(A) The Origin of Religion
I’ve never found a satisfactory definition of religion, though I’m certain of its origin, which I take to be the Impulse of Spirit. However, humans have a penchant for screwing up all great ideas. The least deadly screw up, perhaps, is to allow the impulse to stagnate theologically; and the deadliest is to weaponize it.
Religion has many aspects and serves many purposes, e.g., it creates community, formulates ethics, and devises rituals. All of these are vital to the life of the “tribe” (no matter the size of the tribe.) Community should both support and challenge the theological thinking of its members; but, frequently, community deteriorates into mere institution which, inevitably, is taken over by an oligarchy. Soon, orthodoxy becomes the ultimate criterion of holiness; and heterodoxy (as defined by the oligarchy) is punished by shunning. If heterodoxy, God forbid, should stray into heresy or, horribile dictu, into blasphemy (again as defined by the oligarchy), then shunning is upgraded to inquisition, torture and execution – all to protect the thin-skinned sanctity of the bent-out-of-shape divinity. If the institution has enough clout – and if it has become a theocracy, then it already has the necessary clout – then, having dealt with internal dissidents, it now turns its face and weapons to converting or exterminating the pagans/infidels/barbarians/gentiles who live outside its hallowed gates.
Eventually, some new prophet will arise from within its ranks to call the group back to its founder’s intentions. And the time-honored template for dealing with the prophet is to first slander, then imprison, then execute and, finally, call a street after him (e.g., Martin Luther King Jnr. Highway) or create a feast day in his honor. Under no circumstances, however, can his unexpurgated teachings be allowed to flourish. Rather, a sanitized, defanged version is packaged as sanctimonious pablum to anesthetize the masses to the prophet’s real message.
And while the original religious community is becoming a vigilante group, the ethical primacy of love (do not do to others what you would not want them to do to you) has given way to the canonization of law (in Maggie Thatcher’s strident words, “the law is the law is the law!”) The enactment, imposition and punishment-for-infractions of a legal code become the primary moral tools.
And rituals which, initially, were the practices (e.g., sound/music, dance/processions, art/stain glass windows, scent/incense, taste/communion, meditation etc.) intended to create altered states of consciousness, so as to encourage encounters with extra-dimensional energies and entities, have now become dead rites that choke off mysticism and replace it with dogma.
By then, religion, instead of being a stage of the evolution of humanity, has disintegrated into the “revealed” concretized, unchangeable will of an irascible God. To make this stagnation stick, however, history must be either ignored or rewritten.
An Indian mystic once said that should you happen upon the tracks of a religion in the wilderness, they should be followed; but not to where they lead but, rather, whence they’ve come.
(B) The eras of the journey
Religion should be the training wheels for spirituality – to be discarded once the practitioner has developed the skill to go it alone. This is not to say that community is no longer important. It is. But its function is no longer to herd and censor; it is to provide encouragement and challenge for the individual, mystical journeys of its members. The “school marm” approach must give way to the Socratic method; mother must allow the kids to cut the social/religious umbilical cords and fly.
When homo sapiens sapiens first developed language around 70,000 years ago, and learned to manipulate symbols intra-cranially, one of the first uses to which it put this newly emerged skill was to ponder the existential questions, e.g., Who “made” all this? What happens after death? Is there purpose or pattern to our world and our lives? I believe the process undergoes four main stages.
First was the era of the theologians, where we began to talk ABOUT God (or gods.) This is rather like moderns who are fascinated by the lives of movie stars, whom they will never actually meet. Next came the era of the priests; “experts” who, having figured out what these gods are, set about contacting them. This is the era of talking TO the gods. It gave birth to prayer, sacrifice and rituals.
Era three is the epoch of the prophets; those who claim to speak ON BEHALF OF the god. Their function is to establish covenants with their god of choice. This involved monolatry (the worship of a particular god) but not yet monotheism (the belief that there is only one God.) Having established the covenant, the prophet’s task is to continue to call the errant populace back into alignment with it. His function is not so much to predict the future as to prevent it; not to foretell it but to forestall it. Because the future is almost always a dire, punitive situation created by the sinful ways of humans, and the jealous, impatient ways of the god.
(C) The Languages of the journey
There are several kinds of God-language. Theologians debate how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. They spent years in the great councils of the Church defining, in exquisite detail, the one nature but three persons of the Christian God. The Great Schism of 1054 and the resultant bi-lateral slaughter, was triggered by a disagreement over a single Latin word, “Filioque” (rendered in English as “and from the son.”) This dispute in a creedal formulation, lasted almost 1,000 years! The kind of theological language employed to explain God is called cataphatic.
On the other hand, the language of the mystics, if they choose to speak at all (Lao Tzu once averred, “those who know, don’t say; and those who say, don’t know”) is apophatic language. Rather than claiming God is X or Y or Z – as do the theologians – mystics use “Neti! Neti!” (Not this! Not that!) Since God is utterly beyond human comprehension, and the experience of God ineffable, we can only back ourselves into the realization by going trans-rational and cutting all anthropomorphic links. Hence, the enigma of the Zen koan e.g., “what is the sound of one hand clapping?”; of meister Eckhart’s “I pray daily to God to rid me of God”; and of Buddhism’s “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”
Teachers, however, have a problem. In spite of Lao Tzu’s statement, they are tasked with trying to inspire. To avoid the cataphatic trap and to temporarily eschew taking refuge in the apophatic, they must resort to symbol – stories, parables, proverbs, aphorisms, metaphors, analogies… The trick of the listener is to engage the symbols at the level of the soul not of the mind. Above all it is to avoid the pitfall of literalism. But we have a very spotty record in this respect. When Jesus is spoken of as “the lamb of God”, nobody thinks he’s walking about on two legs of mutton, but when he’s spoken of as a judge or a king, we take these as literal descriptions. So, Christianity has managed, at times, to convert a compassionate avatar into a despotic psychopath.
Jesus chose to speak only in parables (rather than theological, philosophical or scientific language) precisely because he did not want his message to be a one-size-fits-all-people-in-all-eras, but as Socratic seeds to be weeded and watered in the pristine womb of the human soul.
(D) The tug-o-war
The journey home should be from religion to spirituality and, finally, to mystical union with Source. Unfortunately, the process frequently goes backwards; instead of reaching for spirituality, religion may disintegrate into fundamentalism. When a religion is hijacked by the ego of a leader or an oligarchy, it veers off into fundamentalism and stagnates. Fear and craven obedience become the basis of its relationship with God; law and dogma the basis of its relationship with its own members; and prejudice and xenophobia the basis of its relationship with the “others.”
Fundamentalism then becomes the antithesis of mysticism. In four quick steps, it first reduces complex ideas, like God or nationalism (the secular version), to a few bumper sticker one-liners that even the dumbest among us can comprehend. Secondly, it identifies or fabricates an “enemy” who is a threat to decent living, democracy or “truth.” Thirdly, the enemy is dehumanized so that exterminating them is actually pleasing to God. And the final step is to set about the slaughter.
Mysticism does exactly the opposite. Its first step is to move from cataphatic to apophatic language; to realize that God cannot be spoken of in human terms, and that to ascribe any characteristics to Him is human hubris writ large. Awe at the mystery, not reducing Him to an effigy, is the only response to the mystical experience. The second phase is to realize that all people are my neighbor; to recognize that all sentient beings are sister and brother to me. Thirdly, instead of dehumanizing the “other”, we divinize them. We offer them “namasté” (the divine in me recognizes and honors the divine in you.) And, finally, we reach out, not in war but in unconditional love.
The temptation of religion is to jam the gear stick of the mass transit vehicle into neutral, glide to a halt and huddle safely in the bus; the insight of mysticism is to get out and walk.