“In spite of the appeal which this impersonality of the scientific attitude makes to a certain magnanimity of temper, I believe it to be shallow, and I can now state my reason in comparatively few words. That reason is that, so long as we deal with the cosmic and the general, we deal only with the symbols of reality, but as soon as we deal with private and personal phenomena as such, we deal with realities in the completest sense of the term. I think I can easily make clear what I mean by these words.
The world of our experience consists at all times of two parts, an objective and a subjective part, of which the former may be incalculably more extensive than the latter, and yet the latter can never be omitted or suppressed. The objective part is the sum total of whatsoever at any given time we may be thinking of, the subjective part is the inner ‘state’ in which the thinking comes to pass. What we think of may be enormous – the cosmic times and places, for example – whereas the inner state may be the most fugitive and paltry activity of mind. Yet the cosmic objects, so far as the experience yields them, are but ideal pictures of something whose existence we do not inwardly possess but only point at outwardly, while the inner state is our very experience itself; its reality and that of our experience are one. A conscious field plus its object felt or thought of plus an attitude towards the object plus a sense of a self to whom the attitude belongs – such a concrete bit of personal experience may be a small bit, but it is a solid bit as long as it lasts; not hollow, not a mere abstract element of experience, such as the ‘object’ when it is taken all alone. It is a full fact, even though it be an insignificant fact; it is of the kind to which all realities whatsoever must belong; the motor currents of the world run through the like of it; it is on the line connecting real events with real events. That unshareable feeling which each one of us has of the pinch of his individual destiny as he privately feels it rolling out on fortune’s wheel may be disparaged for its egotism, may be sneered at as unscientific, but it is the one thing that fills up the measure of our concrete actuality, and any would-be existent that should lack such a feeling, or its analogue, would be a piece of reality only half made up.
… I think, therefore, that however particular questions connected with our individual destinies may be answered, it is only by acknowledging them as genuine questions, and living in the sphere of thought which they open up, that we become profound. But to live thus is to be religious… It does not follow, because our ancestors made so many errors of fact and mixed them with their religion, that we should therefore leave off being religious at all. By being religious we establish ourselves in possession of ultimate reality at the only points at which reality is given us to guard. Our responsible concern is with our private destiny, after all.”
William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Italics in original
Christianity, it turns out, is a very dangerous religion to misunderstand.
Its symbolic currency includes Death, the Devil, and Hell. Get the meaning of these wrong, what these symbolic teachings are really about, and the mind can be lead to madness, the heart can have compassion torn from it, and the body can be lead to commit suicide or “sacred” murder.
I am concerned with how healing trauma takes place. As we learn to become still, sitting quietly, the traumas of our lives surface. That is the universal formulae grounded in human biology. For people raised in the Christian West this often, though not always, will include a confrontation with the religion of one’s ancestors. We are concerned with a change of heart that lasts a lifetime. We are looking for something that slams the door once and for all on the power of the suicidal impulses instilled within people wounded by abuse.
For many people engaged with issues of world religion and comparative mythology the Christianity of today is a tradition that seems to lack depth. People who study the philosophy of the East are left wondering why the sacred books of the West seem to speak on the level of nursery tales, lacking psychological sophistication. For many people in the West those who talk most about Jesus are seen to be little more than smug and shallow people who are moved by any number of psychological needs to push their religion – except compassion. For every Mother Teresa or Desmond Tutu we seem to get 10,000 bible thumping fundamentalists coming out of the Western traditions, obsessively elitist and emotionally cruel. Reason sticks with evidence and as it was once said, by their fruit you will know them. We as a society have seen a lot of bad fruit.
Christianity in the West has all but forgotten its own contemplative traditions. As it is often understood and taught, it lacks real respect for the mystical states of consciousness inherent in the religious search (which provide the bridge between psychological science and religious faith), it has a poor grasp of the role its tales of magic and miracles plays in our dreaming and waking minds, and, perhaps most alarming, has been transformed into a farce by TV preachers and those of the “Jesus meek and mild” camp or, even worse, converted into farce by the Rambo-Jesus of the Holy Warriors preparing Armageddon in his name. It’s hard to imagine their Jesus ever saying “Blessed are the Peacemakers.”
I was born within a Christian culture, it is what I know biologically. It gave me my mind’s most basic terms for clothing the mystery of being. This was not only due to the Santa Clause and Easter Egg traditions we have already talked about as operative in many American families. I further attended a private Episcopal school and spent considerable time meditating in chapel by my own choice. The corpus on the Cross made a profound impression on me as my young life fell apart. A love-hate relationship with the religion of my society has accompanied me ever since. I want to talk about what I’ve learned over the years watching myself and others deal with religious issues, Christian and otherwise. For those like myself who took Christianity in with their mother’s milk, and took it seriously, it is my hope that something I say will resonate and maybe aid your own relationship with the mythological clothing over the mysteries with which you were born. I think it has a treasure trove of profundities most people have never been taught to see. For those from cultures that are not Christian, I hope that this exploration might provide pointers for what to look for in their own traditions. We share the same biology. We share the same task of needing to make peace with what we were given.
No location on the planet is going to be left unaffected by the changing climate, sixth extinction, and the rest of the baleful bag of bad heading our way. Everywhere this wrestling with who and what we are as a species is going to be taking place, and taking place under triage conditions. It may go better if people of goodwill, religious or otherwise, can find one voice. Earth needs each person of every faith in this, her hour of trial, teaching clearly that real spirituality starts by first showing respect for the reality of what we have been given. We are not going to skillfully address the ecological crisis without addressing the need to better understand the human psyche which created the crisis. That seems to be the task. From the cave paintings on to the Louvre, we have been inescapably involved in the evolution of that realm that is as real as rocks in its own way, yet populated with the angels and demons, the as-if beings who populate the metaphorical world where we find, or fail to find, meaningful human lives.
Insisting our metaphors are something other than what they are displays a dangerous lack of faith in that which is real. It lead to the dangerous willingness to sacrifice the real for fictions which we see all around us today. What ails us is the accelerating collapse of stable ecological systems at our own hands. We are being told that the solution for what ails us is accelerated economic growth, isolationism, war, patriotic racism, and a return to “old fashion religion.” Those who have become mindful of ecology disagree. We see other factors at play and believe other solutions are needed.
I was taught to meditate in the Vedanta fashion when I was five or six years old; the interplay of Eastern and Western thought has always been a part of the world I have known. It was decades ago that I learned what the inner parts of the Christian Mysteries mean to me and made my peace with that. I would not want to mislead any of my readers on this point by not mentioning that I am also a card carrying Roman Catholic. I am “legally” able to attend Mass, the West’s signature symbolic ritual. It has been in the interplay between mysticism and church, atheism and faith, religion and philosophy, biology and psychology — both Eastern and Western — that most of what has helped me deal with my own abuse has taken place. There is an element of ambiguity in all this which I have been taught over the years to see as a source of creativity, not something that needs to be escaped. I keep my mandala open in the eastern direction. Life is large, I am large, the people I know and the people I love are large — too large to be put into neat little boxes.
The complete mandala is three dimensional so can only be seen with stereoscopic vision. “A conscious field plus its object felt or thought of plus an attitude towards the object plus a sense of a self to whom the attitude belongs,” William James writes, catching the fullness of the whole. We need to learn to see all sentient beings this way. In that spark of destiny dynamically being made real, we see the sacred.
The determining feature for me is a surrender to biological facts within my experience of conscience. This is what leads me to say I am a religious psychologist of sorts. Actually, I don’t say that. It is only useful as a label to convey to my readers something important about my position. Labels are bridges fraught with misunderstanding between something I sense to be important within my way of thinking, and you who are graciously reading my words. I am just a human being who has been blessed with a chance to learn from some good people how to listen to my own broken heart. Here is where I found the truth, the way, and the life, and whatever healing I have known or been able to share, old fool that I am.
One of the things I have learned, sometimes the hard way, is not to be too carried away by enthusiasms. Young men and woman full of charisma can be found shouting assuredly of their various faiths left, right, and center in America. I have learned to be a bit more patient. I am interested in how these recommended “religious” tenants and practices bear fruit in the way people actually live their lives. The temporary fruits of the moment do not interest me much. After all, the first act of a tragedy is characterized by everything seemingly going well. Show me the men and women of your faith in their 70s or 80s and let me see if their hands touch me with the unmistakable warmth of compassion and their eyes glow with a delight for life and peaceful gratitude – or if they are just frightened, terrified to face the end and struggling to keep the ego-persona in place that denies how deeply the fear has effected them.
The point of mythology is that these stories are larger than we are as individuals. Just as life is. The religious mythologies, in particular, display all the necessary contours of that which is of the psyche, yet larger than the individual personality. Countless people before us found these stories important and saw to it that they were handed on. Long after we are gone the same stories will still be around, continuing to influence and form the human experience for better and for worse. That which is larger than ego does not conform itself to its beck and call. The strong streak of independence in the West have left Americans thinking they are free to choose any mythology that fits their fancy, or none at all. Some even dare to twist them into any shape that seems to serve their immediate needs. Let me repeat: the point of mythology is that these stories are larger than we are as individuals. This is the mistake fundamentalists of all stripes make: they put God in their pocket and become all together too chummy with the great emptiness from which the ground of being flows. It is not wise to make God your personal servant, mafia don, publicity hound, the core attraction of your business plan, or the personal guarantee of your government’s foreign policy.
Christianity, it turns out, is a very dangerous religion to misunderstand.
We will begin talking about this next week.