When I heard that Muslim scholar Reza Aslan was caught on camera eating human brains with a Hindu cult, as author of a book refuting his best-selling but absurd notions about Jesus, I was tempted to respond, “The man could use more brains, though there are better ways to get them!”
But Aslan’s stunt raised questions in many minds. Is cannibalism really so bad? A Facebook friend volunteered that he wouldn’t mind (health considerations aside) having his own brains consumed after death.
Other observers took the opposite tack: “Aslan is defaming Hinduism! Mainstream Hindus would never do such a thing!” Who or what defines a religion?
We’ve Become Men Without Morality
I can well believe Aslan might defame Hinduism, considering how he has treated Judaism and Christianity. In his bestselling book “Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth,” Aslan cherry-picked Bible verses to portray Judaism as blood-thirsty and purely hostile to Gentiles, and Jesus (incredibly) as a bigot who sought to overthrow Roman rule by force and set himself up as universal king. But in his dining choices in India, what Aslan defamed was the moral sense of most of humanity.
In his classic “The Abolition of Man,” C. S. Lewis warned us not against men without brains, but against “men without chests”:
They are not distinguished from other men by any unusual skill in finding truth nor any virginal ardor to pursue her … Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.”
Lewis described “the Tao,” a universal awareness of moral truth, and warned of those who “reduce our species to the level of mere Nature.” (Cuisine?) Such was a “magician’s bargain: give up our soul, get power in return.”
There Are Moral Truths We Should Know Inherently
The Tao consists of moral truths that “we can’t not know,” as Jay Budziszewski put it: truths implanted in our hearts. This is indeed how the great Chinese philosopher Confucius used the word, borrowing from pre-“Taoist” Classics. Aristotle noted that aside from scientific reasoning, one can test truth claims by the consensus of “the wise, the old, and the skillful:” recognized elders of a community. Lewis knew that within one culture even the wise might stumble. But moral truth perceived by great men and women of many ages and civilizations is likely to be well-grounded.
This is what many “moral revolutionaries” today miss more than brains: that middle form of reasoning that derives from traditional wisdom and common human experience.
Skeptics may build a case for cannibalism. Sure, we feel an instinctive repugnance, as of feces or bad meat, which protects us from neurological diseases like Kuru, which afflicted cannibals in New Guinea. Evolution was wise to place that warning bell in our heads, but now we understand physiology better. Just cook the meat well! Add a dash of salt and a pinch of pepper, beware of too much cholesterol, give a knowing “Look at daring me having a convention-defying cross-cultural experience!” mug for the camera, and you’re good to go.
To the devil, perhaps.
We Try To Assert Our Power Over Nature
My friend Don Richardson worked as a missionary among the Sawi people in New Guinea, who also practiced cannibalism. Another of their customs, before he and his wife introduced them to Christ, was “touching the stench.” After a body had rotted in the jungle heat for a few days, a relative of a deceased person worked himself up into a paroxysm of sorrow to touch, even thrust his or her hand into, the defiling corpse.
Don realized it was the very obscenity of the act that motivated practitioners: “I knew it would not be enough simply to tell them, ‘Look here! Stop doing this!’ . . . Obviously the very unniceness of it was somehow related to its purpose.”
Richardson concluded that “touching the stench” allowed a person to gain power “over the whole supernatural world,” perhaps to “coerce an eventual abrogation of death itself.” Which Richardson believed Christ had already achieved by dying and rising from the dead.
Aslan Sought Power Through The Obscene
Now what is Hinduism? The word derives from the root “Indus,” the river, or “India,” the country. Unlike Islam or Christianity, Hinduism was not founded by one person, but evolved near the Indus over many centuries from a variety of beliefs, tribes, customs, and sacred texts. Hindus adhere to ideas like reincarnation, caste, guruism, and various concepts of God—He created all, is in all, is one or millions of gods—theologies churning and bubbling like an amorphous glob of papaya pudding over a stove.
One such bubble which grew into Tantric Hinduism and thence into Tantric (Tibetan) Buddhism, though usually pricked and deflated by ritual, was the idea that one could seek power through “touching the stench,” as it were—by eating disgusting things, engaging in obscene sex acts, perhaps even acts of human sacrifice.
Reza Aslan was just seeking ratings! You may reply. Yet ratings are a form of power. And the power of those ratings lay in flouting what we know, in our chests if not heads, to be right. Maybe that is also why some women wear hats in the shape of sex organs at protests. Why Peter Singer announces that pigs may be more worth saving than babies. Why abortion has become a sacred ritual. Why florists who refuse to patronize a “wedding” of two men must be legally disemboweled.
We scoff at the “old, wise, and skillful” of tradition to gain power over Nature, Nature’s God, and one another—at whatever cost to our debunked and naturalized souls in the bargain. It has become trendy to be both sanctimonious and Satanic at the same time. Adolescent posturing, the “rebel culture” of the 1960s, has become our new, most sacred ritual.
Why did Aslan eat brains? Not really for want of intellect, my jibes aside. He did it to show off. For want of understanding that comes of humility, for want of “chest.”