Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Religion - An Understanding

As I have worked with young people for several years now, in both the ministry and psychological treatment fields, I have found that the concept of spirituality is a most often misunderstood or misused idea. What I have discovered most often is that spirituality is often lumped with ideas of religious practice and to these young people at least, the term is often synonymous with social control terminology.

Karl Marx said that “Religion is the opiate of the people”, and so it has been for many centuries, but people throughout history have lumped spirituality in with the idea of religion and the two mix like oil and water. What I find most often is that those people who are truly comfortable and knowledgeable with spirituality often have little use for religion and the reverse seems to hold true.

“Religion” as interpreted among modern youth is “simply a way for parents and society to dictate rights and wrongs and modes of behavior that if not followed lead to great bouts of guilt, and self loathing. Carl Jung agreed with this description of religion in his work “The spiritual problem of modern man”

“While man still lives as a herd animal he has no psyche of his own,

nor does he need any, except the usual belief in the immortality of

the soul. But as soon as he has outgrown whatever local form of

religion he was born to, as soon as this religion can no longer embrace

his life in all of its fullness, then the psyche becomes a factor in its own

right which cannot be dealt with by the customary measures. It is for

this reason that today we have a psychology founded on experience,

and not upon articles of faith or the postulates of any philosophical

system.” (Carl Jung, The spiritual problem of modern man p.7)

Jung presupposes that religion has kept humanity as “herd animals” and that a “psychology of experience” can free man to think more deeply about his own inner workings and allow him to free his “psyche”. To translate Jung’s psycho-speak into English, he is saying that we must not base our ideals of mankind, its origins, and truths upon the ideals of a system whose very purpose is to make us all one like another.

Instead Jung prompts us to rely on personal experience as well, to find depth in our own searching, and thus free our minds to accept and understand that which is deeper in man. It is only through such freedom that we come to a working knowledge of spirituality, and a deeper understanding of the human truth.

Ideology of Chaos, spiritual order

It is obvious that the previous portion of this work has been somewhat critical of the idea and practice of religion, but let me digress that I might not be misunderstood. First of all, religion is necessary because it serves as a starting point and practice for true spirituality. Secondly the practice of religion is a stabilizing and beneficial attribute of society and particularly free societies.

As a child grows into young adulthood he practices at adult things. Little girls play house and bake mud pies and little boys fight imaginary fires and chase imaginary robbers. These activities are foreshadowing of adult roles that these young people will one day participate in, and accept as their own. The same basis can be found in religious practice. Religious practice is believed to have developed out of social necessity. Early developing societies often had weak governing bodies, and religious practice often was a unifying factor among people, even if they disagreed about many practical issues, they could find common ground in religious belief.

But religion also became a practice ground for spirituality, it gave a foundation and rules for behavior and set the standards that eventually would be questioned. These questions led people to look deeper within themselves and seek understanding beyond the physical human limitation. Religion was the diving board, but spirituality is the splash, the rush of chaos that comes from stepping outside ones boundaries and questioning the status quo. These questionings lead to a need for truth, and truth can only be found in God. The more one searches, the more one embraces the chaos, the more one finds himself, and finds that that self is similar to all other selves. That there are questions with answers incomprehensible to the human mind, that cannot be answered simply.

This very line of questioning leads to the first commandment given by Jesus, “love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul.” For if these questions cannot be answered by man, then who can answer them….only God….and we must trust that God is a being of love and kindness, lest we become lost in hopelessness.

The same line of questioning leads to Jesus’ second commandment. In that man has seen through this deep questioning that he is no different from any other man, it becomes obvious that one man cannot look down upon any other man…so we must love one another…as Jesus said…”Love one another…and do to your neighbor only that which you would want done to you.” So the very foundation of “spiritual behavior” can be found in the questioning of every person…but such questioning is only possible once we realize that the herdsmen doesn’t have all the answers and that we must learn to question for ourselves, lest we remain herd animals and nothing more.

Three truths, three aspects

So I have found through my own questioning that there are three truths and three aspects of spirituality that affect my life. The truths are simple rules that cannot be avoided without disastrous effects, and the three aspects are simple ways that humans perceive spiritual reality.

The first truth of spirituality is that it is inevitable. In Steven Johnson’s book “Emergence” he speaks of slime molds…an unusual topic for comparing spirituality, but one that works well. He tells the story of the scientific study of slime molds, and that for many centuries scientists where baffled by these simple creatures. He uses the example that if you where to find a slime mold in a forest and watched if for several days you would notice that it moved ever so slowly…perhaps only an inch or two every couple of days. But upon returning to visit your slime mold on a particularly dry day you would find that the creature that moves so slowly is completely gone, disappeared, and nowhere to be found. This particular aspect of slime mold behavior is what baffled scientists. How could such a slow and simple creature just disappear? Well, recently it was discovered that the slime mold has an uncanny ability…when the weather is not productive to its growth, the individual cells of the slime mold simple let go of one another and go their own ways until the weather returns to a more amicable climate, at which time the little cells are preprogrammed to return to the same spot and re-merge into their oneness.

Spiritual growth is a similar process, each of us is the single cell of the greater creature during our lives we are re-absorbed into the greater self of spiritual oneness and then retract into the world to experience more life. I believe this inevitable because just like those little cells we are preprogrammed to look for God, to look for truth, and should we seek to avoid such ideals, we descend into selfish hopelessness.

The second truth of spirituality is none of us can express factually what it is or how spiritual truth came into our lives. Not to say that we don’t try, libraries are filled with works attempting to explain spiritual truth, but they all fall short, as does this very treatise, because we are on the inside looking out. As Wittgenstein says

‘All things that I take into my mind, such as a stove, or cloudy day,

only signify ideals that I understand. The moment I take them in I

have changed their meaning because I interpret what they mean to me.

I cannot see them from a point of view without preconception, thusly I

cannot see them for what they really are, nor can I then tell anyone else

what they really are, I can only speak from my preconception, which is

false.” (Ludwig Wittgenstein, “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus” p.3)

The danger of attempting to avoid the second truth is that we either throw up our hands and become so frustrated that we give up searching for the truth, or we become so comfortable with our own version of the truth that we believe it to be the only one and thus alienate anyone who might believe differently than us.

The third truth of spirituality is that the more we learn about spiritual ideals the more dangerous we become to the very order of spirituality. This is drawn from the idea that any advancement, whether socially, technologically, or spiritually is eminently destructive to the status quo, and thus requires a greater degree of responsibility to deal with its possible problems. Alfred North Whitehead writes about this idea in his book “Symbolism”

“It is the first step in sociological wisdom to recognize that the major

advances in civilization are processes which all but wreck the societies

in which they occur…..Those societies which cannot combine reverence

to their symbols with freedom of revision, must ultimately decay either

from anarchy or from the slow atrophy of a life stifled by useless shadows.

(Alfred North Whitehead, “Symbolism” p.88)

The danger of avoiding the third truth is that unless we realize the great responsibility that comes with spiritual growth and understanding we are doomed to use it against others or for our own selfish wants and desires. Thus we belittle the idea of spirituality and make it seem as if it is all a game, causing those around us to shun the idea of spiritual growth as a sham at best and a complete lie at worst.

This then leads me back to the three basic aspects of spirituality. By aspect I mean the mode of input by which we receive the experience of spiritual growth. These aspects are broken down into the three aspects of the human individual, body, mind and soul, respectively.

The first aspect, that of body, is the idea of our own human physicality and its limitations. Although the human body is a magnificently versatile and capable organism, it is greatly limited when dealing with matters of the spirit. Our five senses can only interact with objects presented in the physical reality. Various laws of physics decide exactly what we experience when using these senses. But what I have come to find is that my own aspect of body can experience spiritual things within the scope of physical reality. An old Jewish proverb says it best….”When God speaks, I see the clouds move.” It is the idea that God is so big that when He chooses to intervene in my life, the outcome affects all of reality. When God speaks things are created, when he appears in my life I cannot help but be moved by the creation of new reality all around me. The problem lies in that I often expect God to respond in a human manner, forgetting all the while that God is not human.

The second aspect of human spirituality is that of mind. How often do we forget this simple concept….”What I think…I am.” It is a simple enough statement, but so often we forget that our inner workings spill onto our outer appearance. The Bible exhorts us continually to focus our attention on God and “good and right things”. Not because it is a sin to think of bad things, but dwelling upon those negative thoughts leads us to sin. Our mind is the humans most ready and powerful tool, it is the guiding force for our own bodies and the seat of our ideas of choice and personal affect. But by not focusing our thoughts on the goodness of God, we can quickly spiral down into hopelessness and decay. The great neurologist Steven Rose states in his book “The Conscious brain”….

“The human brain is a trainable organism, capable of recalibrating itself

to various modes of thought. The very wiring of the brain, the axon and

dendrite pathways can fade and strengthen into new patterns should we

decided to practice some motion over and over again. It is believe that

even our patterns of thought, mood and emotion can be “rewired” in this

manner.” (Steven Rose, “The conscious brain” p.76)

So the truth is, our very modes of thought about spirituality can be formed and molded by the activity of thinking about spirituality. Thus we control, as the Bible makes clear, the very capability to “transform” our minds to a spiritual format.

The third and final aspect is of soul, and this one being the most enigmatic of the three. Because we can physically study the body and mind we have a greater ability to grasp the reality of these concepts, but the soul is an unquantifiable aspect and one that human concept has a hard time with. First let me say that soul and spirit are not the same thing.

The spirit speaks of something very separate from the human self, a spirit is a self guided entity, separate from the human self. The soul on the other hand is a collaboration of the first two aspects of the human self. It is mind and body functioning together so as to propel the human senses beyond that of mere physical reality. The soul of a person is measured in how the mind is attuned to spiritual issues and how the body performs within the confines of a spiritual system.

The eyes of the soul see through the eyes of the body and appreciate the clouds as God’s speech, and at the same time focus the mind on the aspect of God’s goodness so that when bad times come, as they do for everyone, we can still see God and his love beyond our pain. Soul is what we seek to become, to transform into, to grow up as….it is the essence of the spiritual walk within man.

So, in all of this we see the aspect of spirituality….the ability to see beyond physical circumstance. We are drawn to it, inevitably, unable to name it, but at the same time consumed by its awesomeness. We realize the responsibility we’ve been given and so we must learn to focus our bodies, and our minds on the things of God, so that we do not misuse this great gift of spiritual connection.

In the beginning we were separated from God, but even in this separation our God loves us and seeks to communicate that love to us, but response to that love is placed fully upon our shoulders. It is something we must choose, and then apply ourselves to…its seems love has never come easy…but that makes it all the more joyous when it blooms into its fullness.

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