Religion (broadly defined so as to include spiritual practices like A Course in Miracles) can be a helpful way to work through the difficulties that attend our living, which is to say, to learn how to better bring forth love in our living with others who could be our own self. But it is only effective to the extent one sees the way it arises as a condition of the very problem it aims to solve.
Another way to think about this is to say that religion is not about what is actual but about what is possible at a given point.
What do I mean by this?
Religion evolved as a way of responding to the various challenges that inhere in the experience of being human in a world in which humans live, which living is inevitably circumscribed by perceptual and cognitive horizons. That is, religion provides narratives and rituals that help us deal with the fear and grief associated with, say, death – our own and others’. However, critically, it does not explain death. We cannot, in Merold Westphalt’s memorable phrase, “peek over God’s shoulder.”
Perception and cognition are limits – you can’t see every color on the light spectrum, you can’t survive on uncooked meat, and you can’t make it rain by thinking hard about rain.
But perception and cognition – in part because they are limits, are also creative. Through them, a world comes into being – blue skies, soft satin sheets, compound sentences, ants at picnics, twelve-string guitars on which Bach airs can be played. The world we perceive and think about and do our living in is the world brought forth by perception and cognition. Absolute truth or objective truth are lies we tell ourselves to avoid the responsibility subjectivity entails.
Heinz von Foerster puts it this way:
Objectivity is a subject’s delusion that observing can be done without him. Involving objectivity is abrogating responsibility – hence its popularity.
And A Course in Miracles like this:
Everyone teaches, and teaches all the time. This is a responsibility you inevitably assume the moment you accept any premise at all, and no one can organize their life without some thought system (T-6.In.2:2-3).
Thus, not only can we not peek over God’s shoulder, the very act of trying is a distraction from the work we are actually called (by the world we bring forth by virtue of our structure) to do. There is a moral imperative to not seek the objective stance, the true perspective, the actual source. It’s okay – it’s more than okay – to leave God to God.
Peter Nelson, an Australian psychotherapist and writer, puts it this way.
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.”
Our perceptual and cognitive limits point to or intimate the existence of a source or ground of being but they also simultaneously preclude us from ever reaching it. Belief systems – religious and spiritual ones in particular – emerge to help us manage this 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? Why do bad things happen? And so forth. Religion comforts us, provides a community for us, gives us purported answers, and gives us behavioral models to facilitate consistent living in an uncertain world.
Regrettably, over time, those systems morph from 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.” Once you start to believe you’re privy to the way, the truth and the life, it’s a surprisingly quick trip to torturing folks who refuse to convert to your belief system. We all think we wouldn’t do it but the truth is, we’ve been doing it for thousands of years. Don’t kid yourself.
Why do we take a few good ideas for helping manage our living and turn them into absolutes which justify so many manners of violence?
Well at least in part because we are in a war against uncertainty. We want to know. We believe The Truth exists and that we have some powerful natural right to know it unconditionally. We want the way, the truth and the life; not pale facsimiles. And yet our desire is forever thwarted. We cannot reach that whole . . . it is forever foreclosed to us by virtue of our structure.
Perhaps it is like when we are young and our teachers or parents insist we share our toys, not tease others, and shake hands after a fight. Those are fine ways of managing existence – better than fine actually – but they do not explain why conflict exists in the first place, nor how it specifically arises in us.
It’s clearly good to have strategies for managing conflict but we might ask: would it be better to understand the source of conflict and undo it there? And thus obviate the need for conflict resolution strategies?
A Course in Miracles makes sense to me as a method for managing one’s 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).
. . . no one can organize their life without some thought system. Once you have developed a thought system of any kind, you live by it and teach it (T-6.In.2:3-4).
But the course is terribly ineffective – as virtually all formal religions and religious systems are – when it comes to explaining how conflict arises in the first case. That’s because A Course in Miracles is a metaphor for what it means to not be able to peek over God’s shoulder. Its “explanations” are stories whose purpose is to teach. They are not unlike Aesop’s fables. There was not actually a stork and a fox who taunted one another about their respective manner of eating, but the story does make a valid point about the importance of respect for the other’s differences. We should take it seriously if it is helpful but we shouldn’t take it literally.
Again, it is critical to understand 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 is that we are called to a degree of epistemic humility. We can’t know the ultimate or final truth, and if our living is predicated on anything but that fact, then we are bound for unhappiness, and not just our own. We’re likely to hurt others as well.
Do you know the power of “I don’t know,” or the glory and beauty of humility? There is space in you to bring all thoughts and knowing to an end. The one who comes to “I don’t know” is certainly more at peace. And from there, perhaps, something else can begin (Tara Singh Nothing Real Can Be Threatened 94-95).
This was the essence of Tara Singh’s beautiful clarity when he called our attention to the lovelessness of “I’ve got it and you don’t.” The belief that we understand, that we have some insight or potential that others don’t have is a form of violence. Helen Schucman encouraged Singh to keep daily gratitude lists, in essence making gratitude the foundation of his ACIM practice and teaching. Gratitude relieved him of the need to compete with others and thus brought forth a healing love.
Have you ever observed your own perfection and given thanks? Then your life, too, would be a song. Every breath would convey your adoration. To see perfection in yourself and in a brother becomes the function of each one, until there is no imperfection or misperception, and you realize that, beyond appearances, there is no “other,” only God (Tara Singh Nothing Real Can Be Threatened 135).
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, we will see that in fact we do believe we are apart from one another, and that this separation breeds competition, and we conduct our living accordingly. The people who enacted the Holocaust were not monsters. They were human beings like you and me who erred in a deeply grievous way that you and I could err, given the same circumstances. Our capacity to bring forth peace and love – to not err on the side of hatred – is contingent on our never forgetting that fact.
If we see lovelessness happening, 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 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 more canonical approaches to ACIM. Singh understood that we have to work out the course in the course of our very living; anything else was insufficient.
Insist upon direct knowing. Let that be your decision. Unless you and I have come to gratefulness and peace, the future will be our master and we will live by the fear of consequences. Take a stand not to be regulated by your “knowings” and the future will have less sway over you. The commitment not to let your assumptions or ideas influence you brings with it its own awareness (Tara Singh Nothing Real Can Be Threatened 128).
I have come to see the wisdom of this but not without considerable effort. But over time I have understood that while we need to give careful attention to our ideas about living, we need also be aware of how those ideas can sometimes take us away from the actual living they imply. J.A. Simmons a Christian scholar whose work I find helpful, even though we are treading somewhat different paths, puts it this way.
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.
By all means study. Indeed, our cognitive capacities – our gift for logic, rational thought, evidence-gathering, clarifying bias – are incredibly useful in figuring out why we suffer and how to minimize that suffering.
But our study is sterile if it does not reach the moist potentiality of living in the world: its fructivity blossoms in the messy and confused loveliness of our living as loving languaging beings, each one of whom could be the other.
Tara Singh said in another context – I am working from memory, not the specific texts, and thus paraphrasing – that when Jesus said “I and the father are one” he spoke to his reality. When we say it, it’s just words. And so Singh 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, and the language that expresses that actuality 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 working out the bringing forth appears in the other, or, in approximately ACIM terms, our brothers and sisters.
So a religion – or spiritual tradition or practice, if you like – such as A Course in Miracles is helpful to the extent it redirects us away from mental quests for absolutes and towards the messy and lovely collective of the world. If it organizes our thinking in ways that help us to bring forth love in communion with our brothers and sisters, broadly defined so as to include starfish, snowflakes, rivers and bears, each one of whom could be our own self, then great. Be religious. But if it leads us to double down on mental purity, on the lovelessness of “I’ve got it and you don’t,” then shuck religion. There’s a better way.
I don’t know what this means for you, of course. I know folks who bring forth love out of religious traditions that are at best confusing and sometimes frightening to me. And I know folks for whom ACIM becomes a kind of moral straitjacket that they try to make everyone else wear. We have to go deeply into our experience of love and that which obstructs love, and this means going deeply into the world our loving – and obstructing loving – brings forth. There is no other work, and nobody can do it for us.