Saturday, July 3, 2021

The Unexamined Life
In my last post, I expressed my struggle with the seeming paradox between free will and divine omniscience. As I continued to explore the tension between the two ideas, I reached the conclusion that there is no logical way for what I'll call the "omni-God" (omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent) of Judeo-Christianity to exist. Indeed, as someone who's flirted with the idea of atheism in the past, I think this is where a lot of modern minds get off the bus with regard to old traditional religious views and scuttle their beliefs altogether.

But I think that's selling spirituality short -- throwing the baby Jesus out with the bathwater, if you will. Rather than proclaiming that God doesn't exist, maybe the problem is that we had the wrong idea of God all along. A God who is separate from his creation, perfect in all ways, demanding of worship and of rigorously following his rules, and ever ready and eager to punish those who disobey, like some divine law-and-order judge, seems more a projection of ancient cultures conditioned to the unbending rule of a monarch, emperor, dictator, or some other kind of rigid autocrat who liked to make examples of those who challenged the lawgiver's authority. 

Frankly, the idea that we might live in a universe governed by such a tyrannical being is the stuff of existential nightmares. It's the very kind of God I've never been able to wrap my head around, yet it was the one I was always told existed when I was a kid, by adults who I assumed knew better. "God just put a big red X in his book," my adoptive mom would tell me anytime I did something that went against her beliefs. I always jokingly used to blame the Catholic church for my guilt complexes, but really I think Mom had more to do with it than any priest or church doctrine did.

And yet I still can't find a good substitute way to frame the God of the Bible. In searching for an avenue of thought to pursue over the past few weeks, I hit on a concept called process theology, which grew out of an idea from early 20th-century thinker Alfred North Whitehead. Process theology neatly explains away the Problem of Evil -- how can an all-knowing, all-loving God allow bad things to happen? -- by proclaiming that God is subject to natural law, directing the evolutionary process yet himself evolving alongside us. He persuades us to do good but is unable to force us. Instead, he is "the fellow sufferer who understands." 

Sounds great on paper, and it keeps God from being a tyrant -- but is a God who's unable to actually do anything really a worthy substitute? I'm not so sure that rape victims, people who lost a loved one to murder, or parents who lost a child to cancer are going to be comforted all that much by knowing that God really cares and hurts along with them. The idea is well intentioned, and it does resolve the problem of why God doesn't help us in times of need. But it really only replaces it with a new problem: Why should we even bother with a God who's so powerless?

And so that puts us right back to Square One, with the omni-God. The funny thing about this God is that church leaders tell us he's eminently unknowable, yet those same church leaders are always the ones who insist on the omni-ness of their God, and they're also awfully quick to mete out God's judgment for him. For a being they don't know very well, they sure do seem to be able to act decisively on his behalf. As Susan B. Anthony once observed, "I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires." I guess some people were just born to be hall monitors. 

Maybe most of humanity is OK with that, and maybe that's why such unhealthy religious beliefs persist. After all, if the past year and a half has reminded us of anything, it's that most people are blindly obedient to authority. They won't question any narrative that comes from an "authoritative" source, even if obeying is to their own detriment. We are instinctually tribal animals, and the tribal elders would never lie to us. They only have our best interests at heart. It's been shown over and over that this is how the majority of people think. And it's a significant part of the reason humanity can't advance. 

Add fear to the mix, induced by the tribal leaders themselves, and not only is obedience strengthened, but anyone who challenges the narrative is seen as a danger to society who must be silenced for the good of the community and the preservation of the status quo. From Jesus hanging on a cross, to the murders of Gandhi and Dr. King, to the exile of Snowden and the imprisonment of Assange, to contemporary woke censorship, the story is always the same: Challenge the prevailing narrative -- the one on whose power the ruling authorites rests -- and suffer the consequences. 

The point being, maybe so many people are OK with the idea of a law-and-order God handing out harsh punishments because they're OK with the human equivalent. In fact, I'd posit that many would feel unmoored and frightened without that kind of authority ruling over their lives and telling them what to do. It's easier than thinking for yourself, after all.

I should pause here to explain that I've never looked at the world the way most people do, and I'm painfully aware of it most days. Maybe being abused at a young age had something to do with the way my brain developed, or maybe I'm just naturally wired differently from most. My bio-mom was a drug-abusing schizophrenic, so it's hard to say what I inherited and what is just me being a weirdo. I just know that most normal kids don't suddenly stop playing one day as the terrifying existential question Why am I me? roars into their head from nowhere. There's been no end to my quest to explore the Big Questions ever since. 

The point is, I've always felt as if there was something wrong with me on many levels -- one of them being that I reflexively recoil from the idea of blind, tribal, fear-based obedience. I've always been this way. Even when I was a kid, annoying my adoptive parents in church by asking them question after question about what we were supposed to believe, I just couldn't understand why, if God gave us rational brains, we shouldn't use them to question the things we were told. 

Carl Jung.
I admire the story of Christianity at its core. I just can't wrap my head around a lot of it if I'm expected to believe everything on a base surface level. If, however, I can approach the teachings on a deeper level, as Jung did with his idea of universal human archetypes and the collective unconscious, then I can embrace the entire framework as one of speaking to our fundamental human need for finding meaning and transcendence. As we all possess that need, Jung believed that God was an innate part of the human psyche. (Which means that Nietzsche was wrong when he proclaimed that God was dead, since God, as a psychological construct, can't be killed.) 

Thinkers from Pascal onward have further argued that we all have a "God-shaped hole" in our hearts, and that if we don't fill it with God, we'll fill it with something else -- whether the pursuit of material gain, celebrity worship, Wokeism, or what have you. Best, then, to attempt to fill it with something reflecting its intended purpose -- something that will lift us up rather than drag us down to our basest instincts.

Anyway, I couldn't resort to atheism with any sort of intellectual honesty. I actually think it takes more faith to be an atheist than it does to be a theist, as there's simply too much about the universe we don't know, and there are things that suggest to me some kind of divine blueprint. And so, while I waver some days between agnosticism and a weak belief, I do my best to take some concept of "God" as a philosophical and psychological given. 

I've stumbled across some mind-bending arguments that see consciousness as an innate part of the universe, and it's a small step from there to postulate God as a kind of universal consciousness from which we all draw, reminiscent of Alan Watts' Hindu-ish observation that we are all pieces of God playing hide-and-seek with himself. Now, see, that conception of God I can easily understand. It's just the ones that anthropomorphize God into a violent cosmic judge that have never made any sense to me. Those conceptions of God seem to say far more about the people who wrote them down than about anything resembling what the actual nature of a divine being would have to be. 

And so I continue to tussle with the peculiar Western conception of God the best I can. It's never easy, but pondering the possibilities of What's Really Out There makes for good mental exercise, and I'd certainly rather live with some theological uncertainty than with the rigidity of fundamentalism.

Here's the way I see it: On a literal level, Christianity makes almost no sense to me. On a spiritual level, I understand what it's getting at, even if the message quite frequently seems lost in today's churches, buried under layers of dogma, corrupted by fundamentalist self-righteousness, or watered down into meaningless feel-good platitudes by liberal theologians. But on a symbolic and psychological level, I can mostly get on board with everything Christianity teaches -- though even that depends on the flavor of church. For example, I like the contemplative tradition of the Quakers, I admire the simplicity and the Sermon-on-the-Mount-centrism of the Anabaptists, and there's something about the pre-Reformation traditions and high-church practices in general that have always deeply resonated with me. But the hands-in-the-air emotionalism that usually exists in tandem with a belief in the total depravity of mankind? I can't run away from that stuff fast enough. 

Indeed, I love the ancient traditions that the Orthodox keep alive, and I feel a sense of transcendence when I'm in the presence of a beautiful old church -- Catholic, Orthodox, or otherwise -- with its ornate architecture, the statues and icons conveying their silent theological assertions, the rafter-shaking pipe organs blaring out their majesty, the choirs sending a chill down the spine. It's like bringing an image of heaven down to Earth. I might struggle with belief, but insofar as the church pursues and venerates the transcendental ideals of goodness, truth, and beauty, it succeeds in bringing me out of myself and connecting me with something bigger. 

Moreover, on a cultural level, the Catholic and Orthodox churches make me feel rooted in my own Western heritage. Western civilization wouldn't exist without the church, particularly Catholicism, and in some sense I think I feel an obligation to honor that connection and help keep it alive -- especially now, when our bedrock Enlightenment values are under such relentless attack.

It's times like these that make a lot of people clutch on to the security blanket of fundamentalism. But fundamentalism only drives people away from a spiritual tradition that they might otherwise find fulfilling and enriching. And that's not to mention the actual violence that fundamentalism can visit on its enemies.

It's tough to escape the fundamentalists these days. They're everywhere, not just in the churches. You have the cold, mechanistic, atheistic view of the science-minded materialists, who reject any semblance of spirituality as thoroughly as a fundamentalist insists on a literal reading of Adam and Eve. You have the disciples of the Republican and Democratic parties proclaiming their team as savior and the other as the devil. You have medical fascists ordering us to shut down our lives, deny ourselves human contact, wear masks that do nothing but signal obedience and compliance, shoot experimental vaccines into our bodies, and carry around privacy-invading vaccine passports if we want to participate in "normal" society again -- all over a virus that gives most people mild symptoms and has an astronomically high survival rate for the overwhemling majority of the population. And of course, you have the Woke Left that thinks in irrational absolutes and possesses all the religious zeal of the Inquisitors and witch-hunters of old, demanding that you recant on bended knee for your ideological sins, lest you be sacrificed on the Altar of Cancellation.

And so those who desire the honest pursuit of knowledge with the least bias possible (we're all biased about something, after all) are left to fight with groups of people who by definition limit the acceptable range of inquiry. 

What do you do with that? That's been the puzzler for me as I've been gorging on the ideas, thoughts, and theories of people both ancient and modern, in an attempt to suss out what a realistic spiritual path would look like for someone of my temperament. I've been exploring numerous paths over the course of my adult life, and while I've picked up useful ideas from many of them, the two I keep returning to are Taoism and a very eclectic kind of philosophical Christianity. 

Taoism holds the appeal of simplicity, with no arguments for or against God, no complex theology, no commandments, no damnation. You simply follow the Way, using nature as your guide, as you attempt to harmonize the complementary opposites in the natural world -- light and dark, warm and cool, even the energies of male and female -- to achieve the balance of a unified whole. The well-known tai chi symbol of yin and yang represents that balance, with its waving lines suggesting the effortless flow of opposites from one to the other in a continuous dance, and the circle in the deepest part of the opposing color suggesting that one aspect is never fully separated from the other. Indeed, yin and yang define and complete each other. 

This can be a difficult concept for Westerners to grasp, as we're so accustomed to thinking in terms of a clash of opposites rather than a unification of them. Accordingly, I've seen more than one person from the West thinking that yin and yang somehow suggest a blending of good and evil -- as if evil somehow is complementary to good. In truth, the tai chi symbol is a representation of what "good" looks like when opposites are in harmony with each other. "Evil," as we think of it, would be a yin-yang symbol out of balance. The world can't be in a "good" place if half of it is evil. 

For Western minds coming to the Tao, the challenge is to flip around so many of the assumptions we tend to hold. As the Tao Te Ching -- the central text of Taoism -- will repeatedly remind you, the supple tree that bends with the breeze will remain standing, while the old, rigid tree will come crashing down in the wind; and even though water slips through your fingers, given enough time it will wear down the highest mountains into canyons. 

The overarching Taoist philosophy, then, is one of persistent but relaxed patience. Using wisdom and intuition as your guides, you address things as the circumstances dictate, rather than pre-plan a response that may not adequately address a changing situation. You let things happen in their own time, rather than forcing an outcome. And you achieve that aim through the practice of effortless, spontaneous, non-striving action. You might say that Taoism is the art of knowing when to simply step out of the way. By yielding or strategically withdrawing when appopriate, rather than forcing one's will, one has a greater chance of surviving the onslaughts that are sure to come one's way. The onslaught anticipates your active resistance; when you don't give it, the power of the onslaught has no place to go. Think of the passive resistance with which Gandhi brought down an empire. Force only knows how to react to force, which is precisely the reason that passive resistance is such a powerful and successful tool of change. 

Taoism's simplicity was in part a reaction to the rigid, Pharisee-like legalism that Confucius had brought to ancient China. Confucius believed that imposing rules and hierarchy on the people would create a more harmonious society. And it did, but at the cost of human freedom and independence. Its influence continues today, as a convenient tool of control in Communist China. Taoism, in contrast to the Confucians, implored leaders to be virtually invisible, governing only to the necessary minimum and leaving the people to think that whatever has been achieved was done by the people themselves. 

As for the Christian side of things, I know of no denomination that mixes silent contemplation with an emphasis on the Sermon on the Mount while keeping to the transcendental beauty of the ancient churches and allowing people the freedom to approach the teachings on a psychological level. But the truth is, I miss the groundedness that the rituals provide, and I miss being admist a community that shares something mystical and beautiful together. 

In our atomized society, and especially following the government-enforced and mass-fear-enabled isolation of the past year, we need rituals like these to hold our society, culture, and nation together. They act as a social glue. I'm not a very social person, but I still understand the need for institutions, rituals, and shared beliefs. Some rituals are slowly coming back, like ball games and concerts, which serve an important secular need -- although if states, companies, and venues institute proof of vaccination for entry, they're not going to help the situation at all. Creating an entire class of untouchables, with "unvaccinated only" sections of people treated like diseased pariahs, is the exact opposite of what we need at this moment in our history. We need to move beyond the fearful superstition that has gripped our world and accept what is for most people a low risk, letting us all come together again as one. 

The problem is, most of the churches couldn't kick people out fast enough last year when the lockdowns started. The very institutions that should have stood strong as a beacon of faith were among the first to shut their doors -- and even those that have reopened have largely instituted rules and restrictions that unmask their lack of belief in the very things they teach. They've revealed the subordination of their own mission to political authoritarianism and social panic. And they don't in any way reflect the fearless Jesus who ran toward the sick when others shunned them. 

But they do remind us of the churches that likewise shut out the faithful in medieval Europe. St. Charles Borromeo went out to meet the plague victims crying out for help and mercy in the streets of medieval Milan, Italy, when even the priests were hiding out for fear of getting sick. He urged the clergy to help him serve the ill rather than run from them. "Do not be so forgetful of your priesthood as to prefer a late death to an early one," he rightly chided them. Consequently, he was able to rally enough support to be able to perform outdoor Masses, hold catechisms, and distribute the sacraments to the sick and homebound. And thus was the church able to carry out its mission -- for what good is a church that's only there when it's "safe"? 

St. Charles did the right thing and made the brave and Godly choice, inasmuch as the Christian path calls the faithful -- and especially the clergy -- to selflessness. Yet you can count on one hand the churches that defied political authority and remained open during the hysteria that gripped the world in 2020. Most of them blindly obeyed and hid like cowards. And even now, Pope Francis is shaming Catholics into injecting experimental poisons into their bodies, proclaiming a "moral responsibility" to vaccinate and any resistance to doing so a "suicidal negativism." I'd think he'd want people to exercise their conscience in the face of a a virus that, again, for most people brings only mild symptoms -- but as we've seen, the church has demonstrated nothing over the past year more clearly than its obedience and subservience to Caesar. If nothing else, at least Francis is making sure the tradition of Catholic guilt remains alive and well.

In times of political and theological uncertainty, new churches have risen up to meet the needs of the people. With church membership in a seemingly terminal decline and the numbers of religiously unaffiliated people rising as quickly, it feels as if we're at one of those pivotal moments in history. I've been doing research in pursuit of starting my own chapel precisely because I find the intsitutional churches lacking in significant ways, and it's clear I'm not the only one. But it seems like a lot of trouble to go to simply to start a new church for my own satisfaction, so I'm attempting to balance a church I envision with one that might be able to help others who are similarly floundering. Maybe they grew up with Christianity like I did, but they don't know how to make Christianity work for them anymore. I'd like to be able to reach some of those folks, let them know they're not alone, and maybe build a community for the like-minded -- even if it only ended up being half a dozen other misfits. Openness to Eastern thought and an embrace of the Sacred Feminine wouldn't hurt for anyone who wants to come my way, but I think having an independent streak and a willingness to think outside the box would be the most crucial component of all.  

What I don't want to do is feed the narcissistic beast that's tearing us apart. For example, Tara Isabella Burton's book Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World chronicles an American trend of "remixing" religious ideas from across traditional and pagan practices into something whose driving force seems to be nothing more than expressing personal emotions -- not building a rational theology for a better world, but for achieving the narcissistic goal of how it makes "me" feel. In a world in which people make themselves into individual gods, reimagining their identities in their own images and declaring it blasphemous for others to raise an objection, it isn't surprising that these "remixed" religions would elevate the selfish and irrational over the social and reasonable.   

"Weird Catholic Twitter,"
by way of NYT.
I'm sympathetic to Burton's argument in a New York Times editorial that people are searching for meaning and groundedness in a ravenously capitalistic society that has turned even religion into a commodity. Quite literally, nothing is sacred anymore. But her proposed solution is, I think, bound not to work for her intended audience: a retreat into the old, sacred forms of Christianity that I've been talking about here. The problem is that she's arguing for dropping self-proclaimed "punks" -- people with a postmodern view of the world -- into a context that can't possibly resonate with them, given its conservatism on matters of life-and-death issues, its emphasis on traditional gender roles (including female submissiveness), and its view of heterosexuality as normative -- not to mention the inherent need for humility, obedience, and relegation of the self to something bigger than oneself. 

In the article, Burton name-drops Rod Dreher, the American Conserative writer who in his book The Benedict Option argues for traditionalist Christians to drop out of the culture wars and form intentional communities based on their shared faith. But that idea works for Dreher, because his worldview is already in tune with traditionalist Christianity. If Burton thinks postmodern punks can co-opt the form without embracing its meaning, I think they're only going to find more hollow dissatisfaction. If your sales pitch for the Latin Mass is "Gothic Architecture" and "Veils! Veils! Veils!," you're missing the whole point. Not everything is an ironic postmodern joke that can be removed from its context for self-serving ends. 

Latin Mass attendance is rising, contrary to most religious trends in America and the West. There is value in the old forms, for certain, but do they only represent a yearning for meaning in a time that's now long past? Can we even go back to a culture where such deep and rich traditions held meaning in a larger societal context? Can interest in the old ways change the tide? 

If I ever returned to church, it would probably be to Orthodoxy, whose ancient forms, defense of tradition, and theological stances hold great appeal for me. On principle alone, I can't return to the church of Pope Francis, with his constant hectoring of people who don't toe the line on obeying the Caesars of COVID dogma. Which is sad, because it was Francis who helped bring me back to the church with his pastoral and compassionate approach. I thought he struck a sensible middle ground between the legalistic fundamentalists who never got the memo that the Crusades were over and the fuzzy-headed liberals who festoon their churches with rainbow flags while draining their theology of any meaning other than "be nice like Jesus." But Francis seems to have lost the script. I get now why traditionalists never really liked him.

There's nothing inherently wrong with blending different theological ideas into something new, provided the new thing serves a uniting and uplifting purpose and isn't just a weak, self-serving expression of someone's transient feelings. After all, it's often forgotten that even Christianity was the result of a "remix" of Hebrew and Hellenistic ideas. Plato's ideas exerted their influence on the early church, Plotinus and the Neoplatonists informed Augustine's theology, and Aquinas drew from Aristotle. Maybe the answer, then, is to go back to the beginning, to those great Greek minds, and see how they influenced Western thought and religion in the first place. In doing so, we might be able to revitalize the ideals that the West was founded on. Maybe we can get the West back on course, whether that means a return to the ideals of the past or the beginning of a healthy new direction based on those bedrock values. Either way, maybe it's not too late. 

In fact, maybe philosophy is exactly what we need in this pivotal moment. Maybe we need to open ourselves again to ask those Big Questions about existence and its meaning. We're so eager for answers when maybe we just need to sit with those questions for a while, in the liminal space of "I don't know," and see where the speculation leads us.

At his trial, Socrates held that the unexamined life is not worth living. Like so many before and after him, he died because he challenged society's power brokers. And yet even after he was sentenced to die, he didn't flinch from his conviction that nothing was so important as the tireless pursuit of wisdom, which for him came through relentless questioning. In following his example, may we also find our way to a wisdom that will lead us forward as one, whether that means a return to the old ways, an adoption of a rational new way, or a little bit of both. 

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