You Can’t Do It That Way!

How often do we hear that from academics, especially in the field of spirituality and religion? I have heard it so often I want to vomit every time yet another insecure academic trying to justify their professional existence announces what does and does not constitute “proper” spiritual practice. Whatever currently popular spiritual trend catches their attention is dismissed either because it doesn’t pass their litmus test of what constitutes proper practice or the practitioners don’t have (in their mind) the proper qualifications to do the practice authentically, or both.

Mind you, I am far from anti-intellectual. I support the Academy and think it has a purpose and does good work. It’s when they try to dismiss everything that comes from anyone who hasn’t spent their lives in higher education as somehow inherently inadequate that I have a problem. When academics suggest that anything that doesn’t come from them or one of their colleagues isn’t “valid,” I feel compelled to point out that it’s a good thing for the rest of us that they aren’t in charge of social graces. I often wonder if when people from the theology department announce that the only people qualified to opine on any scripture are those who can read it in the original languages, the people from the foreign language department become insulted because their translation ability has been besmirched by their colleagues! Do the people from the history and anthropology departments wonder why the theology department disregards the truths that humans were illiterate through most of history and the printing press was invented only five hundred years ago?

Even more importantly, please don’t tell me I can’t do something a particular way when in fact I just did. For example, if you tell me I can’t investigate Celtic spirituality when I just finished reading a book about it I am afraid I already did investigate it. If you insist I cannot read a particular scripture because I am not a polyglot, I must tell you that most people who have read a scripture have read it in translation. While the subtle nuances may be lost in translation, I believe that translators do the best job possible. Unless I am obsessive compulsive, it is close enough for my purposes.

Most importantly, don’t let anyone making pious pronouncements about the validity of your particular practice discourage you. In everybody’s experience there are bound to be more or less useful spiritual practices. What I find helpful, you may find simplistic and foolish. It’s not that the practices themselves are less that perfect, because they all are less than perfect. It’s that we have different needs and are at different places on our journeys, so of course different practices and perspectives will appeal to us. It’s the nature of practices to evolve and adapt to current needs, so we don’t need to feel embarrassed that we don’t do anything the way it was done one thousand years ago. The point of our practice is to move us along on our spiritual journey, not to please anyone else or pay homage to what once was but isn’t any longer.

Complexity and Confusion

I had a bit of an epiphany the other day as I was walking the dog. I have a fair number of epiphanies walking Roxy. My epiphany came in the form of questions: Does the Divine have some sort of communicative disorder? Should we take up a collection for a special education teacher so that the universe can make Itself understood? I feel so bad that we have ignored the special needs of the Source of all that is!

Most religions love to trot out their clergy and theologians with advanced degrees. Here comes The Rev. Dr. Thisandthat to explain it all to us. My aren’t we special! For our part, those of us taking all of this in, we are duly impressed. I am reminded of a story told by a Buddhist teacher about a gathering of spiritual teachers in California some years ago. The gathering was attended by a number of quite respected Insight Meditation teachers, who tend to dress in casual clothing. Also present was a “teacher” who had long, matted hair tied in a knot atop his head and wearing the obligatory robes of an eastern renunciate. In truth he was a westerner who had just come off a months long drug bender. The person telling the story reported that a friend he was with was duly impressed with the externals of the hungover, but payed no attention to the wisdom of the real teachers in the room. That’s human nature, I suppose, but it’s not an effective tendency. Con artists of every stripe are well aware of this tendency and use it to their full advantage. Haven’t we all met that person who looked so good in that dress or suit but turned out to be a huge mistake?

So if the Divine, by whatever name you know It, is the Source of all that exists, why would It require an interpreter with advanced degrees? Does the Divine not know how to make Itself understood? Does God play hide and seek while trying to communicate? How could the Divine overestimate the intelligence of Its intended audience if It is the Source of that same audience? The obvious answer here is that none of those things are possible. We have been convinced by professional clergy and theologians that we need them if we are to understand the deep truths of the Universe. I am here to say that any explanation of anything that comes from God requires no translation. Teachings that do require translation tend to come from humans trying to stay employed. Of course people who study these things are able to tease out nuances that may slip past the nonspecialist, but if someone tries to convince you that they are passing along an as yet undiscovered essential Truth of the Divine, keep your wallet in your pocket.

The principle of parsimony states that things are usually connected or behave in the simplest or most economical way. It’s a principle that seems to be lost on professional theologians, clergy, and common core math teachers. Violating this principle may be for the most part quite harmless, except when someone tries to tell you that you need them to understand God. To be sure, each of us from time to time comes up with some pretty far fetched ideas. That’s why it is important to be involved in a spiritual community that shares and discusses concepts, beliefs, and claims. These communities keep us from drifting too far afield as well as providing us with essential friendship and companionship. If, however, someone shows up at your community gathering claiming to be your much-needed expert guide, send them packing. They represent a kind of thinking you don’t need.

I am not trying to discredit clergy or theologians. They can be an important part of our communities and often provide much needed leadership, but they aren’t perfect. The good ones help us to develop our understanding by using their considerable skills to tease out new ideas as well as helping us progress along the spiritual path. The bad apples try to take our power away and make us dependent on them. It’s important to know the difference and make good choices both as communities and as individuals.