Saturday, January 15, 2022

The Catholic Catholic: Familiar Frameworks for New Ideas

You've heard of the Catholic church. But what on Earth is a catholic Catholic? Simply put, it's the term that best sums up the years-long culmination of my spiritual path, inasmuch as the word "catholic," in its non-ecclesiastical form, denotes something universal, broad, or all-embracing.  

And I mean that in a spiritual sense, not a political one. The point is that what began as the journey of a questioning young kid born into the Catholic church has resulted in a weary middle-aged man who's come back home by fitting his years of worldwide spiritual exploration into a big-"c" Catholic box. 

I feel at home in the Catholic church, even if I can't hold a literal belief in its teachings. That's a tough place to be in, but it's the only alternative to starting my own church -- which could still happen, but time will tell. Either way, I'm compelled to do something, whether it's sitting in someone else's church on a Sunday or launching my own, because I know at this point that my lifelong spiritual yearning isn't just going to go away.

It would be so much easier if I could just fit myself neatly into someone else's prefabricated box, but I've never been that way, spiritually or otherwise. And when it comes to religion and spirituality in particular, I know from experience that I don't fit in any of these boxes:

  • I'm not an atheist, because I firmly believe that our material existence is balanced out by our spiritual existence; they are the yin and yang of our experience in this universe. 
  • I'm not a liberal Christian, because even though I'm a firm believer in living out the values of the Sermon on the Mount, social justice is not an end in itself and leaves us spiritually hungry. 
  • I'm not a rules-and-regulations Christian, because rigid dogma is only a small step away from Pharisaism and ends up missing the point of the spiritual life that I think Christ wanted us to follow and cultivate. 
  • I'm about as far away from a literalist, evangelical, faith-alone, sola scriptura Christian as a person could possibly be.  

I'm no fan of Paul, either. I think he taught a message that often ran contrary to Christ's, and I think he undid much of the work Christ did toward encouraging people to live out their faith and toward treating women as equals -- the latter of which was, of course, something unheard of in those days. The irony, naturally, is that without Paul's missionary zeal that spread the message of Christ to the Gentiles, Christianity would have been a weird, obscure offshoot of Judaism that probably would have died out in a few generations.  

That leaves me with a Christianity that boils down to the Gospels and the epistles of James and John, along with the wisdom literature of the Old Testament. For me, that's enough to build a foundation of something that looks "Christian" enough for me to stay in the fold, as it lets me hold on to the ethical teachings Christ left behind while leaving ample room to understand his spiritual teachings and admonitions in a more universal sense. 

It's not my business to tell others they're doing religion wrong, but I do think an overweening literalism is one of the biggest problems modern religion faces. The story of Adam and Eve, to cite one of endless examples, doesn't have to be understood literally in order to derive a greater lesson from it about our origins, our relationship with the divine, and our human frailties that cause us to repeatedly stumble and fall. When fundamentalists insist on a literal reading of such allegorical passages, it only alienates modern minds who then wonder how people could still believe in such primitive fables when we now know so much about the beginning of the universe and the evolution of species from a scientific point of view. 

But the thing is, evangelicals and fundamentalists on one side, and the atheists and materialists on the other, are both reacting to the same literal reading of scripture, unable to see that literalism isn't the only possible or permissible approach. Even some of the Church Fathers, including the revered St. Augustine himself, argued that if a passage of scripture defies science and reason, then it should not be interpreted literally. 

Think of it this way: If the faithful believe that Jesus is God incarnate, and Jesus spoke in parables to illustrate spiritual truths, then why would the same God have not likewise used stories to illustrate spiritual truths in the Old Testament, as in the Creation and Flood stories?


That brings me to Bernardo Kastrup. The computer scientist-turned-metaphysicist has in recent years laid out a complex theoretical framework that seeks to unite our modern understanding of physics, especially quantum physics, with spiritual truths that reimagine old teachings in new ways. 

Like Jung before him, Kastrup subscribes to the idea of a collective unconscious, a pool of common knowledge and experience typically expressed through archetypes to which all humans appear to have an innate access. Acknowledging that we all have subjective conscious experiences of what it's like to be "us," while science still can't explain how consciousness even works, Kastrup takes a view of consciousness that looks something like the Tao or the Hindu idea of Brahman and unites it with a perspective on the quantum world, where our old assumptions about how the material world works fall into chaos. If consciousness objectively exists, but the basis for neither it nor our material existence can be found at the quantum level, then Kastrup argues that consciousness, along with the subjective experience of our own existence, must come from someplace else. And that "someplace else" must be a kind of universal consciousness for which we all become like receivers, tuning in to our own unique frequencies. That means consciousness is a basic building block of our universe, no different from, say, gravity. 

Thus, this universal consciousness and the universe itself are more or less synonymous, and our conscious existence is the universe experiencing itself through our senses.

Although Kastrup doesn't promote his idea from a religious framework, it's pretty easy to take his concepts and imagine us all as individual souls that have separated from a larger whole, with the ultimate goal of finding our way back home. As Alan Watts so beautifully expressed it, we are pieces of God playing hide-and-seek with himself. We incarnate to learn things, to experience the world, to love, to lose, to feel the entire range of human emotions, and then we take our experiences back with us after this life, either adding them to the base of knowledge of the collective unconscious or coming back to live another life. 

If this idea seems far removed from any known concept of Christianity, I'd say that it is and it isn't. The way I see it, Christianity is universally true in that it guides us toward eventual reunion with the divine and offers comforting answers for why things are the way they are in our often difficult lives. If we pick up our cross and follow in the way of Christ, we will experience difficult trials, but we can take comfort in the knowledge that by following in his ways, we will find the Kingdom of God within us (Luke 17:21). Contrary to what the Calvinists and evangelicals say, we are not totally depraved. Nor are we, in the words of Martin Luther, irredeemable dunghills whose filth can only be covered with the snow of God's righteousness. To the contrary, we can become "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4) and achieve a mystical union with God, in a process the Eastern Christians call theosis

Whether humans can achieve such a state or not, it is nevertheless a worthy ideal to strive toward. It's the path that the Sermon on the Mount sets us on, and even striving to walk that path is sure to better us and the world alike. Recall that Christ himself once said, "Is it not written in your law, 'I have said you are gods'?" (John 10:34), and "Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). He was calling us to be our best selves, even if we stumble and fall as we try. 

God, then, becomes something like a symbol of human perfection, rather than a judgmental entity who weighs our sins and determines whether we deserve heaven or eternal torture. If, as the apostle John tells us, God is love (1 John 4:16), then how could it be otherwise? True theosis, true union with God, is what leads us home to our source, where we can reunite with the universal consciousness and find rest. 

At most, I believe our souls may undergo a time of purification for our failings in this life -- I firmly believe that the Catholics got the concept of purgatory right -- but the idea of a place of never-ending anguish and torment is utterly incompatible with any concept of divine love and mercy. 

How to take it all on board

Now, this largely metaphorical perspective on Christianity becomes problematic only if you insist on taking scripture at a completely literal level. Even before I read Kastrup, I came to believe that the feeble human mind would be completely incapable of ever grasping anything of the spiritual realm. At best, religious traditions can offer their best guesses. They can only show us the mere shadows of spiritual truths, as in Plato's Allegory of the Cave; they are only the finger pointing at the moon

The problem is, organized religion takes its best guesses and repackages them into dogmatic truths that can't be questioned or challenged. Then you're forced to believe things that compel you to surrender your common sense, on pain of being thrown out of your particular religious tribe. The alternatives are to follow your own solitary path, mix and match beliefs to hammer out something that works for you, or remain silent about your inmost beliefs while remaining part of a religious community. 

You can also scuttle religious belief altogether, of course. But I'm with Jung and Kastrup in thinking that humans are hardwired for religious belief. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and philosopher Blaise Pascal have both said in their own ways that humans have a God-shaped hole in their heart, and that hole will always be filled by something that becomes each person's personal god, whether it be money, political beliefs, self-worship, or something else. Given the trajectory our world is on, as traditional religious belief declines, I think it's far more prudent to hold on to some kind of transcendent belief -- an idea that there's something bigger than us, to keep us humble by reminding us that we're not in control of very much. The Buddha and the Stoics were both right in observing that we suffer when we try to control things that were never in our control in the first place. Whether you subscribe to the Four Noble Truths or see yourself as a humble servant of the Almighty, we are keeping our egos in check and, as a result, our expectations of the world around us in a realistic context. If we can't control the world, at least we can control our reaction to it.

But how do you take on a religious belief if you don't believe it in the first place? Kastrup argues that that's asking the wrong question, as it's rooted in the idea that we're obliged to take on a literal belief of whatever spiritual system we adopt. Instead, we should treat religious doctrines right from the start as myths -- not myths as mere fairy tales, but spiritual expressions that point to truths beyond what our logical minds can grasp and our languages can express. Thus, whether a religious doctrine is literally true becomes irrelevant. What it points to, in a way that we can't grasp through logic or express through words, is what matters. When Chapter 1 of the Tao Te Ching states that "The Tao that can be spoken of is not the Tao," this is precisely what it's talking about. Kastrup believes that adopting this approach will open us up to the great wonders and possibilities we've lost along with our old religious beliefs, making our modern lives feel less claustrophobic and desperate and maybe even giving us a glimmer of existential hope.

What Kastrup is asking us to do is what fundamentalists and all religious literalists fail to do, which is to create a healthy separation between our emotional and intellectual minds. In his book More Than Allegory, Kastrup argues that "if a religious myth resonates deeply with your inner intuitions and survives a reasonably critical assessment of its depth," then you can "take it onboard as if it were literally true." But he warns that one should not attempt to rationally conceptualize the meaning of the myth, as that would strip it of its intuitive power; nor should one try to take on the myth as intellectually true, as that leads to fundamentalism. It is enough, rather, to see the myth as a literal truth on an emotional level.

This is where atheists tend to fail in their criticism of religion. At least in America, a lot of atheists seem, in my experience, to be refugees of fundamentalist and evangelical backgrounds, and their sweeping rejection of religious belief often, and unsurprisingly, comes off as a knee-jerk reaction to the literalist religion they were programmed to believe in for so long. In a reaction to what they perceive as the psychological tyranny of their former lives, they throw the Baby Jesus out with the bathwater. 

I mention this because I came close to joining the ranks of the atheists at one point on my spiritual journey. I wondered how grown, intelligent people could believe such nonsense. Eventually, I realized that the secret is that religious belief is not an either-or proposition. Yes, if you attempt to intellectualize everything in holy scripture, it will collapse in on itself, in a messy heap of impossibilities and logical contradictions -- and that's if you're not already appalled by all the bloodthirsty vengeance and wrath of the Old Testament God. 

But if you can embrace the idea -- just the idea -- that an all-powerful God would humble himself to take on human form and suffer and die on our behalf, out of his infinite and unconditional love for us, then you've learned a valuable lesson in what true, selfless love looks like, and how you can cultivate that kind of love in yourself and radiate it out to others -- even those you don't deem worthy of it. Little wonder that the Gospels have collectively been called the greatest story ever told.

Inasmuch as all religions attempt to point us toward the same unknowable universal truths, so we can take on virtually any religious path, as long as we strive to view that religion as literally true on an emotional level, and not on a rational level. But Kastrup makes a strong case for using Christianity as a framework for our spiritual life. His journey has been similar to my own, and I'd like to quote at length from More Than Allegory, as the passage resonates strongly with me and, I think, illustrates how people can take on a religious belief in the manner he argues for:

I was raised in a largely Catholic extended family and exposed to the Christian myth and liturgy from childhood. […] However, as I grew up and became more critical, things changed. By the time I went to university at 17, I was already dismissing the Christian myth as mere fiction and continued to do so for many years thereafter. The scope of my interest in the Christian world became reduced, or so I told myself, to the history and architecture of Europe's medieval churches. Yet this modest interest was enough to maintain a tenuous, delicate link to the myth.

Each time I went to a church and watched the faithful in prayer, I caught myself wondering how the Christian myth could have such a strong hold in the souls of so many otherwise rational people. It didn't make sense to me, and the whole thing felt like a puzzle I couldn't solve. As my interest in and knowledge of psychology grew, my curiosity in this regard became even more acute. "How? Why? What is it in this myth that has such a grip in the mind of Western civilization?" To simply dismiss the whole thing by labeling it delusion would be, or so I felt, a lazy and unsatisfying way out. It would represent a puerile refusal to acknowledge an undeniable and rather remarkable psychosocial fact, so one wouldn't need to understand it. With the risk of sounding arrogant, I was too thoughtful to take such a dull-witted exit.

One day, I had an experience that answered all those questions to my own satisfaction. I happened to be visiting one of Europe's oldest and largest churches: Cologne Cathedral in Germany. I had no specific agenda during my visit. I was just there absorbing the "vibe" of that amazing place. As it happens, my gaze got caught by the large crucifix above the golden shrine of the Three Kings. There was the figure of a man, nailed to a cross, in a dramatic depiction of great human sacrifice. At once something flipped inside me, like a sudden shift of perspective. I had gotten it. I had been suddenly "carried over" directly to the transcendent cognitive space the icon was pointing to all along. I knew what the Christian symbolism was attempting to convey. "The event of the symbol is a stunning, unexpected moment when something … in the world takes your breath away," explained Cheetham quite accurately. Could I articulate my epiphany in language? I could try, but I know that it would be completely misunderstood no matter how carefully I chose my words. I know it because I would misunderstand it completely if someone else tried to describe it to me. The insight escapes language and can only be conveyed, precariously as it may admittedly be, through the religious myth. All I can say is this that sudden epiphany confirmed the validity of the Christian myth to me and, simultaneously, shredded it to pieces. It was an "Aha!" moment that, while making clear why the Christian myth is what it is -- it simply couldn't be any different -- it also showed that the truth has very little to do with the myth as expressed in words. Although this may sound like a contradiction, my living experience wasn't contradictory at all: It made perfect sense at a non-intellectual, heartfelt level. I had glanced at the cylinder beyond the shadows.

The experience I am trying to describe wasn't rapture or ecstasy. It was simply an insight of understanding that escapes the boundaries of the intellect and resolves paradoxes; a syzygy or coniunctio, as Jung called it. It was like a subtle but powerful shift of perspective that instantly placed me where the myth had been pointing to all along. 

What Kastrup describes here is not unlike the Zen experience of satori, a flash of enlightenment that peels away the curtains of illusion obscuring our view of the reality beyond our material existence. I've had one experience similar to that on my spiritual journey, one in which the Virgin Mary made herself known to me. Like Kastrup's experience, it wasn't exactly a moment of rapture or ecstasy -- but it wasn't a purely intellectual experience, either. As I reached out to touch a likeness of Mary one day in a Catholic chapel, I felt a rush of warmth flooding over me, a feeling that I can only describe as compassionate, unconditional love. Any of the great religious mystics throughout history would surely nod in understanding of what I'm talking about.

Mary has pulled me back into the Catholic/Orthodox family over and over, and while I don't look back at my experience as supernatural evidence of the historical existence of a figure named Mary of Nazareth, it did confirm my belief in what the religious figure of the Virgin Mary means to me and my spiritual life. She's my mother, whether she ever actually existed or not.  

"A religious myth can create the conditions for a direct experience of a transcendent reality," Kastrup wrote. And my experience lends credence to his argument. "If and when the experience actually happens," he continues, "the myth dissolves itself. But once the experience is over, the religious myth remains an important link, a reminder, between ordinary life and transcendence." In other words, you've gone beyond belief. You become like Jung, who, when asked whether he believed in God, replied: "I don't believe. I know." His knowledge came from a different place from mine, but he likewise arrived at an understanding that didn't rely solely on what someone told him to believe.

Thinking different

Dogma and literalism, I think, are for people who have never had an inner experience like that. Without having had a peek behind the veil to witness the deeper truths that religion points us toward, you need the guardrails that dogma provides, because all you have is someone else's tradition handed down to you from someone else, and all you can do it take everything on blind faith. You're handed a bunch of rules and told the consequences for not following them. 

And then what happens? You become obsessed with personal behavior and sin and you miss the whole point of the spiritual life. Hence all the Bible-thumpers who try to compel you to follow their rules by rattling off scripture verses to scare you into avoiding a hell that you may or may not believe in. Hence, too, all the online Q&A websites where you'll always find people, usually young and inexperienced in religion, asking endless questions about whether X is a sin or whether I'll go to hell if I do Y. As if the only purpose of your spiritual life and religious experience is to avoid angering a petty regulation enforcer in the sky. 

And yet this is how so many of us function. Ask the average believer why he believes, and you're likely to hear "So I can go to heaven when I die," or, worse, "so I don't go to hell."

We can do better than that. Religion ought to lift us up, inspire us, not make us feel miserable about ourselves and self-righteous toward others. 

And so it is that I've once again returned to the familiar comfort of Catholicism, which I use as the framework for my own understanding of the divine. Following Kastrup's advice, I accept its teachings as fully literal on an emotional level. From a rational point of view, I have a deep admiration for its history, its rituals and traditions, the beauty and reverence of (some of) its religious services, and the soaring architecture that makes you feel like you're in the presence of the divine. Catholicism gave shape to Western civilization, too, and there's something to be said for offering up one's appreciation for that incredible gift, which tragically seems in grave danger of slipping away.

Granted, I'm no fan of the current pope, who wants to destroy the beautifully reverent Traditional Latin Mass that the church used as its primary method of worship for some 400 years. Like most of his misguided Vatican II generation, he wants to conform the church to the changing standards and beliefs of contemporary secular society, rather than having the church stand firm as a corrective when society loses its way. 

But the church is bigger than one person. Even the Holy Family had to live in exile for a time, but eventually Herod died.  

So I'll stick around as long as I can stomach things. If new mandates pop up that restrict freedom of public worship, I'm out. The Latin Mass is my backup option at this point, and I recall that the SSPX was the last to close during the lockdowns, if it ever closed at all. But if Francis succeeds in killing off the old Mass, then I guess I'd be altogether finished letting someone else "do" church for me, and I'd have to step up my own efforts to create a physical church of my own. 

Given my dodgy health and my more important responsibilities as a dad, a husband, and a wage-earner for my family, I just don't know if starting my own church is ever going to happen. But I do have a book in me, and that may actually materialize this year. I even have the name of the church all set to go: Ekklesia Pankatholikos, Greek for the Pan-Catholic Church. What we know as Christianity took root in Greece and under the influence of Greek culture, and I think that connection deserves to be emphasized and celebrated. 

With Paul's influence, the belief in Jesus as the Jewish messiah crashed head-on with existing regional pagan beliefs about dying and rising deities, like chocolate mixing with peanut butter, to create a universal religion that took on even more pagan influence once it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. So while Christian figures, scriptures, and traditions form the basis of the EPK, the pan in "Pankatholikos" signifies an openness to other beliefs and traditions, in hopes of revitalizing religious belief within the modern world while using familiar faith traditions as a foundation to build upon and hopefully draw people in. I envision one of its selling points as being a BYOD religion -- bring your own deity. We've got what you need to get started, but go ahead and add what you require to give the belief system relevance to your life and experience. If you feel the urge to swap out the Blessed Virgin for, say, the goddess Athena, have at it. Do what works for you.

I envision the EPK as a meeting place of many of the religious and spiritual traditions and ideas that I've picked up on my lifelong journey. Taoism has a very prominent place, along with the Sacred Feminine. Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, Buddhism, pandeism, and, yes, paganism all have their place as well. And the central narrative of the EPK focuses on a character that may surprise some. There will be more details to come, but suffice it to say for now that the EPK thinks outside the box in some significant ways.

I invite you to join me on my continuing journey.

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