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Why Spirituality and Religion Need Each Other

In their effort to distance themselves from irrelevant and pathological forms of religion, many today are identifying themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” This general move across culture has also tended to brand religion itself as inherently irrelevant (outdated) and pathological (extremist and/or delusional). The so-called New Atheists have promoted this identification in their advocacy on behalf of science, humanism, and social progress.

A problem with not only this more aggressive opposition to religion, but even with the self-identifier of “spiritual but not religious,” is that it’s based in a fundamental misunderstanding. It treats spirituality and religion as if they are two entirely different things – one private and personal, presumably; the other public and institutional.

As a matter of historical fact, organized religion is losing credibility. A religion which is fundamentalist, anti-scientific, countercultural, and otherworldly is quite literally out of touch.

But notice that I said “a religion which is” these things, not that religion itself is out of touch. Just as we wouldn’t want to identify science with examples of bad science (e.g., parapsychology) or quasi science (e.g., creationism) and summarily scrap the empirical enterprise of science altogether, neither should we confuse religion itself with its irrelevant or pathological examples and dismiss it all as dangerous nonsense.

In this post I will make the case that while religion itself needs to be distinguished from its cultural (good or bad) examples, it also needs to be understood as inseparable from spirituality – another term which I’ll attempt to define more carefully below.

My diagram illustrates a watercourse flowing left-to-right, with the picture divided in the two dimensions of “outer” and “inner.” This is meant to correspond to a most fundamental and obvious fact, which is that consciousness opens simultaneously in two orientations: outward through the senses to a sensory-physical reality, and inward by contemplative intuition to its own grounding mystery.

Check it out for yourself.

As the executive organ of your sentient nervous system, your brain is constantly monitoring information coming through its senses from the external environment. By the process of perception it represents a relevant and meaningful picture of reality called your worldview (or simply your world). At the same time, your brain is receiving information from your body’s internal environment and gathering it into a gestalt intuition called your self-concept (or simply your self). Self-and-world is the integral construct by which you, moment by moment, work out the meaning of your life.

A secondary function of religion at the cultural level (suggested in the Latin word religare, to link back or connect) is to unify the disparate objects and fields of perception into a world picture that will orient its members and make life meaningful. For many millenniums religion succeeded in this enterprise by telling stories, which it draped over the frame of reality as people have understood it.

With the rapid rise of empirical science, however, that cosmological frame underwent significant remodeling, with the result that many stories no longer made sense.

So, if putting together a coherent world picture that makes life meaningful is the secondary function of religion, what is its primary one?

Still in spirit of “linking back,” this time it’s about linking this temporal world to that grounding mystery of existence which rises into self-awareness from deep within. Your spontaneous experience of life is not simply contained in your body but rather arises from the quantum field of energy, the electromagnetic realm of matter, the organic web of life, and through the sentient networks of consciousness, until it bends back upon itself in (and as) the utterly unique center of personal identity which you name “I-myself.”

The two distinct dimensions of your existence, then, are the world of meaning where you play out your identity, and the ground of being which supports and animates your self from within: Outer and inner.

Hopefully now you can see that these two dimensions of inner and outer are not separate “parts” of you, but two distinct orientations of consciousness – outward by observation to the larger world of meaning, and inward by intuition to the deeper ground of being. Just as the outside and inside of a cup cannot be separated from each other, so your outer life cannot be separated from your inner life. They are essentially one, as you are whole.

I have made this personal so that you will have a vantage point and frame of reference for understanding the relationship of religion and spirituality. Translating directly from your individual experience to the cultural plane, we can say that religion is a system of symbols, stories, and sacred rituals that articulate a world picture in which people find orientation and meaning. This world picture must be congruent with the frame or model of reality generally understood from empirical observation – as we might say, based in the science of the time.

In my diagram I have identified religion as an overland river which carries the heritage of beliefs, values, and practices that preserves the meaning of life. In providing this structural continuity, religion stabilizes society by orienting and connecting its members in a cohesive community.

However, as with your own experience, if this outer production of meaning should lose its deeper link to the underground stream of inner life, it quickly withers and dies. Spirituality is my name for this underground stream, and it is the fuse by which religion is energized. Whereas religion’s commitment to meaning (and meaning-making) makes it articulate and rational, this engagement of spirituality with the grounding mystery renders an experience which is ineffable (i.e., beyond words and inherently unspeakable).

Throughout cultural history these two traditions have been moving in parallel – one outwardly oriented, institutional, and theological in character (i.e., given to talking about god), and the other inwardly oriented, contemplative, and mystical (preferring to be silent in the presence of mystery). The overland river of religion gives expression, structure, orientation and meaning to life, as the underground stream of spirituality brings individuals into communion with the provident ground of their own existence.

Outwardly religion articulates this deep experience of mystery, while inwardly spirituality surrenders all meaning, the urge to define, and the very self who would otherwise satisfy this urge.

Religion and spirituality are therefore not separate things, but dimensions of the one watercourse of our human experience. As my diagram shows, the place where the overland river and the underground stream come closest (though without merging) is in metaphor, which, as the word itself suggests, serves the purpose of carrying a realization born of experience across this gap and into the articulate web of language. The ineffable mystery is thus given form. The dark ground of being is represented in translucent images that give our rational mind something to contemplate.

God as fire, god as rock, god as wind, god as father or mother, god as lord and governor, god as creator of all things, even god as the ground of being – all are prevalent religious representations of a mystery that cannot be named. As metaphors they are not meant to suggest that one thing (the grounding mystery of existence) is like another thing (a rock, a person, or the ground we stand on). In other words, these are not analogies between objects or similes by which two unlike things are compared (e.g., she is like a rose).

Metaphors in religion are word-images that translate an ineffable experience (of mystery) into something we can talk about (our meaning).

As the mystics patiently remind us – but sometimes with greater admonishment: The present mystery of reality is not some thing (or someone) out there, over there, or up there. It is not a being, even a greatest of all beings. The god of myth and theology does not exist as we imagine, and we should not presume to speak on behalf of a deity who is our own creation.

Speak of the mystery if you must. And “tell all the truth, but tell it slant” (Emily Dickinson).

 

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Passing Through, Never Home

In The Shining Way I presented in outline the way of salvation that true religion sponsors and promotes. Not all religions, but true religion. That qualification allowed me to make a critical distinction between religion-in-essence or religion-itself, and the sometimes pathological forms it can take when it gets hijacked by that most dangerous force in all the universe – our neurotic ego.

Right now, each and every religion is either tracking with or departing from the Shining Way, which is our guiding path into deeper meaning, greater joy, and higher wholeness as human beings. Throughout its history a given religion will trace a meandering line: coming closer, trending with, crossing over, or veering away from genuine community and our higher nature.

These days, it happens that the major traditions of name-brand religion are rapidly losing relevance and credibility, sliding into complacency, bigotry or terrorism, and ramping the enthusiasm of members for a final escape – an end-time deliverance out of this world.

When we identify religion-itself with its pathological deformities, we make two very serious mistakes. First, as just mentioned, we forfeit our chance to better understand the role and function of healthy religion in our evolving spirituality as human beings. By throwing out the baby with the toxic bathwater, we lose the ability to ground our existence and orient our lives inside a system of values and aspirations that can lift us into our higher nature.

The second mistake is even more critical, since it lies at the roots of the first one: In our effort to break away from religion and leave it in the past, we miss an opportunity for honest self-examination, which is also our chance for the liberation our souls truly desire.

This is not liberation as in deliverance or escape, but liberation as in being set free to become whole again. With our adventure into a separate center of self-conscious personal identity, we fell out of the unconscious oneness of our first nature (i.e., our living body). As the myths and wisdom traditions across cultures attest, our ensuing psychospiritual journey is about dying to the self we’ve been duped into believing we are, waking up from the trance of our separateness (which also means our specialness and self-importance), and rising into the fullness of what we are as human beings.

For this to happen we must surrender our center of personal identity (aka ego or second nature) and go beyond ourselves – not negate, renounce, or cancel out the ego, but rather to leap from its stable base into a conscious wholeness where body and soul, self and other, human and nature are affirmed in their unity. The stability of this base is a key precondition of our self-transcendence, for without it the thrust of our leap will only push our feet deeper into the muck of ego neurosis.

In this post my task is to reach into the muck in order to uncover and examine what’s got us stuck, which I’m hoping will also crack the code of what makes a religion pathological.

Certainly, the early and widespread interest of primitive religion in the postmortem was a very natural extension of human curiosity and imagination. What had been a breathing, moving, and vibrant individual the day before is now lying motionless and cold before us. What happened? Where did that animating life-force go? Because it was also so intimately connected with the unique personality of that individual, it wasn’t a terrible strain on logic to assume that it may have relocated elsewhere. For millenniums ancient peoples envisioned a place where the departed spirits of their friends, relatives, and ancestors (why not their pets and other animals?) continued in some kind of existence.

With the rise of theism and ego consciousness, however, a moral obsession over the dualism of right and wrong inspired a division in this shadowland of the afterlife. Now, depending on one’s station in life (e.g., landowner or peasant), or whether they were sinner or saint, a departed spirit – which was becoming more like a ghostly version of the individual’s former identity (ego) – would be punished or rewarded accordingly.

This dualism in the very nature of reality served to orient and motivate the moral compliance of members, and thus to enforce the social order. It was also during this stage in the evolution of religion (theism) that patron deities were imagined in roles of lawgiver, supervisor, judge, advocate, or disciplinarian. In the reciprocity of obedience and worship for a deity’s blessing and protection, devotees had a ‘higher reason’ to remain dutifully in their assigned ranks.

One thing we need to remember as we consider this emergence of the self-conscious ego is how its separation from the enveloping realities of the womb, the nursing bond, and the primal family circle brings with it some degree of insecurity. The fall into greater exposure and self-conscious vulnerability prompts the individual to seek attachment, where he will early on find safety, warmth, and nourishment; and later the acceptance, recognition, and approval he needs to belong. Attachment, that is to say, compensates for and hopefully resolves the insecurity which inevitably comes along with ego formation.

Because insecurity is registered in the nervous system as restlessness and anxiety, one way of managing it – particularly if positive attachment objects are unavailable – is by dissociating from the body. It is common for victims of child abuse, for instance, to seek escape where physical flight isn’t an option, by ‘walling off’ the violated part of themselves, even engaging in a fantasy of existing apart from their bodies. This dissociated self then becomes ‘my true self’, ‘who I am’ as separate from the pain and suffering the individual is forced to endure.

A consequence of dissociation is that the personality lacks the stable support of a coherent nervous state, and stability is a foundational virtue of ego strength.

Now, before you conclude that I’m making a causal connection between pathological religion and priests who were abused as children, hold on. The fact is that each of us is insecure in our unique degree, and that, further, all of us without exception have sought refuge outside and apart from our bodies. A good number of us entertain fantasies of living on without the pain and drag of an embodied life, as bloodless souls in heaven after we die.

Perhaps a majority of us have grown so estranged from our animal nature, that we try to suppress the body’s messaging system (called ‘symptoms’) through a variety of distractions, intoxicants, and medications. And we all tend to lock ourselves up inside convictions that keep us from having to be fully present in the moment – present in our pain, present to one another, or present with whatever challenge is at hand.

As I mentioned in The Shining Way, a neurotic ego is insecure (check), defensive around that insecurity (check), insists on its special entitlement (conceited: check), and holes up dogmatically inside convictions that keep the pain and confusion of life at a distance (check). In this sense, the neurotic ego is always ‘passing through and never home’. And there is the causal connection I’m wanting to make:

The homeless ego, dissociated from our first nature, has hijacked religion and is steering it like a jetliner for the far horizon of this life, as far as possible from the mess we’re in, but tragically also away from the present mystery of reality.

 

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