Let’s Be Honest About Religion

I know this is asking a lot, but I wonder if we might have an honest discussion about religion. This project will require laying aside our sacred cows for just a moment and electing to suspend knee-jerk reactions for a bit. I know those things are difficult for just about everyone, but the potential reward is huge.

infinite godBoth God and the universe are infinite. If you don’t believe in God, consider this discussion to be about the Universe. In truth, the two terms might be understood as interchangeable in many ways. We know that the universe is constantly expanding and traditional understandings of God have included the idea that God is infinite. The problem we run into is that the human mind has a hard time wrapping itself around either concept. We might know to answer “constantly expanding” and “infinite” when asked the right questions, but that is a far different thing than being able to conceptualize either idea. For example, when we consider that one-half of infinity is still infinity our minds really can’t conceive what that looks like even if we can recite the correct answer.

Traditionally, we have chosen a religion to attempt to understand God or find meaning in our lives. The problem is that religions are finite and so represent only one view of God. Religions are also more than a little territorial and almost all of them have asserted that they have the only correct view of God. This may have made some sense when the best humans could do in conceiving of God was to posit a very small God existing in a very small universe with only one inhabited planet. We now know that the universe is ever expanding, and so our little regional God with whom we all have a personal relationship, frequently inviting Jesus over for Cheerios (if I were Jesus, I would think bacon and eggs would be the least you could do) is an artifact from a bygone era sorely in need of updating. In fact, if that’s your view then you, too, may be an artifact from a bygone era sorely in need of updating.

let my people go 10 commandWe need to realize that if we are serious about developing a view of God that resembles the reality of God in any way, confining ourselves to one religious or spiritual perspective just won’t get the job done. I have heard people argue that we need to confine ourselves to one religion because the root meaning of the word religion is “to bind back.” We have been bound back by religion since religion was developed. Maybe what needs to happen is for humankind to develop a spirituality that will set us free! If you like to be bound, I can recommend a good dungeon in your neighborhood, but if you want to draw closer to transcendence you might need to consider ask your religious dominatrix to “let my people go,” Moses!

Imagine you had a doctor who decided the only perspective he was going to adopt is that of colds and flu. No matter what your symptoms were, your doctor would diagnose a cold or the flu and send you on your way. How long would you remain their patient? I hope not long! What if your grocery store decided only to sell canned sardines, pickled eggs, and creamed herring while insisting you shop exclusively at their store. Would you listen to them? Why does religion seem to be one of the few areas of life that couples a limited perspective with a demand of exclusivity and manage to stay in business?

The reason is that institutional religion has excelled in thought and behavior control served with a large dose of guilt. For most of history humanity bought into this distorted vision, but the mass exodus of people from houses of worship of all stripes tells us that sales are sharply down and not likely to recover anytime soon. In response, people trying to make sense of their lives have often randomly tried new perspectives, many of which are heavy on flashing lights but short on substance. If you want to believe that you can attract wealth by thinking the right thoughts, for example, you might want to first ask why everyone following those teachings isn’t a millionaire. You would be better off to reject any spiritual or religious system that is constructed to reward greed.

The truth is that if we want to develop a spiritual perspective that works for us, the important first step is to be determined to explore aspects of whatever systems of belief interest you and not allow anyone to try to restrict your exploration. Unless you are a mushroom, those who would keep you in the dark and feed you manure don’t have your best interest at heart. The next step is to allow yourself to make mistakes, change your mind, and change direction. Exploration of every sort involves all of those things. Perfection isn’t the goal, in fact it probably isn’t even possible. Be gentle with yourself and you will be amazed at what you learn! Be bold, you are in charge of your own spiritual life and need answer to no one.

Wounds

Life hands us all a variety of wounds. These wounds are of different sizes and depths, different intensities and duration, even of different quantity and quality. Our task is not to avoid them, but work through them; not to pass them on to others or try to ignore them, but to understand and heal them.

These important parts of life aren’t always fun. Quite often they cause pain and struggle. This important work is, in part, what our spirituality should equip us to undertake. Doing this work constitutes enlightenment, salvation, awakening – whatever your word for the goal of life may be. We do this work best in community, which is why friends, colleagues, and groups to which we belong are so important.

Violence

The journey of faith is an arc, beginning at a point in life when we have little understanding of spiritual truth. Hopefully that journey moves toward realization that it is absolutely contrary to the life of faith to kill another human being, no matter the reason.

Needless to say, as a nation we have quite a long way to go.

Spiritual Attainment

If someone tries to tell you that there is some sort of spiritual attainment that can only be achieved under special circumstances or conditions – celibacy, withdrawing from life, ABalone_Shell_Terrarium__58465.1496177011remaining single, or any other such nonsense – and that stepping out from under those conditions will fracture the attainment, then it is no attainment at all. Rather it is a precious little state of mind for fragile souls who need ego support and to feel special.

Anything that’s real, and kind of spiritual gift or progress, will play on the street the same way it does in the monastery – or else it’s no gift at all. If some aspect of daily like causes the “gift” to fail, then it was never a gift at all.

There are no Gurus

The fascination that has grown in the west over the past several decades with eastern spirituality has become problematic, especially regarding gurus. As spiritual teachers and so-called gurus have moved from east to west, one thing that has become apparent is that they have a propensity toward sexual misconduct with their students. This in turn creates not only the problems that come with every form of sexual abuse and misconduct, but also a problem with the whole notion of gurus.

A guru is supposed to be a fully enlightened being. By definition, a fully enlightened being would never act out in any way – including and perhaps most especially sexually. The simplistic approach would be to say that anyone who acts out sexually is not a true barkley guruguru. I would agree as far as that goes, but what this approach leaves unanswered is whether we should just head on down to the next guru or whether the whole idea of guru is somehow part of the problem.

It seems you can’t scratch the surface of many so-called gurus without finding problematic behaviors. Whether they have quietly amassed fortunes, built large networks of volunteers who work for them without pay, have a secret stash of luxury automobiles, abuse their students physically or sexually, throw lavish parties that celebrate hedonism more than spirituality, or some other unacceptable behavior, many if not most highly regarded teachers who have migrated to the west have fallen from grace. What is the problem?

The problem is that most gurus achieve recognition as gurus in a highly protected environment. Living as celibate monks in a monastery, they are able to make spiritual progress is what is a very sheltered environment. In these environments money, sexuality, fame, and western style social interactions simply aren’t an issue. What these systems generate aren’t fully enlightened beings but rather semi-enlightened man-children. In a sheltered, cloistered environment they are just fine but they fall to pieces when they step out of the monastery and into the world. Stated another way, when they have to cope with the same things everyday people like you and I cope with, it becomes apparent they aren’t so enlightened after all. Go figure. You can’t “educate” someone in a sheltered environment and believe that will equip them to function well outside that environment. It’s not just ill-advised, it’s stupid.

We have this notion that spiritual leaders should live in an environment where they guru fraudnever have to navigate the complex web of human relationships (most especially romantic and sexual relationships) or be responsible for their own financial well-being. Then we let them into the world and they set about raping and pillaging. Would you give the keys to your brand new car to someone who had never seen a car, much less had any driver’s education or driving experience? Then why in the world do we send these adult children into the world and give them the keys to our spiritual well-being?

Spiritual teachers are precisely that – teachers. Since no human being is perfect, whatever enlightenment may be it cannot be equivalent to perfection. We still need to exercise our best judgment and to understand that when it comes to our safety, our opinion is the only one that counts. Never do something that feels wrong because someone you trust tells you it is right. The external guru, if such a thing exists, is there to show you the internal guru – and your internal guru would never betray you!.