(Editor's Note- the following article, number three in the first Redemption Week, was sent to Beams unsolicited. We were told that it was sparked by and is a partial response to a reading of Br. Chris' article 'Why It is Impossible to Be Spiritual Without Being Religious')
If we are human we have spiritual experiences of some kind or another: now and then we have moments that are fleeting but which seem to contain a deep sense of peace or contentment or an insight that “everything in our existence is OK”. The capacity to experience these moments seems to be built into our very existence. But they're not something we can capture or measure or even describe. Such moments have nothing to do with beliefs or the intellect, they just are. Yet we're curious about them, we want more of them and we want to make sense of them. This is the spiritual journey. And this leads to religion. I would therefore define religion as simply a human institution formed in order to explore these other-worldly experiences. In other words, the experience is from “outside” time/space but religion is very much from within time/space.
Two questions arise from this. First, what are these experiences, where do they come from and why? This might be reframed, if I choose to call the experiences as from God, what is the nature of God? And second, how do these experiences fit into our individual perception of this time/space universe both intellectually and experientially? Actually, these two questions are so intertwined they can’t be addressed separately.
We know that since maybe 10,000 – 30,000 years ago humans have been aware of the existence of a power or spirit that is beyond the ordinary day-to-day life. It's always been a spirit that's seemed outside of us and, yet, somehow very much a part of our own being.
Initially the spirit experiences were attributed to various gods living in a rock or river or wolf or lightening. But roughly 4000 – 5000 years ago human consciousness evolved to the point of individual self awareness. We became aware of ourselves, capable of self-reflection, of intellectual curiosity and of empathy for others. Concurrent with, and perhaps because of this development of consciousness, the idea of a singular, transcendent “God” emerged. Not only that, the principles of ethical behaviour, justice and righteousness began to associated with the transcendent God. Three very big steps indeed in our evolution. But, not withstanding this singular, ethical, transcendent nature of God, and given the understanding of the cosmos at that time (the earth was flat and above was heaven where God lived) God was also not far removed from being a super - human in the sky. He was wrathful, loving, angry, generous, vindictive, grand, petty and certainly very powerful. And he loved to intervene in our lives. Still, it was not a bad model for that time. In fact, it was pretty adventuresome thinking 4000 years ago; this seemed to be about as far as our intellect could stretch then.
Unfortunately this model of God stalled at that point and it still forms the basis of most Christianity, Judaism and Islam today. Western religion has been stuck in an intellectual dead-end kindergarten for four millennia. Even so called post-modernist criticism still talks about Grace and Sin and Forgiveness and being with God and not being with God. Even the most “modern” churches refer to God’s will and we pray to God and worship God. Yes, we've moved beyond an ”eye for an eye” theology to praying for peace and love (and the occasional colour TV [i]) but nevertheless God remains an entity which requires catering and placating to one extent or another.[ii]
A NEW, VERY OLD TAKE ON GOD
Moses (a tradition, not an actual person as far as we know) gave us two commandments: Love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. And love our neighbour as ourselves. [iii] Two thousand years later Jesus gave us pretty much same advice. There aren’t many loop holes here, not a lot of wiggle room. Not even much scope for analysis, old, modern or post-modern. It is simple, unequivocal, total and as fundamental as we can get. It is what we are to do.
And who are we to do this? We are two things. We are physical bodies and we are consciousness. Now, we can argue that consciousness is of this physical universe and is simply some combination of neurons firing away. Conversely, we can argue that consciousness is not of this time/space cosmos, that it is “other-worldly”.
Actually, there are no arguments involved in this distinction, it boils down to a matter of an assumption based on experience or intuition. It is analogous to love. We know we love. We don’t believe we love, we don’t come to love because of our intellect or rational thinking. We cannot measure it, we cannot describe it. We just know that we love. So we may consider that, as love comes into our consciousness from somewhere else, our consciousness itself can reside at least in part somewhere else. Which brings us back to those fleeting, “ah-ha” moments of groundedness, peace and “everything is all right with the world” experiences. These are inklings that there is something we call spirit which we seem to serendipitously dip into now and then and which we begin to yearn for more and more. To put it another way, there's an alternate state of consciousness that can only be described as pure love, peace, eternal, absolute. Moses knew it and called it the “Land of Milk and Honey” or the “Promised Land”. Jesus knew it and called it the “Kingdom of God”. It's also known as heaven, cosmic consciousness, divine consciousness, Nirvana, no attachment, the Void, etc. And it's in that state of altered consciousness alone that one can love our neighbour as ourselves, with all our heart and mind and strength and love. It would seem from this discussion that when all the rhetoric and dogma and intellectualizing is done away with we are left simply with the pursuit of attaining this altered consciousness or alternate reality. This is the essence of all faith traditions.[iv]
The “Land of Milk and Honey”, the “Kingdom of God” – exactly what is this alternate state of consciousness? Some say it's the realm of absolute truth, absolute love, the divine. Many say it's the only true reality, everything else is illusion. In this state one is in the world but not of the world. It's a state of no ego, no greed, no “power over”. It's only in this state that one can truly live by the maxim (to quote Marx), “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”.
God then ceases to be an entity, a super hero who takes sides, who grants wishes, who directs us. Quite the opposite, God is a force field if we may. God is a presence, the ground, the substrate of the whole universe (and other universes). God is manifested in this universe as time/space, as we are manifested in turn by time/space. And our consciousness, our self awareness allows us to experience God’s manifestation as a deep, eternal love, the peace which passes all understanding. More, it's a state of consciousness that's full of awe, it is sacred, and we are compelled to give it absolute reverence. Ironically, to honour the awe and sacred we seem to have no choice and are drawn to the mystery of worship and we find that worship “works” regardless of the intellect. We might even consider that our consciousness in worship is the means whereby the universe reflects upon and knows itself.
There is of course a catch, a chicken and egg issue. When one is in this state of alternate reality, one loves and shares and cares for all others. However, by trying to love and care and share absolutely, we fail miserably because we're not in that state to begin with. On the other hand, when we allow the little moments of God-Consciousness which seem to come along to permeate our being we begin to change, we may become more settled, more content, more empathetic with strangers. But trying to be nice, trying to be happy, trying to do good (as most churches command us) can lead to bigger egos, smugness, frustration, even anger (much suppressed of course).
If God-Consciousness is there for us to realize why is it so hard to obtain? We have known good from evil intellectually now for say 6000 (0.006 million) years as a species. On the other hand we have 60 million years of genetic evolution telling us to eat, to reproduce, to survive through competition. These instincts are way down deep in our brain stem and drive us in spite of ourselves. The drive to eat, a basic instinct, can manifest as selfishness and greed. The drive to reproduce at its limit can be viewed as lust. The drive to survive leads to power over others, fighting and anger, territoriality. (Is road rage the epitome of our evolution?) We are a dilemma through and through, knowing our goal but hindered by our nature.
A person who is deeply invested in the traditional God, the God that acts on our petition and who saves us might say, “Isn’t this new vision of God sterile, impersonal?” On the contrary. We move from story-land and magic and a set of beliefs to groundedness, to the sense of being that is unrestricted, to an unknown but loving, solid and irreversible place of understanding.
The wisdom of 5000 years comes through and we join the multitudes who have gone before us, knowing somewhere deep inside that truth does exist, that this truth cannot be overcome by anything and that we can strive in our own bumbling way towards this truth. It is very personal and at the same time universal. Each and every one of us is created by God, absolute love and truth. Each and every one of us is special and an integral part of creation. Isn’t this far superior to having a lifetime of responsibility trying to please a superman god?
Every time we reach for God we bridge the space between heaven and earth. Pretty powerful.
[ii] In integral philosophy there is the discussion of the Three Faces of God. The Three Faces of God are the three modes in which humans relate to God (1st, 2nd, or 3rd person modes): experience; personal interaction (I – thou); and God exists. Jesus only ever talked about God’s will, he prayed to God (“let this cup pass from me, but your will not mine be done”), and worshipped God (“Abba, I thank you that you have revealed your truth to children but hidden it from the wise”). It could be argued, since he only interacted in the “I – thou” mode, that he was he stuck in a spiritual kindergarten. Two counter-arguments can be cited however. First, there were no camcorders in those days. The earliest writings about Jesus occurred at least two generations after his death. And all the authors had particular agendas. So we don’t know what was actually said. Second, Jesus was a mystic and Jewish rabbi. Would such a person pray those words? More likely his prayer would have been contemplative and any articulation would be along the lines of even greater surrender of the self to the Spirit rather than commenting on what was happening.
[iii] The two commandments form the foundation of the more familiar Ten Commandments.
[iv] The terms “Milk & Honey”, “Kingdom of God” are used here metaphorically but it could be argued those words also mean, in their own contexts (as best as we can reconstruct them) something quite literal. Certainly the Jewish people make a literal claim to the land. On the other hand, the Hebrew Bible was composed into a whole in one sitting, so to speak, during the Babylonian Exile and the material derived from various already existent traditional stories. But stories they were, albeit in some cases with historical memory. So, there is no evidence of an actual Exodus or a crossing of the Jordan into Canaan. In fact, the Jewish tribes were indigenous to the region from the start. Same with Kingdom of God. There is no evidence to believe Jesus thought an actual ‘thing’ called the Kingdom of God was going to manifest on earth through some apocalypse. It would manifest on earth through naturally occurring changes in human behaviour brought about by changes in consciousness. The “Kingdom of God” was the opposite of the Kingdom of Assyria or the Kingdom of Rome or the kingdom of the military/consumer economy.