Spiritual Principles behind the Traditions
Some people–in the interest of keeping stereotypes alive, I imagine those people who prefer a tie and maybe a suit on Sundays–might prefer the term “God”. Others, who may not necessarily associate “morality” with the status-quo, may prefer the term “Universe”. In both cases, the term doesn’t quite do the concept justice. Both terms have a shadow side: Like the Sunday suits they wear, “God” has become stiff and conservative. The shadow of the “Universe” happens to be total ambivalence, laziness, stinky dreadlocks and marijuana.
But still, when the Universe speaks, you should still listen. Even if it’s God who’s speaking.
Even further, in one of those random facts that sticks with you over all the years since 7th grade “Music Appreciation”, you shouldn’t just “hear” the Universe when It speaks, you should really “listen”. I “listened” early on in my education, and always appreciated the difference between hearing and its more mature synonym, listening. In the 7th grade context, listening involved an astute mindfulness, an assimilation of the notes into a workable, mental framework. Hearing was the loosest translation of the idea of awareness.
“What time-measurement was in that last piece by Beethoven?”
In contrast to those who only heard the piece, the astute listener would be able to answer the above question.
These adult days, I would add another requisite to the concept of listening: application. If we really listened to all our mother’s advice growing up—the good stuff anyway, about appreciating the small things and being patient—than it requires some sort of application to our lives.
Let me repeat that one more time: When the Universe speaks, you should listen.
I’m trying anyway. I hear God quite often, actually, which might sound maniacal to all those without a shred of religious imagination or subtlety (which, I’m continually finding, is quite a large number). To me, it means that I notice direction from a variety of angles in my life, if I’m already moving slowly enough in it to notice precisely when I need direction. So, no, I don’t hear celestial echoes in the depths of my psyche, or Nordic gutterings of where to turn and what to buy at the local grocer, but I do notice when the same message is coming from different sources within the same week. I like to think I hear God quite regularly.
But I’m trying to listen better these days.
Another thing I’ve learned in the course of my 30 swings around the sun: it’s much easier to listen—or even hear at all, for that matter—when you’re on vacation. Specifically, when you’re on one of those once-in-a-lifetime ones.
And there I was, on mine, in the Chang-Mai airport waiting for our flight. The beauty of this airport experience was (1) it was rather small, and (2) I was only waiting to fly towards more vacation. The stressful part of backpacking through concrete jungles to Buddhist Temple Oasis, as wonderful a stress as it was, was over, and I found myself waiting comfortably to fly towards the beaches and natural beauty of Thailand. I perused the Airport Book Store, little more than a kiosk with a few cart-able shelves, and looked for something on Thai-Buddhism (having spent a week half-participating/half-observing the Temple rituals of the Thais, I realized this was something completely different than its American form).
The only thing I found was a dry, academic account of some way-too-specific-to-be-interesting esoterica on the categorical problems of Thailand’s Buddhism. But I did find what was to be my beach companion for the next week.
And so I heard the Universe for the next week, loud and clear. Karen Armstrong’s terribly titled (as far as alluding to actual content) The Case for God was the first instance, and she really drummed away at it, of this idea of uncertainty as a high spiritual—not just concept—ideal. It truly is a beautiful argument, written academically but entertainingly, with a barrage of historical examples from different ages.
The main thrust of “The Case” went something as follows:
“People practiced their faith in myriad contrasting and contradictory ways. But a deliberate and principled reticence about God and/or the sacred was a constant theme not only in Christianity but in the major faith traditions until the rise of modernity in the West. People believed that God exceeded our thoughts and concepts and could only be known by dedicated practice.” (emphasis mine)
Karen Armstrong has a great respect for the religious person, and doesn’t have a problem with “the modern God” if it works for people. But, as she and I both believe, this “modern God” isn’t working for a lot of people, and she takes great pains to show how our ancestors—in Christianity and elsewhere—did not always view “God” as some set or point of beliefs that you had to subscribe to. Quite the contrary, our religious progenitors were more interested in ritual, a series of steps designed to alter consciousness so it might perceive higher truths that couldn’t be expressed in “reason alone”.
“Some of the greatest Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians made it clear that while it was important to put our ideas about the divine into words, these doctrines were man-made and, therefore, were bound to be inadequate. They devised spiritual exercises that deliberately subverted normal patterns of thought…He [God] was not good, divine, powerful or intelligent in any way that we could understand. We could not even say that God existed, because our concept of existence was too limited.”
The book is a wealth of information, and I could joyfully extract for the next day or so, but I would be missing the point. The point? The book pushed my awareness to this great tradition of “uncertainty” being a component of a mature spirituality.
There is a very simple and fundamental question that has presented itself to all of us: “Why does something exist instead of not-existing?” I think we answer this in a myriad of ways, some of us more certain of our answer than others, perhaps. But when we come to the limits of reason, we are met if only for an instance by the Great Mystery which can never be fully understood. I’ve understood this intuitively, but Armstrong’s book was the first time I was presented it rationally.
All this was old knowledge by the time I woke up to a cute NPR article on Facebook. It was part of a series of articles on losing faith. The story was interesting: a minister continued to perform her duties while not believing any of it.
“I’m currently an active pastor and I’m also an atheist,” she says. “I live a double life. I feel pretty good on Monday, but by Thursday — when Sunday’s right around the corner — I start having stomachaches, headaches, just knowing that I got to stand up and say things that I no longer believe in and portray myself in a way that’s totally false.”
I found a couple of things noteworthy. The first was how she needed another community to “come out” to, the American Atheists being her venue of choice. I mean, why did she have to join a new club? Why not just renounce the old beliefs and quietly, if not possible yet to move on, walk away?
“The rationalized interpretation of religion has resulted in two distinctively modern phenomena: fundamentalism and atheism.” Armstrong’s book again came to mind when answering my own questions, and how she pointed out how atheism needs a religion to exist. In needs a “theism” in other words, in which to negate. Atheism and theism (“belief”) may not walk hand-in-hand, but like Batman and the Joker, they need each other. “In their desire to produce a wholly rational, scientific faith that abolished mythos in favor of logos, Christian fundamentalists have interpreted scripture with a literalism that is unparalleled in the history of religion.”
Again, when we meet the word atheism, it comes with as much connotative baggage as God or “sin”. ‘I might believe in God, I just sure don’t believe in yours!’ might be getting to the heart of what atheism is. It does not necessarily mean “godless”, but rather attacks a certain conception of one. “Christians and Muslims were both called ‘atheists’ by their pagan contemporaries, not because they denied the reality of God but because their conception of divinity was so different that it seemed blasphemous.”
So, the first thing that struck me with the article was how…silly…it seemed that she needed to proclaim herself in an assembly of atheists:
Moments later, in the darkened, cavernous conference room, MacBain steps onstage.
“My name is Teresa,” she begins. “I’m a pastor currently serving a Methodist church — at least up to this point” — the audience laughs — “and I am an atheist.”
Hundreds of people jump to their feet. They hoot and clap for more than a minute. MacBain then apologizes to them for being, as she put it, “a hater.”
“I was the one on the right track, and you were the ones that were going to burn in hell,” she says. “And I’m happy to say as I stand before you right now, I’m going to burn with you.“
A few minutes later, MacBain strides off the stage into a waiting crowd. One man is crying as he tells her that her speech is “one of the most moving things I’ve seen in years.” Another woman says she, too, had been a born-again Christian. “Join the club,” she says as she hugs MacBain.
Then again, maybe it wasn’t so unbelievable at all. From a psychoanalytical perspective, it makes sense that after years of repressing so called “doubt”, it would be a cathartic experience to swing to the other extreme with a public, ‘born-again’ professing of her ‘new faith’. Which, if you’re carefully following me, would mean that a more ‘complete’ person would be able to hold both ideas. Faith and doubt, theism and atheism might be two sides of the same coin, and that’s actually the point: there is only one coin.
Which then starts to beg the question: can one person hold both viewpoints? Probably not, if the expressed, orthodox, point-by-point belief of theism is stressed over its atheistic negation. Admittedly, it’s hard to profess both of those beliefs at the same time. But, if we view it in terms of certainty and uncertainty, I think it is possible to become more accustomed to a “middle way”.
Which, interestingly enough, the Universe has been prattling on about lately….
Dr. Marc Gafni, among a host of other impressive activities, publishes a blog on World Spirituality. A few days before I woke up to “stories on losing faith”, I had stumbled across his latest post, which echoed what Karen Armstrong presented. Titled, “The 7 levels of Certainty”, the sketch presents his ideas on the development of a faith tradition. It is a broad overview of society and its major developments, and starts with the 1st level of Certainty being, well, quite uncertain. Questions of ultimate meaning are asked by religious leaders of early civilizations (think Moses troubled by leading his people, Muhammad troubled by the changes he saw in Mecca, Buddha, even, dissatisfied with the abundance of spiritual teaching in his era).
Through this questioning, a “direct experience” of the spirit was realized. Now, with the direct experience, a level of certainty emerged. At this stage, dogma was then formed. Formed, it might well be mentioned, by well-meaning, love-filled leader who had had these blissful, direct experiences and wanted to somehow transmit these experiences to the broader community.
Of course, then came the old, scientific revolution which cast some doubt on the message the Catholic church was broadcasting. Then, at this stage 3, we were back at uncertainty. But science didn’t just stop there…
Why, it claimed we could know everything, even, at least objectively, and human consciousness once more swung back to a level of certainty.
Well, at least with regard to objective, measurable things. Until the idea that objectivity itself is even dependent upon the context in which it arises. Once more, things started steering back to the uncertain.
He goes on to list two more levels, and you can read them (and the rest of the article) here:
The point I’ve seen yet again is that certainty is a comfort I don’t see as spiritually mature. Yes, from personal experience, I’ve felt that level of certainty in a “Higher Power” when—and only when I surrendered to such an idea—I was finally able to quit heroin. During this first, blissful experience, there was no doubt that God existed and I could somehow connect to it. But in the process of trying to define that, to, as it may, reach the broader community so they might connect with what I had found, I realized my concept of “It” continually changed.
I’ve heard what God’s been telling me. But how might I listen? By applying the following:
“One of the conditions of enlightenment has always been a willingness to let go of what we thought we knew in order to appreciate truths we had never dreamed of.”
The Zen tradition actually has a name for it: beginner’s mind. In the first, jaw-clenching days of sobriety, a willingness to let go of what I thought I knew was simply being open to the idea of God. I came in to sobriety as atheist as the next member of American Atheists, at least on most days. So, I let go of that fixed idea—a belief I held as rigidly as any fundamentalist—that there was and could not be a God, and just became open. Instead of having a posture of argument, I softened a bit, and took on a posture of being open.
And through this posture, this willingness to let go of old ideas, truths I had never dreamed of became possible.
The tricky thing with beginner’s mind is to stay there. The Zen master, if he’s truly a master, will be able to empty his mind of all he thought he knew from the past 40 or so years of practice, and open back to that initial state of not-really-knowing-anything.
So, it’s just as true today as it was in the first weeks of sobriety. I have to be willing to let go of old ideas, if I want to appreciate even greater truths. I have to be comfortable in uncertainty.
And listening to that is much easier than said. But I’m trying.