Monday, April 30, 2007

The Noise and The Numinous: May 2007

“[R]eligious statements are psychic confessions which in the last resort are based on unconscious, i.e., on transcendental, processes. These processes are not accessible to physical perception but demonstrate their existence through the confessions of the psyche. The resultant statements are filtered through the medium of human consciousness: that is to say, they are given visible forms which in their turn are subject to manifold influences from within and without. That is why whenever we speak of religious contents we move in a world of images that point to something ineffable. We do not know how clear or unclear these images, metaphors, and concepts are in respect of their transcendental object.” —C. G. Jung

How many times have you heard someone say, “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual”? That is one of those other things annoy me. I’ve started replying, “That’s funny, I’m not spiritual, I’m religious.” It is not that I have ODD, a.k.a., “Oppositional Defiance Disorder.” (Look it up, it’s real. It’s similar to what we’ve traditionally called a contrarian personality, except perhaps a wee bit more pathological about it.) I’ve been accused of many things: OCD from past girlfriends as well as ADD and ADHD from teachers when I was young. And now ODD. I would probably agree if it were simply spelled “odd.” I think my grandmother, difficult person that she was, is the only one who ever correctly diagnosed me: “Jeff, you’re just ornery and rambunctious.” I like that word, rambunctious.

So, back to my story, I think these people (the ones claiming to be spiritual, not religious) are missing the positive points of being religious. First of all, ask them to define “spirit.” They seldom can. Same with the word “soul.” Occasionally, I’ll get some damn hippy spiritualist that will get it right. I’ll give them that. Then I’ll ask them to go home and please bathe. Patchouli really smells unpleasant to me. But usually when claiming to be “spiritual” it just means a person believes that something else is going on that we can’t see, and then they use some lame story to illustrate it like, “I feel God’s hand in the wind when I’m hiking at sunset” or some other light, happy image. So, your life is perfect at that moment, but what about the rest of the world? Don’t confuse feeling good about yourself and your life with being in touch with God. What about those dying of disease here and abroad, those getting killed in wars, killed by drought and famine, and those being held back in life by racism, intolerance, bigotry, those being denied basic human rights such as food, clean water, healthcare, education and housing. Is the “hand” of God you felt in the wind during your sunset hike present in all of that? Actually, it probably is. If you believe in God, how could it not be? And how do you reconcile this with the “good” stuff of life?

“God” is a word that needs defining when used in conversation. We all filter it, when it is used, to mean what “we” believe it means. But is what “we” think it means the same as what “others” think it means? Is “He” an old guy sitting on a throne geographically located somewhere in the sky? (Elderly, male, Caucasian, long-white hair with a beard. Sounds like a police report.) Is he “ever changing and flowing” or is he “unmovable and never changing?” We all vary, sometimes with slight nuance, sometimes with broad differences on our definition of God. It is good to get straight what is being communicated.

I define “God” very simply: God is a metaphor for the currently unknown and possibly unknowable levels of human consciousness. And God is also a symbol, in the purest sense of the word: the best possible representation of something that cannot be fully known. As with so many great symbols and metaphors, people have literalized God into a physical fact, taking away from the value as a psychic fact (from psyche as the totality of our inner life, every bit as valid and valuable as the external physical world), taking away the mysterious nature of the most numinous image we have. By taking that away, they have trivialized religion into a set of systematic beliefs and a code of conduct. It seems that what those proudly proclaiming “spiritual, not religious” want to be, is distanced from religion as they see it, which is as a set and defined church or group believing the same thing that have used these set beliefs not only for good, but for some of the greatest acts of violence in human history. The “spiritual” lovers want freedom from that. Who wouldn’t?

Here is the clincher: there is freedom in religion. I don’t belong to or attend a church. But I’m very religious: because religion, at its core, is not about an organization and its history, but is about experiencing the ineffable, the sublime, and the transcendent. That is something I want everyday. Belief is a about the categorization of these experiences. When you see this, you realize the very personal nature of the categorizations (beliefs). The categories are not universal, but the experiences themselves may be. Unfortunately, the categories become the building blocks of organized religion.

I’m all for the experience of the sublime, and let’s share our experiences. But let’s keep our categories to ourselves, or at the very least not extrapolate universal imperatives from them. That is where religions have gone astray.

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