Parts of a paper I wrote that with a bunch of Jonathan references... :)
The traditional greetings of religious communities can offer some insight into the worldview of those communities. Greetings can illuminate the way in which human relationships are constituted within a specific religious framework. The Hindu’s traditional greeting, namaste, means “the Divine in me recognizes the Divine in you,” and suggests an imminent Creator that animates its creations. The Jews say shalom: offering “peace,” to those whom they greet, and the Islamic greeting of the same root, salaam – alaikum, translates into English as: “Peace be unto you”. These greetings suggest that it is right for one creation to wish the Creator’s good will and protection upon a fellow creation.
Likewise, the Protestant tradition gives the English goodbye, which is a contraction for “God be with you.”
Through greetings and other social customs, a religious tradition is able to regulate and govern the human relationships of its adherents. The tradition bestows meaning, value, and purpose to adherents’ social relationships. The role of human relationships in Christianity has been the subject of much discussion within both “believing” and “academic” circles, due to the seemingly contradictory nature of social relationships and a relationship with the Creator. Love of all humanity, for example, means love of no person in particular, for to love a particular means to favor a particular, to prefer one person above all other persons.
Transcendence from the bodily realm as a means of getting “closer to God” requires one to renounce earthly pleasures, and many saints have gone so far as to starve or torture themselves in the pursuit of transcendence. What, then, are we to make of human relationships in the context of divine purpose: is fellow man merely a distraction, or can we somehow find the divine through a specific enactment of our social relationships?
Richard Bach’s classic work Jonathan Livinsgton Seagull, the story of a seagull who learns to fly, sheds some light into the nature and purpose of social relationships for persons on the road to transcendence. I choose to read the story of Jonathan as an allegory for human transcendence through the religious experience, because it addresses the ideals of love, freedom, and the ultimate purpose of existence.
According to Jonathan Livingston Seagull, “Most gulls don't bother to learn more than the simplest facts of flight - how to get from shore to food and back again. For most gulls, it is not flying that matters, but eating. For this gull, though, it was not eating that mattered, but flight. More than anything else, Jonathan Livingston Seagull loved to fly.”
“Eating” here, as the most basic requirement of sustaining earthly existence, represents sex, social relationships, and all activities necessary for survival. Conversely, “flight” represents a higher level of being, closeness to God, being God-like, etc. The use of “flight” as an allegorical equivalent to “transcendence” is substantiated by the actual experiences of mystics across the ages. Annie Besant of the world Theosophical movement, St. John of the Cross of the European Middle Ages, and the ancient mystic Vatsyana, are among the many mystics who report feelings of light-headedness and lightness during the mystical experience. Therefore, Jonathan's “flight” is a legitimate literary presentation of the mystic’s experience.
As Jonathan Seagull learns how to fly, he becomes more and more alienated from his clan. His family eventually disowns him for disgracing himself, as gulls are not to concern themselves with flying. While growing more distanced from the social relationships that define him as a member of the Brotherhood Gull community, Jonathan learns the true meaning of life: “How much more there is now to living!” Jonathan exclaims, “Instead of our drab slogging forth and back to the fishing boats, there's a reason to life! We can lift ourselves out of ignorance, we can find ourselves as creatures of excellence and intelligence and skill. We can be free! We can learn to fly!”
Eventually, Jonathan Livingston Seagull is excommunicated for this his commitment to fly. After he is banished, Jonathan continues to learn, free from distraction, reaching higher and higher levels of consciousness. In this story, it seems that the social relationships which regulate and govern Jonathan’s life are at best a distraction, at worst a major obstacle. Jonathan echoes the experiences of many mystics who, in their religious quest, have become totally alienated from their bretheren. There is no Eros in the lives of these mystics, no attachment to particular persons, and even Agape, the general love of all mankind, takes on a strained and distanced feel. Indeed, this may be one of the drawbacks of the traditionally mystical experience: it requires us to reject social relationships for a relationship with the divine.