Category Archives: American religion

The Perverse Delight of Being Right

I grew up being right.  How did I know I was right?  Because I “knew” that I was right.  How did I know that?  Because I was taught what right was, and how to merit that label, and therefore it was simple to just adhere to the definition and make sure your thinking and behavior complied to its premises. “Right” is always something external to the subjective experience of a young child and gaining the delight of knowing that he/she is right requires dutifully imbibing the definition of right that is proffered.  I used the term “imbibing” because it is more than a mere cognitive matter; it is a matter of “soaking up” the nuances of the culture to acquire a subjective “experience” of being right, meaning it is not likely to be questioned.

I have questioned this “rightness” of mine my whole life.  Oh, somewhat less in my youth as just did not have the self-confidence, the courage to stand on my own two feet and think for myself.  “Thinking for oneself” in a collective mindset that discourages it will leave one with a sense of alienation and I got a double dose of that malady.  The experience of alienation was so intense that I desperately tried to comply, to believe the right things, to do the right things so that I would have the comfort of belonging.  But if you must “try” to belong, you are in deep shit as far as having the comfort that belonging offers.

This “splinter in the brain,” as Emily Dickinson called it, has tormented and blessed me, the whole of my life.  Even today, as I am standing on my own two feet, there is the deep-seated nagging realization that I am now defying nearly all of the offerings of the tribe I was born into that would offer one the “delight” of being right.  I now see that the desperate desire to be right of my early youth was merely the result of the implicit assumptions I had gained from my tribe that I was intrinsically wrong, leaving me with a deep-seated experience that my simple “being” in the world was wrong.  I now seek “The Joy of Being” wrong, which is the title of a very important book in my life by James Alison, the complete title being, “The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes.”  I personally believe this joy is what the teachings of Jesus was about, that he assured us that we could have this joy if we found the courage to relinquish all the pressures to fit in and just “be” present in the world.  This, in my estimation, is “salvation” which in the words of T.S. Eliot is, “a condition of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything.”

A very important caveat is warranted.  This freedom to “be,” to live free of the bondage to social norms, does not allow one to live in disregard for the conventions of one’s tribe.  Many of these conventions might not apply to me but that does not give me the freedom to go on the war path against them.  In that case I would be guilty of the very same obnoxious contempt that a tribe utilizes to stamp out the individuality of a soul. But it does give me the freedom to speak out about perceived injustice and evil as long as I don’t get so arrogant with self-righteousness that I encourage violence, overt or subtle.

The inspiration for this discourse stems from an article I read this morning in the New York Times about an Indian woman, Gauri Lankesh, who had this courage to be herself and speak out about the injustice of her country. She was a journalist who was murdered in 2017 because of her bold, and at times brazen willingness to “speak truth to power”.  Extremism always springs from knowing you are “right” and the arrogance that gives one this assurance arises from deep-seated darkness that permits violence.  This darkness arises from primitive fears and anxieties so intense that the light of conscious awareness is disallowed, a light that would permit respect of difference.

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The Imprisonment of Faith

Cultic religion offers us occasional example of how a faith system can become bondage.  But, often this phenomenon of “cultism” can subtly creep into faith systems that aren’t readily described as cults.  A faith becomes cultic when he does not trust the spiritual presence that permeates this world we live in and resorts to power, manipulation, and emotional brutality to capture its children and to win converts.  The leaders of this type of faith will be firmly confident of the nobility of their motivations but the behavior of what they are doing will be apparent to anyone looking on from the outside.  One simple example is the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, which btw must have crawled back under the rock from which they came as I haven’t heard of them lately.

This morning a young woman who was raised in a fundamentalist Christian church and culture shared in Huffington Post about her captivity in a family that was involved in the “quiver full movement” which emphasizes the importance of parents producing many children.  This verse comes from the Old Testament where it is written that fathers whose “quiver is full” of many children will have “arrows” with which the world can be captured for Christ. This young woman, Cynthia Jeub, describes the emotional/spiritual brutality that she was subjected to in this family until her late teens when she finally had the courage to escape.

In a closely-knit family, or a closely-knit group, there will always be someone who escapes.  T.S. Eliot described this individual as the dysfunctional family’s “bird sent flying through the purgatorial fire” to find what I would call the redemptive Grace of God which the family had forbidden.  Eliot furthermore, described this individual as the family’s “unhappy consciousness” that has been assigned this torturous task.  For, in any family or group any individual who dares to “think out side of the box” will be venturing toward consciousness as those who spend their life confined to the “box” of group think will never be able to know the delight of exploring the mystery of being a conscious human being.  This brings to my mind the famous line from Martin Luther King, “Free at last, free at last.  Praise God, I’m free at last.”  While King was speaking of escaping from the bondage of racial oppression, Ms. Jeub is now writing about her escape from familial, cultural, and spiritual bondage.  Check the link out and then check her blog out. (http://cynthiajeub.com/}

A caveat is in order.  Those confined to rigid veins of thought, those who are orchestrating this bondage, are not necessarily bad people.  They are people whose good, noble, spiritual intentions have been hijacked for the purpose of ego; and all of us have an ego. This is just the way it is. This is life.  It is easy to heap venom upon them, but we must realize this is how human culture operates.  My remarks here are to commend one individual who has been graced with the courage to break out of the fetters that imprisoned her and speak of what I like to call, “The Grace of God.”  See the Huffington Post article at the following link.

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/cynthia-jeub-kids-by-the-dozen_n_5c798c1be4b0e5e313ca43e0

Authenticity, God, and Identity Crisis

People of spiritual commitment often, if not most of the time, come to the point in their life when their faith needs to be cast aside.  This is the time when emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually the maturity has been reached to realize that even spirituality can be used to cover up the essence of life, even the “God” that we purport to worship.  This does not mean that this “God” will necessarily be forsaken but that one’s projections about “God” will be seen for what they are and cast aside, leaving one with the possibility of discovering “God” in a meaningful fashion.

This identity crisis, usually in mid life, is when the fantasy world that we have created and wrapped around ourselves is crumbling, providing for us an opportunity to enter into a more authentic dimension of life.  Even the “God” we have been worshipping might be seen as a self-serving fantasy and will have to be given up for a more honest, humbling relationship with a God who is the very Ground of our Being, our Source, and not a mere prop to adorn the hollow life that we have been living.

Anthropologist Clifford Geerst once said, “Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun.”  It is challenging to contemplate that the whole of our life, including our faith, is suspended in these “webs” and that to achieve any authenticity we will have to wrestle with them and discover as did poet Adrienne Rich that, “We can’t begin to discover who we are until we recognize the assumptions in which we are drenched.”  It is only when some, or most of these “assumptions” begin to crumble that we can begin to understand the wisdom of the crooner Leonard Cohen, “There’s a crack in everything; that is how the light gets in.”

 

Catholicism, Politics, and the Peril of Ideology

Ideologues, those entrapped in their self-serving ideology, can never recover from this malady.  They are like alcoholics who, in recovery-culture have the axiomatic bromide, “Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.”  The culture of recovery uses this bromide to address the truth that even those in recovery are still an alcoholic and always will be.  And I personally must confess that I am an “ideologue” in recovery and will always be, a fact that is certainly related to by persistent focus on the peril of ideology and threat of “ideologues.”  This ideological malady is intrinsically related to this gift of thinking that makes us driven by instinct alone.

Religious culture of our day illustrates this problem just as does our political culture.  Religious people are susceptible to being so intoxicated with theology and religious tradition that the essence of their spirituality is obliterated by their enslavement to their ideas, the, “letter of the law.”  An identity plague with this malady is often so entrapped in his ideas of himself, in “ideas” about his spirituality that he is unable to recognize and acknowledge that his spirituality is largely, if not completely, “performance art.”

There is a related story in the news which broke yesterday about the Pope having fired a prominent member of the House of Cardinals, Theodore McCarrick, for his history of sexual abuse.  The evidence against this 88 year old man is extensive and could no longer be ignored by the Catholic hierarchy.  But this aged man persists in his innocence even in the face of overwhelming evidence that he is guilty.

I would conjecture that this man is a “good” man with the life-long spiritual emphasis of his career; for, “good men” can do very bad things.  But “good men,” steeped in the rigid structure of faith can gradually reach the place where their piety is so self-serving that they can and do overlook their gross “badness.”  It is possible that this ex-Cardinal truly does believe in his innocence as “ideas” are so intoxicating that they often keep us trapped in self-deception, even though this dishonesty is so apparent to those looking on.

This is now glaringly obvious in our political system with prominent politicians so obviously guilty of blatant lying yet be so unaware of their dishonesty that they can readily accuse their foes of, “lying.”  Yes, this is hypocrisy, but it is quite possible that some of these “hypocrites” really do believe what they are saying for being trapped in their ideas about themselves it is quite possible they do not believe they are lying.  But this is a human malady, not merely one exclusive to religious leaders and politicians.  It is very human to cling to our ideas of ourselves, our self-percept of our identity, rather than consider that beneath the surface there are unsavory dimensions to our psyche that need to be given the light of day occasionally.  But this “unconscious” dimension of our life is too readily kept buried as our “conscious” beliefs, “i.e. ‘ideas,’” about ourselves will not allow the darkness to be acknowledged.  This “darkness” would disrupt and even devastate our “ideological” identity even though spiritual teachings often present the notion that “in the darkness” there is, “light.”  As Auden summarized this wisdom poetically, “And Truth met him, and held out here hand.  But he clung in panic to his tall beliefs and shrank away like an ill-treated child.

Misplaced Concreteness Imperils Our Soul

Psychologist Irvin Yalom noted that the fear of death keeps people from living.  By that he meant that the infantile fear of death…a necessary fear at earliest stages of development…can keep people from actually living if it is never addressed.  The ego uses this death fear to tyrannize people into living an unexamined life, to prefer the security of a self-serving, sterile environment where we can plod through our lives, “like kittens given their own tails to tease.” (Goethe)

And here is how Shakespeare addressed the same concern in Sonnet 146:

Poor soul, the centre of my sinful earth,
Thrall to these rebel powers that thee array,
Why dost thou pine within and suffer dearth,
Painting thy outward walls so costly gay?
Why so large cost, having so short a lease,
Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?
Shall worms, inheritors of this excess,
Eat up thy charge? Is this thy body’s end?
Then soul, live

 thou upon thy servant’s loss,
And let that pine to aggravate thy store;
Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross;
Within be fed, without be rich no more:
So shall thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
And Death once dead, there’s no more dying then.

Shakespeare knew the dilemma of misplaced concreteness, taking for real that which is only ephemeral.  Plato explained this with his allegory of the cave.  Jesus understood this also when he declared, “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”  Jesus knew that being a slave to the “cave images,” taking them to be real, would lead one to live a life which was merely a caricature of what it is to be human.  He knew that succumbing to the temptation of merely reading our script…even those that include intense versions of spirituality…would be merely to live a life of bondage, bondage to the ephemeral while excluding the soul.

Interiority is a missing dimension of modern life.  This is because we take thoughts to be the “thing-in-itself,” which parallels our tendency to take social, political, and material things on a surface level and fail to look beneath the surface into the machinations of the heart…i.e. the “soul.”  Shakespeare knew that making this mistake was to let our soul, “pine within” from neglect, even as we paint the exterior dimensions of our life a gaudy, “costly gay.”  This is most manifest in my country’s current political situation where political leaders are mired in a horrible morass of ego and greed while we lamely avow, “Well, it will all workout” or “God is in control” rather than recognizing that the “morass of ego and greed” that our government is acting out for us right now is a projection of the hollowness of our entire way of life…including our religion.

 

See following link for commentary on this sonnet—https://www.nosweatshakespeare.com/sonnets/146/

Have We Been Bamboozled?

Before I deactivated my Facebook account last month, I ventured into a discussion of truth.  One astute individual noted, “One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us.”  Another observation discovered decades ago put it this way, “Our thinking is the belated rationalization of conclusions to which we’ve already been led by our desires.”

It is sobering to toy with the notion that we believe only what we want to and avoid anything that challenges this belief system.  This is graphically being illustrated currently with the power of the Trumpian delusional system to capture the reins of power in our government. This phenomenon is not intrinsically “bad” as it is merely an intrinsic “human” quality which each of us begin our life with and often grow beyond as we reach maturity.  But it becomes “bad” and even evil when our maturity does not include spiritual maturity so that we can have the humility to recognize this narcissistic tendency and be open to acknowledging self-deceit.

Self-deceit is the primary dimension of the Bible quip I offered yesterday about sin, noting that the essence of sin lies in the “thoughts and intents of the heart.”  It is easy to live in a religious culture and glibly acknowledge being a sinner but it is frightening to toy with the notion that sin goes deeply into our inner-most being (i.e. “heart”) and influences our view of the world, even including our view of ourselves.  Our usual response, when threatened with this truth is to utilize our ego’s defense system and simply cling more tightly to our customary view of the world and of ourselves, not daring to venture near the anguish of disillusionment.  This is most significantly an issue with respect to our certainties, including our religious certainties.  As W. H. Auden noted, “And Truth met him, and held out her hand.  But he clung in panic to his tall belief and shrank away like an ill-treated child.”  The “Gospel” of Pogo put it this way, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Politics, Belief, and “a bit of wobbly”

Margaret Thatcher in 1990 brought the expression, “Don’t go wobbly” to the political table. At the time Saddam Hussein had invaded Iraq, Thatcher and George W. Bush were together in Aspen, Colorado discussing the ins and outs of a military response. As “W” appeared be equivocating, Thatcher told him, “This is not the time to go wobbly, George.” The opposite of, “wobbly,— going full speed ahead on a matter, throwing caution to the wind with utmost certainty–will always be appealing to many but the rigid certitude of such a stance often needs at least a tad of hesitation, a small dollop of what Shakespeare called, “the pauser reason.”

The relevance of this issue to our current political/cultural climate is obvious. And one dimension of this climate is the area of religion where “belief” is often held to so rigidly that many believers have found themselves “believing” themselves into a corner from which they can’t escape. This mind set avoids the wisdom of faith traditions that belief must be moderated with a bit of doubt here and there as when St Thomas prayed, “Lord, I believe. Help thou my unbelief,” or even Jesus when he prayed to his Father as the Crucifixion approached prayed, “Lord, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” Following here is a lovely poem which speaks of the need of a touch of “wobbly” in a person’s faith:

Belief by Lia Purpura

Light being
wavy and particulate
at once
is instructive—
why wouldn’t
other things or states
present as
both/and?
For instance
I both
believe and can’t.
Holding these
together produces
a wobble, I think
it’s time
to take seriously
as a stance.