Thursday, August 4, 2016

Paths to Understanding, Essay 2: Exclusivity in Religion

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It’s fascinating that we humans use language to both define and limit our world.  The very ability that can create bridges, deepen understanding and open us all to a cosmos that is rich and vibrant can also dualistically divide, hedge, and wall off people and communities. In my usual fashion, I am reading three different books right now: Religion Gone Astray by Mackenzie, Falcon and Rahman, The Dhammapada, and Falling into Grace by Adyashati. This lovely mix has brought up, each in its own way, a fascinating topic:  how we blunder into the fallacy that what we think and say is ultimately real.

Consider this quote from page 51 of Falling into Grace:

“Through careful inquiry, we discover that the process of identification, the root of our suffering, begins with the rudimentary structure of thought itself. Thought is symbolic.  A thought isn’t a thing. It has no reality; it is only an abstraction. A thought is, at best, a description of something we take in with our senses. And yet, from a very young age, we’re taught we are what we think of ourselves.  But there is another layer to this, and that is we tend to believe that we are what others think of us…”  Adyashanti goes on to say (pg 54): “…our history shows us—hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of years of history-that our ideas haven’t saved us. Our ideas haven’t saved us from our own anger, bitterness and violence…if our history has shown us anything-the history of thought, the history of ideas-it’s that thought can’t save humanity, that thought can’t save the world, that it’s going to take something other than even the greatest ideas that we can imagine.”

I pondered these two quotes a long while. (Yes, I can see you are laughing at the irony here!) In the end, I do intuit deeply what Adya is trying to convey.  We use words and concepts to create a sense of safety, of knowing, of definition and concreteness, and those words and concepts actually become not just a false self but also a false reality.  And then we use thoughts and ideas to shore up and even defend the image we have created.

Once we begin to “create” a symbolic reality and a false self, we are more and more conscious of separation, of isolation. We become threatened by anyone who questions the “reality” of what we have built because we are invested in our creation. We defend ourselves, our ideas, because we have come to a place where we don’t know how to look into our true selves. And everything I have said about the individual is even more true for religions.

In my previous blog entry, I suggested that the most dangerous and insidious form of violence is the IDEA that everyone should be on the same page religiously, politically or socially.  With a religion, it’s not just a single false self forever defending and protecting itself, it’s a collection of false selves defending and protecting ideas. Ideas that are, at their very cores, symbolic representations of a once-lived experience.

Let me say that again; “ideas that are, at their very cores, symbolic representations of a once-lived experience.”  This is so important because this tendency to believe our thoughts and ideas to be something “real” is one of the often unnoticed cornerstones of religious exclusivity.  Religions that take themselves to be “the ONLY way” are merely illustrating the fear and anxiousness that arises when they unconsciously believe that an idea or thought is real. Of course there will be others who do not agree with a given philosophy or idea.  Of course new insights and new thoughts will arise, like seedlings in the spring. Of course time will gently “spin” written traditions as cultures bounce off each other and technology offers new ways to understand a tradition or even alternative views of reality. Of course new “ideas” like science, language study and archaeology will affect scriptural understanding.

Yet, these  “of courses” are not-so-common knowledge when we are unconsciously defending a sense of self, personal or corporate. In fact, such forces tend to trigger a very complex human emotion: FEAR. The normal human reaction to the fear that comes from a perceived questioning of reality and relevancy of self is to constrict and contract, create safety in numbers (“See, I am not alone in what I believe.  I must be real, and my beliefs must be real if others support me.”) Fear also leads to rigid dogma, claims of exclusivity, the valuing of belief over experience and even, as we see so poignantly in our world today, violence.

But what is it we are defending? A symbolic representation of a once-lived experience.

Exclusivity, at its core, is simply a fear-based reaction to a false reality.  

Don’t quite buy this?  Here are a few exercise to try:

First, grab a piece of paper and answer this question: Who am I?
Don’t think too long. Just write the first answer that comes to mind. 
Now keep asking that question until you have at least 20 answers on the paper in front of you.
Are you any one of those answers?  Are you all of those answers ALL OF THE TIME? Are there answers there that seem more attractive to you?  Some that embarrass you? And here is the kicker:  what is answering????  What is that something that can observe thought, see how the mind works, stands back and yet, when you try to look at it, then you move away from it? So who are you, really????

Next, look at the piece of paper in front of you.  Where did it come from?
The store. 
Before that?
A factory.
Before that?
A tree.
But how did it get from its spot in the earth to the factory?
People cut it down. 
But how did they cut it down? Who made their clothes, their food, their vehicles, their saws, the music they listened to? Who made them? And the tree? Where did the seed come from? Its water, its sunlight, the soil it grew in….and on and on and on.

As you can see, any object you can observe in your environment is intimately and forever in dance with EVERYTHING. If you probe long enough, the paper you are looking at arises because of literally everything else in the universe. When you see the paper, if you look long and deep enough you come face to face with every other thing in the cosmos. Reality is not carved into bits and pieces. It functions as a whole. And we live and move and have our being in this reality. 

Now, answer this:  how can any religion claim exclusivity? Study religions long and hard enough and you will see the same interesting thing happen—ideas arising from other ideas, peoples interacting and influencing, rituals and religious holiday dates borrowed from another and grafted into place, on and on and on. Religions are living organisms that change through time. They rise and fall with other religions, disappear into history, re-emerge in new forms. Using scripture to defend exclusive positions brings us right back to the idea of words as symbolic representation of a once-lived reality—we are using a ghost, a memory, an echo of a lived experience to try to shore up a false self or false corporate self.

In the end, we can only really affirm that a particular religion is yet another symbolic representation of an experience of Mystery.  Yes, it is an incredibly complex representation.  But that is all.

So where does that leave us, the participants in a religion? Well, a lovely place actually.  Because now we can affirm a given religion is our way of participating in reality even as another religions is another person’s Way.  We are still nourished by our faith, but no longer locked in a struggle about being “right” or “acceptable” or “orthodox”.  We are freed to hear the poetry in language and not use scripture as a legal system. We can view our society and other cultures with compassion and understanding, even when they are not exactly like our own. We are able to enter into conversations with others, needing neither to convert nor judge them because we know, at the Ground of our Being, we are One. We no longer fear.  And that sounds a great deal like the Kingdom to me.

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