Wednesday, June 15, 2016

True religion is a profound uneasiness about our highest social values (Niebuhr)


Religion, declares the modern man, is consciousness of our highest social values. Nothing could be further from the truth. True religion is a profound uneasiness about our highest social values. (Reinhold Niebuhr)

What are our highest social values? Let’s start with our ideals,and then let’s look at achievements as measures of how well we have represented our ideals. Ideally, we are working collaboratively, on an equal basis with our colleagues. Ideally we are comporting with the rules and regulations of our families, our schools, our colleges and universities and especially our employers. And then, of course, it also follows that we are obedient to all of the traditional expectations of our church denominations. We are ideally patriotic, tax-paying, hard working, debt-free, and dutiful to our families and our “form” of worship, as detailed by the leaders of our churches. We are compliant when asked to donate to those charities whose work we support. We are compliant if and when our neighbour asks for a ‘hand’ in fixing the broken fence between our two properties. We are respectful of our employers’ and our unions’ regulations, and confused when they are in conflict. We detest any sign of conflict, especially between those who matter to us and we seek to “make peace” through whatever method of tilting the scales with our secret thumbs that is available. We keep our mouths shut on contentious political and spiritual issues, given our deep and historic convention requiring “political correctness” and we present to the world a face that refuses to disclose whatever it might be that deeply troubles us. We preserve our privacy, as if it were our holy grail, even from our intimate partners, to keep them from having the burden of our worries. We never want to be a “problem” for our families, and we want the world to consider us both successful and a “good person”, affable, easy to be with even fun, and helpful, up to a point. And given all of these ideals, we are also extremely judgemental of others who refuse to comply with the ‘rules’ or, more euphemistically, the social expectations. We are constantly, almost obsessively comparing ourselves to our peers, on a plethora of ‘social scales’ including: the kind of car we each drive, the kind of house we each live in, the kind of clothes we each wear, the kind of language we each us including the specific topics in which we are interested in discussing (preferring the weather, or the social gossip to the questions that beset the culture, like doctor-assisted dying), the way in which we ingratiate ourselves to authority, the vacations we plan and take (or not), the books we read, the movies we watch, the music we listen to, and the work we do.

The work we do is so important in our self esteem and our estimate of others, as to be virtually defining. If we have a professional job, a white collar job, for example, we have more social status than those who collect the garbage, or who stock the shelves in the supermarket, or who deliver the mail. And we trade on our “work” identity; if we have both a relatively high income and professional status, we purchase influence in all of our encounters, especially those where money counts. If we have neither a high income or professional status, we frequently fall into the trap of reverse snobbery, depicting those “snobs” as thinking they are “better than they really are”.

Our compliance in maintaining our sexual purity until marriage, or at least until we find a “life partner”, and in many small towns and cities, our repression of any sexual urges that would suggest or even imply a homosexual preference, or at least keeping such impulses private from our families and our social circles, along with our sustaining a reputation of sobriety, including a drug-free (non-prescription drugs are referenced here), all contribute to our compliance with the highest social values. High marks in our education, social acceptance and adjustment indicated from our school reports, a vigorous competitive spirit in all athletic, artistic, and any other personal hobby or interest and a level of commitment to “giving back” to philanthropic causes would also add to our total “package” of the ideal example of the highest social values. Leadership, in any of the above activities would cap off the crowning achievement of having adjusted to, and complied with the most treasured of social values.

And none of these qualities, behaviours, attitudes, or actions would, in any way, necessarily be based on a “true religion;” in fact, no religion at all  would be needed to check all the appropriate and required “boxes” on the values scale.

This above litany of extrinsic expectations are both imposed from without and internalized as ‘normal’ and normative by most individuals to fit into whatever family, community, ethnic, provincial and national culture(s) in which we reside. Out exemplary modelling of each of these, and other, behaviours, attitudes, ways of presenting and being in the world, could and, for most, would comprise a “gold standard” of social character.

In our world view, we would integrate the lessons of adherence to sound planning principles, for our studies, for our diet, for our hygiene, for our banking and financial future, and, naturally we would need and would seek out the most skilled, the best trained and the most respected mentors and advisors for our specific interest or passion, and for our projected post-secondary education and career. And we would attend to the gestalt of these expectations, “values” in a methodical, organized and predictable manner, without resorting to spontaneous urges, passing fantasies, whirlwind flings with the opposite gender. We would, naturally, scrupulously watch the words, the actions, the demeanour and the attractiveness of how those adults we found representing these very values, and emulate their presentation to the degree to which we are able, given our resources.

And in the pursuit of the highest social values, we would also integrate a way to measure our progress along the continuum toward full incarnation of these values, as a way of staying focused (the one word which can be said to characterize the expectations on the shoulders of our children) so that we would effectively and successfully meet any impediments, competitions and thwarting we might (and will) encounter along the way.

And objectivity, detachment, measurement, achievement and recognition would all naturally flow to each of us who had committed to these highest social values.

And in conjunction with, and support of these social values, perhaps for millions would be the opportunity to experience a religious liturgy that encompasses both physical observances of long-standing traditions, based on a the sacred writings of those who established the specific faith community, including specific food, festivals, liturgical expressions of worship, prayer and exposition. For many, these could involve what are often referred to as “national religions” being so deemed as being the ones co-incident with the founding of the nation, or perhaps consistent with the majority of people in the demographic group, and those religions would likely also teach their adherents the important tenets of their belief, expecting their neophytes to commit such tenets to their memory, and, if required, to their individual life choices. Mentoring, monitoring the development of the inculcation of these beliefs, and developing their integration into the individual’s life, and into the lives of the families of these faith communities depends on each faith community’s adherence to how authority is exercised. Sometimes, there are individuals charged with such responsibility in each ecclesial community. Sometimes, the community itself takes responsibility for these matters. However, both the beliefs and the level of obedience to these beliefs are integral to each faith community, and are objective identification markers for membership in the community.

In history, religion has depended highly, if not exclusively, on reason to argue its tenets, to prosletyze its benefits to new converts, and to sustain the scholarly pursuit of the nuances and the implications of beliefs such as the moral lessons contained in the Decalogue, (Ten Commandments). The sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman is an example of such a belief. Its rational includes the security and sanctity of the family, the security and stability of the village, and the generational justification for centuries of disciplined practitioners, believers and teachers.

Reason, rationality, and the calm detachment that accompanies the intellect as compared with the emotions is and has been for centuries at the heart of our highest social values. It underpins all academic research, both in the formulation of the research project, and in the methods used in its development. Our courts demand a national, objective presentation of facts, as determined by those trained in the procurement of the relevant facts. Our medical profession is interested primarily in the objective facts of a person’s health, or illness, measured by a universe of testing instruments, some of them invasive (blood testing), and some of them through question and answer. How the doctor, or the lawyer or the judge “feels” about a patient or a client is put aside to the degree that such a discipline is possible. How the teacher feels about the student, too, is far less important than the score the student achieves on any of several testing instruments, most of them as objectively designed and administered as feasible.

To the extent that has been and continues to be possible, our social values depend on a highly trained and vigorous rationality, from the professional so engaged, and on the part of the people in their “care”.

On the other side of the ledger, (and even that metaphor embraces the logic of objectivity in order to help our reader), true religion harbours a “profound uneasiness about our highest social values.” How could Niehbur even have thought and uttered such an observation?

Let’s start unpacking the onion of that question.

First, there is the template of “good” that has been generated, and repeated for centuries about how God wishes man to live. Scriptures in all faiths have the intent, if not the pretense of such a template. It addresses the group values, without acknowledging the importance of the individual.

Second, the template presumes to know and to understand the mind of God (Jews do not hold this view, although they too have many rules of good conduct for their believers. Such presumption not only demonstrates the gall of those who originally wrote, spoke and taught such notions; it also presumes that there are some who “know” better than others, and the dependence on expertise, and the experts who propagate their knowledge either negates or eliminates by implication the importance of the individual experience, the period in history in which the individual lives, and the potential for continuing and differing revelations from any deity, who, if impotent and omniscient and omnipresent (as the Christian Bible asserts) is and will never be restricted to either a single template, nor a single epoch of history.

Third, the dependence on objectivity, on objective standards of behaviour written and expounded by humans, as if revealed to human by a deity, demonstrates a kind of superiority and even supremacy of those standards, says much more about human arrogance than God’s example, model, exhortations and even expectations. Compliance with a set of standards also implies a level of acceptance by a deity, that begs questions of validity, and of whether or not the standards are “life-giving” in the broadest sense of those words. One of the essences of “life-giving” for human beings, regardless of their ethnicity, or their faith community is something termed Love. We need to be loved, as much or more than we need to be fed nourishing food. And, there are legitimate questions about how following a “script” as if acting in a play is not restrictive of one’s full expression of one’s whole person.

Fourth, extrinsic accomplishments, far from expressing a religious conviction, are the human (and not some deity’s) way of defining success, meaning, purpose and the proper expression of a faith conviction and belief. There is little reliance on the more subjective, the more reflective, the more private and the more penetrating inquiry into one’s own mind, soul, spirit and identity, as to how that identity reflects or not the expectations of a deity worthy of human adoration.

Excluded from the objective standard of worship is the emotional component of the human disciple. And the various churches have relied heavily on such exclusion, just as they have those who do not “believe” the appropriate tenets, or those who do not fully comply with those tenets. Emotion has for centuries been linked, sadly and tragically, to the dark side of humans, to the monster of Satan. And that characterization of the emotional life of humans has relegated it, like the psychiatric hospitals, to the boondocks of our geography, outside our towns and cities, just the same way in which those considered insane were imprisoned in the attics of hundreds of thousands of homes, and castles, outside any thoughts of God, of heaven, of beauty, and of ‘good.’ The religious life of a disciple was restricted to hours of silent prayer, silent walks in priories, writing and memorizing scripture, and even the gathering of communities of like-minded and like-committed men or women. These men and women were, for the most part, committed to lives of poverty, chastity, purity obedience and humility. Essentially they were segregated, historically, from the life of the community, and thereby relieved of the many secular temptations of the world of the street. Idealized as the epitome of religious life, these men and women garnered the highest respect and admiration of their families and their close associates. Their talents, skills and learnings were dedicated in thanks to God, as they depended their commitment to his worship. And they served a motivating purpose in helping others to follow their lead.

However, there was a separation between belief and emotion; there was a separation between “inside” the faith community and “outside,” implying a holiness and a sacredness “inside” and a smorgasbord of temptations that brought men and women “down” from their highest moral level. Similarly, there has been for centuries a separation between the things of the “body” and the matters of the spirit, as if the latter were good and the former were potentially evil. This separation, segregation, alienation, and the detachment implicit in its validity has left millions of people wondering if, and how, they might bring these two “halves” together in unity. The division was a human inspired division, not a division created by a deity and the integration of the mind/heart/spirit existed from the beginning, in spite of the vain attempts by humans to disprove the reality.

And the single most toxic separation between emotions and reason has relegated generations of humans divided from themselves, and also divided from God. Within the last two decades, when attempting to achieve some recognition of the significance of human emotional life, in the pursuit of his spiritual and religious development, I asked a church leader to consider the proposition that men (male gender) could and must learn the vocabulary of their emotions and that such learning was an integral part of their religious life, their life as disciplines of God, and their full psychological development. Completely unhinged, he screamed, “You can’t do that! It’s much too dangerous!” It was as if I had struck both him and his organization precisely where both were most vulnerable. (Or, was he so personally vulnerable that he was so exposed without even realizing his own ‘undressing’ as if the emperor had no clothes?)

  It is more than a little interesting that this week, two different but related pieces of scholarly research is digging up new discoveries about the significance of our emotions in our decision making and the choices we make. In the current edition of The Atlantic, a piece dedicated to new research in neuroscience points out that the emotional component of our brains is activated prior to our making a specific decision. Also, (from CBC Radio 2 Tempo with Julie Nesrallah) comes evidence that research on brains damaged where the emotions originate, illustrates that those individuals had significant difficulty in making decisions, apparently because they did not “feel” any emotion. And so, if most, if not all, of our decisions have an emotional root, and perhaps even a cause (although further research will be needed to go that far), then all of those macho men who want no truck with the emotional life, and who disdain the emotional life might have to eat their thoughts, their beliefs and their hubris. And the churchs will finally be so influenced by the new discoveries of science into the neuroscience of the brain to broaden their perceptions of the real nature of the human being, and also the relationship between humans and their God. And all of the poets, playwrights and novelists who have been painting pictures of the inner life will finally be given their due respect for having been our guides to the universe of our spiritual lives. And the prophets who ruffled so many feathers, especially those of the ‘establishment’ will also join the gallery of spiritual guides who saw beyond abd before the rest of us.

Objectivity, rationality, detachment....these are the boundaries that surround a life of public presentation, the gestalt Jung called the Mask. “The face that we prepare to meet the faces that we meet” as T.S. Eliot reminds us, is also so indentified with the highest incarnation of the best social values. However, underneath, or above, or outside of these boundaries, lies the “inner life” the emotional, psychological, spiritual and even intuitive truths, all of which we can assume are already known to God, and continuously protected by our pride, from ourselves in many cases, certainly from others, and most tragically, from God.

When we consciously and unconsciously repress, bury, deny, ignore all of the impulses that stir in our Shadow, those experiences we could not face when they occurred, and unconsciously identify our ego and Mask (enantiodromia) we risk losing both, ego and Mask. And, naturally we also grow increasingly detached from our inner life. It is this detachment from our inner life that puts our whole existence in jeopardy, morphingus into little more than a busy gnat buzzing frenetically over the surface of the pond of our life. We are neither connected to our own truth, nor can we connect with another who, too, is too likely to be spinning across his or her own pond, barely able to breath and certainly not able to empathize with or even to comprehend who we are.

And it is this potential for sacred space that might exist when two individuals fully encounter each other where we find God....as Martin Buber reminds us in his wonderful work, I and Thou. And the only way to enter this space is to shed all of our pretensions, and all of our fears and all of our inhibitions, as ‘the other’ also does. And this process of off-loading all of the cosmetics (the social graces, the public faces, the programmed smiles and frowns, and the buttoned or bitten lips) we have applied for decades as well as the reasons for their prominence in our performance opens us to the stark truth of who we are, and thereby opens the door to a kind of conscious appreciation of the complexities of the other that makes a space for God.

So, when we accumulate all the degrees, and the wealth, and the investment accounts, and the BMW’s and the Bali vacations, and the summer home by the lake, and the wardrobe replete with Armani suits, and the corner office suite when we became “partner” in our auspicious law firm, let’s try to recall that none of those acquisitions, or any of the titles, or any of the awards we dust on our mantle, are nothing when the moment of the dark night of the soul comes to us. None of them, nor the kinds of associates that acclaim such awards, will be much support when the night is darkest and the meaning and purpose of our lives seems to have evaporated. It is then, regardless of what path we took to that point, that our mask comes off, our eyes open, our hearts bleed and we welcome the love of whatever God we believe Him to be, a love that was there all along the way when we were so busy “accomplishing” what we believed deeply in our hearts that we were ‘supposed’ to accomplish. An appropriate analogy to the “dark night of the soul” could be the existential moment, when, in late adolescence or early adulthood, individuals become aware of their own meaninglessness, and then recognize and accept responsibility for finding and putting meaning into their lives. The “dark night of the soul” on the other hand is that moment when, perhaps as a result of a trauma, a death, an accident, or an epiphany, we turn our attention from the pursuit of extrinsic externals (wages, power, status, houses, cars, wardrobe, exotic vacations, summer homes, and high-powered associaltes and colleageues) and start to focus on matters of the heart, the spirit, the soul and the intrinsic values that trump all of the accomplishments and acquisitions that have preceded this moment.

It is not that our previous accomplishments have no meaning, purpose or value; they do. And their historic legacy will fill our biographies and our obituaries. Nevertheless, these accomplishments result from our hard work, our determination, our discipline, our seeking and finding mentors, coaches and fellow travellers who guide us along the path. The second half of our lives, (as Jung puts it) are naturally and necessarily pointing in a different direction, and not from the perspective of so many “religious” people: to warrant an insurance policy for a happy after-life. God is not an entity open to such bribes; those are the stuff of frightened men and women. And the single most significant quality of humans that illustrates a faith far exceeding the minimalist rituals, the penitentials, the eucharists, and the spiritual retreats so dominant in the annals of religion and theology. Faith is still the belief in things unseen and worlds as yet unexplored; nevertheless, we have an open invitation and opportunity to open the door to that exploration, within our own hearts, minds and spirits. And the intrinsic rewards far outweigh those pretentious trophies of an earlier life of social success.

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