Category Archives: religious fundamentalism

Emily Dickinson Offered Wisdom Relevant to Modern Religious Zealotry

The mass murder in New Zealand illustrates again the problem with “True Believers,” those who believe so strongly they will even resort to violence.  This is because if one knows the truth, and knows it with enough passion, it will shut down the “pauser reason” which would tell one that another person might feel differently about what the truth is so that violence would not be necessary.  Furthermore, it would reveal internal boundaries, i.e. discretion or “the faculty of judgement” which would allow for value of life, in all forms, so that any belief that one has would not merit acting with violence.

There is inherent in belief a peril as one can be so invested so strongly in his beliefs that the aforementioned discretion is obliterated.  This discretion involves a “still small voice” in one’s heart which might tell one thinking of acting in this fashion, “Well, maybe I don’t really have to go to that extreme.” And if this discretion is fully functioning, the issue of acting out will not even be on the table.

Poet Emily Dickinson offered wisdom about this matter of discretion and related it to meaning.  She wrote that at times, “a certain slant of light” will break through our consciousness and will bring an “oppressive” mood into our heart; it might even bring us “heavenly hurt” though “we can find no scars, but internal difference where the meanings are.”  The ability to feel “difference” in the depths of our heart, though often bringing distress, i.e. “heavenly hurt,” will offer us meaning to our life which will empower us to see meaning beyond the values and beliefs we hold dear to ourselves. The inability to experience “difference” that would offer a meaningful life will create a rigidity denying the “heavenly hurt” that is part of the human experience; it is then more likely that the resulting pent-up anguish will be projected on someone else.

People who can’t handle this internal “discord” which intrinsic to a heart that is alive, will inevitable have to “them” someone else or some group of people.  They will have to find someone who is seen as an “other” and vent their self-loathing on them.  This is a spiritual issue which is the reason why we find it so common among religious individuals and groups as spirituality often taps into a very dark dimension of the human experience leading to speech, attitudes, and deeds which can only be described as evil.

Advertisements

“What is truth?” asked Pilate.

“What is truth?” asked Pilate.  This question posed by the Roman officiate who held in his hands the fate of Jesus still haunts us today.  A Showtime series put this question on the table again in the context of marital infidelity, as reported in this WaPo story:   https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/tv/step-1-to-start-loving-the-affair-admit-theres-no-such-thing-as-truth/2015/10/01/71b98422-65fa-11e5-9223-70cb36460919_story.html

Truth, in my youth, was pretty cut and dried.  And what made it so certain was living in a very narrow, conservative world of Arkansas fundamentalist Christianity. But I remember it with a certain degree of fondness, that qualification “certain degree” explaining why I don’t live there anymore.  If I’d have been a “True Believer” (See Eric Hoffer) I would still be there today but thanks to the infinite grace of God…and I mean that sincerely…I am not there and thus am left with the insecurity and doubt which I see as an essential dimension of faith.

But, nevertheless, Pilate’s historical and archetypal query, resonates with me profoundly.  I do so firmly believe in Truth even as I have so little doubt in my ability to quantify, define, and own it.  But I do firmly believe that Truth is present, even in my obscure little life, and in the absurdity of our collective endeavor.  Or, as my brother in Spirit, Billy Shakespeare, noted with his observations, “There is a method to our madness” and, “A Divinity doeth shape our ends, rough hew them how we may.”

But Pilate’s question is still on the table, in this instance with reference to marital faithfulness, but also to very relevant questions of my culture—abortion, gun control, evolution, and more fundamentally the notion of the old Superman tv series bromide, “Truth, justice, and the American Way.”  Is there anything “firm” and therefore “real”…or “Real”…out there? My vote is a firm “yes.” Truth is there, and “here,” but “woe is me” if I ever venture into the arrogance of thinking that I own it.

Embedded in our Own Thinking

Emily Dickinson noted in one of her poems the person who “is too near himself to see himself distinctly.” This is one way of describing the human dilemma of being embedded in a private, self-referential system of thought, which can also be described as “embedded in his own thinking.” This is best illustrated in someone who merits the term “delusional” and is, perhaps, wearing a tin foil hat to keep out the rays from “out there” which are seeking to influence his mind. But it is possible to find a group of people with the same delusional way of thinking which will then provide the validation to an individual who has just ventured over into the delusional realm. The only thing that makes this group delusional is that their shared delusion is different from the delusion of the shared reality of the larger collective in which they happen to be situated.

Yes, this smacks of the demon “relativism” that I was taught to eschew in my fundamentalist youth and, yes, carried to an extreme one can find himself without any grounding and without any sense of reality and come unglued in the dark abyss of nihilism. But taking that direction is not necessary and is actually merely the easy way out, avoiding the responsibility of finding meaning in the very complicated and mysterious phenomena that we call “life.” Self-indulgent nihilism is a delightful alternative though the “delight” usually proves short-lived and is harmful to the individual and to those around him. “Meaning” is gut-level work of the heart and most people avoid it, opting for nihilism or the ready-made escape into mindless dogma.

But, discovering that we are “embedded in our own thinking” does not mean that our way of thinking and perceiving the world is inherently invalid. The discovery of this “embeddness” only opens us to considering the limitations of how we see the world and the recognition that others might…and do…see the world differently. This insight is often very painful for it makes us realize, intellectually and emotionally, our existential plight of separateness which immediately subjects us to the anguish of loneliness which culture was contrived in the first place to avoid. But this discovery simultaneously makes possible a connection we did not know was possible, one that can best be described as one of spirit/Spirit. In this realm of the Ineffable we discover the interconnectedness of the whole of life– human, animal, and plant– and even Mother Earth herself. We are “dust of the earth” just as the Bible teaches us.

Let me close with one simple illustration of how our language illustrates this embeddedness and how it shapes our view of the world. In some Eastern languages, if an individual wants to point out that he sees a book, for example, he will say, “I see the book.” But in the West, he will likely say, “I see the book.” For, here in the West, especially in my country the subject-object distinction is more pronounced which is because one of the fundamental things we learn as a child is that we are separate and distinct from the world around us. This “separateness” is important but its emphasis neglects often our inter-relatedness with others and with the world.

ADDENDUM
W. H. Auden on the “embedded thought” of the collective:

Heroic charity is rare;
Without it, what except despair
Can shape the hero who will dare
The desperate catabasis
Into the snarl of the abyss
That always lies just underneath
Our jolly picnic on the heath
Of the agreeable, where we bask,
Agreed on what we will not ask,
Bland, sunny, and adjusted by
The light of the accepted lie.