Saturday, September 27, 2014

A genuine fake

I was in a market in Malaysia once, looking at a display of 'Rolex' watches. The salesman asked me, 'You want to buy Rolex? Genuine fake'! 'What is the difference between a genuine fake and a fake Rolex I asked'? 'The genuine fake will work', he replied!

The religious scholar, Huston Smith, once engineered a meeting between the novelist, Aldous Huxley, and the spiritual writer, Alan Watts, both Englishman abroad in America. After Watts was gone, Huxley and Smith returned to their seats, where Smith reports he could virtually see Huxley sorting his mind. "Then his verdict: 'What a curious man! Half monk, half race track operator." When I (Smith) later reported this assessment to Alan, he loved it and acknowledged its accuracy."

It was Watts (in a essay) who coined the notion of being a genuine fake (and it was the title for Monica Furlong's biography of Watts). How you find yourself both the bearer of understanding something, able (in Watts' case) to convey it beautifully to others in wit laced, illuminating writings (and talks) and yet to carry this in a time bound, fractured mind-body, flawed through and through. Your admirers see the truths and pass over the flaws but you know you are 'faking it' and are haunted by the possible moment of exposure.

It points to the reality of any 'religious life' that it is lived always with a measure of two faced doubt - towards the reality of the quest and to the reality of myself faced by the immeasurable  challenge of the quest (if true).

Last week, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, admitted to doubt. The secular (and mostly religiously illiterate, when not simply hostile) press assumed that this meant that even the 'high representative' did not believe in the truth of the religion he so obviously thus pedals. He was committing the last remaining sin of the post-modern age - that of hypocrisy.

However, hypocrisy is, at least, a diminished sign that a person believes he or she ought to appear to believe something (or aspire after a different state).

What Welby was eloquently (if unguardedly) admitting to was that he too was a 'genuine fake' - that in any genuinely spiritual journey, we become aware of the distance between what is hoped for and who we are and that gap can as easily turn to doubting it might ever be closed (or indeed be real) as to spurring us on to greater efforts to dispose ourselves to its luring reality.

Indeed the two are deeply related for doubt keeps us honest about the difference between the truth and any one person's capacity to embody it and show it forth. We know we are one part monk, one part race track operator and are immunized against any pretense of fundamentalism and the trails of woe they bear in their wake (with which history is only, sadly, all too familiar)!

So, let us be as genuine as we can be in our fakery, being the real thing is not in our gift.

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