Who Are We to Be?

I confess that, watching the political discourse over the last few years I have become increasingly discouraged. I have watched American politics, not as an obsession but as a citizen interested in public discourse, since the late Johnson administration. To my more smart assed younger friends, I should specify that I mean the Lyndon, and not the Andrew Johnson administration. What I have noticed, at every level and in every party, is a loss of any sense of value or integrity. People just seem to feel fine about dishing bald faced lies to the American public if doing so advances their cause, career, or (more likely) lines their pockets.

If we are honest, these are the kind of people we wouldn’t want to invite into our homes for dinner for fear they would steal the silverware. Like a drug addicted child, we would have to exert so much energy monitoring their behavior while they were visiting that we couldn’t possibly enjoy the visit. If we are honest, we don’t have to stretch our imagination too much to imagine a current politician or one of their employees searching through our bank records while ostensibly on a trip to the bathroom.

As someone who has spent the vast majority of his adult like studying and working in the fields of spirituality, religion, and psychology, it is clear to me that a significant segment of our population has come worship power and money above all else. Values such as integrity, truth, loyalty, and dependability take a back seat in these belief systems. Perhaps even more telling is the truth that the worship of power and money arise in a person who is profoundly fearful and lacks a way to understand and process that fear. They become a starving man in front of a tray of food, who takes it and eats it without regard because he knows he must do so to survive – except that most of these people have more than enough to survive. Their starvation is a starvation of soul, and the result is an ego run amok. The result of their strategy is a life chasing something they will never catch.

I don’t care if you are a Christian, a Buddhist, a Jew, a Moslem, or a follower of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You might be a Jungian, a Freudian, or a follower of Fritz Perls. Maybe Elkhart Tolle helps you make sense of your world, and Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday makes all right in your world. Whatever it is, the human psyche needs a way to make sense of its world and to find in it something bigger than itself. It doesn’t need to be complicated. The Dalai Lama reminds us the his religion is kindness. Each of us must find a way to care about something other than ourselves at least some of the time. If we can’t do that, we are likely to find ourselves trying to lie, cheat, and steal our way to happiness – and pondering a run for political office.

What We Are Missing

It seems to me that we have lost sight of a basic ethical principal. I would state that principal as follows: An action is right or wrong independent of the impact of that actionBurning-House on me. Stated another, perhaps less gentle, way no one of us is the center of the ethical universe. Indulge me as I offer some examples.

If it is wrong to set fire to my neighbor’s house, it is wrong even if he offers to share the insurance money with me. My personal profit is irrelevant in making decisions about right or wrong. Similarly, telling someone at the bar that I am personal friends with Brad Pitt is wrong (unless of course I am), even if telling them that makes it far more likely they might go home with me. It’s wrong to lie, even if it means I stand a better chance of getting laid. This is the same principal at work as in setting fire to my neighbor’s house: My personal profit is irrelevant. Taking this to the employment environment, it’s wrong to lie on my resume or CV even if I think doing so offers a better chance of me getting hired. Again, same principal.

I am afraid that we have come to conflate and confuse several related topics. We have decided that lying by a politician isn’t lying, it’s just “playing politics.” As Shakespeare said, “A rose (or in this case a turd) by any other name is still a rose (turd).” There is nothing about our goal in lying to people that makes lying a moral virtue or even morally neutral. Politics and integrity should walk together, not be opposed to one another. When that’s not the case, the result wide ends snlis what we have today in both parties: a highly corrupt system.

The idea that the ends justify the means may have valid applications, but we have pushed it too far and find ourselves left with, in practice, a system in which some believe that if the ends are of value then any means to achieve them are valid. That is absurd. If my wife asks me if a particular dress makes her ass look big and I want to stay married, a nuanced my answer may be justified. If I can make more money by lying about the environmental impact my actions will have, an impact that endangers countless lives, no level of nuance is acceptable. Nuance is okay if it saves marriages and avoids being needlessly cruel, but it’s not okay if someone becomes sick or dies. That should be as plain as the nose on our faces, but we’ve lost sight of it. We desperately need to correct our vision!

Truth

pinocchio-970x545Truth is not a matter of opinion. Truth is fact, and it remains the same even if someone pays you to lie and pretend that your lie is the truth. Lobbyists are liars. Spokespeople who try to spin reality to make the companies or causes they work for look better are liars. Being a liar comes at a cost. Lying isn’t going to make you go to hell or any other such nonsense. The cost is that a liar is personally diminished each time they lie. Their character suffers and their souls – in the Jungian sense of the word soul – are diminished. When we lie we become less. We may deceive ourselves and think that others can’t tell we are lying, but they can. Do you really think that Sean Spicer or Sarah Huckabee Sanders will ever enjoy credibility again? Of course they won’t, any more than the name Benedict Arnold will come to be associated with someone you can trust.

The truth is that what we say and what we do matters. Our words and actions can either build us and other up or they can tear humanity down. The way these diminishments are caused may not be visible, but that doesn’t make them any less real.

Honesty is Such a Lonely Word

Billy Joel was right, not only about love but also about spiritual and religious circles – though he may not have had that in mind when he wrote his song.

There is a practice that I have seen both in Newage* circles and in Evangelical circles of 220px-Honesty_singleblatant dishonesty about the ideas and even the integrity of other teachers and preachers. If you run in the motivational speaker/Chicken Soup book circles, the odds are you do nothing but heap praise on others in those circles. According to these folks, everyone is wonderful at everything they do. Indeed, some of them are. Others mostly push content that is rather vacuous, largely rehashed and diluted ideas from long ago. The problem is that when everyone says everything is wonderful, people tend to believe them and go out an spend their hard earned money on books and conferences that are largely newage.

In Evangelical circles, particularly the Jim Bakker/Jimmy Swaggert circles, the same sort of things happen on a regular basis. I have seen it for myself. Almost every one of these high profile organizations gets hit with a scandal sooner or later, and they run to each other’s defense – especially if the person currently in the fire stood behind others when they were in the fire. I have witnessed these discussions. The problem here is even worse than it is in newage circles, because quite often what is being covered up and dismissed is serious misconduct that is abusive toward those the offender is supposed to be serving. If you think that only the large denominations traffic in cover ups, you are fooling yourself.

What we need in all corners of our world is a lot more honesty, no matter what the consequences may be. This may cause some sort term discomfort, but it will protect people from getting hurt by the unqualified and disqualified charlatans posing as authentic teachers and leaders. Imagine what might happen if we went so far as to require honesty from politicians!

 

*I borrow the term “Newage,” which rhymes with “sewage,” from Lama Surya Das to distinguish between solid and dubious New Age teaching.

Religion is not Truth

One name for God might be Truth, with a capital “T.” Some people are mightily turned off by the term God, through no fault of their own and no fault of God’s. Rather, they are turned off by the term God because of the behavior of those who claim to have discovered Truth through their religion. There is no small irony in that!

quote-true-religion-is-not-about-possessing-the-truth-no-religion-does-that-it-is-rather-an-john-shelby-spong-89-12-36Religion can’t be Truth because it developed after Truth – long after it, in Truth. At its best, religion tries to point us toward God, point us toward Truth, which is very useful but not the same as being Truth. You wouldn’t know that by watching many, but not all, religious adherents. They claim to believe in God, but what they really believe in is their religion’s view of God rather than God Itself. A Presbyterian God, or a Roman Catholic God, or a Lutheran God can never actually be God. The best it can hope to be is an image of God, or a picture of truth, or a slice of Truth, and there isn’t anything wrong with that unless you start believing it actually is Truth. That view is like carrying around a picture of your loved one and starting to believe your picture is the person themselves. It seems silly because it is silly, but when it comes to Truth our judgment gets obscured.

Why is this important? This is important because we too easily get caught up in debates about who has the best religion, as if religion has any impact on Truth! Every religion is the equivalent of a third grader doing an artist’s rendering of a Picasso painting. There are some things in every tradition that might give us a slight idea of what it’s trying to depict, but most of it is a confusing (if charming) mess. The Truth is that is you really want to get to Truth, you are going to have to eventually go where religion cannot. You are going to have to move to the direct experience of Truth.

Discarding What’s Not True

Most of us, I would even venture to say all of us, have been told things about ourselves that are not true. Sometimes we were told these things due to an honest mistake. Other times people wanted to manipulate us or to get their way. Some of us have encountered evil personified, a person wanting to do damage to us for reasons that are not clear. Even if those reasons were clear, they would not be sufficient to justify what happened to us.

crazy-woman-angry-look-her-face-31397102The way out of this lies in the old adage that the truth will set you free. By asking ourselves some questions about what was said, we can begin to move through our pain toward healing. We might ask ourselves, “Is what was said true?” Even if we believed it was true at the time, from today’s perspective we may well see that what was said was not true. If it was true, we then should ask ourselves, “So what?” In other words, is this truth really something bad? In my case, I was repeatedly and drunkenly told that my problem was that I was a “goddamn adolescent.” In point of fact, I was an adolescent. The statement was true, but the rage and accusatory tone with which it was delivered was not justified by the truth that I was an adolescent. Neither were the seemingly endless hours it was repeated at full volume, with great regularity, for hours in a drunken rage at our family dinner table.

Often times we need the help of a trained counselor to help us with this work. We need to see that there was no substance to our “crimes,” and to stop believing the people accusing us were in any way right. I would even say we need to come to the place where we see no merit whatsoever in that person’s opinion so we can begin the hard work of deciding who we really are. It’s a long road, but it begins with the truth – which will set us free!