Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Infantile Spirituality

In my last post I gave voice to some concerns that have been rumbling in my heart for several years.  As I thought about what I'd written and about the comments that readers sent to me, something deeper struck me that I thought I'd share as well.

I've been a "Leftie" most of my life.  More to the point, I'm really a "bleeding heart" or what Maggie Thatcher would call a "wet".   I get emotionally-engaged with people who suffer.  This needn't be someone right in front of me, I get very upset when I consider the plight of people I've never even met.  Indeed, I get upset when I contemplate hypothetical situations---starving, poor, oppressed people, injustice of any sort.

This has led me down some interesting rabbit holes in my life.  At one time I actually tried to live the life that Jesus suggests we should----I gave a lot of money to the poor, I would invite homeless people in to live with me, etc.  I learned after a while that if people do choose to live like Jesus said they should they will end up being "eaten alive" by the poor and needy---just like he was.  (Remember all the crowd scenes from the Gospels?)   Not wanting to end up on a literal cross, I decided to do what everyone else does, and set my boundaries a lot wider.

When I analyze my feelings when confronted by injustice I notice two things.  First, I feel a lot of empathy in that I always end up imagining myself in the situation I see the other person.  Secondly, I feel a great deal of anger and outrage.  Sometimes I move to a third stage, which is fear that the world is a nasty, cruel, place that is indifferent to the suffering of individuals.  

The more I think about it, the more I think that the first two reactions are attempts to divert my attention from the last one.  It's better to feel sorrow for others and anger against whomever is harming them than contemplate that it is just happenstance---perhaps temporary---that I am not in the same boat.  I notice this fact time and time again when I find out that the world is just not a "warm and fuzzy place".  It was this outrage that fueled just about everything that I have ever done in politics.  And that outrage ultimately kept me from facing up to the idea that life is inherently tough and I am going to die, probably after a lot of pain.

The path we walk as individuals is ultimately like a mine field.  We never really know if the next time we put our foot down it may end in an explosion that may injure, maim or kill us.  Our job can disappear, we can get sick, an accident may befall us, or the people we love can suffer similar problems, etc, etc.

Paradoxically, people involved in progressive politics tend to spend a great deal of their life successfully ignoring this fact.  Of course, it is true that collectively people can do a great deal to make life less precarious if they work together.  We can have universal healthcare, pensions, unemployment insurance, etc, but this never seems to be be enough to totally eradicate suffering from the world.  No matter how much we try to make the world a better place, others are constantly trying to undo that work;  and ultimately we, and everyone we love, are going to die.  Even the Jesus of Gospels admits this fact, "The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me" (Matthew 26:11).

This grim reality surrounds us like a bad smell.   But we aren't conscious of the stink all the time.  Sometimes we forget about it and get "caught up" in some experience that allows us to forget all about the "fallen" nature of the world and our own mortality.  This is where the other side of religion kicks in, the spiritual path of mysticism.

As one Buddhist monk once explained it to me, activism is like trying to deal with the problems of walking on a stony road by covering it with carpet.  As he explained it, learning to tame the passions through meditation was like putting on a pair of shoes.   Obviously, it is a lot easier to wear shoes than to cover the entire earth with deep pile shag.

When we forget about the precarious nature of human existence it is possible to feel a sense of "oneness" with the world.  We walk through a forest on a sunny, nice day and all seems well.  We embrace our lover and life seems good.  When I think about it, just about every good experience that I have had in my life involved feeling "at one" with what I was doing.  In contrast, the quickest way to remove that feeling is for me to remember that I am an individual human being who is at best a participant in life, but more often a mere observer.  The trick, therefore, is to find some way to control the mind in order to maximize the time you spend in "oneness" and minimize the time you spend in alienated contemplation.

When I was a young man I spent a decade of my life trying to understand religious experiences.  I did a master's degree in philosophy on the subject and spent a lot of time trying out various flavours of religious practice.  I had a great many different experiences that could be described as "mystical", but ultimately found myself on the "outside" of all of these traditions.  What I believe I learned from this period of experimentation was that all the people I met in these groups ultimately lacked the sense of critical rigor that I was bringing to the subject.

Recently, it has occurred to me that this sense of "connection" that people seek in mystical practice and which I sought through my experimentation comes from our earliest experience in our mothers' arms.  Certainly some psychologists maintain that the first important part of human maturation comes when the child begins to differentiate his or herself from her mother.   And the more I think about it, I wonder how much of my religious and political sensibility comes down to not much more than trying to recreate that early sense of comfort.

And the more I think about it, the more I wonder if the cultural matrix that supports the religious life is overtly aimed at trying to recreate that childhood experience.  Certainly Christianity is rife with examples that seem to support this idea.   Priests are called "father".  I understand that the Aramaic word that Jesus is shown using to refer to "God", abba, translates rather literally as "daddy".  Consider the veneration of "Mother" Teresa.  Other religions encourage a similar sort of infantile veneration.  In my case the teacher in my school of religious Daoism was similarly treated with parent-like veneration and in response he treated all his students like wayward children.  (To cite one example, I can remember him sleeping on the floor of the lobby connecting the male and female dorms at our retreat centre so he could keep tabs of the adults so they didn't sneak off for illicit sexual trysts.)

If I accept that the ritual forms and hierarchical organization of religious institutions are designed to create an infantile sense of "oneness", I should also consider whether spiritual practice is also designed to create a similar state.  Consider the following Wikipedia synopsis of the spiritual teachings of a Carmelite Nun, Bernadette Roberts:

The ego, matured through life experience and spiritual practice, falls away to reveal the unitive state, the oneness or wholeness of the self in unity with God, a state characterized by the feelings of love and subtle ecstasy. This was the end of the Christian journey — or so Roberts initially believed — and from this point we can see where Roberts travels beyond the limits of doctrinal Christianity. The Self, the mature human in a state of union with God, also falls away. This is the import of Roberts' work. So what does this mean and what is left when there is no-self? Fundamentally the unitive state is still a form of dualism — Self and God — it means that an idea or archetype of God is still captured by the psyche. Fundamentally this unitive state is nondualistic - in which the self and God are One, not two - "I and my Father are One," one without a second, without even the concept of one. Roberts experiences the falling away of the idea of God simultaneously with the experience of the falling away of self — when there is no self, there is no God. For someone wholly devoted to the spiritual life and to God, to discover that there is no God, not one iota of subtle conception of God left to grasp at or attach to, was a particularly horrendous and terrible experience and is described in detail in "the experience of no-self". The experience is of a raw, pure and unadulterated reality without the imposition of concepts and ideas. Gradually this state, this initial loss, cleared to become a profound understanding of reality itself. In place of "unity" with God comes identity with God — a state she calls seeing with God's own eyes. But neither the ego-based sense nor the spiritualized self is "God". Instead, God is Reality itself, of which the human person is a single cell
After all, what could the experience of a newborn child be, but one of a total lack of "self" and total "unity" with your mother?

The spiritual practices followed by these religious groups seem to be pretty good at helping people feel better about themselves.  Buddhists, Daoists, Christians, etc, who do regular spiritual practice look to the eye as being calmer, happier people.  But the price, in my personal experience, is a sort of "flattening" of their critical faculties.  Those calmer, happier people seem to very often prone to being taken advantage of by their spiritual teachers---financially, sexually, etc.  The sexual abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic church and Buddhist sangha both reveal that followers of both faiths are so dis-empowered that they are willing to allow their religious authority figures to do things to them that they would never allow anyone else to do.

Nor do deeply spiritual people seem to be terribly good citizens.  They rarely seem to be on the "right side" of history.  It is Marxists, trade unionists, secular humanist types who fight for human rights---bye-and-large---not the deeply spiritual.  (I first noticed this when I was involved in a battle to save a Jesuit retreat centre.  It wasn't the Catholics who did all the heavy lifting, but rather people outside of the tradition.  Indeed, the woman who ran the retreat centre was opposed to the lawsuit and the Catholic school board forbade its employees from getting involved in any way shape or form.)

This doesn't really make any sense if the goal of religious practice is to become a better human being.  But if, instead, the real goal of spirituality is to recreate the experience of a baby in its mother's arms, then it fits perfectly.

What then do I suggest we should be seeking instead?

I'm not sure I know.  But I can take a stab at making some suggestions.

First of all, I think that a more "mature" sort of life should be based on attempting to deepen our ethical grounding.  Consider the following "thought experiment":  Would you do the "right thing" if it meant that you would end up going to Hell?  If not, then are you living an ethical life?  Or are you just trying to be a "good boy" in order to get a lollipop?  This isn't a hypothetical question.  How many people in ages past had doubts about the value of burning "witches" and heretics, yet "went along" because they were afraid of being damned as a heretic himself?  How many people in the Evangelical or Roman Catholic churches today have doubts about discriminating against gays but don't speak up for the same reason?

In other words, is virtue your own reward?  If it isn't, why not?

Secondly, instead of having "oneness" as an ideal is it possible to develop another?   What about clarity?  Or dignity?  Or wisdom?  I admit that I find it hard to fill the gap left by wanting to feel like the world is a warm, comforting place that looks out for my best interests.  But ultimately my conscious mind has to accept that this is simply not true.  And at that point I find that I can have flashes of something that is like a sense of calm acceptance based on a gimlet-eyed appreciation of the true nature of existence.  What is more important?  Seeing the truth, or having a warm and pleasant lie?  Again, this sounds a lot like "virtue is its own reward".

Finally (at least for this blog post), instead of trying to find some ultimate "Truth" that sets us free, perhaps it would be a better ideal to try and live a life that adds a grain's worth of truth to our society's collective store.   The great value of scientific research is that it is cumulative.  Why can't we have as our ultimate ideal the idea that we are participants in a great cultural enterprise aimed at trying to become collectively more wise rather than seeking some sort of personal salvation or enlightenment?

If we accept a different set of ideals, like the ones above, then it might be possible to construct a different sort of personal practice.   This could be a practice that people can pursue in order to give meaning and stability to their lives, but which will not damage their critical faculties by encouraging infantile consciousness.   The more I think about this sort of---for want of a better term---"spiritual practice", I cannot help thinking that this is like the Chinese ideal of "kung fu", which is key to the teaching of philosophical Daoism and which is best expressed in Zhuangi's description of craftsmanship.    

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Seduction of Religion

Over the years I've tried to stake out a position for myself as being somewhere in the middle between identifying myself as a "religious Daoist" and a "philosophical Daoist".  To a large extent, this has been because I believed that there is a great potential for good in the existence of religious institutions.  I have always admitted that in practise religious bodies rarely live up to this potential, but I have always thought that the isolated tremendous good that some individuals do shows just what could be done if religious organizations finally reformed themselves.

I no longer think that this is possible.

I've come to this conclusion because I've changed my opinion about what it means to be a religious "believer" and to live in a religious "congregation".  By way of an explanation, I have to explain where my interest in religion comes from.

I was raised by a totally non-religious family.  I don't mean that they were atheists who had consciously rejected the Christian church (or any other religion, for that matter.)  Instead, they were people who simply didn't think about anything that would be considered "spiritual", "philosophical" or "high-fallutin".  They were simple country folk who did not bend their minds towards anything except the daily grind for existence.

I learned from their example the wisdom of Socrates dictum "the unexamined life is not worth living".  People who do not think "ultimate thoughts" end up with minds that are little more than jumbled-up attics filled with the rubbish that they have been exposed to during the random events of their life.  People who do not develop the habit of self-introspection, and who have never learned to separate a good argument from a bad one ultimately have only one option:  just "follow along and do what you are told".  This makes you tremendously vulnerable to any sort of social disruption.  It also takes away any sort of brakes over strong emotions.  People who aren't terribly thoughtful tend to be "drama queens", which makes life incredibly miserable for anyone who has to live either with them or is at their mercy in any shape or form.

Living around very emotional, not terribly thoughtful people for most of my childhood awakened a strong urge to try and emulate the character "Spock" from Star Trek.  The great thing about Spock was that he was not only committed to being logical, he obviously had real problems doing so.  For example, he lost his marbles over sex, as in the episode where he dragged the crew to Vulcan and ended up fighting Kirk over a woman.  As an adolescent boy, I certainly understood the conflict between instincts and rationality, and how no matter how much I tried not to, I would end up "losing it" in one of several ways that still bring waves of embarrassment and shame to this day.   If Spock had really been the sort of "soul-less robot" that people referred to him in the television series, he wouldn't have had any appeal for viewers.  It was the fact that he was a passionate man with real problems who still tried very hard to live up to a specific ideal that made him a hero to so many people.

And working through the logic of the situation (please, no pun intended), the series writers had to develop a rationale that would explain exactly where this character's "love of logic" came from.  I their decisions through various episodes and movies ended up building up the edifice of a Vulcan "religion" based on logic.  This makes a sort of sense in that it is only reasonable to assume that any sort of cultural norm requires some sort of institution to pass it on to future generations.  In my own case, this is how I began to view religion, as an institutional framework for passing on the ethical and social teachings of some great teachers of the past.

Dominic Crossan
This is where I take my leave of Gene Roddenberry and enter the realm of religious scholars like Dominic Crossan, Karen Armstrong, Marcus Borg, and, the members of the Jesus Seminar

Karen Armstrong
These voices of "progressive" Christianity were pretty important to me for many years.  I read their books and wrestled mightily with the ideas that they presented.  The Jesus that they discussed was a figure who manifested a very radical response to the problems manifest in Judea during the Roman Empire.   He didn't identify himself as being a "God", but as an ordinary person.  He didn't come completely from the Jewish tradition, but also incorporated aspects of Greek Cynic philosophy.  The stories of the New Testament were not factual accounts of history, but rather archetypal stories that get people thinking about the forces around them.  The Jesus of Christianity was someone who was very concerned about the poor and would be considered a "Leftie" or "Commie" today.

Marcus Borg
My problem was that I read these books and as a result created an artificial "air religion" that has never existed in real life.  It was only when I met real, honest-to-God Christians that I realized that almost no one in any Church understand Jesus and religion the way these academics do.  (Indeed, Dominic Crossan stopped being a priest so he could marry.  Marcus Borg is now a philosophy professor instead of a theologian, and Karen Armstrong left her nunnery because it the discipline was impossible for her to bear.)

In actual fact, the vast majority of people who call themselves "Christians" do not read the Bible and wouldn't understand an archetype if it hit them over the head with a rotting carp.  For them the story of Jesus's arrest, trial and crucifixion wasn't a story about how religious and civic institutions react to moral imperatives----i.e. angry leaders afraid of their position, and, spineless bureaucrats unwilling to overcome the mob----but rather that those damn Jews killed God.  And the most important part of Christianity isn't "love your neighbour" and "help the poor and weak", but rather that of "don't have sex unless it is sanctioned by the church".  If you really want to know who is the authentic interpretor of scriptural orthodoxy, it isn't a scholar like Crossan, it's a political leader, like the Pope .

As a result, the values of the institution are inexorably drawn towards points of view that strengthen the hold that the church has over the individual believer.  Consider, if you will, a point that I have raised before in this blog:  Mother Teresa versus Oscar Romero.   Teresa supported an extremely conservative point of view that maximized the power of the Church and voiced the "party line" over the importance of regulating human sexuality (e.g. when she accepted the Nobel Peace Prize she said that the greatest threat to world peace was "abortion".)  In contrast, Oscar Romero took the line that the church should be on the side of the poor and oppressed.  His "prize" wasn't universal acclaim, television documentaries, etc----instead, he was gunned down while saying mass in a cathedral.  Teresa was fast-tracked into sainthood, whereas Romero will probably never be made a saint---or at least won't until people totally forget exactly what it was that he got killed for.  My read of the Bible says that Romero was by far the most in line with the teachings of Jesus, yet his life doesn't teach Catholics to "shut up and do what they are told", whereas Teresa's does---which is why she is a saint and he isn't.

Another example has to deal with the sex abuse scandals plaguing the church.  People often fixate on the behaviour of individual priests and argue that celibacy is what is to blame.  This is a misread of the facts.  The problem isn't the individual offender----the odd person in all walks of life has problems controlling their sexual urges.  The real issue is that the institution protects priests whereas other parts of society---such as school boards---are designed to protect the child.  And priests are protected for the very real reason that if people start to see priests as ordinary humans instead of as exalted beings who are better than ordinary church goers, the whole religious hierarchy starts to fall apart.  If a priest can't be trusted around the choir boys, then why should we accept their interpretation of the scripture?  And if the priest is suspect, then what about the Bishop?  Or the Pope?  

Exactly the same sort of statements can be made about every church that I ever looked into.  Each one ultimately has some sort of leadership that controls things, and theology invariably ends up warping itself to supporting the political structure.

Confronted by this fact, I investigated other religions, most notably Buddhism and Daoism. At first I found myself very attracted to both of them.  Neither has the sort of centralized structure of Christian churches and both have a theology that has a greater emphasis on personal study and investigation---through things like meditation.  But as I learned more about Buddhism, I found out that there are as many abuses by Dharma teachers as there are by Christian priests, many of which are documented in this excellent blog:  "Down the Crooked Path".  Daoism is too new in the West for many abuses to exist, but I certainly could see the potential during my involvement with the Taoist Tai Chi Association---which is why I left the group.

I went through a real phase of being upset about this state of affairs.  I think that we do need a way of handing over values to future generations.  Moreover, I feel that there is a real need to have institutions around that do good work for the poor and oppressed.  Unfortunately, I have come to the conclusion that there simply is no way we could reform religious groups to be able to do this.  Moreover, I think that I know why.

The first point to understand is that real charity is inherently anarchic.  That is to say, people do not "just" become poor.  Invariably they do so because there are institutions or patterns to their existence that force or encourage them to be poor.  In a society with significant inequality, there are economic and political forces that keep a fraction of the population from redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor.  These can be as simple and obvious as the rich paying off the police to "look the other way" when the nation's wealth is looted, or as subtle as lobbying Congress to write tax loopholes that allow someone to define their income in such a way that Warren Buffet pays taxes at a rate far less than his secretary.  Either way, if we are genuinely attempting to help the poor, we are also going to be empowering them as well.  And any institution that is engaged in really empowering the poor will not only be weakening the power of the leadership within that institution, they will also be encouraging other elements of that society to attack and weaken that institution within it.  Church leaders---even with the best of intentions---always find themselves worrying about whether their actions are "prudent" enough to preserve the institution.

This is why whenever there is a movement towards making the lives of individual people better, it is inevitable that the overwhelming majority of organized religions will be opposed to it.  The Church opposed trade unions, democracy, birth control, the end of slavery and just about everything else.  That is why the leadership of most churches support reactionary political parties.   It is also why when the relative influence of the Church gains ascendancy in a political party---as it currently does in the American Republican party---that party will invariably swing towards political extremism.

Not only does the structure of the church define whether or not it can honestly embrace the poor, it also means that it can never truly become a bearer of morality.  To understand this point, however, we need to understand just exactly what morality consists in.

People of Conservative bent often complain bitterly against what they call "situational ethics" because they believe that once people are taught that they are able to "bend the rules" based on a specific situation, total  chaos will inevitably result as people start to "make it up as they go along".  As I see it, the problem with this analysis is that it reduces morality to doing what you are told.  Moral behaviour is something very special, it is judging a specific behaviour based on a criteria that goes beyond mere utility and instead suggests that there is a code that someone is following because it is the right thing to do.  Now the problem with reducing doing the right thing, to simply doing what you have been told comes from the fact that doing what you are told to do doesn't have a moral component.  This is why the judges at Nuremburg refused to accept the "we were just following orders" defence offered up by the Nazi war criminals.  Even under military discipline, it is believed that normal people have a moral sense that allows them to make a distinction between a lawful and an unlawful order.  Indeed, Western military codes specifically make this distinction and suggest to soldiers that they have an obligation to ignore unlawful orders.

If a soldier is obligated to disobey an unjust order when he is under discipline during time of war, then surely an individual parishioner has an even greater obligation to ignore or disobey an unjust moral injunction laid upon him by the ecclesiastic hierarchy.   If your Church says that homosexuals should be abused and discriminated against, that women should continue to be forced to carry pregnancies to birth even if the baby is unwanted and will cause great hardship, or, that women should never use birth control even if the resulting high number of children will be a catastrophe for both her family and nation----then the moral obligation to "do the right thing" would seem to suggest that people disobey the "unjust order".  

This criticism of morality goes beyond the practical issue I raised earlier.  Even if the Church were to miraculously stop being concerned about prudential issues such as whether a given teaching weakens the power of the institutional church, it still wouldn't be able to overcome the inherent problems that come from teaching morality as a set of eternal truths.  That's because morality just isn't something that is revealed through some sort of objective discovery process.  The revealed Ten Commandments simply do not have enough moral sophistication to cover all situations (which is why they and the other rules in Deuteronomy could never work as a legal code.)  Instead, as people are confronted by a new situation, they have to analyse the key components and decide what they feel is the moral thing to do. 

The point is that morality is not defined, it is discovered.  And as such, we cannot teach people what the right thing to do is in each situation.  What we can do, however, is teach people the right general way that they can approach an issue so that they can work out the best answer for themselves. Our legal system understands this point because it functions not just on the basis of regulations passed by politicians but also by having those laws modified through the rulings of case law.  

The way to teach this discovery is through entering into a discussion or dialogue, either with others or within ourselves, in order to ascertain the which side of a given debate can marshal the best arguments in defence of their position.  Again, unfortunately, any religious institution simply cannot allow for this sort of methodology because it will invariably undermine the authority of the institution.  Church is not a grad seminar and parishioners simply cannot be allowed to debate scripture with the pastor, or else there soon will not be any authority left for either the local priest or the Pope in Rome.  The same can be said about Buddhist monks and Daoist priests.

This leaves me on the horns of a dilemma that everyone with a religious bent has to face sooner or later.  Will they learn to keep their mouth shut so they can carry on in the faith?  Or will they take the harder, moral road and walk away from the church and stick it out on their own?

In a sense I made that decision a long time ago.  I have called myself a "hermit" because I refused to make the compromises necessary to stay in a group.  But between then and now I have kept a bit of a mental connection with the ideal of religious fraternity.  Now I finally reject it.  I think that if you really want to be a genuinely spiritual person you have to accept that each and every relationship you make has to be created on its own merits and cannot lean on the clap-trappery of church, robe, title or lineage.  In the same way, every act of charity and benevolence has to justify itself.  If you help the poor, do it because it genuinely helps the poor.  Don't do it because Jesus said you should or because you are want to buy a place in heaven.  (Certainly, don't do it because you think you can get a job out of it.)

Luckily the key texts of Daoism never really did have any sort of religious background.  Instead, they were written by people who probably had never seen a religious Daoist in their life.  (The Zhuangzi, Laozi and Liezi were written before the creation of an organized, Daoist religion.)   This makes it easy to follow the teaching while ignoring the religion, as many people do. This includes me too from now on.  Now I have to decide if I want to sell off my various statues, close down my altar and so on.

Decisions, decisions, decisions---.