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.

The Alternative to Defining God

The question of whether God exists as an object that can be defined and perceived by another object – i.e., a self apart from yet yearning to return to God – is not as helpful as it may seem. In effect, it reinforces the very confusion it purportedly aims to undo.

“Purportedly” works here because it allows for the possibility that we actually like what doesn’t work because it doesn’t work. Seeking can be a very effective way to avoid seeing what is already wholly given.

Being a student of A Course in Miracles means in part raising to question literally every single belief to which we cling.

To learn this course requires willingness to question every value that you hold. Not one can be kept hidden and obscure but it will jeopardize your learning. No belief is neutral (T-24.in.2:1-3).

Nothing is excluded, including our ideas about God, wellness, holiness, wholeness, et cetera.

We want to become aware of the way in which ideas about God impede our ability to gently and consistently give attention to life itself, to life in the way in which it is given now.

The upshot of all this questioning tends not to be answers as such but more a general recognition that there are no answers in terms the questioning self would recognize or accept. That is, eventually one realizes that the world and self as we understand and relate to them cannot satisfy that which longs to be satisfied.

There is no body, no object, no idea, no place, no practice and no activity that is going to bring and allow us to retain peace.

At that sterile juncture – that appearance of nothing – our lives can seem like an exercise in futility.

But “futility” is not precisely the word, for the surrender to which we refer owns a joyful quality. It arises less out of defeat and more out of a recognition that there is no battle being fought. We aren’t losing a war – we are realizing that we aren’t fighting a war in the first place.

What does a soldier do who suddenly realizes his life is not in danger? That she does not have to kill or hurt anyone?

One thing that happens is they can rest: they can draw a breath and let it settle. With respect to the question of defining God, one might discover that it is less pressing now that the incessant need to understand, explain and explain literally everything has abated.

This is not to suggest that inquiries into the nature of God (or Source or First Cause et cetera) are wrong or unhelpful. Rather, it is to note the way in which the inquiry both arises and is undertaken: is joy or peace conditional on the answer? Is being right or wrong at stake? Is there some conviction that this question is more important or valuable than, say, what to have for dinner?

We want to become aware of the way in which ideas about God impede our ability to gently and consistently give attention to life itself, to life in the way in which it is given now. We want to become aware of our willingness to have the Truth obscured under the guise of seeking Truth.

When we see clearly the nature of our resistance and unwillingness, it naturally subsides, leaving in its place a quiet and self-sustaining happiness. This is “the condition in which God is remembered” (T-24.in.1:2).

The Sufficiency of Life

. . .  and am reminded that when we die nothing really happens: the whole loveliness of the world continues, the whole sufficiency of life – of us, together, one within the other – continues. Our subjective experience of life ends, yes, but nothing is contingent on our subjective experience – it is merely awareness in a particular form, and the particular is always folding back into the general, the ultimate, the absolute, forever subsumed in the whole . . .

Dust to dust, flowers into the earth (bluets leaving to reappear), waves into sea . . . there are little brooks I pass on my walk that eventually trickle into Bronson Brook, which in turn reaches the Westfield River, which in turn flows into the long blue ribbon of the Connecticut River, which in turn reaches Long Island Sound, a tidal estuary of the Atlantic Ocean, opening at last into the broad Atlantic Ocean . . .

No matter how we think of it, we cannot undo truth. Reason doesn’t change anything – it merely observes what is. Or rigorously observes what is. Death is built in – it is inherent. We know how to die, in the sense that we don’t have to teach our bodies what to do. They understand entropy perfectly! It is clear and natural, like rivers or flowers. Our cells are not lamenting endings or celebrating beginnings. It’s all just movement. It’s all just flowing.

We confuse our subjective awareness of the whole – of the flow – with the whole and with the flow – and this confusion is what A Course in Miracles calls “ego.” It is the idea that we are separate from each other in a real and substantive way, and that this separateness matters, matters deeply, so that what we are in truth – our self, our being – is thereby contingent on this separation, these apparent differences. And that’s okay – it’s one way to do it, one way to see it – but it’s not the only way. All A Course in Miracles is saying is that maybe there’s another way to look at it. That’s all. All a student of A Course in Miracles really does in the end is say yes, okay, I’ll give attention to this other way and see what happens. I don’t know what will happen but I am ready – with you I am ready – to find out.

Life is hardly so concerned with separation – with separate selves living separate lives, forging disparate meanings, clinging to ideas and ideals and so on and so forth. Life takes nothing personally – cancer, volcano eruptions, famine, pestilence. Life does not behold these events/objects differently than it does roses, orgasms, sunsets and chocolate. It’s all the same.

You can see it that way if you are willing. You don’t have to accept it – you can always go back – but still. You can see how simple life is, and how perfectly it takes care, how sustaining it is. It is not hard to do this at the level of the intellect. Attention reveals it to us: life is, and it is not contingent on us or our ideas. It contains them – enfolds them – effortlessly, perfectly. Our subjective experience is okay – life is not trying to wrestle it away from us – but it is merely what passes, not unlike the chickadee, not unlike the chickadee’s shadow on the snow as it flies into the pines. What passes is not the problem: but our attachment to what passes, which is a kind of resistance to flow, is a problem, simply because it hurts so much. Simply because it begets so much sorrow and grief. We can live that way if we want but really: seeing the truth of it, why would we?

Getting to this intellectually matters because then we can begin to bring it into application. The level of intellect is like a seed that the loam of experience turns into flowers. That is the function of reason! If we understand a truth is true, then even if it’s hard, even if it’s confusing, even if it is contrary to what we have long believed, then we will accept it. We will align with it. The fruit of this alignment may take time to emerge, but it will emerge. We are never truly in error. Once we perceive the whole, the fragments – the reflections – inevitably restore to awareness the grace of source.

I say it and I say it in order to remember it: you already know it. But you are kind to listen to me, whose wordiness is yet a step on the path-that-is-not-a-path to the home that is home because nobody ever left it. You are patient and kind: and my gratitude bounds forth on the grass accordingly.

Alienation is not God’s Will

It is worth remembering that God’s will is not hidden, but that we have interposed our will before it, and thus are confused about what we are. A Course in Miracles is clear: alienation from awareness of God is not of God. It is simply the reflection of our decision to think apart from God.

God’s Will is your salvation. Would He not have given you the means to find it? If He wills you to have it, He must have made it possible and easy to obtain it (T-9.VII.1:1-3).

The confidence in those sentences is infectious, which it has to be because left to our own inclination, we make God a stern taskmaster who not only hides His Will but also makes it conditional. Failure, not success, becomes the salient characteristic of the relationship. But A Course in Miracles insists that what God is is not up to us and – more than that – that our ideas about God are wrong.

When I am attentive to the course’s clarity in this regard, and when I allows its confidence a place in my mind, there is great joy and gentle peace. A space opens in which I can remember that what God is and what I am are not separate but unified.

In other words, it becomes possible to remember love.

Thus, my practice of A Course in Miracles becomes: slow down, give attention, be grateful and love will extend itself through me, reminding me that I am not alone.

The course’s insistence that God is here and that opportunities to remember God’s will abound hinges on the simple truth that our brothers and sisters are everywhere around us (T-9.VII.1:4-6). Even when we are physically alone, they are with us. And they are the means by which God and love are remembered. Thus, you are my salvation, as I am yours, and this realization is what saves us (M-1.1:2).

Accept your brother in this world and accept nothing else, for in him you will find your creations because he created them with you. You will never know that you are co-creator with God until you learn that your brother is co-creator with you (T-9.VI.7:8-9).

Service is a form of attention given to our brothers and sisters, and all it sees is our mutual need to remember Christ. The form this attention takes in the world will vary – hugs, monetary donations, careful listening, leaving alone, baking cookies, building a house. Yet the content never varies. It is always love responding to the call for love. That is what it means to be home in God.

How do we know what form this love or attention should take? In a sense, we don’t. The ego can never know it, because the ego doesn’t offer love, and it doesn’t hear calls for love, and it isn’t interested in healing itself. This is why we need to be in relationship with the Holy Spirit, which does know, and will teach us, so long as we are humble and open and willing to learn.

The Holy Spirit – which is inherent in us as healed or unsplit mind – remembers God’s Will and naturally extends it, so long as we can get out of its way.

With the grandeur of God in you, you have chosen to be little and to lament your littleness. Within the system that dictated this choice the lament is inevitable (T-9.VII.6:5-6).

The ego shrinks us. Spirit enlarges and lifts us into love. When we are complaining and bitter, it is a sign that we are heeding the ego’s teaching. The answer is not to fix what seems to be the problem in the world. The answer is to listen to the Teacher who speaks for God and thus offers us a new way of seeing, one that is predicated on acceptance, forgiveness, and love.

The ego cannot help us out of this mess, because it made this mess, and needs this mess for its survival (e.g., T-9.VII.5:3). It is the ego who creates a sense of alienation from God; it is spirit who teaches that alienation is not God’s Will.

We need, then, a sense of quiet and attentiveness in which the Holy Spirit can come gently forward to remind us of our status as children of a loving God. In that reminder, we also remember that God’s Will is love. But not love on the world’s terms, which is always premised on getting something at another’s expense, but rather love on Heaven’s terms, which is premised on eternally giving everything away, which is the only way to actually have anything worth having.

It’s okay that this sound confusing or idealistic or naive. If we are being honest, it cannot really sound otherwise. To the ego, radical love and equality is nonsensical and even dangerous. It is only when we make space for the Holy Spirit that the clear and constructive wisdom of A Course in Miracles is revealed.

There is nothing complicated about awakening. It may be unfamiliar and even frightening at first, but it’s not complicated. It’s natural and certain because it has already happened. It already is. We are not inventing a new state; we are simply remembering the natural unity and harmony that already prevails, just outside our awareness.

So we slow down, give attention, manifest gratitude and notice the way love extends itself through us, enlarging our awareness in ways that make clear God’s love and our fundamental joy and peace.

In this gentle and holy mode of being, we are able to welcome the lost and forsaken, who are own self, and whose salvation is not separate from our own.

Transformed Perception is what Transforms the World

A Course in Miracles does not offer a way “out” of the world. There is no way “out.” Rather, the course transforms our mode of perception, sharpening the distinction between what is real and what is false, so that we can choose – moment by moment – to be united with God.

In that divine union, there is no world. There is no subject and object that is the necessary precedent to separation. It is relatively to easy to learn about this: through the course, through its teachers, through other non-dual paths and instructors. But it is another thing to experience it, to make it the fact of one’s life.

This was why Tara Singh insisted that the serious student of A Course in Miracles accept as premise that the time for learning had reached its end.

We must first begin to see that we know nothing other than ideas. We are probably not interested in going any further, nor do we even think that there is anything further. We just say, ‘well, I wish a miracle would happen.’ A person can have ten PhD’s, but what difference would that make. The lesson is still of relative knowledge and the main function of relative knowledge is to keep the separation intact (Nothing Real Can Be Threatened 210).

Taraji understood the wisdom inherent in Thoreau’s observation that “[n]atural ignorance has its place, but educated ignorance is a very dangerous thing.”

Discover that what is external is without effect and unreal and you discover the will of God within. There is no separation; there is the only idea of it.

Often, it is our yearning for escape – which so frequently translates into mere distraction – that impedes our natural ability to perceive the truth as
God created it.

I have to question – to look at, to inquire into – the problems that I believe shape my life. The people who are not doing what I think they should do, the economy that is not performing the way I want it to, the memories of past injustices and the anticipation of even greater wrongs ahead. A Course in Miracles is clear that “[q]uestioning illusions is the first step in undoing them” (T-3.III.2:6).

This looking or questioning is not in the nature of analysis anymore. There is a place for that but then one can move beyond it to something that is less wordy, less educated. I cannot just read about swimming in the brook, nor watch others swim in the brook. In the end, if I am serious about swimming in the brook, then I am going to have to wade in. In that action, something new happens that  learning can at best only hint at.

This is true of all experience whether we are talking about archery, baking bread, writing poetry or becoming a priest.

To focus on the external as the cause of my peace or lack thereof is nothing more than an evasion of my responsibility to be as God created me. This fact merits close and sustained attention. If it is true that “I am as God created me” (W-pI.162), then what else could possibly matter but coming to that knowledge now? What else could possibly heal the world and bring all conflict to its end?

Holy indeed is he who makes these words his own; arising with them in his  mind, recalling them throughout the day, at night bringing them with him as he goes to sleep. His dreams are happy and his rest secure, his safety certain and his body healed, because he sleeps and wakens with the truth before him always. He will save the world, because he gives the world hat he receives each time he practices the words of truth (W-pI.162.3:1-3).

Thus, when I sense that things are amiss in my life, I do not dwell on them but rather give attention to the mode of perception – of thought, of the movement of mind – out of which they arise. This is the real problem, and so there is no solution apart from it. Discover that what is external is without effect and unreal and you discover the will of God within. There is no separation; there is the only idea of it.