Posts Tagged ‘Ross Douthat’

A Great Salt Lake

August 12, 2012

I’ve been reading a lot about Mormonism and Utah because of Romney’s candidacy for the presidency and the treatment of that in the media, including Ross Douthat’s NYTimes column today and Michael Gerson’s similar call Friday evening on the PBS NewsHour for Romney to discuss his faith.

So when I found myself just now shaking salt into a large pot of water to make spaghetti, I had to laugh at myself for creating my own great salt lake.  I’m not sure it counts as synchronicity, but I’m enjoying it regardless, including the pastafarian connection (not to mention the pasta itself).

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“Cosmic therapy”

July 27, 2012

I came across the term “cosmic therapist,” as a characterization of God, in a Ross Douthat blog post called, “Is Liberal Christianity Actually the Future?” (July 25, 2012).  In the context, this characterization was being criticized as part of a shallow and ineffective version of religion, I think.

My reaction was, “Oh, Ross, does this mean you’ve never experienced cosmic therapy?  It not only is so wonderful at resolving issues but it also gives insight into what human therapists are trying, less successfully, to do.”

I conceive of the universe as having (permeable) layers in between us and God, so I am not here to insist that it is “God” who provides cosmic therapy directly, but delivering up a knotty emotional stumbling block to the universe can get a person just the right feedback that dissolves the knot.

This is not to say that such an experience constitutes all of a spiritual practice or a religion, but let’s not deride an aspect of spiritual life that is very helpful.

Gratitude for nuns

May 9, 2012

I was disappointed that the commenting mechanism is not being used for a blog post by Ross Douthat on the recent Vatican response to American nuns, so I figured I could speak my piece here.

After reading the blog post, I was left thinking that the Vatican could be grateful to the American nuns for helping the Church develop its understanding of what Jesus was getting at.

From my point of view, the nuns are in the van on these issues, but I can see that those who put orthodoxy ahead of other concerns probably wouldn’t see it that way.

Equipment and technique

April 4, 2012

Gita says that my mind is constantly in motion, and implies that this is difficult for some other people to deal with.  I think of it as being something like a car battery in an engine that wouldn’t turn over and has been jump-started, and you keep the engine running because you’re not sure whether the battery can or will hold the charge.

If a person “hooks up” with higher ways of understanding the world, that hook-up is like a one-shot connection, I think, and I think we try to maintain that connection by keeping our mental engine running.  I think that hook-up may be the same thing people mean when they talk about spiritual union with God, I’m not sure.  But I am pretty sure that we don’t engage in that hook-up through our willing it, that it comes through a combination of willingness to serve, to do what serves, and to accept and learn from a whole lot of experiences in life other people might try to escape or control.  I don’t think it’s compatible with a lot of what most people want to have in their lives.

That hook-up is, I think, what develops the equipment we have in a nascent form; I think it’s kind of like a leaf unfurling, a flower opening, a balloon inflating, a Mars land-rover deploying after landing.  So, I think we lack the equipment in a useful state if we lack the hook-up, and that many people do lack it.  (I think some people have experienced the jump-start for its instant but have not been able to maintain the connection it allows, perhaps because they had not first readied themselves.)

My sense is that a person has to develop mental equipment and then technique, in order to engage in some kinds of understanding.  That’s what I was getting at in my comment to Ross Douthat’s blog post.  I think plenty of smart, well-educated people learn technique, but I think that without the “hook-up,” the technique applied produces a flattened view of a multidimensional scene.  And most people don’t want to do what it takes to experience the hook-up, in part because that sort of a life is antithetical to many of the things they wish to do with the ability to understand profoundly — the ambition undermines the very things they need for the experience and maintaining its aftermath.

I used to think that people who have developed the gift of understanding through such a hook-up could themselves connect with other people, people who don’t have it but have something else, like a means of communicating the understanding to a wider audience.  Kind of like components to old-fashioned stereo equipment, I think, with its amplifiers and subwoofers and such (I may have the technology misunderstood, but my point is different units networked together to produce the sound for the audience).  I even think the stereo analogy may not be unrelated in content, because I sometimes think I have developed the equivalent of depth perception in part through my connection with another “viewer,” whoever that may be, as if we were two eyes seeing together, and hence in three dimensions instead of two.

So, I used to think, I think, that one of these people/eyes got the vision, the other provided the translation and publication, in some kind of partnership.  And maybe it’s so.  I don’t know.  I used to have a sense of how it might work, but in trying to move closer to it, I feel less sure of it.  Maybe that’s just an artifact of getting up close to the object, no longer seeing its totality, like seeing less of the earth as the airplane gets closer to landing.

But I’m not sure.  Part of me thinks my collaboration model was wrong, and that in the past it produced unhelpful and damaging results that needed to be walked back.  And so I wait to get some clarity, trying to remain open and loving to everyone involved, and intending no harm.

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.