion typically have so much difficulty accepting nonreligious systems of ethics (aside from a historically great deal of moral relativism in nonreligious ethics), as traditional religions tend to teach explicit cosmics, while nonreligious systems of ethics tend to have only implicit ones. “Who says I should do this?” they ask. “On what authority can you make this claim?” What they are (usually) really wanting to know is what system of cosmics reinforces the system of ethics being presented.
And now we come to the most important thing to know about cosmics: they will pretty much determine whether you have a good or bad experience with a faith.
Why? Because cosmics are either supportive or detrimental to your approach to faith; they can either help or hinder it. If you find yourself getting frustrated with a faith system, this will have a lot to do with why. Without the right feedback system in place, a faith just won’t be a good fit.
Remember how, at the beginning of this Thought, I said that the subject I’m writing about has helped me understand the development of religious thinking? That’s how. It’s because when a religion’s cosmics don’t support the approach a particular group of followers are taking, the followers have to either change their approach to the faith system or change the cosmics of the faith system.
And once again, Christianity has provided me with a great example of what I’m talking about.
“Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.”
- Jesus, the Gospel According to Mark
Until now, I never really thought about how the doctrine of salvation in Christianity could develop or change. In thinking about it, though, it seems like it would be a very important thing to get right. It seems to me, of all the teachings in Christianity, salvation (what it is, how to go about securing it, etc.) would be one thing to be absolutely clear about. So why all the confusion and controversy? How could such an important piece of the religion possibly change over time?
I say that the answer lies in this concept of cosmics, and specifically in its interactions with the three approaches to faith.
I recently had a discussion with JLBoyd on “Knowledge vs. Belief” in which I presented an argument for salvation based on works while she argued for faith-based salvation. The discussion for the most part went nowhere (for which I was fully to blame), but eventually she made this important point in response to one of my arguments:
“It’s just as dangerous to emphasize works over faith. More so to me because then we are saving ourselves.”
I didn’t think much of that comment at the time, but in discovering cosmics it became for me the key statement of the entire discussion, because in this particular statement she revealed that she wasn’t really opposed to the content of my arguments.
She was, however, definitely arguing against something, and with good reason. If you look at the context, this phrase “saving ourselves” becomes a pretty clear case of a success-centric approach to faith, which would be incompatible with her response-centric approach. She stood her ground quite tenaciously (as she most certainly should have) because to concede would have created an incoherence between her approach and the doctrine of salvation I was presenting.
Salvation is a big issue in Christianity. In truth, it is the main issue, regardless of how it is defined, which means that no Christian movement can ever go without having teachings about it. But for response-centric Christianity to work, the fear of not being saved or of losing salvation has to be removed. You can’t have a functional response to Christianity if all you can do is worry about whether or not you’ve done enough works to secure salvation.
Thus, the common integration of “salvation by faith”: affirm these beliefs, continuously live out your response to Jesus’ sacrificial death and resurrection, and you don’t have to worry about losing salvation. These boundaries, though vitally important to this system of cosmics, aren’t a thing of continuous concern in the way that having to work towards salvation is. All you need to do now is explore the wide range of responses available to you for the rest of your life while keeping within these guidelines. This change of feedback away from the common understanding that “bad people go to Hell” allows a believer to stop focusing on avoiding Hell or strategizing how to earn salvation and instead simply live out their responses as they choose.
And that only becomes evident with an understanding of the function of cosmics.
Cosmics are crazy important, yet they don’t get much coherent discussion. I’m trying to change that, and I hope that here I’ve opened your eyes at least a little bit to this massive subject.
So… What cosmics do you see?