When something happens often enough, it's only natural to call it a pattern. Even when context, or even content, differs dramatically, it's like something in the human condition reaches out to find the similarities and shout, “This is happening for a reason!” Or more specifically, “This is happening to you for a reason!”
I'm usually weary of such shouts because my personal history has linked them to people ending up in church. Or - on the opposite end of the spectrum - within late-night circles of intoxicated individuals. Both scenarios have, in my experience, led to obnoxious conversations where vague feelings, intuitions, energies, and/or visions are cause for completely illogical conclusions, beliefs, and more frighteningly, actions. Call it religion, spirituality, or whatever. It usually bothers the fuck out of me.
Yet, here I am contemplating the nature of my spiritual existence because the idea keeps popping up. And often enough to consider it a pattern.
The first example is not recent, but ongoing. My mother, a non-denominational Christian, raised me within her religious belief system. I even attended Christian school up until 6th grade, after which I begged my way into a public school education. Over the next three or four years, I abandoned my faith completely. I've teetered between atheism and agnosticism ever since.
My mother and I have held countless conversations on the nature of our belief systems and they will likely continue for the rest of our lives. But I think we've at least evolved to a place where we can, “Agree to disagree,” and sometimes even agree completely. Still, she hopes that I will one day find Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior. I mostly hope she'll stop voting Republican.
Recently she's married an ex-pastor and soon-to-be-pastor-again. I met the man during their engagement period this past Christmas holiday. We actually got along pretty well. He seemed to love my mom, and he made a considerable effort to connect with me.
During my visit with my mother and her fiance, I attended their church's Christmas Eve play. It was mostly what I expected: community theater acting with several cute moments and a few mildly offensive nods towards ethno-centrism and “other”-religion-bashing.
The ride home was proof that nobody in our immediate circle felt too highly of the play. My mom's fiance even felt it necessary to explain his issues with the night's performance, and steer our collective thoughts towards the Biblical virtue he claimed to hold most high: grace.
Further conversations with the man have lead me to admire him despite our “spiritual” differences. After all, he professes an abhorrence towards multi-million-dollar mega-churches and argues (with no resistance from me) that the majority of funds put into any ministry should go back into community outreach programs. It's stuff like this I can actually get behind.
I mean, I personally benefited from a Catholic non-profit group that helps pay hospital bills for those without insurance. I hit a pretty rough patch, financially speaking, and couldn't work due to an emergency-room-worthy injury. A religious group saved my ass from substantial debt, and I am extremely grateful.
But I have to balance my personal gratitude with other, more bitter realities. For example, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) had, up until very recently, been the virtual sole middle-man for distributing government funds to help victims of human trafficking. In essence, they received funding from the government and distributed it amongst non-profit groups who worked directly with victims of human trafficking (often sexual).
In 2007, a non-profit group in New York called Safe Horizon, “submitted an invoice for a gynecological exam that a victim had received at Planned Parenthood. USCCB denied payment... without even inquiring about what the visit was for” (Mencimer, “Sex and the Vatican City,” Mother Jones, June 2012, pg 24). The denial was held on moral grounds, with the admission that a visit to Planned Parenthood would be “totally inappropriate.” The Catholic pro-life, anti-contraception stance essentially overruled the medical concerns of a woman who was brutally raped and beaten. All because she chose to receive her gynecological exam at Planned Parenthood, and yes, may have considered aborting the fetus she held as a result of rape.
The example is one of many. And coupled by the fact that yearly revenues of organizations like the USCCB can reach into the hundreds of millions (much of which is government funding), and one third of those revenues going towards administrative costs, one has to consider how effective religious community outreach really is. Or whether the other social disservices religious groups perpetrate on the world are worth the medical bills they save for people like me. My mom would say, “Don't throw out the baby with the bathwater,” but I'm not sure whether the analogy is correct. In my own (admittedly biased) mind, it may be more like, “Don't throw out the baby with the ocean.”
But enough of this particular tangent. The original point was that my mom's new husband is a Christian and he's brought his spirituality to my attention in mostly positive ways.
My next example is completely different. But my mind has formed the pattern because, well, it has to do with spirituality.
My current girlfriend - a member of no particular world religion - is very much open to concepts of the supernatural, or at least the metaphysical, and subscribes to many ideas found in New Age and Eastern philosophy/religion. I won't speak for her directly, but my observation is that she believes most all religions tap into a part of some more universal truth. A few of the pop-philosophy texts and films she's shared with me proclaim either an inevitable or desired evolution of mankind towards a higher consciousness. Positive energy seems to be a common theme, as does love.
One book she's shared with me is something published in the 1990's called The Celestine Prophecy. It's a fictional adventure story of a man in search of some ancient text in South America that provides various human insights. Once altogether mastered, these insights will elevate one to a higher consciousness.
Several of the earlier insights prove to foster interesting conversational topics (if you're in to that sort of thing), such as the pseudo-psychological “control dramas.” The author, James Redfield, describes these dramas as manipulative ways we (meaning people in general) steal energy from one another. They're given such names as the Interrogator, the Intimidator, the Aloof, and the Poor Me. I personally identified with the Aloof because – in times of emotional turmoil – I've often played secretive or essentially stone-walled my emotional combatants. I mean that when someone yells at me, my most innate defense mechanism is to shut down and say nothing at all. Or if I want attention, I'm more likely to sit in the corner and “appear to be interesting” rather than confront those around me in a socially constructive way.
So far this has nothing to do with spirituality, although I suppose it's insightful into some aspect of the human condition. Which, I guess, is why I found it more tolerable than the rest of the book. From there on out, The Celestine Prophecy has more to do with God than with psychological traits. The universal energy that unites us all is eventually attributed to our “Creator,” or maybe even described as our creator. I kind of don't remember.
When I finished the book, I was a bit pissed off. I interpreted it as a sloppy attempt to sell Christianity to a new generation of people who preferred New Age philosophy to sitting in church. It even posed the theory (I use the term loosely here) that the ancient Mayans found a new state of consciousness that allowed their bodies to vibrate at a higher frequency than traditional matter, which consequently allowed them to ascend into Heaven in a Biblical-style rapture. Uh... yeah. “Fuck the first part of the book,” I said to myself. “This shit is stupid.”
I got into a minor fight with a girlfriend because I put on my “intellectual superiority” hat and tore apart this book she wanted to share with me. In hindsight, it was a pretty asshole move on my part. And really, I've made a conscious attempt to be more receptive to what she shares with me. Like my mom says, “Don't throw the baby out with the bath water.”
The funny thing is that nearly a year later, my younger brother showed up to a family gathering with the same book. He was recommended the text by a girl his age who shares his interest in alternative healing (my brother studies and practices massage, foot reflexology, etc...). The description of energy found in The Celestine Prophecy is something my brother says he can relate to from personal experience. Aside from that, I'm not sure what he thinks of it.
But it was a weird coincidence given that the main theme is evolution towards higher consciousness, and towards love. “Why?” you ask. Well, my grandmother and I recently started an email correspondence on various topics such as art, ethics, philosophy, religion, and spirituality. And amidst these discussions, I've read – on her recommendation – Building the Earth, by Catholic Jesuit and paleontologist, Teilhard de Chardin.
Chardin's writings were banned during the early twentieth century because he advocated evolutionary theory as a part of God's master plan. However, his vision of evolution expanded beyond Darwin's merely physical natural selection. Chardin claimed that the universe started with God (the Alpha) and is on an inevitable evolutionary journey back towards God (the Omega). He suggested that mankind must undergo a psychological and spiritual ascension towards universal love in order for us to reach this Omega.
Despite the fact that Chardin championed Christianity as the catalyst for this new form of evolution, I found it interesting that he did “not exclude from Christianity anyone who expressly or implicitly believes in Love” (Chardin, Building the Earth, pg. 59). It seemed like a fairly humanistic approach to religion, one that might not even need the label “Christianity” attached to it. Especially since most everyone in my personal circle who mentions spirituality these days basically talks about this same central theme.
Of course, those associated with any particular religion will always advocate that particular religion for the path towards this universal love. I mostly hear about Christianity because I was raised with it, and it remains the most pervasive religious movement in the United States (and perhaps the world). However, it seems to me that every major religion is so historically loaded as to never take on universal appeal. Especially today when so many of these movements are politically charged and divisive.
But moving on...
My grandmother recommended another author based upon our discussions of art, symbolism, and the collective unconscious. He is the renowned psychologist, Carl Jung.
I hadn't read really touched upon Jung's work since I took some psychology classes back in community college. So I decided to start with his most layman-friendly book, Man and His Symbols. Within the first chapter, I was reminded of a concept I'd heard in Bill Maher's documentary, Religulous, and a conspiracy-theory-documentary called Zeitgeist. It is basically that all major religious figures, such as Jesus, conform to similar archetypal myths that permeate human history. “From time immemorial, men have had ideas about a Supreme Being (one or several) and about the Land of the Hereafter,” writes Jung (pg. 70).
However, contrary to Bill Maher's opinion and that of Zeitgeist's director, Peter Joseph, Jung views the increasing contemporary loss of religion (or at least their symbolic significance) as somewhat problematic. “There is a strong empirical reason why we should cultivate thoughts that can never be proved,” writes Jung. “It is that they are known to be useful. Man positively needs general ideas and convictions that will give a meaning to his life and enable him to find a place for himself in the universe... Had St. Paul been convinced that he was nothing more than a wandering weaver of carpets, he certainly would not have been the man he was. His real and meaningful life lay in the inner certainty that he was the messenger of the Lord” (pg. 70-71).
Yet Jung himself operates without religious ideology. It is the universal myths that remain in our unconscious from primitive man that, he believes, guide us towards greater self-discovery. It's an evolutionary process, a lot like that described by Chardin, or that hack (sorry, I still think his writing sucks), James Redfield.
I'm still curious about these ancient myths and how they correspond to contemporary religions. I've heard the arguments against such similarities. In fact, my mother insisted I read, The Case for Christ, by Lee Strobel, to inform me on the historical accuracy of Jesus and the major differences he poses to such ancient mythologies. In an interview with Gregory Boyd, PH.D (a theologian and pastor), the author asks, “A lot of college students are taught that many of the themes seen in the life of Jesus are merely echoes of ancient 'mystery religions,' in which there are stories about gods dying and rising, and rituals of baptism and communion. 'What are those parallels?'” (pg. 120).
Boyd's answer is lengthy, but his main argument is this: “'While it's true that some mystery religions had stories of gods and dying and rising, these stories always revolved around the natural life cycle of death and rebirth... These stories were always cast in a legendary form. They depicted events that happened 'once upon a time'... Contrast that with the the depiction of Jesus Christ in the gospels. They talk about someone who actually lived several decades earlier, and they name names... That's concrete historical stuff” (pg. 121).
From the evidence I've heard, I'll buy that a physical Jesus existed around two thousand years ago. But it's the God-man myth that surround him that I view with harsh speculation. Based purely off historical documentation, the Gospel of Mark (in the Bible) completely omits the virgin birth and resurrection, which are the two MOST crucial details that point towards Jesus as the son of God.
But my spiritual journey is no longer based off whether or not Jesus was a true God-man. I'm curious about the ancient myths, so I'd like to read a few of them myself (translated, of course, which I know is problematic if you're into the semantics of this stuff). It's just doubtful they'll make or break anything for me, belief-wise.
So back to these universal themes. Love seems like a good one to me. And on a universal level, it's something I'm probably lacking. I mean, when I typically think of spirituality or religion, my most common reaction is anger. People are killing each other over religion, fueling bigotry, dividing political party lines, and more-or-less, spewing hate. It's something I don't really want to be associated with.
Yet the most spiritual people around me keep bringing up love. On a personal level, are they on to something? Who knows? I'm not really sure how to get more in touch with those feelings. Because when I look to both sides of me, it seems like the most reportedly profound experiences come in times of distress, prayer, church gatherings, or drug trips – none of which appeals to me greatly.
I still think Jung's on to something. Despite how repulsed I claim to feel about this stuff, I'm curious as fuck about it. There's something human there. Archetypes, myths, energy, gods, or whatever. People bring it up and, secretly or not, I want to know more.