Sunday, 30 May 2010

Religion turned inside out

I realized while going back over my posts on this blog that I never did publish the chapter of my book manuscript that dealt with religion, and that without it the comments regarding Bishop Spong's book and thoughts lack context - they discuss a comparison while the "other half" of the comparison has not been laid out for public perusal. In the interests of allowing this to occur, I here reproduce the main elements of my 2006 chapter, even though were I to write it today I would incorporate some of Bishop Spong's concepts and update the text based on more recent experiences.

My 2006 text begins with the following quotation from Charles Handy's book "The Age of Paradox" :

Living with paradox is not comfortable nor easy. It can be like walking in a dark wood on a moonless night. It is an eerie, and, at times, a frightening experience. All sense of direction is lost; trees and bushes crowd in on you; wherever you step, you bump into another obstacle; every noise and rustle is magnified; there is whiff of danger; it seems safer to stand still than to move.” – Charles Handy

In preceding sections, we have developed a global view of the changes underway and focused on particular changes that will occur but also that need to be guided into appropriate paths in the development of new learning environments and new business arrangements. Here, we are concerned with another major aspect of daily life beyond School and Work, that of Church. Some may question the importance given to this topic so early in the unveiling of the changes in progress – others may wonder why this hasn’t been given top billing. In fact, religion remains, one of the major motive forces in our current world society and is intimately tied to daily life throughout the world, although the nature of the religious practices vary. Later on, we shall be dealing with other aspects of our spiritual lives, and the importance this has in the development of new living arrangements, but here, we lay the groundwork for these more nuanced discussions by engaging in a critical study of religion.

Our discussion of religion follows the broad plan laid out in this blog – from orthodoxy to paradoxy. Religion has been, since its beginnings, the foundational model for orthodoxy. On the other hand, some have argued that the spiritual figures on which religions are based, Jesus, John the Baptist, Mohammed, Buddha, and so on, are not, themselves orthodox – rather, orthodoxy is the set of codified beliefs and practices that are built up over time based on their usually more spontaneous teachings.

From whence comes this apparently universal tendency to create coherent systems of thought around inspirational individuals, and then require people to follow these systems? This is an important question for those such as ourselves, who have at the least named a counter-tendency, the modern drive to move away from orthodoxy, and who propose to strengthen this counter-tendency.

The Origins of Orthodoxy

In an earlier posting, I noted that the word “orthodoxy” derives etymologically from the roots “ortho” and “doxa”, Greek words meaning “right” or “correct”, and “thought”, “teaching” or “Glorification”71. Its formal definition is given as “correct theological or doctrinal observance of religion as determined by some overseeing body”. A common definition is, on the other hand, “a belief or orientation agreeing with conventional standards”. The notion of “right thought”, however, is actually a part of the teachings of many of the spiritual figures within religion, including Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed.

In other writings (actually, my published scientific writings!), I discuss the idea of Presence. Interestingly, although Presence is a current pre-occupation with regards to the design of effective virtual reality environments, it also has its roots in religious experience. Presence, in particular, appears to result from a kind of CONTACT with the Other. In religious experience, the Other is God (or the Buddha, or the Tao, and so on). Furthermore, Presence is not about CENTRE, but rather concerns PERIPHERY. The whole idea of the Other is a form of PERIPHERY. Finally, Presence is an experience that occurs in the Now. It is a CONTACT with the Other in the Now. Prayer is a way of attaining a form of Presence, as is Meditation (N.B. This is, indeed, if my reading is correct, how Bishop Spong situates the role of prayer). Right thinking may also be a way of achieving Presence. Enlightened individuals are concerned to bring about a greater contact between other individuals and this Presence, for the greater good of our being. Furthermore, we all have experiences of Presence in one form or another, indeed, the moment we stop and listen, even to ourselves. These moments are not attainable without a sense of awareness, a paying attention to ourselves. Right thinking among most spiritual leaders incorporates this idea of self-awareness.

Given that we all have experiences where we associate what we are thinking and how we are thinking, with the experience of Presence, it is perhaps not so large a step to want to systematize these associations within the goal of achieving a greater, ongoing sense of Presence, that is, a spiritual Enlightenment. Hence the emergence of a doctrine of “right thinking”, that becomes an orthodoxy. The tendency may be a result of what it is to be human, and what it is to experience Presence.

However, once an orthodoxy has been formed, it tends to become both fixed and invasive. Rather than remaining a guide for choice for the individual, it often becomes a straightjacket imposed by the community upon its members. Furthermore, different religions define their orthodoxies differently, and seem to get locked into a given belief system based on their particular doctrines. This has resulted in the dividing up of the world into different groups and beliefs. Finally, this is often where tolerance is paradoxically least felt. Why is that?

The Relationship between Identity and Belief

Modern research in cognition(*) is slowly revealing a fundamental truth about human nature – our very identities are built on our beliefs about ourselves and the world. Therapy and psychoanalysis are largely activities designed to bring us to question our beliefs about ourselves and to allow the reorganization that may spontaneously follow when these change. In the post-sustainable world, identity is a continual reconstruction that occurs by questioning who one is every single day (i.e. a focus on process), while in the old world, identity was a cumulative construction with a fortress-like defensive system aimed at “preserving” identity (a focus on structure). Identity was viewed as a means to ensure survival of the individual (or the group) through defensive action. In the new world, it is achieved through a more stable, but fundamentally more challenging method, by re-questioning one’s beliefs and allowing oneself to be redefined with each new contact. The fear is that we shall lose ourselves, that we shall lose our way by acting in such a paradoxical manner. The truth is, based on more than a century of experience with psychotherapy and analysis, the self is much more robust than that – the self thrives on paradoxes and contradictions, and grows as a result of dealing with them.

The shift in identity from a focus on structure to a focus on process follows the paradigm shift from a world struggling towards sustainability to a post-sustainable world. In the first world, the world of expansion, identity as a cumulative central structure makes sense. It is only in the new world that identity as a continual re-construction process comes into play. This suggests a second reason for the universal tendency towards the creation of closed orthodoxies. We begin with the need to develop a “right thinking” guide, and then we naturally build upon this within our understanding of what it means to have an identity, and hence accumulate doctrines and defend them.

Within the new paradigm, our identity needs to be constantly under re-construction, because our boundaries must be open, to function effectively in a world characterized by circularity and periphery. This will lead us away from orthodoxies that are cumulative and defended, whether these be religious, scientific, historic, or some other form. Instead, we shall be focusing on the co-existence within our systems of thought of often contradictory ideas. Right thinking to achieve Presence will still be a necessity, but it will be found by exposing ourselves to controversy and paradox. Ultimately, this will be closer to the original thoughts behind the need for “right thinking”, where such thinking arises not from a community-based doctrine, but from the necessities of remaining open in a world where paradox is primordial.

This, of course, heralds a profound change that will occur, eventually, in the way our religious experiences and lives are organized. Even the notion of “organized religion” will have to be rethought, since it is based, at least partially, on the idea of cumulative knowledge. However, to be fair, most religions today are struggling with the emergence within them of critical and questioning voices that are driving the very kind of identity re-thinking we are discussing here.

We are suggesting, rather, that such change from within will become ever stronger over the coming years, and that religions will be called upon, at some point, to rethink their entire organizational structure. The more centralized they are, the harder this will be.

Towards Paradoxy Within Organized Religion

In order to survive in the post-sustainable world, religions will have to give up their vice-like grip on orthodoxy, and on the idea that one can be “wholly” within one belief system. The single most important aspect of the post-sustainable world to grasp is that it is based on “paradoxy”, not orthodoxy. All the rest follows.

When I go to church (every Sunday – I sing in the choir), I hear sermons that assume that I have an absolute belief in God and Christ, and that tell me what I should do to better live the life of a Christian. But I carry within myself a deep contradiction. While one part of my being finds the sermons interesting, the symbolism fascinating and, on some level, true, even in terms of its call to action, another part of my being rejects the whole exercise as being far too focused on a single idea about the world, a single belief system. I have long said to myself that “one’s first right as a human being is to be inconsistent”. There is no outside authority that requires one to believe in any given system. I flirt with astrology, and there are times I accept what it tells me, and others when I consider it all to be nonsense. For a scientist, the first is considered unpardonable (science is another orthodoxy, another system of beliefs, that needs to move towards paradoxy).

I am not alone in this. While there are still many, perhaps even a majority, of people who “buy into” our orthodoxies, most are also struggling with doubts and other beliefs that are not allowed to surface (orthodoxy is very much about what is allowed, or not). But once one makes the switch to paradoxy, it is hard to go back. It is a harder road to follow, more uncomfortable at a personal level, because with it goes an acceptance of the contradictions within the self and the uncertainties that may result in our choices. However, the paradoxical road is, ultimately, the one that leaves us with a more robust identity, more open to growth and change, more equipped to survive.

Religions (and other orthodoxies, such as science, political parties, nations, and, even, to some extent, certain parts of the artistic community), will have to give up the idea that one can be “wholly for” or “in” their particular belief system. In fact, we may be both Buddhist and Christian, scientist and artist, spiritual and atheist.

A Practical Guide for Change

What does this mean in practical terms? What kinds of changes need to take place? One of the recent struggles experienced by many churches was the adaptation of their doctrines towards a more inclusive language. This was what has been termed the “Politically Correct” or PC movement. One of the down sides of this movement was that it was a highly orthodox movement. It was a revival of the idea of “right thinking, right action”, but within a context that permitted no inconsistencies. The results, in some cases, have been changes in hymn books and doctrinal texts that have taken much of the paradoxical life out of these documents. We are due for a sensitive counter-movement, one that allows some inconsistencies and contradictions to creep back in, provided there is an overall focus on “right thought, right action” within a paradoxical flavor.

The struggle over women ministers or priests, and over gay marriage are also recent issues that have brought many religious communities to question themselves and their basic tenets. These debates have often brought home the realization that real life communities do include contradictions and paradoxes, and that even the doctrines of religion incorporate some of these within them.

However, religious communities are still, for the most part, focused on the idea of an “exclusive belief”, even thought they often act more inclusively. Hence, for example, in recent years I have taken part in communion at several different churches, Protestant, Anglican and Catholic. However, I have also been exposed to doctrine-based affirmations such as “all those who are baptized are invited to take part” or “all Christians are invited to take communion”. As inclusive as these may sound to many members of these communities, I am neither baptized, nor, strictly speaking, Christian. Hence, although from a practical point of view, I may partake in
these activities, in fact I have been formally excluded from a doctrinal point of view.

Furthermore, I have found that I am frequently not alone – I know several individuals in these different communities who have likewise not been baptized, or have other beliefs than those shared by Christians.

The first major step towards paradoxy, therefore, is to be more inclusive in doctrine, not just in practice, with regard to other religious beliefs, including non-Christian ones and even atheistic beliefs. There is a general feeling that this would be going too far, but it is a crucial step if religions are to survive over the long term. Furthermore, despite fears to the contrary, this does not mean giving up a belief in the Numinous, nor giving up a practice of “right thinking and right action”. It simply means making these more part of our personal doctrines, and more a result of a
struggle and less a part of the organized doctrines that make up a religious community.

As discussed elsewhere in this blog, the new world will be profoundly structured around the idea of PERIPHERY rather than CENTRE, as the world we are leaving was organized. Organized religion needs to recognize and understand this change. It is a matter of shifting the focus of attention. Religions, like many complex structures and organizations, contain many different elements and may adapt to changing circumstances. Shifting to a PERIPHERAL focus is another vital step. Many churches and religious groups are still clinging to the idea that they should struggle to play a
more “CENTRAL role” in society, and undertake extensive, costly, and, ultimately futile activities aimed at achieving this. Instead, churches and religious organizations should embrace their role as being important to the PERIPHERY of society. Since society is a whole is moving to become more PERIPHERAL, this is actually a focus that favors survival, even a new kind of flourishing.

Since Presence itself is PERIPHERAL, and hence human individuals are also PERIPHERAL, this should be no great hardship. But moving towards a more peripheral focus also means giving up the importance of Place. Place is a central notion that will become less important in the coming years and decades. Hence the notion of the Church or the Meeting House or the Temple will become less important. Organized religion needs to let go of this idea, and start to develop a more malleable notion of contacting the Numinous. This won’t happen overnight, but it will need to happen over a longer period of time. We won’t completely let go of Place, instead we shall create many Places, none of which has dominance over the others.

Organized religion also needs to network more strongly with other faiths. With the move away from doctrinal orthodoxy, this should become easier than it is today. Although some cooperation occurs today, it is often based on joint outreach or socially engaged action, because these do not require doctrinal modifications.

Already, the four practical actions we have outlined (changes in doctrine to accommodate other religious beliefs, acceptance of the shift to a Peripheral role in society as a positive value, movement away from a centralized Place of worship, and networking with other faiths at the doctrinal level) represent major changes in thinking and understanding for most religious communities in existence today.

The Recognition of Shadow

In other postings, I've gone to some pains to discuss the importance of allowing a shadow culture and economy a more accepted place in our societies. Likely actions include creating public forums for discussing our own personal shadow behavior as well as those of others. Organized religion offers a significant forum for doing just that, if there were an openness within these communities to do so. The discussion around gay marriage is certainly an example. Gay relationships were long relegated to our society’s shadow, and because they challenge us in heart of our own contradictions, they are still a touchstone for strong, not always understood, feelings.

Religion provides a very interesting environment for opening up a discussion about the shadow. It has always provided a forum for discussing demons, albeit within an orthodox environment – demons were always to be condemned. To open the doors to a more paradoxical debate about the nature of good and evil, a necessary step is to open the religious environment to discussions of belief and doubt. This is quite different from orthodox discussions of belief, that see doubt as something to be found within a box “over there”, a source of challenge towards orthodoxy and hence something to be acknowledged so as to keep it out. Instead, I am talking about paradoxical discussions about belief and doubt, about the idea that God might not exist, a doubt that is allowed to challenge one’s religious identity, rather than kept on the wrong side of a wall of orthodox doctrine.

All of the great religious orthodoxies act in this way (Christianity, Moslem, Hindu, Buddhism, Shintoism, Judaism, etc.), with the possible exception of Taoism. However, each does so with a different flavor. Hence, while the demons of Moslems are not the same as the demons of Buddhists or Christians, they all discuss these demons within doctrine. The possibility of opening up the world’s religions, “from the inside”, offers fabulous cultural enrichment to the peoples of the world, if we can only let go of this persistent clinging to orthodoxy, to exclusiveness, to shutting parts of ourselves out, and with this, shutting other people out.

Conclusion – the Means for Change

What I have laid out is a roadmap for change. I recognize that it is unlikely that these changes shall be realized over a short period of time. However, although the significance of this work may be that we have named the demon to be tamed, over the longer term there will be growing pressure for the changes outlined to occur, not just for Christian churches but also for Moslems, Buddhists and other religious groups.

Religion is rooted in the essence of being human. Despite all the arguments over the years, from Marxists and communists, from science and psychoanalysis, from feminists and anarchists, popular interest in religion persists. There is something compelling about religion and religious practice, even when one does not, fully, believe. Instead of struggling to return religion to its central role in human culture – a struggle that it will lose – a more intelligent response would be to open itself up “from the inside”, to turn itself “inside out”, so that all the paradox of human spiritual growth is still given a place to reside, but not an exclusive central place, rather a set of intermingling peripheries. This is the future of organized religion, sooner or later.

One of the abiding qualities of religious communities is their longevity. It would be a shame to lose this quality in our communities, because of an inability or an unwillingness to change. Furthermore, the changes need not always occur in the midst of controversy and struggle. Oftentimes the solution to a paradox is to sit quietly, perhaps years at a time, until movement emerges, until change comes as a form of necessity, within a third way.

*Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, as developed by Albert Ellis and Aaron T. Beck, is based on the idea that our emotions are determined by our thoughts and core beliefs. However, there are recent indications of a merging between cognitive therapy and classical Freudian and Jungian analysis, and these hybrid approaches focus more specifically on the role of beliefs (see Mark Solms and J. Allan Hobson, Freud Returns, Scientific American Mind, April/May 2006 edition.

Final note

Interestingly, although this text was written completely independently of knowledge of Bishop Spong's writings, the two visions are very closely allied. In some ways Bishop Spong is far more radical in his vision of the changes that need to occur within the Christian Church than I was (although I was discussing all religions more generally than only the Christian Churches), in other areas I was more specifically radical (for example, in questioning the central role of Place) but we both agree that change is not only possible, it is necessary, not just for the survival of Christianity, but also for the survival of humanity. As I indicate in my text, I am not strictly speaking a Christian. I spent much of my life as a self-defined atheist, but always as one who recognizes that we humans have an inner spiritual life, even if we may have trouble articulating it. I have recently come to recognize that my understand of "God" (not a word I am comfortable with, fundamentally) is of an immanent presence, not a transcendent presence (following distinctions that Gregory Bateson discusses in his books - see, especially, his "Where Angels Fear to Tread - Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred"). This notion of an immanent God is very close to the non-theistic God as the "Ground-of-Being" discussed by Bishop Spong. Also, Bishop Spong presents a very cogent and articulate argument about the need to accommodate shadow. I focused in my text on the role of doubt as part of a religion's shadow (and also the issues of gay marriage and women ministers), but the whole notion of shadow is much more extensive than this and Bishop Spong gives it more place in his writings. In fact, the whole notion of shadow in a communal sense needs to be extended and explored in much greater depth.

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