Spiritual Principles behind the Traditions
I’ve been enjoying the latest Netflix original series, “Orange is the New Black”. If its recent Emmy nomination for “outstanding comedy series” is any indication, I’m not the only one. As Full House (and its updated version “Modern Family”) and a host of other sit-coms have proven, our best-loved comedies can also become platforms with which to confront our societal issues.
Before our “Modern Family” confronted the gay uncles and trophy (and much younger) wives of our current changing family constellations, there was DJ and Stephanie Tanner, the poster sisters for sibling rivalry who took on such prevalent 90s themes like body image and peer pressure head on. And who can forget the adorable Michelle Tanner, the first person we TV viewers got to see grow up in front of our couches (and later view, in real life, struggle with drug addiction)?
So, among underfunding, unreported fights, and other issues of the federal prison system, a recently viewed episode of “Orange is the New Black” takes on another current them: our nation’s faith and science schism.
Piper, the consistent main character—a skinny blonde with an emaciated face that is at once immediately attractive but, with a studied look, quickly turns into average-at-best—comes to represent the religious arguments of many.
Or so I fear.
It’s the same strawman God that Richard Dawkins and other fundamentalist scientists love whacking apart like a piñata at a seven-year-old’s birthday party.
“I do believe in something.” Piper responds to a challenge (from a quasi-born-again meth-head) that she doesn’t believe in anything. “I believe in science. I believe in evolution. I believe in Nate Silver and Neil deGrasse Tyson and Christopher Hitchens…I cannot get behind some supreme being who weighs in on the Tony Awards while a million people get wacked with machetes. I don’t believe a billion Indians are going to hell, I don’t think we get cancer to learn life lessons, and I don’t believe that people die young because God needs another angel. I think it’s bullshit.”
She then looks around at the other meth-head clique who also attest to some sort of Christian belief.
“I think we all know that (it’s bullshit). I mean, don’t you?”
I can’t help but think the question is only intended for the four or five snaggle-toothed prisoners crowded around the industrial metal countertop, but rather for the millions of viewers as well. I can’t help but think the script-writers would have us all nodding our heads in agreement.
I do agree. I don’t believe in the God she’s presented.
But I do believe in God. Hell, I believe in science too. I certainly “believe” in evolution (while it might be a novel idea, I can’t imagine why it should be: evolution and God are completely compatible).
That said, now’s as good a time as any to address the scope of this op-ed. This is not meant as a philosophical inquiry, or some piece-meal deconstruction of the straw-man, anti-evolutionary God (not purely, anyway), but is rather meant to point out that in our polarized nation of Republicans and Democrats, of Liberals and Fundamentalists we need to raise our standard of argument.
In that interest, I would like this to be read as a “pointing-to” treatise. For those interested, references given can be explored to further one’s own knowledge, and hopefully raise the standard of religious argument in this country.
At the outset, I want to make clear one foregone premise I’m working from: it is a good thing to gain distance from one’s opinion. It is a most, most good thing to not associate one’s self with one’s opinion.
Wholeness should be striven for, and integration leads to greater wholeness. Therefore, integration should likewise be striven for. So, when we gain distance from our viewpoints, when we come to view ourselves as more than our current held beliefs, we have a greater chance at integrating both sides of the argument—at the truth and beauty both sides of the argument have.
That’s right: the truth of both sides.
First, let’s take a look at this strawman God of Piper (and the “liberals” and other “secular humanists” she represents). This God is little more developed than the ones held in most of our six-year old heads: a bearded, white fellow somewhere up in the clouds, concerned with pre-marital sex and abortion. This Almighty Creator did just that: he created the world, once and for all, some three odd thousand years ago. He is the God of a literal bible, a God who punished all of humanity except for one man who boarded all the species two by two onto a homebuilt, great wooden ship and thereby gave our progeny the chance to start afresh. He is the God who, for a whole testament, comes across as quite spiteful and often vengeful before suddenly, a new testament shows a radical new side of Him—a loving, intimate side (If I weren’t schooled otherwise, I would think I was reading of two different Gods!).
Let’s just be honest: this is a really, really difficult to swallow. If every word in the bible is literally true, our children live in a world whose very foundations are largely built on a system of thought which negates that. This means that our children have to find their operating systems, so to speak, in a world which shuns such ridiculous and illogical thought. I don’t believe in this God either! It’s true: the God you don’t believe in doesn’t exist.
Here’s the unspoken kicker: I don’t think the fundamentalists are really buying this conception of God either. True, their political champions might take on this tone—and they often react harshly against reason (suspicious of it because it is, to be fair, used sinuously by the uncouth to justify just about any argument and behavior they may have), but I think the vast majority of the actively religious have a much more vast conception of God than their loud-mouth champions in the public sphere articulate. The reason is simple: the fundamentalist agenda has a political purpose and platform, and as such much shape their God’s construction around these means.
I would argue that their God’s conception is much more personal than to worry over abstract political concerns.
This very different conception of God was also portrayed in the very same episode. It was a God that the very same Piper seemed to resonate with. This scene comes before the last one, where the born again meth-head (comically goofy on purpose) is trying her best to follow her pastor-lawyer’s advice to “be as big a person as God would have her be” by asking for Piper’s forgiveness. In the midst of this interaction, the conversation takes a strange turn.
“All right, I’m just gonna give it to you straight, Piper. I’ve been harboring some really bad hate in my heart for you.”
“But I saved you.” Piper, honestly confused, says. “I got you out of Psych.”
“You saved me from shit you got me into. Don’t be surprised if there’s not a national holiday declared in your name.”
“You got me thrown into the SHU!”
“—Who’s talkin’ right now?” The born-again leans forward on the table. “Do you realize that you almost ruined my life? I mean, do you? You made the Almighty God into a joke, and a joke ain’t nothing to me. A joke didn’t write me letters up in (prison), and a joke didn’t give me hope so I could do my time and make something out of it. What do you believe in, Piper?”
“Well,” Piper puts a cute finger next to her lips, “I’ve always thought that agnostic was sort of a cop-out. But you know, if I had to label it, I’d say that I’m a secular humanist. Which is not to say I’m not spiritual—“
“You’re not religious, okay? Just stop. Stop. You believe in Hussein Obama? Electric cars and Shakespeare books and do you go out to eat at restaurants? I don’t have any of that, okay? All I have is him.”
“Don’t ask for my forgiveness.” The born-again shakes her head. “You should ask for His forgiveness. You need to get right with Him, and then we’ll see that all this was part of His plan”
“Yeah, right here, right now. Got somewhere to be?”
“All right,” Piper rolls her eyes before closing them and clasping her hands. “Dear Jesus—“
“—That’s awfully familiar for somebody that doesn’t give him the time of day.”
“Um, Dear Mr. Christ,” becoming surprisingly serious, intent, “I know that I’ve done some things recently that have not been up to your standards. And I feel pretty ashamed. It’s really easy to point fingers. And I’ve done some things lately I feel pretty lousy about. And I’m wondering if maybe you could make things right between us?”
“—If I could be forgiven, that would be really, um, that would be really comforting.”
The scene ends with Piper genuinely relieved.
The God represented in this view is often linked with the fundamentalist one, but I would argue it is a God that need not go part-and-parcel with a fixed, narrow viewpoint of the world. There are several important points to realize about this God that Piper prays to.
First of all, in that moment, she is praying to something she has decided, however briefly, to believe in. It is not some abstract concept or Thought to be believed, but her very personal conception of God, and she is approaching it in a very personal way. There are other great illustrations in the scene, most of all accountability: she is not pointing the finger. In fact, she is no longer looking outward at all, but rather inward. She’s not concerned with other’s judgments of her, any outside source of ridicule or pressure, but her own internal standards.
Here is a very important point I don’t think our dominant strand of Christianity emphasizes enough (or even articulates at all): God is most readily found within. This isn’t some treatise for a Hindu approach, but rather to point out an honest look at one’s internal condition is what leads one to “faith”. The born-agains aren’t coming to a belief in God based on any external proof through creation or proof against evolution, but rather through an entirely different method than the outward sensory ones of science.
Finally, the last point that needs articulating in the above scene is the simple fact that Piper acknowledges something beyond herself. This is the folly of “pride” Christianity talks about, the “ego” of the eastern traditions that might block our recognition of God, and it takes little more to subvert than a heart-felt outpouring to something (maybe just something) bigger than our own minds.
The benefits of this God are clear to see on the professional actress’ face. This God is personal, is supportive, and is possible to have a connection to.
The problem is thus: the methods to attain this religious connection are largely attached to a worldview that developed in a different age than our modern one. It is reconciling this awareness in a modern worldview that becomes the problem not just for Piper (I believe in science. I believe in evolution.), but for many of us moderns. This is because the fundamentalist would have us think that the awareness and connection with God must come coupled with a dogmatic worldview. That if we believe in evolution, of all things, that we can’t live a life with God.
I am not suggesting we throw out the traditions. Why, our very modern worldview rests upon a world constructed through the “traditional” worldview. Just like an old European city with an ancient, walled epicenter, spanning out into the new buildings and metal skyscrapers, both worldviews exist hand-in-hand (though a worldview can’t be seen so easily).
I’m not so naïve to think that someone existing fully (and happily) in a “traditional” worldview is going to be comfortable with my extrapolation of God into the complex, modern world full of moral relativism and shades of gray, and I wouldn’t want them to. The “traditional” worldview is full of wonderful benefits—strong family connections, moral conviction to name a few—and should be valued in its own right.
Just like the modern worldview—with it’s reason, with its value of the individual and the rights of others, with its science and technology and Ipads—should likewise be valued in its own right.
Here comes the kicker.
Remember when I said I “believe” in evolution? Well, I do. I really do: it’s hard to deny it, really, with all the rapid-fire adaptation we see all around us. There is clearly enough evidence to suggest that adaptation goes on at some level, however reluctant some may be to attribute it to our origins. Evolution, at some level—even if its just technological—exists.
This is just as much true for culture.
If culture is evolving, than it can’t necessarily be contained in its old structures. Suburban sprawl was too expansive to be walled in a protective center—the changing ways of warfare made that protective, insular mode of thinking no longer necessary. But the old parts don’t just disappear. They stick around, just like the hairy arms and thick beards of the Russians and the attached earlobes of those born in colder regions. The old structures exist just like the track record of cells in our bodies, leading up to the evolutionary advance of organs—all working towards an integration, a greater wholeness of the “organism”—to prove that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
This is true in our world-views. If its not possible for the traditionalists to ride this thought experiment this fair, I would implore my modernist audience to at least go one stop further: if the sum of the whole is greater than its parts, this means that the “modernist worldview” is but a part, and when serving only its interests rather than the whole, can become stagnant at best and cancerous at worst.
Now enter God into this equation.
I don’t know precisely when religion or faith became associated with dogma, but I’m glad I finally managed to separate the two. Too often, people associate Christianity with its dogmatic form; that is, as a set of suppositions one must acknowledge agreement with (usually something like: I believe the bible is true. I believe that Jesus is the son of God. I believe that Jesus died and after three days was resurrected). Never-mind the centuries history of deep spiritual practice from the monks and the like, the Christianity getting flung about in political spheres is all about “believing” a rigid set of sentences and much less about any sort of inner work or opening up into a higher love and consciousness.
When God becomes an idea, when we subjugate a concept so lofty that by definition it can’t be defined into, well, a definition, than it can become a mental object that can or can’t be negated.
Yet God, when properly conceived in line in his more medieval, Thomas Auquinas guise (i.e. –indefinable and ever beyond comprehension), we have a conception of the All that is open and able to be perceived, regardless of which level of cultural evolution we are viewing it at.
So, there is the God of the fundamentalists—a truth more living, life-affirming, and transformative that no amount of logical fudging is going to sway these traditionalists from their world view (and perhaps rightly so)—and there can be a God of the liberal, secular humanists, if the latter would but just step away from their world view from a moment.
For, as integral theory illustrates, the previous layers of culture (and consciousness) both transcend and include each other. Of course, pre-modern (or traditionalist) culture and worldview didn’t emerge out of nothing: it transcended and included its predecessor (which we might label as “tribal”). What’s more: the worldviews that come out of the previous one always attack one another most harshly, ergo the rational attack (e.g. Richard Dawkins) against the pre-modern (faith and religion). And vice versa.
For no better illustration of the two competing worldviews attacking each other, one need look no further than Bill Maher’s “Religioulous”. Talk about a straw man: the religion Bill attacks the whole movie is the most ridiculous, most illogical strand that he could find.
So, I would love to see pop culture become more versed in the nuances of religion, the depth of spirituality and the applicability it could have to modern (and post-modern) life, if we but up-leveled our conceptions of God just a bit. Remember: the God you don’t believe in doesn’t exist.
*For those interested in exploring a couple of the subjects presented here, I would recommend the following: