On Losing Religion and Gathering Joy

I do not think that religion is something one has to vanquish and bury in an anonymous grave, all in the name of love and reason, but I do think if one has not yet seen good reasons why it should be so vanquished and dispatched, then one is perhaps insufficiently religious.

What do I mean by this?

Religion evolved as a way of responding to the challenge of being human in a world in which humans live, which living is inevitably circumscribed by perceptual and cognitive horizons. Though in its early incarnations religion attempted to explain the world, we now know that it doesn’t, at least not accurately or well. We can’t, in Merold Westphal’s memorable phrase, “peek over God’s shoulder.” Thus, the utility of religion and related spiritual projects must be located in another domain of living (other than explanation, first causes, et cetera).

We are organisms for whom the world appears as an object or set of objects upon which we can mentally reflect. But perception and cognition are limits. This should not be controversial! We can’t see every color on the light spectrum, we can’t make it rain by dancing, we can’t breathe underwater, and we can’t build a two-story house in fifteen minutes.

But perception and cognition – in part because they are limits – are also creative. Through them, a world comes into being: blue skies, soft clean sheets, compound sentences, ants at picnics, twelve-string guitars on which Bach airs are picked. The world we perceive and think about is the world brought forth by perception and cognition. And it is by definition limited and partial. Thus, “absolute truth” or “objective truth” are lies we tell ourselves (to avoid the responsibility subjectivity entails).

So not only can we not “peek over God’s shoulder,” the very act of trying to do so is a distraction from the work we are actually called (by the world we bring forth through our living) to do. In fact, one can make a good case that we are subject to an ethical imperative to not seek the objective stance, the true perspective, the actual source. Why fuss with an alien God when your brother and sister are right here waiting on your attention and service?

Peter Nelson, an Australian psychotherapist and writer, puts it better than I ever could. “The quest for foundations is a vanity that takes us away from the kind of knowing that is actually possible for us and leads to a fragmentation and separation that contributes to our destruction, ‘metaphorically’ as well as ‘actually.'”

On this view, belief systems – religious and spiritual ones in particular – emerged to help us manage a fundamental state of unknowing and uncertainty. What are we? What happens when we die? What is the relationship between experience and the world? Is there a relationship? Why should I care about my neighbor? My enemy? Folks I’ll never meet? Why do bad things happen? And so on and so forth.

In this way – for a long time – religion comforted us, provided community (of like-minded folk) for us, gave us answers to apparently unanswerable questions and provided behavioral models to facilitate relatively productive living. It wasn’t perfect but it was better than nothing.

However, over time, those belief systems morphed from malleable suggestions to absolute truths. “Here’s a way to think about death and dying” becomes “here is the way to think about death and dying.” And once we start to believe that we are privy to the way and the truth and the life, then it’s a surprisingly quick trip to war, genocide, and torture. We all think “not me – I wouldn’t do that” but in fact we’ve been doing it for thousands upon thousands of years. We are good at it, and the part of us that is good at it, lives in all of us.

Why do we take a few good ideas gathered under the rubric “religion” (e.g., share your wealth, love those who hurt you, welcome everybody to the table) and turn them into absolutes which justify all manner of violence?

Why does love turn so quickly to hate?

Well, in part it does so because we are in a war against uncertainty. We want to know. We believe the truth exists and that the right to know it inheres in us unconditionally. The Jesus of the New Testament doesn’t say “I am the way and the truth and the life” because we want him to be less categorical. He says it because deep down, we believe that’s how you crush uncertainty and the fear that goes with it. You get definite. You go to the land of “THE,” not “A.” And guess who leads the way?

The problem, of course, is that we cannot reach that whole. It is forever closed to us. Certainty is a dream that obscures what is actually possible. We are scaling a mountain that has no summit and it is made of the bones of those we didn’t love because we were too busy climbing a mountain to notice them.

Five thousand years ago, this was less clear than it is now. But today, we know that our senses provide functional translations, not veridical representations. We know that language is symbolic. We know that the self is reflexive and recursive. We don’t need Gods and saviors. What worked about them was always in us anyway, and what doesn’t work about them was always in us anyway, too.

So A Course in Miracles makes sense to me as a method for managing one’s living in the world brought forth by their living. It is an effective strategy for being in responsive dialogue with one’s neighbors (thus alleviating apparently external conflict), and for maintaining a healing perspective on one’s interior craziness (thus alleviating apparently internal conflict).

But it is terrible – as virtually all formal religions are – when it comes to explaining how conflict arises in the first case. That’s because A Course in Miracles is simply an extended metaphor for what it means to not be able to “peek over God’s shoulder” and how to live once we’ve accepted that fact. Read in any other light, it’s merely going to confuse and confound us.

Again, it is critical to understand here that Westphal didn’t mean that God literally has a shoulder or even that there is literally a God. Rather, he meant that human beings cannot occupy an objective perspective. We can’t know the truth, nor even whether the truth exists, and what this means in a fundamental sense is that we are called to embrace – to live from in a holy way – epistemic humility. We do not and probably cannot know the Truth, and if our living is predicated on anything but that unknowing, then we are bound for unhappiness, and not just our own. We’re likely to hurt others as well. History attests to this. The consequences of how we think and what is brought forth accordingly are not trivial.

This was the essence of Tara Singh’s beautiful clarity when he called our attention to the lovelessness of the belief that “I’ve got it and you don’t.” The belief that we understand where others are confused, that we have some insight or potential that others don’t have is a form of violence because it is loveless. It does not perceive one’s neighbor as oneself but as something other than one’s self. It stipulates to separation and then doubles down on it.

Conflict arises because we believe that we are apart from the world: we believe that we have separate interests, and that these interests require defense which, in turn, sometimes requires attack. Most of us say we don’t believe this, and we can be very good at persuading ourselves and others that we don’t, but if we examine our living carefully, then we will see that in fact we do believe we are apart from one another, and this separation breeds competition, and we conduct our living accordingly. The people who enacted the Holocaust or separate children from parents at borders or won’t help refugees drowning in the sea are not monsters. They are people like you and me. They are our brothers and sisters and our capacity to bring forth peace and love is contingent in part on our never forgetting that fact.

If we notice lovelessness in the world, then we can respond to it in the moment. If I’m being a jerk in the classroom, then I can be less of a jerk, and make the requisite amends. If I am selfish in my living at home, the same. But as I used to say with respect to making amends as a formal spiritual practice: the point is not to become great at saying “I’m sorry.” The point is to become the sort of living being who does not need to make amends so often.

That is why eventually our so-called spiritual seeking moves us in the direction of what can be applied and brought into application. This was part of what alienated Tara Singh from the Foundation for Inner Peace and FACIM and other more canonical approaches to ACIM. Singh understood that we have to work out A Course in Miracles in the course of our very living; anything else was insufficient. Indeed, anything else was a form of violence that ultimately only perpetuated separation. Pretending we aren’t bodies, or that the world isn’t real, or that ascended masters have everything covered, or that Jesus was a favored male child of a male deity are simply ways of reinforcing the original error of separation. There is another way! And it is to lean into the very living presenting itself in order to bring forth the loving context inherent (if obscured) in that living.

We are called to give sustained care-filled attention to our ideas about living, but we must also – perhaps in an even more intensely holy way – be aware of how those ideas can sometimes take us away from the actual living implied in them. Here is how Christian writer and teacher J.A. Simmons frames it.

Engaging in hermeneutics is absolutely essential for thinking and living well, but sometimes hermeneutic inquiry can invite a second-order existence that fails to find traction in what Wittgenstein might call the “rough ground” of a community’s shared hopes, beliefs, and rituals. This is not an either/or decision between engaged practice or detached theory, but simply a Kierkegaardian reminder not to forget about living while we think about how best to live. Phenomenology in a postmodern/post-secular context should propel us into our historical communities, not away from them. It should call us to critical engagement, not disregard and detachment.

In slightly less academic terms, sometimes we think so hard and deeply about love, that we entirely miss the opportunities to manifest that love in our living. It is like so deeply pondering the importance of service to one’s brothers and sisters that we altogether miss the homeless child in front of us asking over and over if we can spare a dollar.

By all means study. Indeed, our cognitive capacities – our gift for logic, rational thought, evidence-gathering, clarifying bias and so forth – are incredibly useful in figuring out why suffering happens and how to minimize that suffering, our own and everyone else’s.

But our study is sterile if it does not reach the moist potentiality of actually living in the world in which our living occurs. Its creativity and helpfulness is roots, blossoms and re-seeds itself in the messy and confused loveliness of our living as loving languaging beings, each of one of whom could be the other.

Tara Singh once pointed out that when Jesus said “I and the father are one” he spoke to his reality. When we say it, it’s just words. And he called on us to learn why it was just words so that we could learn how to live in a way that it was our actuality. Or, better yet, find our own actuality – our own experience of unity, oneness, love – and a corresponding language that expresses it without qualification or condition.

That is the work, and no other work is really satisfying. The work, so to speak, appears differently for each of us, but it is not different in any fundamental way. How shall we bring forth love? The answer is within us in the form of that which obstructs the free flow of love, and it is without us in the sense that the context of bringing forth appears in the other, or, in approximately ACIM terms, our brothers and sisters.

Earlier, I suggested that a religious experience was valuable to the extent that it undermined religion. That is, the map must take you so deeply into the territory that the map is no longer helpful. Religion must carry you so deeply into the self and the world that even religion is undone. Saint John of the Cross understood this intimately. He said that if we want to be sure of the road on which we walk, then we must close our eyes and walk in the dark. That’s not an argument for placing one’s faith in an external deity; it is a description of what it means to live in a holy way when one cannot ever know for certain, the deity or anything else.

Religion can be a useful helpful way to work out the terms of our living, which is to say, to learn and go on learning how to bring forth love in our living with others who could be our own self. But it is only effective to the very extent one sees the way in which it arises as a condition of the very problem (separation) it aims to solve. Thus, religion and related spiritual projects are not about what is actual, but about what is possible.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.