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Elephant's Child and the Crocodile

Sep 28, 2004 06:21 AM
by kpauljohnson


This is an edited version of a letter to an ARE member who became
personally aggressive in response to questions I asked online about
the political perspective of the readings and ARE leaders past and
present. It applies to theos-talk and was written with this forum in

Elephant's Child and the Crocodile

This recent exchange, and the similar ones I've experienced online,
has got me thinking about the way people react to certain kinds of
questions, and the reason this occurs. Any question about the
political context of a spiritual movement's origins tends to evoke
denial and anger. The worst I've seen was that received by Juan Cole,
a Baha'i whose masterly study of Baha'u'llah, Modernity and the
Millennium, situated Baha'i origins in the context of Persian and
Ottoman political discourse of the 19th century. Baha'i authorities,
and many members, were so infuriated by this approach to their exalted
founder that Cole was publicly and privately excoriated for quite some
time—even though he was deeply respectful of his subject and a devoted
Baha'i with years of service to the movement. One of the real hot
button issues with Theosophists, and especially Theosophical leaders,
concerning my books on Blavatsky was the question of her political
allegiances. This evoked furious denials that she had, or could have
had, any such motivations and associations. And now I find that a
question about the political leanings of ARE from Cayce's day to the
present evokes the same kind of flat denial. Bottom line of your
remarks was "the readings are apolitical, I'm apolitical, you're
extremely biased to even pose the question you did, and I'm a lot more
interested in discrediting you than in considering the question you
raise." Any interpretation of the historical Jesus must situate him
in the volatile political world of first century Palestine, and evokes
anger and denial from Christians who don't wish to engage Jesus as an
object of historical inquiry and see it as sacrilegious and
blasphemous to do so. And asking the wrong questions about Muhammad
can get you killed.

The consistent theme I see in such reactions is a misrepresentation of
what is being said, a flattening of a multidimensional and
multiperspectival approach into a binary black/white, true/false,
friend/enemy reality. For example, one Theosophical leader
indignantly told me that my books denied all spiritual motivation on
Blavatsky's part and defined her solely and exclusively as a political
agent. Since the books explicitly and repeatedly deny any such
intention and affirm the opposite position—that she was primarily
motivated by what she saw as a spiritual mission and only incidentally
was caught up in political cross-currents—this was shocking and
disturbing. But I have seen exactly the same thing with Cole; Baha'i
authorities present him as attacking Baha'u'llah and denying his
spiritual claims when in truth he was presenting a multiperspectival
portrait that included political concerns among others.

What is going on with this kind of two-dimensional flattening of
multidimensional approaches, which coincides with anger and denial? 
The most fruitful approach to the phenomenon, IMO, is found in
Maclean's model of the triune brain. Here's a link:

The rational brain or neocortex has the function of carrying out
intellectual tasks; the primitive brain has the function of self
preservation and aggression; the intermediate or limbic brain is the
seat of emotion. When I ask a question or express an idea about Cayce
or Blavatsky, it's coming from the neocortex that is approaching them
as intellectual puzzles. Same with Cole re Baha'u'llah, and so on. 
When the reaction from believers in any of these individuals is
personal disparagement of the questioner, denial that the question is
legitimate, and/or bullying displays of anger and disdain, it's
clearly the primitive, reptilian brain that is being activated. The
question or hypothesis is being perceived as a threat to
self-preservation (to the extent that one's spiritual beliefs are
perceived as part of one's self, and threats to those beliefs are
threats to self-preservation.) The inevitable reaction to this is
aggression toward the questioner.  

All this reminds me of my favorite story from childhood. Someone once
told me that this "favorite story" phenomenon can hold many clues to a
person's most deep-seated purpose in life, and here's mine:

Interpreting this in light of my painful encounters with believers
angry at my impertinent questions, I'd say that the Elephant's Child
is the neocortex, incessantly asking why. The crocodile is the
reptilian primitive brain, reacting the only way it can which is by
trying to make a meal of Elephant's Child. To revise my favorite line
from the story in personal terms: 'Baha'is have spanked me, and ARE
members have spanked me; several different varieties of Theosophist
have spanked me for my 'satiable curtiosity; and still I want to know
the secrets that insiders don't want outsiders to find out.'

Elephant's Child wins in the end; by defying the "don't go there"
elders and making his pilgrimage to the riverbank, by encountering the
crocodile and finding the answer to his question, by a painful
struggle with the crocodile from which he finally escapes, he comes
out transformed and ultimately earns the respect of the naysayers.

But that's just a story for children :)

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