|Art by Cameron Gray|
Jurgen Schulze uses his Principle of Irony as a guide to metaphysical and cosmological truth. In general, he infers, there must be a self-negating deity to maximize irony and tragedy in the universe, “to cast everyone into the spiritual wilderness and thus to thrust a fully-charged existential quandary upon each reflective soul” (18b). The Truth must be “universally bewildering,” as Schulze once told me. Indeed, contrary to utilitarianism, which speaks of the obligation to maximize happiness, Schulze contends that enlightened individuals should discern how reality maximizes irony, establishing a gulf between natural facts and our intuitions and preferences.
Schulze seems to have reflected for long hours on the nature of religion, but his thoughts on that subject derive once again from a single principle, which is that all religious discourse is anthropocentric with respect not just to that discourse’s origin or cause, but to its reference. All religious statements derive from human primates, not from any extraterrestrial source; more surprisingly—especially since he posits a cosmic deity, in the name of Irony—Schulze says that all such statements have as their inner meaning some bearing purely on what has been happening in our history. The world’s major religions speak of gods, supernatural realms, and of experience that transcends the five senses. Taken superficially, literally, and exoterically, then, religious creeds point far beyond our sociopolitics and dominance hierarchies, our class divisions and relations to our environment and to other animal species. But for Schulze, every major religious utterance ought to be interpreted as metaphorical and, more specifically, as reflecting back on how we distinguish ourselves in nature.
In this respect, religious discourse would be like science fiction: taken literally, a sci-fi novel or movie is about some events transpiring in the far future or on a distant planet, but every science fiction author knows that those scenarios are just literary devices that are useful in creating the psychological distance to discuss prickly, often taboo issues that impact us here and now. Theology as it has been practiced in the major religions is a form of literary fiction—except that instead of suspending our disbelief for the sake of entertaining ourselves as consumers, religious devotees are entranced by religion’s literary devices and escalate their belief in the protagonists until the belief becomes unshakable faith in the absurd. We’re blind to the hidden function of religious language, because we’re gullible, lazy, and easily distracted by literal, surface meanings of the most outlandish statements. The greatest lies that preoccupy us by assuaging our fears and stirring up our unconscious longings are the most fervently believed. But, says Schulze, “this process of indoctrination is as anticlimactic as a magician’s trick: once you learn the secret of its success, the spell wears off and you’re left to marvel at the audience’s credulity. We’re led like pets on leashes, our mind furnished with preposterous beliefs like a dog forced to wear gaudy mittens and a silly yellow hat in the rain” (20b).
The deeper meaning of theology, for Schulze, which I discerned from my interviews with him and from some of the scraps that remain from his corpus, is that religious discourse is entirely self-directed. Again, his point about anthropocentrism isn’t the classic one, familiar from the Presocratic philosopher Xenophanes’ charge that a donkey would interpret God as being donkey-like; the point isn’t that as we cognitively process that which lies beyond the bounds of our experience we filter it through humanizing concepts, distorting and taming reality so that as we confront it we might resort to our comforting, social repertoire, praying to the wind and so forth. Schulze’s point, rather, is that religious discourse isn’t a distortion, since religious phenomena are occurring right before our eyes, but we’ve grown so accustomed to them that we don’t appreciate their strangeness. Theology doesn’t employ humanizing transducers; instead, it “slyly retells the outlines of human history, but overlays a facade of fiction to preserve our modesty” (20c). In a word, religious myths and creeds are so many romans à clef. As such, the key to their interpretation is to perceive the connection between the fiction and the human reality.