Archive for the 'messiah' Category

Conglomerations in religious thought

August 29, 2011

This is an expansion on the comment I wrote in response to Ross Douthat’s column in the NYTimes today.

When I read books about other people’s religions, or when I talk to other people about them, I am reminded of grading undergraduate papers years ago for a classical civilization class for which I was a teaching assistant.  The students were bright, the writing was fine, but an occasional paper would be what I have stored in my memory as “ingeniously wrong.” It was as if the student had gotten a couple of digits in a telephone number transposed, or something, and hence dialed a wrong number — something was off, and significantly so, but how it had happened was less than initially obvious, and I would spend a lot of time on those papers trying to disentangle what was correct from what was error (of fact, of logic, due to ignorance about something else, of how pieces fit together) so I could explain it to the student in my notes.

A lot of religious writing strikes me similarly.  It looks to me like a tangled mass of reports of other people’s spiritual understandings, misinterpretations of other people’s spiritual understandings (and misunderstandings), intellectual thoughts based on these understandings and misinterpretations, psychological coping mechanisms for dealing with uncomfortable emotional reactions to life events, psychological coping mechanisms for dealing with emotional reactions to damaged people and their behavior, creative writing, and other forms of art.

I touched on one of these in passing in my thoughts on people who think they are the messiah.  We, I think, usually criticize such people for thinking they have special understandings, but I think actually the nub of their problem is thinking that they are unique — which seems to me to be due to a confluence of the teachings of some major religion (or religions) that there is a unique messiah, with the ego of the person and its quest for uniqueness in how it sees itself in relation to others and to the whole.

I could probably try to get myself to list a bunch of what I consider misunderstandings in religions, as well as a list of understandings that I share, but I really don’t feel called to do either — and it would be a little like trying to establish peace through war, a little oxymoronic.  But I would like to report on a finding I discovered while helping a few people who were spiritually stuck.

The mind with which we think our thoughts in our languages is not our only equipment for perception.  I remember reading how some Catholic theologians and clerics were negatively disposed to having their congregants meditate, and I think something about “centering prayer” was developed eventually out of that controversy.  My reason for bringing this up is that the theologians and clerics were right, I think, in their sense that meditation will open us up in ways that can let in all kinds of things; the issue is, I think, one of separating baby from bathwater — meditation makes use of that other equipment we have, and that’s important, and, I would say, necessary.  How to use that equipment safely is a separate issue.

What I discovered with these people who were spiritually stuck whom I was helping was that they didn’t realize they were using their intellectual equipment to try to perceive in the spiritual realm — they thought an idea that they thought was a spiritual understanding.  It reminded me of trying myself as a child to overcome what people told me was a speech impediment: I really didn’t understand for a long time that a “k” sound or a hard “c” sound or a hard “g” sound were being generated in the back of the throat — I was expressing them in the front of my mouth and they were coming out as “t” sounds and “d” sounds.  Once I got that there was a difference, another way of making a sound that I was unfamiliar with, that part of my speech impediment (I also had trouble with initial “r” sounds) was gone.

So, that’s the first step, as I see it: recognizing our different kinds of equipment for perception, distinguishing between understandings such as we get through meditation and thoughts we develop through our intellectual activity.  What I think lead to such trouble in the realm of religion are other people’s intellectual ideas taught as spiritual understandings, because (1) they are idiosyncratic (even if shared by others) human ideas, (2) adoption of them is had through emotions and the intellect, not through spiritual perception of our own, and (3) they are difficult to amend or abandon because they are adhered to in a rigid and uncritical way, as a doctrine of human construction. And our intellects are involved with our egos, our hopes, desires, fears, and dislikes — so, our intellectual ideas are colored and distorted by these extraneous concerns, concerns that are not present in the information we perceive through understandings through other equipment we use for perception, such as when people meditate.  (Let me just note here that I distinguish meditation here from prayer only in order to try to communicate this other mode of perception — because I actually see prayer in its pure form as the same thing as meditation, I just think that by now and especially in our culture prayer is often engaged in by (only) the intellectual mind.  I see using pure prayer or meditation to hear the universe and then using our intellectual minds to translate what we’ve heard into our languages and with reference to consensus reality.)

The universe, I think, is pretty oblivious to our human misunderstandings of its workings — we need to separate the wheat from the chaff, the universe will not change the way it works in order to be congruent with our (mis)understanding of it.  So, I wish we would talk more about how we perceive — prayer, creative arts, philosophizing, scientific thinking, etc. — and how they fit together.  Maybe that way we would be more likely to use the apt mode for the kind of perceptual endeavor being undertaken in a given situation.

It’s just a phase

August 28, 2011

I was reading in a NYTimes article about mental health patients, at least one of whom had the thought or belief that he is the Messiah.  And then this morning I was reading about how we grapple with our immortality and how it affects our behavior.  So, I thought I’d try out a few of my own thoughts on these issues.

First, I’m really happy to see them addressed at all in the media.

As to people thinking they are the Messiah, without addressing whether the same person is able to function adequately without support or is a danger to self or others, this belief in and of itself strikes me as an artefact of a “spiritual” difficulty.  I think the person needs to pass through it, not disown it.  I think it may arise when the person is open to spiritual information, so to speak, without adequate preparation — some kind of enlightenment is getting stuck on ego.  With less emphasis on the self and its wonderfulness, there would only be the attributes of a messiah, not the idea of being one.  Someone with those attributes, who even was aware of having them, would not be so distressed themselves, or so distressing to others, as someone who has them entangled in a need for confirmation of their self’s worth.  I think.  What, I am guessing, would move the person through the belief in being the Messiah would be a sense that it is a phase, that it is a distortion of perception of an otherwise very usual step on a path to spiritual understanding, and that we are all messiahs, if you will, we all are capable of receiving spiritual understanding, and it comes out a whole lot easier when we can recognize that we are doing something lots of people are doing — we are not unique.  The “I am unique” part is part of the underlying issues that are producing this distortion and artefact.

Second: immortality.  Physical mortality and spiritual immortality seem very compatible to me.  If prayer can be thought of as the original cell phone connection, I think our fear of death arises when we lose our “phone connection” to the universe, when it  goes dead.  When we are connected, we perceive (at least, I do) that the part of me that is connected is not my (limited) intellectual mind.  And that part seems to know all kinds of stuff that clearly did not enter into me through reading, listening to other people, or even observation of the physical world.  And those understandings turn out to be quite consonant with those of others who have active spiritual lives.  Group psychosis or group gnosis.  I certainly grieve my loved ones’ deaths, but I have also felt that they became “safe” when they died.  With some of their deaths, I could perceive, sort of vicariously, how they were freed of all our frustrating limitations on our perception of what’s important and how we should live our lives, when they were about to die.  I do think that our fear fuels a cycle of alienation from understanding the universe more accurately — paradoxically, we need to be more open to understand it and our fears make us more closed — like tensing up when trying to float.

It’s kind of funny to me, a little:  I have much less trouble at this point in my life trusting the universe, throwing myself towards it the way my younger son would launch himself off the landing on the stairs into my arms, than I have trusting other people to follow through on what they repeatedly explicitly promise me, even when they really mean it in the moment.  I think that’s why I identify so much with the nun in Richard Shindell’s song “Transit.”  To end on a lighter note:  I’m five feet tall, this younger son of mine is now six feet tall and weighs more than twice as much as I do.  Jordan was always somewhat big for his age, so this launching of himself into my arms I always felt was an act of great trust that I would be able to catch him.