AN INTERVIEW WITH the 2,000 Year Old Man (1963 RCA Victor recording. Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner give an eyewitness account of world history):
"How did religion start?"
"In the beginning we worshipped a guy named Phil. Phil was big and mean and we used to pray to him 'Oh Phil,' we'd pray 'please don't hit us and beat us up and gouge our eyes out and make us bleed! Oooh Phil!' Then one day Phil got struck by lightning and we all said hey, there's something bigger than Phi - il! - Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner
A Word about 'God'
IN THE LARGELY CHRISTIAN west we have all grown up knowing something about God. We often have vague ideas of Him as a gray haired patriarchal figure wearing white robes who seems to live somewhere in the sky. This actually proves to be a very accurate description.
Our original ideas about God come from the Jewish portion of the Bible, or the Old Testament in Christian terms. These ancient and powerful writings still profoundly affect our spiritual thinking today, whether we are Jewish, Christian, Muslim, atheist, or agnostic. They were composed in the Middle East over a period of about 700 years, during what archaeologists refer to as the Iron Age, roughly 1200 BC to 200 BC. Naturally these writings reflect their own times and circumstances.
Monotheism, or the belief in one god rather than many, was largely the creation of these ancient Middle Eastern Jews. It grew out of their experiences as the nomadic 'Hebrews' who apparently wandered the deserts of the region for centuries before settling down into the lands of Judea and Israel. This Hebrew god had been a sky god like other nomadic peoples of the area worshipped.
Gods and goddesses normally belonged to particular city-states. Marduk was the patron god of Babylon and Inanna, the Sumerian moon goddess, inhabited the city of Ur in southern Mesopotamia for example. Having no particular 'place' to seat their god nomadic peoples had theirs living in the sky, where they were always available to them wherever they went.
Our God of the Old Testament was originally one of these nomadic sky deities. He still is to many. Dress Him up as a medieval artisan's idea of an ancient Jewish elder, add a blue sky and some puffy white clouds and our picture is complete.
This Biblical image and idea of God haunts many of us and sometimes stands in the way of our spiritual development. Finding these old fashioned notions of the Divine unacceptable we may stop searching altogether, not realizing that there are many alternative, and more up to date, beliefs to be explored.
The ancient Jews did their best to understand the divine but, like everyone, their ideas could not exceed the limits imposed by their cultural and historical experiences. They used what knowledge and beliefs were available to them in order to create a divinity they could accept and understand, as people do everywhere and in every time. For their time and place it worked just fine.
We live in completely different circumstances and require a very different focal point than the one used in ancient Palestine. But we are all searching for the same mysterious 'thing' that they were. They gave us their concept of it, which works out finally as 'God' in the English language ('God' in Hebrew scripture is referred to both as the deliberately unpronounceable 'JHWH' and 'Elohim' a word that paradoxically means 'gods' not 'God'.). We are free to call 'It' whatever we like and come to understand and accept 'It' in the full light of our own day if we so choose. The Bible is but the first word on the subject of 'God', not the last word by any means.
Historian Robert S. McElvaine writes persuasively also that this Biblical God is strictly a male invention and hence made into a masculine entity. In Eve's Seed: Biology, the Sexes, and the Course of History he presents the case that at the dawn of civilization religion quickly became co-opted by men (from women) in response to their perceived loss of importance as hunters and protectors, brought about by the invention (by women) of agriculture. In his words "Hell hath no fury like a man under-valued." Consequently God, as the ultimate authority figure, is made male and religion becomes, as we now know it, a purely 'man'- made and male administered institution. If we now wish to avoid implying that one sex is 'better' or more powerful than the other he urges we use gender- neutral terms like 'The Creator'.
Mcelvaine's idea too on how men use the negative definition of 'notawoman' to identify themselves and their preferences may also have a bearing on difficulties men sometimes have with spiritual concepts. If we designate character traits like compassion and empathy as 'feminine' then to be a 'real man' one must be pitiless and uncaring. In reality, to possess these qualities of course is not masculinity at all. It is psychopathy.
Some people avidly embrace the God of the Bible and others do not. Both are completely free to do so of course. The idea is to have a belief in something universally divine that transcends our ability to fully comprehend it. What we call it is unimportant and what it actually is probably lies beyond our human ability to fully understand anyway. The important thing for our own spiritual development is simply to acknowledge and respect its existence while striving to understand as much of its nature as we can.
In searching for the sacred and spiritual a belief in 'God' in any traditional sense therefore is completely optional. We cannot let other people's ideas of the divine block us from finding our own. There is indeed something bigger than Phil.
SPIRITUALITY IS CONCERNED WITH the non-material, the things of the spirit, the intangibles and the mysteries of life. It is no less real than the material nor is it something foreign to us. Morals and ethics, emotions, thoughts, personality, and beliefs (among many other things) are all 'spiritual' in nature. Spirituality is essentially simple and not necessarily as complicated as some make it out to be.
Spirituality arises naturally in each of us. It begins when we all start to ask ourselves a few basic questions about ourselves, life and the universe we inhabit. As we go through life we are continually accepting and rejecting answers and formulating new ones. Except when we are young we are often unaware that these questions and our answers to them are in our minds at all.
The fundamental questions we ask are:
Who am I?
-Why am I here?
-Who or what is in charge?
-Where did everything come from?
What is death?
The way we answer these questions is extremely important. It determines the quality not only of our spiritual life but of our whole life in general. The more nihilistic or empty our answers, it seems, the more unpleasant our stay on this world becomes.
Thus, bleak answers that lead to bleak lives:
Who am I? -- Nobody, a sack of biochemical goo.
-Why am I here? -- There is no purpose to my existence beyond my own pleasure and the fulfillment of my own needs.
-Who is in charge? -- Nothing or no one beyond myself.
-Where did everything come from? - From the material world alone, via the Big Bang or some other purely physical and natural causative process.
-What is death? -- The absence of life. Nothingness. Non-existence.
Inevitably, answers like these lead us round in circles. Eventually we must face the fact that they represent a life devoid of value or meaning. If I am only a tangle of neurons sending out signals to a body whose sole purpose in existing is to reproduce and live as long as possible then neither I nor anyone else is actually 'worth' anything. Even the plea of the existentialists to create our own meaning and purpose in life rings hollow in the face of an extrinsically meaningless universe. In such a world view nothing matters and we are left to pull ourselves up by our own moral bootstraps. Neither are we given any specific reason why we should do so, let alone how.
There is also no intellectual challenge or true spiritual growth possible within belief systems that peddle sometimes comforting but dogmatic and simplistic answers to life's major questions:
Who am I? A Creation of God, a 'Christian', 'Jew', 'Muslim' (et cetera) first, an individual second.
-Why am I here? To do God's will as dictated to me through my religious institution.
-Who or what is in charge? God, as laid out and defined in holy scripture written down by God's appointed messengers (of whom I am NOT one).
-Where does everything come from? Holy Scripture reveals how God created everyone and everything. There is no need to inquire further. Our own intellects only betray us. Thinking is dangerous.
-What is death? A journey to eternal paradise or hell depending upon how well I lived my life according to the dictates of my faith.
In the above scenario God becomes a kind of magic helper, an entity completely on our side and definitely not on yours, if you believe differently from us. We completely reject scientific explanations of the universe in favour of a total non-answer that 'God made it all'. Death becomes a trip to a place where we, the elect, will go and you will not. You will suffer eternal torment for not agreeing with us while you had the chance and consequently fear haunts any doubts we ourselves may harbour.
Such magical and fanciful answers doom us to a life full of rigid, dogmatic beliefs. In such a state we cannot tolerate questions or inquiries into our system of faith as they become, in effect, attacks against ourselves. We live in silent dread that our faith may be in error because we invest our whole egos in our belief system and what psychologists call cognitive dissonance and cognitive rigidity develop. This is the mind-set of most cults and fundamentalist sects: I belong to the best and one true faith therefore I am one of the best and best informed persons on Earth and the elect of God which is pretty heady stuff for a weak ego.
Cognitive dissonance begins when we try to hold two conflicting ideas in our head at the same time. 'I find this hard to believe.' Doubts are being planted, but my faith tells me I must believe lest who I am becomes a mockery. This leads in turn to cognitive rigidity, which causes us to cling fanatically to our institution's beliefs in the face of any sort of information or ideas that show it to be possibly wrong, to the point of violence and death if need be. The 'high' we experience from being such an elect member of an 'elite' group is also extremely hard to give up. For perhaps the first time in our lives we feel we truly 'belong' somewhere. Consequently we are sure to suffer bitterly if or when we begin to question our beliefs openly and find them wanting or blatantly in error. We may then lose spiritual faith altogether, never again trusting enough to rebuild it.
It is important to reiterate that these questions are unavoidable. We all ask them and we all carry around answers to them that we have acquired over our lifetimes. These answers in turn determine much of how we feel and act in the world and go to form the basis of our 'spirituality' and world view. This spirituality may be positive and enhance our lives, or nihilistic and cause us problems. It is never neutral. It is always with us and cannot be cast off or ignored. It is there either helping or hindering us on our life's journey, depending on what we choose to believe in or not.
From these basic questions have grown all the arts, sciences, philosophies, religions and theologies of the world. As a species we have been engaged in a relentless pursuit of the answers since we first became conscious.
Some searchers along the way have claimed to find concrete final answers to these questions. Oddly, as soon as they try to present them to us as the received wisdom, something happens. The structures they build around them (religions, schools of thought, and ideologies of various kinds) harden, crumble, and fall to pieces over time. It seems clear that human creations like these can only approximate the truth, they can never embrace it. There are no single, simple answers to these questions and each human being must contribute their own individual findings and conclusions, to make a unique addition to the shared understanding we also possess. The search appears to be the thing.
That search appears to be both a personal and a communal quest and will probably continue right up to our extinction, if such is our fate. Our collective findings, ideas, and discoveries are available to all who wish to learn them, to make of them what each one wills. Sadly we may stop ourselves from ever looking out of lack of interest and fear; fear that we will ask foolish questions, not understand the answers or worse, not like them. Yet in the quality of our personal answers to these questions lies the quality of our whole lives. It truly ought to be worth the risk.
These questions made conscious mark the beginning of a spiritual journey in search of answers both unique to us and having many facets in common with others. The most unlikely people and events may become our best teachers along the way. God is not looking sternly down on our answers like some harsh schoolmaster. This is not a test. It is an adventure.
To bring God into the question of spirituality is, in some ways, not necessary. The idea of a God is simply one spiritual belief among many. "God" per se may act as a focal point or symbol for example, standing in for the greater mystery that lies beyond, or be a real entity to us. Either way or neither, the idea is to understand that there are forces at work much larger than us and that we are a part of them and the greater whole. We have an important role to play, in whatever way we may conceive of it all. To believe this is to make a start on becoming 'positively' spiritual.
When we finally feel ourselves connected to this great mystery and know ourselves to be a part of it and loved by it we first experience our own sacredness. In this moment we transcend our purely physical human being and fully discover our spiritual nature, which has been inside us all along. We have a spiritual awakening.
Humility -- Gateway to Spirituality
HUMILITY IS A VERY slippery concept. Just when we think we understand it its meaning changes for us. Yet, we can all point to humble people or moments in our lives when we felt humility, but we stumble when we try to explain what it is. We sometimes fear too that if we misapply it in our lives we become doormats of a sort.
Perhaps one way to approach a working definition of humility is to look at what we consider its opposite -- pride, or to be more specific, unhealthy or false pride. False pride is an inflated opinion of some aspect of ourselves. It is quite unpleasant to encounter in others (or ourselves), as we all have. This kind of pride is an assertion and belief that we are more than we are (more powerful, beautiful, intelligent, and so forth) and certainly, we have more of whatever it is than you! This kind of obnoxious arrogance is generally a bi-product of weak ego strength and poor self-esteem and acts to compensate for these basic perceived inadequacies in our personalities. Regardless of its cause we always base it on false assumptions about ourselves, others, and the world around us.
In this prideful state any information that contradicts our inflated opinion of ourselves or the world becomes a threat to our well-being and we respond accordingly. We cannot be wrong in our universe. We react with anger, denial and hostility or we sulk, blame others, and isolate. Fight or flight, if you will. In neither case do we dare confront the truth about our ideas or ourselves. We may over-identify with a movement, political or religious group, for example, and take criticism of that group's beliefs or ideas as attacks upon ourselves, as we discussed earlier.
Unhealthy or false pride acts then as a barrier to any kind of self-examination or spiritual development. Fear completely governs us and we feel our whole identities may be at risk if we dare to question specific beliefs about ourselves, others and the world around us. This now ought to bring us closer to an understanding of what humility is and why it is so vital for spiritual growth.
Humility is first a willingness to surrender ourselves to the truth about ourselves, others, and the universe around us. Knowing and searching for the truth are good but being willing to face it is sufficient. Being humble means we find the courage to look honestly at our own faults and defects without discounting or denigrating our strengths and abilities in the process.
Humility also means we become open-minded and feel unthreatened by new ideas or ways of thinking, but it does not mean we abandon critical thinking. Not all ideas are good ones and we need to hone our ability to discriminate through learning and study, and to develop trust in mentors and teachers who help us along the way. If we feel it necessary we will attack ideas (especially our own), but never the people who hold them (including ourselves!).
We can now understand that humility and truth are intimately connected; to the truth about ourselves, the world, and our willingness to face it. Let us now expand that understanding to include a willingness to accept the truth about other people. That is, we come fully to accept that all people in the world have the same value as ourselves and deserve the same respect and consideration we feel we ought to be given, even the people with whom we may be in conflict. We may judge another's actions, ideas, or beliefs but never the person behind them. We place principles before personalities as the 12 Step programs put it.
Practising a spiritual lifestyle then means we treat our fellow creatures as we would like to be treated and become ready to be of service to others. This means we become willing to put other's needs ahead of our own wants. It does not mean we put others needs or wants ahead of our own needs.
We must ensure that our own needs come first if we are to survive in this world physically and emotionally. Except perhaps in extreme cases of courageous self-sacrifice, not respecting our own needs is in reality a kind of false humility and based on much the same factor as false or unhealthy pride -- a lack of self worth. Others become more important than us, and our own needs and wants become secondary to theirs. We think that if we only try harder to please others we will finally receive the benediction we so crave and enter the world of real people and belong to the human race, a belief that, of course, never comes true. This being the case developing any real sense of spirituality is out of the question because we feel we don't deserve it, no matter how badly we may claim to want it.
Humility secondarily is to acknowledge that there is power, strength and wisdom in the world greater than our own. In some ways this is easy. Governments, institutions, movements, great teachers and leaders all represent power and strength greater than our own. Some individuals, we are also quite willing to grant, are wiser. But spirituality hints at a power greater even than these and humility requires that we somehow acknowledge that.
Perhaps the simplest way to make that acknowledgment is through the act of prayer whether we believe in a God or not. The act of prayer is a concrete act of humility. By seeking conscious contact with a power outside us we open ourselves up to the possibility of forces greater than us and allow those forces to work in our lives. It is also an affirmation by us of their importance and place in the universe relative to ours, even though we may have little or no understanding of what those forces are or may be. The power of prayer is very real, as any number of psychological and medical studies have shown. 1 It is a simple path to humility, and through humility to spirituality.
Humility then allows us to begin an honest self-examination ("Who am I?") and to accept that we know yet but a little of the world and its wonders ("Where did it all come from?"). It leaves us open to the possible existence of a power in the universe greater than us ("Who or what's in charge?") and gives us insight into the value of our lives, the lives of others and the greater purpose we may all be serving ("Why am I here?"). Lastly, it allows us to face the question of our own deaths and the deaths of others with calmness and serenity as we search for its place and meaning in life ("What is death?").
Humility does not provide us with the answers. Instead, it properly prepares us to ask the right questions and to search, listen for and be open to the answers. Humility is thus an essential prerequisite to finding a 'spiritual' way of life however we come to define that term. To be humble is to venerate the truth and to search for and be open to it no matter what the personal cost or benefit may be. Perhaps it is simplest to say that humility is living in the truth.
Seeing, Feeling, and Experiencing the Familiar in New Ways
SPIRITUALITY IS NOT SOMETHING we need to find. Not only is it not lost, it is already a large part of our lives whether we are aware of it or not. It is in creating an awareness that we already have it that opens the door to a greater understanding of what we mean by 'spirituality' and allows us to begin experiencing directly its healing and transformative power.
The first and often most powerful experience most of us have with spirituality is through love. As a child it is frequently the love given us from a parent. It is also something, within a healthy family, that we learn to give back and, over time, to give to other family members, friends and important people in our lives. Ideally, we find a life partner and then perhaps have our own children, an experience that can overwhelm us with the power of the love we feel for them. Love and spirituality are inseparable. Some even say love is spirituality and that God is love.
In every one of our relationships, no matter what their nature, there exists the opportunity to experience the positive, healing effects of spirituality through what we are willing to bring to each encounter with others. If we are caring, compassionate, non-judgmental and accepting of others as they are, we will directly experience a power greater than us. And if the person we are encountering reciprocates our attitude we can often feel that power so tangibly we can almost touch it. To philosopher and rabbi Martin Buber this power is the very presence of God Himself, whom he believes reveals Himself most directly through our relationships with other people.
In whatever way we may agree or not with rabbi Buber's theology the one thing we cannot deny is the power of the experience he characterizes as an "I and Thou" relationship. When we approach and treat each other with dignity, love, compassion and respect we are practising basic spiritual principles. We know this through our emotional responses. We feel an abundance of love, warmth and acceptance in these kinds of encounters. They lift us up and transform us. They heal our emotional wounds and create a deep sense of well being that unites us to each other and the larger powers beyond.
These healthy positive feelings are pre-eminently spiritual and, when we understand them as such, we find ourselves in touch with something wonderful, mysterious and much more powerful than ourselves alone. We have all felt these things; they are not new to us. It only remains to recognize them as the essence of that 'something' all humans seek. When we do we come fully to appreciate and understand these feelings as spirituality made manifest in our lives. We perceive the spiritual through our emotions in the same way we perceive light and sound through our eyes and ears.
It is little wonder that 12 Step programs work so well for so many people with addiction problems. The power of each other is enormous and when multiplied to the size of a standard Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous meeting the atmosphere can become profoundly spiritual and healing, if one is willing to open themselves up to the experience, what Christians call the presence of the Holy Spirit. If we can characterize addictions as the misguided attempt to find, through drugs, alcohol, sex and so forth, the genuine and natural 'high' that comes through living a spiritual life full of loving relationships, then these fellowships are remarkably appropriate for promoting recovery.
To become 'spiritual' is simply to acknowledge already familiar feelings and experiences as direct contact with something very good and very much bigger than ourselves. This in turn can motivate us to change our ways of thinking and acting so as to promote even greater contact, healing and growth. We need not go anywhere or do anything special to make a start on a new spiritual life. It has been with us all along.
IN THE NEXT FIVE chapters I will explore each of the major life questions listed earlier. I do not claim nor intend to provide definitive answers to any of them of course. My purpose is to provide readers with enough facts, arguments and ideas to begin a new spiritual journey of their own. I hope to be especially helpful to those who are new to the concept of spirituality and to those who are having serious questions or doubts about their old faiths. Needless to say, any unattributed opinions or conclusions expressed regarding these questions are strictly my own. Readers are invited and encouraged above all to think for themselves!