"How many people have provoked this question — not 'Who are you?' with respect to name, origin, or ancestry, but 'What are you? What order of being do you belong to? What species do you represent?' Not Caesar, certainly. Not Napoleon, or even Socrates. Only two."
One of these two answered the question of "What are you?" by declaring, "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life! No man cometh unto the Father but by me!" You may not have known it, but you are in unimaginable peril! And you need to be saved — by ME! — so that after you die you'll live on in a paradise — with ME! — oh, and the world is coming to an end any minute now, so you better start following me quick!
The other said, "I am awake." Don't worry about me. I'm just this guy. But I've been thinking about stuff, and I really think I've hit upon something. "One thing I teach: suffering and the end of suffering." How's life? Going pretty well? No complaints? Carry on, then. But you — oh, life isn't going so well? It has its pleasures, but these are bright spots in a world that is empty and hurtful and wrong? Then check this out, because I think I've discovered a solution.
One led a life the reports of which seem chiefly intended to impress us with magic tricks. There are also some speeches noted, ranging from an encapsulation of some of the more progressive ethical ideas floating around at the time to remarks full of the emblems of some of the more common stripes of schizophrenia. But for the most part it's a litany of incidents that are, shall we say, difficult to reconcile with reality — and yet reconcile it we must, we're told, because if we don't toss out a lifetime of experience on the say-so of a quartet of 2000-year-old evangelists, we're fucked.
The other's life was quiet: no transformation of liquids, no obliquely described accounts of multiplying foodstuffs, no healing touches, just 45 years of teaching a path to end suffering. And are we supposed to just take it on trust that this path will actually work? Not at all! Consider the ideas and make your own judgment as to their wisdom. Put the path to the test. Because you're a fricking grownup and don't have to be bullied into accepting a doctrine.
I had a professor at Cal who pointed out that Saint Paul could have a more intelligible conversation with Satan than with Socrates, because much as they might disagree on the subject, the former pair could meaningfully discuss sin, while Socrates came from the discourse not of Sin but of Error. How can you talk about resisting the temptation to do evil with someone who believes that knowing the good and doing it are synonymous? I found myself recalling that lecture on a number of occasions as I read Theodore Sturgeon's Godbody, which was given to me presumably because of the extent to which it shares a philosophy with Ready, Okay!'s Molly Mockery. As with R,O!, Godbody involves the ditching of clothing as a plot point. But even though Molly's ideas may not exactly square with the dhamma, they are the same type of thing. Molly is just this kid who sees a problem — Echo is suffering — and she has a plan that she thinks will work. Sturgeon's title character, on the other hand, is a Jesus figure, right down to the faith-healing and mind-reading, and thus utterly alien to me.
For I find it inconceivable that people of intelligence could actually really believe in miracles and the like. Deep down, they have to know they're kidding themselves, right? I've had conversations with believers in which they've come out and said, "A world without miracles is one I don't want to live in"... but surely they can see that what they need to be true in order to hold together psychologically and what actually is true are not the same thing, right? Right? Or... is it actually the case that their outlook really and truly is so different from mine that we might as well be different species? I remember taking a Milton course and during the Paradise Lost segment, after hours of listening to the other grad students debate the intricacies of Christian cosmology, finally protesting, "But what does any of this matter? Aren't we just sitting around talking about the fever dreams of a bunch of 2500-year-old schizophrenics? What's the point?" Blank stares. Reason #1018 I left Northwestern.
Stories of this type just seem so... pointless to me. I remember another one, Illusions: the Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah (oy fricking vey), the message of which was "you can do anything you want to do"... or you could, if you weren't so repressed. This is demonstrated by having an unrepressed guy fly around. Works in a book, the same way having another, less reluctant messiah walk on water works in a book, the same way that having yet another messiah cure everyone's sexual hangups with a touch of his wrist works in Godbody. But it doesn't work outside the book, where the author no longer has any say-so over physics. So if "the miraculous really does exist!" is the message, it fails.
Of course, there are other messages. In the case of Godbody, it seems to be that mainstream Christianity has failed in turning away from pentecostal ecstasy, and also that sex is the primary way humans can access the divine. Mmm, well. It's progress, but it strikes me as arrested progress. True, the message of the dhamma is that suffering is not an insoluble problem, and bliss results from this realization. But to think that mystic rapture is the goal of religion... it's like thinking that the point of booking a vacation is the anticipation the hour before you leave for the airport.
The Big Book of Martyrs was more alien still. The Big Books are anthologies of illustrated stories, each with a theme: weirdoes, hoaxes, urban legends, etc. You can guess the theme of this one. As you can guess, reading this involved a lot of head-shaking on my part. Funny, I always thought that saints should be distinguished by, y'know, saintliness... but instead it's a matter of miracles (and if you don't believe in those, then the whole thing automatically becomes a farce) and dying for the faith. Which accomplishes what, exactly? It's not altruistic self-sacrifice we're talking about here; most of those profiled express glee at the prospect of going to heaven and meeting Jesus. This is what we're supposed to revere? Self-interested martyrdom that helps no one? Wilhelm Stekel wrote that "the mark of the immature man is that he wants to die nobly for a cause, while the mark of the mature man is that he wants to live humbly for one." From this perspective, which I agree with, The Big Book of Martyrs is a catalogue of the immature.