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Spiritual Traditions — and Liberation From Same

11450442_sI had a bit of a debate recently with a very pleasant and erudite Druid named John Beckett over on Patheos. The debate concerned his article on difficulties finding the “right tradition for you,” and I chimed in with comments observing that maybe the problem is in the premise that any one existing tradition is “right” for you. Apparently this and the ensuing discussion provoked the good Druid enough that he followed up with another post explaining why, in his view, sticking with an established tradition is the only healthy way to pursue a spiritual path, and raising alarms about the dangers of choosing methods and ideas “at random.” (As an ironic side-note, Mr. Beckett mentioned the late Isaac Bonwitz as one of his mentors. It’s ironic because, although Bonewitz was indeed one of the founders and framers of modern Druidism, he was also one of the most eclectic, creative mages around, and one of those most inclined to thumb his nose at pretensions of orthodoxy.)

Rather than tiresomely pursing the matter in further comments and making a nag of myself, I decided to write a post of my own on the subject.

What is a Spiritual “Tradition”?

In essence, a spiritual tradition is a religion. Its focus is on the spiritual quest more than on the exoteric concerns of religion such as public morality, but otherwise it differs from other traditions in the same way as one religion differs from another. This encompasses three things: philosophical concepts, mythology, and spiritual practices.

Philosophical concepts include theology, but go beyond that to also include metaphysics and epistemology and ethics. Mythology encompasses the deities, imagery, poetry, and symbolism of the tradition. Spiritual practices include meditations, religious and magical ritual, physical exercises, lifestyle disciplines, and learning, all oriented towards achieving enlightenment, as the tradition views that concept.

There’s a certain congruence or commonality about spiritual practices that arises from their pragmatic nature. Either something works or it doesn’t, and few traditions will continue for long using a practice that doesn’t work. Thus one finds, for example, mantra and mandala meditation among Yogis, and Catholics who pray the Rosary, an exercise that’s functionally identical. All spiritual practices work an effect on the mind and the mind-set, blurring the artificial boundaries of selfhood and awakening the practitioner (potentially, anyway) to the larger Identity that hides behind the normal waking concept of I. The range is wide but not unlimited.

Mythology varies more widely. All deities and other mythic images are metaphors for the indescribable, and while not every metaphor is apt or meaningful, the array of possibilities is huge. Some mythologies, such as that of Hinduism, are highly visual and colorful. Others, like that of Islam, avoid any concrete images of the holy and emphasize the ineffable nature of God. Christian mythology resides somewhere between that of Hinduism and Islam on this scale, while most Neopagan mythology leans more towards the Hindu end of rich, poetic and artistic imagining. Anyone who has walked a spiritual path for long and achieved any significant degree of awakening understands that all of these are valid approaches.

Philosophy brings us to areas of genuine disagreement, but even here the disputes lose their significance in the face of the fact that coherent knowledge that can be expressed in words is hard to come by when dealing with the cosmos in its entirety, or the mysteries of consciousness. Those are the subject matter of the spiritual. While we cannot approach these subjects directly and straightforwardly, we can do so sideways, as it were. The discussion and the debate help move that process. The richer the discussion, the better.

A tradition, like an exoteric religion, adheres to a single set of philosophical ideas, a single body of mythology, and an authorized set of spiritual practices, rejecting all ideas, myths, and practices which lie outside this compass.

Strong and Weak Traditional Exclusivity

The idea of traditional exclusivity — that only one tradition holds truth and all others are wrong — can take what might be called a strong form and a weak form.

Strong exclusivity is the idea that only one tradition is right for everyone. One finds this idea expressed by fundamentalist Christians and, in pure form, by no one else, although Muslims come fairly close to it, acknowledging some measure of validity to Christianity and Judaism but claiming that Islam holds a more complete truth and rejecting all religious ideas outside the Abrahamic lineage.

Spiritual traditionalists who have any awareness and have made any progress seldom express strong exclusivity. More common is weak exclusivity: the assertion that following one tradition or another exclusively is the right approach for everyone. Some tradition is right for you, even if it’s not our tradition. It’s as if they’re claiming that everyone should be a fundamentalist, while declining to specify what sort of fundamentalist one should be.

Is there any basis for this claim?

What a Tradition Offers Versus What it Costs

What a tradition offers — or claims to offer — is structure, reassurance, guidance, and externally-imposed discipline. (That’s if we dismiss any claims to exclusive possession of the Truth.) All of this contrasts with the non-aligned, who must build their own structures, learn by exploration and choose which guides to follow (if any) and when not to follow them, dive boldly into the spiritual waters seeking reassurance only from success, and create discipline from within.

Following a tradition is easier. It requires more in the way of obedience, and less in the way of courage. It provides a comforting voice when the doubts inevitably arise (there are always guardians at every gate). It sits best with those who are most comfortable accepting the authority of others. Those who find staying within the limits imposed by a tradition hardest are the wildly creative, the strong of will, the highly self-assured, and the boldly self-assertive.

The problem here is that those are also the very people who are most likely to achieve the most success on the spiritual paths. Take a look at the history of any great prophet or spiritual leader, including the founders of traditions or powerful voices within traditions. Without exception, these are people who had problems with religious authorities on the way. They ran away from home in youth, like the Buddha. They were crucified like Jesus, or had to flee for their lives like Muhammad.

There’s a reason for this. The cosmos is not tame. It is wild. And its voice is seldom heard in safe, secure settings.

Is there danger in striking out on one’s own, in refusing to be contained within the limits of a tradition? Of course there is, but not nearly as much danger as some would have us believe. Magic is powerful and potentially self-destructive stuff, but beginners in the art are seldom able to raise enough power to be truly self-destructive.

Beginners make mistakes, it’s true. Does that mean they need to be carefully guided away from error, and kept on the safe path? No, because making mistakes is the only way a person learns. The journey is the destination and the question is the answer, and no one grows without making that journey and asking the questions, seeking answers rather than being spoon-fed them.

So long as people tamely follow a tradition, spirituality will remain a safely compartmentalized part of their lives, never endangering their world-views — or expanding them beyond the comfort zone. Safe spirituality is impotent spirituality.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with learning from a spiritual tradition, and knowledge is always good. And for a time, it’s perfectly understandable that a person might need the structure and comfort that comes from belonging. But unless you feel that need (something I never have, but can vaguely comprehend), there’s nothing to be gained by defining oneself — which is to say, limiting oneself, as that is what “definition” means. Sooner or later, the child must leave the home.

Or else remain forever a child.

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Maturation (Part II)

unfoldIn the last post, I discussed our move from the paradigm of agrarian civilization to something else that I call the advanced paradigm or mature paradigm. It’s a transition that’s not finished yet. It began in Europe in the 15th century or thereabouts, and over the centuries since then we have seen monarchies replaced with democratic republics, feudal economies replaced with capitalist economies that evolved into capitalist-socialist blends, patriarchy morphing into gender egalitarianism, and established, state-supported religion dropping out of the picture, replaced by a spiritual marketplace of ideas.

As with the change that occurred thousands of years ago when our ancestors settled into farming communities that grew into cities and the first civilizations, this one is driven by technology. All of our social institutions, political and economic arrangements, religious beliefs, and collective mores adapt to our material circumstances, and as technology progresses, those circumstances change. All of our ways of doing things change to accommodate them.

I could write huge amounts (and have before) on the political, cultural, economic, and global relations aspects of this transition, but in keeping with the theme of this blog, I’m going to talk here about the spiritual and religious aspects. I’ll note in passing only that science fiction writers who depict a future society with advanced technology like faster than light travel, artificial intelligence, and human genetic engineering, but one substantially the same as our own in terms of politics, economics, and other social institutions, are confused. Star Trek got it right. Firefly got it wrong.

That said, on to the changes that have occurred and are occurring in religion.

The first change to manifest was the breaking up of monolithic religious authority. This change began in western Europe, so the authority involved was the Roman Catholic Church, which had become an effective religious monarchy after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. (The lack of an Emperor is the reason why the western half of the old Imperial Church has a Pope, while the eastern half, called the Eastern Orthodox Church, does not. The Imperial Church featured the Roman Emperor as titular head of the religion. In the West, the Emperor was gone, so the Pope replaced him. In the East, he remained in power until the 15th century, when Constantinople fell to the Turks, hence, there is no Eastern Orthodox Pope. Once again, institutions follow material circumstances.)

The invention responsible for the splintering of the Catholic Church was the printing press. (That same invention would later drive democratic movements that overthrew kings or reduced them to figureheads.) Printing with movable type was introduced in Europe in the 1450s. Over the following century, printing reduced the cost of books, which made learning to read worth doing for the non-wealthy, and this led to widespread literacy on a scale that hadn’t been seen in a very long time.

Reading leads to thinking and questioning, and ordinary Christians in Europe wanted to read the scriptures for themselves and began to question the claims of the Church authorities. Against this background of growing religious dissent and dissatisfaction, Martin Luther’s famous protest against Church corruption sparked a conflagration. At the end of the firestorm, Europe was no longer a religious monolith, but had become a more diverse community spiritually (although still almost entirely Christian).

This led to other changes, particularly when a community had contending versions of Christianity, so that no one version was clearly dominant. This occurred increasingly in England, Germany, France, and other areas of Europe, and their colonies in the New World as well. At the same time, movements for increased popular representation and democracy in politics took shape, and this also influenced religious discourse. So did horror at the religious wars and persecutions that swept Europe in the wake of the Reformation. In consequence, the ideas of religious toleration and pluralism emerged, leading by way of the Enlightenment to the separation of church and state and religious freedom.

This takes us to about the beginning of the 19th century, so the transition to that point took roughly 350 years. With the separation of church and state, the political changes impacting religion were essentially complete, but changes to religion itself have continued past that point.

The technological changes that continue to impact religious thought include further improvements in communication technology (telegraph, radio, television, communications satellites, the Internet), and technologies with economic impacts (the steam engine, railroads, factory production methods, the airplane, modern agricultural methods and machinery, medicine, computers). The first has rendered the isolation that formerly allowed doctrinal purity impossible. The second has led to the obsolescence of many traditional moral concepts, particularly those that accommodated and regulated slavery and other forms of servitude, as well as sexual mores and gender roles that served the purpose of maximizing birthrates (a purpose that has now become self-destructive). In addition, the increasing dominance of science and the scientific method over the way that we establish facts about observable phenomena has rendered literal interpretations of scriptural stories such as the creation myth highly dubious. (It’s fair to note here that theologians did not, in pre-scientific days, generally advocate a literal interpretation of these myths. That’s a modern phenomenon and part of the reaction against these changes in religion.)

Today, all of the so-called “great” religions are under siege. Spirituality itself is universal and constant, but the religious doctrines and practices that clothe it are not. With the power of government removed (in the advanced world anyway), or guaranteeing peaceful discourse, the challenges to religious orthodoxy are ideas rather than guns. (Unfortunately, the religiously orthodox have been known to resort to guns as a defense against ideas.)

The challenging ideas come from three sources primarily:

The challenge from science goes beyond knowledge that calls literal interpretations of myth into question. A bigger and more fundamental challenge is posed by scientific method, and by what might be called meta-elements of scientific method. Scientific method per se isn’t applicable to spirituality, as science deals strictly with propositional knowledge and spirituality is non-propositional, but there are some accompanying attitudes and approaches that are transferrable. The most important of these meta-elements is the idea that all knowledge is tentative and gained through experience (or, in science itself, observation). Transferring this to religion means that no religious idea is permanent, but merely the best we can do at any point in time, and that the ultimate authority is our own spiritual experience, not revelation. It means the end of God’s law inscribed on stone tablets. It means that there can never be a Seal of the Prophets. It means the loss of authority for scripture.

Other religions also present a challenge to orthodoxy. That’s nothing new in itself, but the scale on which this is occurring is unprecedented and results from improved communication technology. It’s no longer the case that religious believers live in isolated communities and rarely, if ever, communicate with someone who believes differently than they do. In Christian communities in the West, ideas from Islam, from Buddhism and Hinduism, and from Neopaganism and New Age philosophy are influencing the evolution of Christian thinking. From the perspective of a Medieval Christian authority, all Christians today are heterodox and becoming more so all the time. The same thing is happening in other religions, too.

Finally, modernity itself challenges religious teachings that were established in the agrarian age. Traditional sexual morality doesn’t work well in a world that needs to reduce fertility rates rather than maximizing them, and in which declining violence and reduced need for hard manual labor make traditional gender roles increasingly absurd. The universe as we increasingly see it, vast almost beyond comprehension and with our little planet making up a tiny and insignificant part of it, carries its own weight of sublime and divine mystery and wonder, but is not really compatible with agrarian age concepts of man’s role in God’s world.

All of these pressures are causing religion to morph and change. It’s questionable whether any of the old great religions still exists in its original form, especially in the advanced nations. None shall endure. We will always have religion, but it will not — it cannot — remain unchanged.

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Maturation

9809020_sI’m working on two novels these days. One of them is A Sip of Fear, the first story in the new series The Illuminated which I described in the last post. The other is The Rapier, volume three of Refuge. Since Refuge, unlike most of my work, is science fiction as well as fantasy, I’m able to do more in the way of incorporating speculation about where we’re going as a species and a civilization. The two alien races incarnate as human beings give me a good platform for this, as both of them lived in advanced, high-tech societies before they blew each other to bits.

One passage in The Rapier has Amanda Johnson, the Andol leader, visiting with Deirdre Kane, leader of the Humanity Faction that’s struggling to keep the human race independent of both alien races. The third person in the meeting is Terrence Franklin, the only human being to have the Refuge spell that lets the Andol and Droon reincarnate after each death with all their memories intact. Terrence got his spell from a Droon in the fourteenth century, shortly after the aliens arrived. Here’s how that conversation goes:

“Do you mind if I grill you on a couple of things? To get a second opinion after Deirdre’s.”

“Not at all. I have nothing to hide.”

“Hmm,” said Deirdre, “that’s a switch.”

“Be nice,” said Terrence, looking sideways at Deirdre.

“Well, she has a point,” said Amanda. “Actually, I have quite a few things to hide, but the reason the Andol are here and what we want aren’t among them. The answers are simple. We’re here because our home world was destroyed and our species is extinct. We sought a refuge by magic. We found one. Now we’re trying to survive here and help humanity achieve its potential.”

“See, Amanda, it’s that second part that bothers me,” said Deirdre. “We’d like to achieve our potential without meddling by aliens — you or the Droon.”

“I understand,” said Amanda. “Really, I do understand. You’re in a very different place now than you would have been if we hadn’t come. But sooner or later, Deirdre, you would have faced the decision you face now. As far as we know, there are only three possible ways to go.” She held up a finger. “You can mature as the Andol did.” A second finger. “You can mature as the Droon did.” A third. “Or you can destroy yourselves. Most intelligent species take the third path.”

Deirdre shook her head. “How many intelligent species did you find out there in space?”

“Including extinct ones, about fifty or so.”

“How many that weren’t extinct?”

“Ourselves, the Droon, and the four species the Droon had enslaved.”

“And the slaves never matured because they never got the chance, right?”

Amanda sipped her tea. “Right. But —”

“So you know of two mature species, you and the Droon. And from that you decide there are only two ways to get there?”

“What third way could there be?”

“Amanda,” said Terrence, “what do you mean by ‘mature’?”

“A mature civilization,” Amanda said, “has a sustainable society. It has abolished war by establishing a global government, and it’s gone green, as you would put it — no danger of self-destruction either by war or by exhausting resources or poisoning the biosphere.”

“Hmm. So that’s it? Global government and environmentalism?”

“Essentially, yes, but there are many changes to culture involved with both of those — in one direction or the other.” She paused. “There’s a lot of resistance to those changes from people who fear modernity and want to cling to old ways of doing things. Some of them want to make money without considering other people, let alone the biosphere. Some cling to old religious traditions or to nationalism. Maturation involves getting past that resistance, and there are two ways that can happen. Either people come to their senses and change their ways, or an enlightened elite takes complete control and makes them do it. The first is the Andol path. The second is the path of the Droon. Can you think of any other way?”

Deirdre never answers Amanda’s question, because Emily comes into the room ready to advance the plot. But it’s a good question nonetheless.

I’ve long believed that human society is in a transition as profound as the one that took our ancestors from foraging and hunting to farming, leading to classical civilization in all its glories and horrors. That deceptively simple change created a completely new paradigm of society, with formal government, organized religion, class structure, patriarchy, and slavery, none of which had existed (except in embryonic form) when humans lived in small hunter-gatherer bands. Since roughly the sixteenth century, we’ve been moving away from this civilized way of life, what I call the Classical Civilized Paradigm, into something radically different that I call the Advanced Civilized Paradigm. It might also be called the Mature Civilized Paradigm. The transition to the Classical Civilized Paradigm flowed from an ability that humans gained which they hadn’t had before: the ability to control their food supply so as to produce a food abundance and allow population growth. It also flowed from the inherent limitations of this ability: that it took a lot of work, and that it required settling in one place.

Formal government and organized religion were needed as systems of social control because the increased number of people living close together created frictions. Class structure flowed from the increase of wealth, along with the need for lots of work to generate the food supply, which also resulted in slavery. The possibility of population growth created a necessity of population growth in competition with other societies, and that led to patriarchy, because women who control their own fertility tend to have fewer children. And that’s why we see this pattern developing universally throughout all agrarian civilizations, including ones that had no contact with each other, in both the old world and the new.

The transition to the Advanced (or Mature) Civilized Paradigm is also being driven by new abilities. We can produce wealth with little or no work. We can communicate with each other instantly over huge distances. And there are two darker abilities we’ve gained, the ability to destroy our civilization in war, and the ability to undermine the natural support base of human life. From this flow two things, a possibility and a necessity.

We can, finally, have an egalitarian society in terms of wealth and political power, and a genuinely democratic government.

We must end our propensity to kill each other on a massive scale and to behave irresponsibly towards the biosphere.

The first of these has driven all of the political and social movements of the past centuries towards equality in terms of gender, race, religion, and other characteristics that have divided us in the past. It has driven the movements for democracy and for socialism, for the abolition of slavery, and generally all of the goals and efforts labeled “progressive” in political discourse, with the exceptions of the anti-war movement and environmentalism, which instead are driven by the second one, the “must.”

As Amanda noted, maturation meets plenty of resistance from people who are uncomfortable with these changes to society, and some of the strongest resistance comes from traditional religion. All of the so-called “great” religions of the world emerged during the period when we lived under the Classical Civilized Paradigm. While all religions have an ultimate, timeless source in spiritual experience, all of them represent an interface between that experience and ordinary life, and the nature of ordinary life has changed radically since the Buddha meditated under the tree, or Jesus was crucified, or the Prophet Muhammad fled to Medina. Many of the views and attitudes and moral precepts taught by these traditional religions have therefore become obsolete.

I’ll go into the ramifications in more depth in the next post, coming soon.

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Religion and Violence in a Rapidly-Changing World

bookReligious violence is in the news these days with the attack by al-Qaeda operatives that murdered cartoonists in Paris, allegedly because of cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad. The brutality of the Islamic State continues unabated, the Taliban commits atrocities against women, and less-extreme Muslims all over the world look on all this with dread and concern. Violent Islam is in the news, but other religions aren’t far behind. In several African countries, Christians engage in literal witch hunts, while American Christian extremists continue to engage in violence against gay people and providers of reproductive health services. Even some Buddhists are getting into the act, terrorizing Muslims in Sri Lanka.

Where is all of this violence coming from? It’s not central to the teachings of any of the religions claimed by those who do the vile deeds. Not that either Christianity or Islam is any stranger to violence historically, of course, but attempts to blame the viciousness on (for example) teachings appearing in the Quran or the Hadith amount to special pleading, and ignore the fact that violence is quite rare among followers of Jesus or of Muhammad, as in fact it’s rare among people in general.

On the whole, the level of religious violence in the world is declining. This makes it stand out all the more when it happens. Christianity’s past is soaked with blood: the torture and murder of heretics, the slaughter of Jews, pagans, and Muslims, the Crusades, religious wars between Catholics and Protestants. Yet today, Christians for the most part seem to have risen above the brutality of the past. Or have they? In the West, in Europe and North America, yes, with the occasional religious-right exception. But today, Christianity is increasingly a religion of the Southern Hemisphere, especially Latin America. Religious conflict and persecution continue in a Christian context, emerging with the greatest ferocity in majority-Christian developing countries.

At the same time, Muslims living in the West increasingly adopt Western values, including many things we reflexively think are in conflict with Islam (it’s not actually that clear-cut): feminism and gay rights, for example, and secular government in general. Educated Muslims living in advanced societies tend to look upon Islamic terrorists with horror, partly because their behavior comes from no version of Islam they want anything to do with, and partly because they know how easily that kind of thing can provoke a backlash threatening the lives and livelihoods of Muslims everywhere in the West. (Which may actually be the terrorists’ intent.)

Where Does it Come From?

If one wishes to nitpick scripture, it’s pretty clear that the actions of Muslim and Christian terrorists violate injunctions in the Quran and/or words of Jesus or the Apostles in the New Testament. The Quran clearly enjoins Muslims to be at peace with unbelievers who are willing to live in peace with Muslims, and to fight only in defense against the attacks of infidels. The Jesus of the Gospels frequently exhorted his disciples to mercy, compassion, and forgiveness, and similar advice comes from the Apostles in their letters.

This kind of argument convinces no one who is determined to engage in violence, unfortunately. Passages in scripture that condemn certain kinds of behavior or belief or people are enough to justify the violence in their eyes, and they fudge over passages leaving the punishment up to God.

Nitpicking scripture may make the co-religionists of the violent feel a bit better, but it does nothing to help us understand why the violence is happening. The terrorists and other violent folk are clearly acting in accordance with their own understanding of their religions, so saying that they are not acting in accord with “real Islam” or “real Christianity” serves no practical purpose.

At the same time, it also doesn’t do much good to pander to bigotry. Condemning Islam as a religion of violence, when most Muslims aren’t violent, doesn’t make a lot of sense, and it makes even less sense to condemn all religious belief because some people commit violence in the name of theirs. There’s a clear distinction to be drawn between religious people who commit acts of violence and those who don’t. Any explanation or understanding that fails to recognize that distinction is lacking in nuance.

But on the other hand, some of the facile arguments advanced that attribute all religious violence to some convenient secular resentment, e.g. against Western imperialism, also sound facile and are much too glib. When violent people say they are committing their violence for religious reasons, we should recognize that that is indeed part of their motivation. But what does it mean exactly? Why do these particular people find themselves inclined to commit terrorist acts, when most of their co-religionists not only don’t join in, but condemn the violence?

How Religion is Changing

At root, religion is an attempt to give intellectual clothing to spiritual experience. As I noted in the last post, spiritual experience gives us an understanding that is non-propositional — it can’t be literally expressed in words or symbols — and so all religious ideas regarding the nature of the sacred are metaphors and myths. One of the questions emerging from spirituality is, “How does this impact the way we should live?” Hence the religious involvement in questions of morality, social justice, and human relations generally.

But such questions don’t involve spirituality alone. Moral questions are always asked in a material context: they are questions of what we should do, given a set of circumstances and possible actions. As those circumstances and the possible actions we can take change, moral values become outdated and either wrong or irrelevant. When the pace of change is glacial, as it was throughout the agrarian age, religions can make claims to timelessness. But today, change is rapid. Moral values have had to adapt. Many things that were once acceptable are now condemned, and other things that were once condemned are now acceptable.

Believers in the timelessness of the old agrarian age religions are often uncomfortable with these changes, and that leads, at the apex of fanaticism, to religiously-motivated violence in an attempt to force a stop to the decline in the old ways. But among those who don’t engage in violence, other sorts of circle-the-wagons behavior emerge, including political activism aimed at shoring up the decaying structure of old dogmas and commandments through legal and governmental, rather than private force.

It Will Pass

This trend is not the future. It’s a last-ditch attempt to preserve the past, and it will fail. Things look frightening at the moment, but these movements exist at all only because our religious consciousness is in transition, and that’s a good thing. As the transition continues, the attempt to stop it will crest and decline, and with it the violence and terrorism we’re currently seeing.

If I’m right about this, the peak should be either on us already, or soon to come. The religions of the future, which will include new ones, transformed versions of the old ones, and increasing numbers of people who, although spiritual and in a sense religious, don’t identify with any one tradition to the exclusion of all others. We will come to see the ugly things going on today as no more than growing pains.

 

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Two Types of Knowing

11699922_sWhen we say the words, “I know that,” we can refer to one of two very distinct things. On the one hand, we can be talking about a proposition, something that can be expressed in words or symbols.

“The Earth is the third planet from the sun.”

“Yes, I know that.”

There’s no need to take a telescope and replicate the observations of the early astronomers who figured out the order of planetary orbits. All you have to do is to read about it. The words and numbers convey the concept perfectly and precisely, and so when you repeat them, you give the knowledge to someone else, with no meaning lost. This is what might be called “propositional knowledge.”

On the other hand, we can be talking about what it’s like to experience something. Unlike propositional knowledge, this second sort of knowing can’t be expressed in words or symbols, unless one is talking to someone who already knows it, and even then one is forced to use metaphor.

“Being in love is like you’re in a binary orbit, the two of you forming a common center of gravity.”

“Yes, I know that.”

But you can only say “Yes, I know that,” if you’ve been in love. Otherwise, the statement makes no sense. Two people aren’t in a literal binary orbit with a common center of gravity; both of them are part of the Earth’s gravitational system and the influence of their masses on one another is trivial. But if you’ve been in love, you know what the statement means, because you know what being in love feels like.

Using the words above, talking about binary orbits, or any other metaphors for being in love — a passage of music in the heart; a burning in the blood; two bodies and hearts merged as one — doesn’t convey knowledge. If someone has never been in love, these words convey nothing but confusion. What it’s like to be in love can be known, but it’s non-propositional knowledge in that it can’t be literally expressed or communicated. It’s not reducible to a proposition. You can’t learn it by hearing it from someone else. You must experience it yourself directly.

These two types of knowing are communicated in different ways, and they are also acquired in different ways.

Detachment and Immersion

Propositional knowledge is gained in a detached fashion. One does not participate. One observes, and as nearly as possible one reduces the effect of one’s presence to nil, so that what one observes can be seen on its own, without that influence. (Of course, it’s not possible to reduce the effect of observation all the way to zero, but that limit is only important in quantum mechanics.)

The goal of detached knowing is to create propositions about what is observed. These propositions can be combined into a cognitive model that describes the phenomenon or phenomena. Models can be used to generate an overall theory. This is, more or less, the scientific method.

But as useful as detached observation is for purposes of gaining propositional knowledge, it is no good when it comes to non-propositional knowledge. That requires another and in some ways opposite approach: immersive knowing.

Immersion is the inverse of detachment. Instead of observing, one participates. One is a part of what is experienced, and so the emotional side of things is all-important. You don’t try to reduce your own effect on a phenomenon, because you are part of the phenomenon and you are trying to understand what it is like to be in that place. Having plunged in and experienced something, you then know what it’s like to do it. But this does not result in a proposition. You know, but you can’t tell anyone else. You can give hints. You can use metaphor. You can also describe how to go about gaining the same understanding that you have achieved. But you can’t just tell someone what it’s like, and have that person know and understand just by listening to you.

Detached knowing can be communicated. Immersive knowing must be gained anew by each person.

Just One is Incomplete

We have achieved so much in the way of detached knowing, and also we are so bound up in a world constructed of words and symbols, that it’s tempting to think of this as the only form of knowing, but the truth is that if all you have is detached, propositional knowledge, then you do not know:

  • How moving a piece of music is for you.
  • What it’s like to achieve something difficult or challenging.
  • The importance of real friendship.
  • The intensity of love for a child.
  • The delicious relief of spring after a hard winter.
  • The delights of being mildly intoxicated.
  • The languid bliss after really great sex.

If you don’t know these things, or any other form of immersive and non-propositional knowing, then clearly your understanding of the world is sadly incomplete, no matter how elegant the structure of your scientific or philosophical theory. It’s not that there are things which can only be understood by immersion. It’s more than immersion provides a different way to know and understand the same things that can also be approached by detached methods, and your knowledge of these same things is incomplete without both.

Immersion and Spirituality

It’s obvious that spiritual experience provides immersive knowing rather than detached knowing, and that this knowledge is non-propositional, but to treat it otherwise is a common mistake. The essence of fundamentalism is to treat religious belief as a set of propositions, all reasoned logically from an ultimate source, which is usually a sacred writing. This can result in creationism and other very bad science. It also results in very bad religion shorn of spirituality.

We can (imperfectly) know the reality which underlies such metaphors as “God” or “the cosmic intelligence” or “Brahman.” But this is not propositional knowledge. It’s not something we can communicate to someone else, so that understanding is conveyed without loss of meaning. As such, it’s not realistic to ask someone who has not undergone the type of spiritual experience which conveys understanding to believe anything. It’s not possible for them to meaningfully either believe or disbelieve, because it’s not possible for them to understand.

The most that can be communicated, aside from poetry and myth, is methods and techniques for altering consciousness and achieving spiritual experience, and hence understanding, for oneself. That’s the nature of immersive knowing and non-propositional knowledge. It’s inescapable.

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If Every Religion Disappeared

musingsWhat would happen if every religion in the world were to magically vanish overnight? Never mind just how that could happen. It’s magic, a spell from some meddlesome wizard that causes every church, mosque, temple, or shrine to vanish, every religious text or work of literature or art to disappear, every bit of knowledge that religion ever existed to be plucked from everyone’s brain. No more Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Neopaganism, Baha’i Faith, Mormonism, Shinto — no nothing. What would happen? Would we all become enlightened, secular atheists? Would religion never reappear?

Where did religion come from in the first place? That’s a question with a complicated answer, but at least part of the answer suggests that if religion were to disappear, it would make a swift return — but in completely new forms.

Spiritual Experience

Let’s start from the very beginning. You’re not a religious believer. You have no concept of God, the Void, an intelligent and conscious cosmos, faith, devotion, meditation, enlightenment (in the spiritual rather than the intellectual sense), or anything else that currently goes into the mix of religious ideas.

Then one day, something happens. Perhaps you have a brush with death and a near-death experience. Perhaps you experience a runner’s high, a dose of psychedelic drugs, or an out-of-the-blue shift in your self-image and self-awareness. Your perception of who you are and of your relationship to the universe changes. Your identity dissolves. You feel a connection with, an identification with, all that is.

If you’ve been there, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Remember, you have no religious ideas that can explain this experience and what it means. You can’t say that you have experienced a union with God, because you don’t have a concept of God. You can’t say that you have merged with the Cosmic Soul (Brahman), because you don’t have that idea, either. But these experiences keep happening, and it’s your brain’s nature to try to understand every experience you have and incorporate it into a coherent world-view. What do you do?

The obvious answer is that you make something up, some metaphor that you can wrap around the experience to give it form. Some way to talk about it. If you can write, maybe you write a book. If you can speak, perhaps you’ll try to convey your new awareness to others. If you’re an artist or a musician, you’ll create art or music with a religious theme — even though you won’t call it that, because the word “religious” isn’t part of your vocabulary.

Maybe you personalize the greater reality you’ve become part of, and call it God. Maybe you don’t, and call it the cosmos. If you’re especially insightful, you’ll recognize that it doesn’t make much difference whether you personalize it or not. It’s beyond the ability of your mind to comprehend rationally, so any labels you put on it are purely for convenience and not really descriptive, still less definitive.

The religious experience is wonderful, pleasant, and powerfully moving, so you try to recreate it, make it happen more often. Ideally, you want to live in that cosmic consciousness permanently, and eliminate the times when you forget the insights altogether. So you develop rituals, exercises, mental practices, and ways to enter communion with that greater reality. At this point, you have theology or religious philosophy, religious art or music or writing, and religious ritual and practice.

Now you go online and communicate via social media with others who have also had similar experiences, and share your ideas with them, while appreciating theirs. Pretty soon, you’ve got a community of believers going. With that, plus theology or religious philosophy, plus religious ritual and practice, plus religious art, music, and writing — you have a religion.

Minus the Internet, that’s pretty much how the religions of the past emerged. Someone had a powerful sequence of religious experiences, developed ideas around them, communicated them to others who understood to a degree because of similar experiences, and these people together created a body of teaching and practice.

After this happened, typically things went south as the religion started playing the politics game and sought power for its own institutions and the people in charge of them. But the description above is how just about all religions began. And that brings us to some interesting speculation about how, if all religions were to disappear magically and we started all over, things might proceed differently.

New Religion in the Modern Age

We have a very different culture and society than existed in, say, Muhammad’s time. Today’s world has not only the Internet and instant communication, but also a fast-paced, rapidly changing society in which the idea of Truth preserved unchanging for all time is hard to countenance. This, then, is the first and most obvious difference between our do-over religion and anything that has emerged from the agrarian age: it incorporates the idea of change. No commandments written on stone tablets. No Seal of the Prophets — as time goes by, we anticipate more enlightened voices without end. No timeless truths. Maybe timeless truths do exist, but our brains aren’t capable of understanding them perfectly if so, and the evolution of our own understanding amounts to the same thing as changes to truth itself.

Another difference in circumstances, which must inevitably affect religious thought, is the immediacy and global character of communication. Post a religious idea, or any other sort of idea, online and it will draw attention from those who agree, those who disagree, and those who simply have a different take. The religions of the agrarian age emerged in a time when, say, a Medieval peasant might never talk to anyone from outside his own village, and his final authority on spiritual matters rested with the village priest. Today, what would emerge would not be individual and competing religions, but competing religious ideas in a global marketplace of ideas. Rather than many different religions, what would likely emerge would be a single religion with multiple currents of thought in a constant state of evolution.

Finally, we face today a set of material circumstances mandating a radically different moral and ethical environment than obtained in the time of Zoroaster, the Buddha, Jesus, or Muhammad. True, there are many core values expressed by each of these prophets that remain valid today, but the details are often obsolete. Today, we must recognize the value of gender equality, environmental responsibility, peace, and universal compassion in ways that were either outside common awareness altogether in the distant past, or else amounted to an unworkable ideal.

If religion were to magically vanish overnight, we would not all become enlightened atheists. But our culture would change pretty dramatically nonetheless — and much for the better.

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The Universe

13613038_sSpirituality is legitimately concerned with two things. One of them is consciousness, the subject of last week’s post. The other is the universe, the subject of this week’s post. (Note that there are many things that religions often concern themselves with, such as morality, that are not either of these. I’m not suggesting that religious people, or spiritual people, shouldn’t be concerned with morality, which is a universal human concern, but I do suggest that it isn’t a spiritual topic, and not something on which a religious organization can speak with legitimate authority. More on this in a bit.)

“The universe” is shorthand for “everything,” and so in a way all topics are spiritual topics. But that which is everything is nothing in particular, and when you get down to the pieces and parts, to items which are included in the All but no more so than anything else, another approach rather than spirituality becomes appropriate, sometimes science, sometimes moral judgment, sometimes philosophy, and sometimes art, depending on the nature of the question. God is a metaphor for the universe (which is itself a metaphor, both of them representing the unknowable), and so when I say the proper subjects of spirituality are consciousness and the universe, I mean the same as saying that the proper subjects of spirituality are the soul and God, just a bit less poetically and a bit closer to being a literal statement.

Now, some might suppose that the universe is properly in the domain of science rather than spirituality, but it’s not. That may need some clarification, because everything that is in the domain of science is a part of the universe, a subset or subroutine of the cosmos. The proper domain of science encompasses all questions of fact regarding observable phenomena. Consciousness is outside the domain of science because it isn’t observable and therefore scientific method, which depends on observation, can’t be used to address it. The same is true of the universe. It’s not true, however, of any of the parts and subroutines of the universe which we can observe, and so all questions of fact about those parts and subroutines are scientific questions. But the universe as a whole can’t be observed.

The Ineffable Cosmos

Why can’t the universe be observed? Because of the nature of observation, which always involves an interaction between two entities. One of these is the observer, and the other is the phenomenon under observation. The two must be separate for observation to take place, and the observer must occupy a vantage point at a remove from the phenomenon and observes it from that vantage point.

But when we are talking about the universe as a whole, any possible observer is a part of the universe and so is any vantage point from which it might theoretically be observed, and so this means that, at best, an observer is observing not the universe as a whole but the universe minus himself and minus his vantage point. The very act of observing the universe (or thinking about it for that matter) distorts the reality and prevents getting a clear picture, in a manner analogous to the observer effect in quantum mechanics.

One might ask in response, why not make observations of the parts and put this piecemeal understanding together to make a coherent picture of the whole? But there are several reasons why this won’t work. To begin with, when we speak of the universe as a whole we must extend that description through time as well as space. A picture of the universe as it is at any moment is only a slice of the whole, which encompasses the past and future as well as the present. Much of the future is unpredictable due to the indeterminate nature of many natural processes, even if we had complete knowledge, which of course we don’t. Secondly, there are problems with trying to make a composite picture out of parts, in the form of emergent properties that can’t be predicted from the components. A good example is the structure of a tree, which cannot be predicted from an understanding of the organic molecules from which it is composed. The final reason is that even if we could create a composite picture from an understanding of the parts, there would be no way to test this composite picture for accuracy. When we are dealing with a part of the whole, it’s always possible to make observations of the larger entity in order to confirm whether the picture derived from its components is accurate, but with the universe we can’t do that. Any such picture is therefore unfalsifiable and scientifically meaningless.

 How Can We Approach It, Then?

The problem with observation when it comes to the universe is that it is a detached method. The goal is to render the self unimportant, so that one’s observations can be confirmed by another, equally detached observer. In contrast to this detached approach which is appropriate to science, both art and moral judgment offer immersive approaches in which a person plunges in rather than detaching. Immersive approaches to knowledge don’t give us propositions of fact that may be tested, but other kinds of statements (“ought” statements from moral judgment, meaning statements from art) that can’t be objectively confirmed (being meaningless in this sense), but can be personally confirmed or denied, each person individually.

Spirituality is also an immersive approach. To understand the universe, one does not detach and observe it. Rather, the goal is to merge with the universe and become one with it, at which point one discovers that this unity had always existed and had merely been forgotten in the grip of the illusion of individual consciousness.

As with other fruits of immersive knowledge methods, this is not a proposition that can be falsified. It does not advance scientific understanding or our objective map of the world. It does, however, present a guideline for personal discovery, and may be confirmed individually and subjectively, each person for himself or herself. Also, it’s important to emphasize that without making that journey, words describing these insights convey no understanding. The journey is the destination in this case, and what is learned on it cannot be conveyed to another in words.

Having made this discovery, we find that we have not so much discovered something new, as changed the meaning of everything else that we thought we knew. It’s the same world afterward, but transformed nonetheless. The same music plays, but at a higher octave. The same light shines, but it’s orders of magnitude brighter. And from that moment on, the challenge is to remember these insights. It’s like clouds before the sun, getting thinner all the time, with the moments of illumination coming more and more frequently.

All religion, to the extent it’s legitimate at all, points in that direction. Everything else about them is a deception, a diversion, or a guardian at the gate.

Copyright: rolffimages / 123RF Stock Photo

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