The Question of Religion

One might surmise by reading my work that I’m a religious person, or at the very least a moralist. After all, I’m concerned with ethics, the spiritual dimension of reality and other such things. On the other hand, I write about biology’s mighty grip on our thinking and behavior to the point where the devout religieux might think I’m an atheist. Moreover, I’ve proposed in my novels that all are entitled to consistent sexual experience (to be built into the community ethos) for the purpose of providing much-needed intimacy but also to feed the animal regularly so that we can have sweet release and get on with our work. How can this be spiritual?

Much of my work is filled with such apparent paradox. But as I tried to explain when talking about the many seemingly contradictory writings that influenced me (in my post about mentors) or how I can think of myself as an idealist and a realist at the same time—what on the surface seems paradoxical actually isn’t when looked at from a certain point of view. I’ve tried to take in the human being in toto, as I’ve said, which is necessarily a broad picture. To arrive at a proper synthesis, I’ve had to see how each component might fit that picture. To someone who maybe hasn’t spent the time or put in the effort to do so, certainly the pieces won’t seem to fit together so smoothly. They may well seem contradictory. I think that’s why I wrote non-fiction as well as novels. In a work of non-fiction I can take my time and spell it out step by step.

On the other hand, some may think they understand my stance quite clearly: I write about the eternal battle between good and evil within the human heart, perhaps in the manner of someone like St Augustine or on a banal level, your garden-variety televangelist. That’s not so. I’ve never felt that biology or the sex drive are evil, for example, though I certainly understand how they can lead us astray. In a sense, I’ve tried to re-sacralize them so that we can better integrate them into our lives and maximize the good we can derive from them.

As it stands, sex is still dirty and the subject of prurient fascination in our culture and I’m trying to change that. From this point of view, the spiritual life and the sexual life aren’t incompatible but both necessary components of the good life. The fact that we’re happy neither spiritually nor sexually—in the main—demonstrates that we haven’t been able to come to terms with either. In my writing I try to show that such a thing is not only possible but maybe not as difficult as we may think. And as far as the other aspects of “evil” are concerned (greed, envy, penchant for violence, etc), I also deal with them at length in my writing.

When I say re-sacralize, what do I mean by that? What is the so-called “spirit” in the “spiritual life”? I think I infer it in my writing rather than come right out and say it because it’s so elusive as to be beyond description. That said, I don’t expect to be able to do it justice here. Better that I try to outline my basic orientation so that you might see how I can make such an inference.

I was steeped in Christianity until my teens, but unanswered questions prompted me to look to other teachings for a broader understanding of who we are and what our potentialities and responsibilities as human beings were. I didn’t reject Christianity as much as look for its complements.

From Buddhism I learned that we were truly prisoners of desire but could free ourselves with the right thought and action. Zen offered a pathway to how that might be done. Desire might never be extinguished, but it could be managed. This was a revelation to me.

From Judaism I learned how a great spiritual tradition could bind a people together, give them sense of purpose and direction, and succor them even under egregious conditions. We could learn from that! I got quite an education about this from my Jewish friends and colleagues, and I value that more than I can say.

Taoism taught me that life has a flow and one must develop a sense of that flow and find a way to align oneself with it. Not easy in a country where everyone’s going ten different directions at once. Yet I discovered in Asia that it could be done, even in complex and fast-paced societies.

From Sufism I found how the ecstasy of an altered state could renew and deepen one’s faith (as it did for Islam). This is far from getting high for “fun,” and was done naturally, without the use of drugs.

From studying shamanism, I saw how a similar altered state could so connect one with that other dimension that the power of healing could be manifested. Faith healers (of the authentic kind) are similarly endowed and not by such dissimilar means.

From Aesop, though he wasn’t a prophet but in effect an ethicist, I learned much about the human condition, particularly our ability to create change without force as shown in the fable of the Sun and the North Wind. It made me realize how much we favor the North Wind approach, which is pure yang—male power—and made me search for a way to integrate yin with that to try to create a balance. This is a spiritual question, because the yang approach alone is biology personified.

From Hinduism, especially the work of Yogananda and Prabhupada in America, I got a glimpse of our eternal desire to be reconnected to divinity (“return to Godhead”). I came to understand how universal this is, even in those who have unequivocally rejected religion in any form—though few really recognize this yearning for what it is.

Finally (though not exhaustively), from the Babylonian myth of the goddess Ishtar and the temples that arose to honor her, I saw confirmed that sexuality is not exclusively a physical and emotional complex but was (or could be) deeply imbued with spirit.

The above paragraphs might suggest a kind of shallow dilettantism, where I borrow a bit from here and a bit from there to fit into my own personal cosmology, but that’s far from the truth. Rather than purloin pieces of each, I’ve spent a lifetime trying to determine the common essence of the aforementioned traditions—that is, what is the underlying meaning that these various attempts to comprehend the divine and its connection to the world share? I have no desire to take a piece of anything, for as I said before regarding human beings and the society of which we’re a part, I’m looking for the totality. Understanding this totality might help us as profane beings (all true modernists lack a substantial sense of the sacred) to reconnect to the divine or at least show us the value of doing so.

For evidence that the spiritual dimension of existence isn’t necessarily a psychological construct of an insecure species, I’m indebted to the work of Carl Jung for so expressively delineating the “collective unconscious,” thus suggesting that a universal consciousness isn’t as fanciful as some might like to think. I also value the research of the sometimes maligned English biochemist Rupert Sheldrake, who I think argues convincingly for a new understanding of neurology; that, for example, memory isn’t stored in the brain (“brain as computer hard disc”) but in fact may be located outside the brain in the space all around us (“brain as radio transmitter-receiver”).

The work of these two individuals especially (there are others) provides a picture not of a human being as a discrete entity with no particular connection to others or to the cosmos, but one who may indeed be part of a larger association and who possesses the neurological instrument (the brain) to apprehend something far beyond that brain. In other words, “We are one,” in perhaps not-so-naive New Age parlance, and the “divine” may not be just a psychological fabrication but a presence actually able to be perceived by the human brain since it does possess the power to reach beyond itself.

So am I religious? Decidedly not. But clearly I work from the premise that we’re not simply material creatures driven by biology and nothing else. However, in positing a spiritual component of reality, do I speculate on the nature of the divine? For example, who or what is God? I do not. I believe that’s an impossible task (at least for me), though I don’t disapprove of anyone defining it in their own way or believing in any of the traditions that claim to know. Understanding the exact composition of the air and the structure of the molecules that comprise it makes no difference to me, as long as I keep breathing it in. Moreover, to say that air doesn’t exist because we can’t see it is also fruitless.

One might believe by reading my last novel, Land of Fleurs, that I’m a pantheist. I more than imply the sacredness not only of people, but animals, plants and inanimate things such as water or stones. When traditional peoples believe this, we call them animists. This is a form of pantheism. Am I a pantheist, then? Do I see divinity in everything?

One of the most valuable consequences of pantheism is respect for the natural environment, and that respect acts to preserve it—as opposed to our own modern materialist notion that the earth is little more than real estate to be turned into profit. Eventually there’ll be nothing left. Believe me, when you’re my age you can see how much has been lost, and the pace isn’t slowing down—it’s accelerating.

The second positive result of pantheism is in cultivating that respect—we humans always act better when there’s something we hold in esteem. When we do, we not only elevate the object of our respect, but we elevate ourselves as well. Today we respect so little, whether it be wildlands, sports team opponents, poets, Muslim sensibilities, manual workers, Scientologists, animals crossing the road (we kill millions), Internet twitter-birds we disagree with, old people—the list is truly endless. We don’t, as a nation, as a culture, encourage respect. By re-sacralizing much of what we’ve profaned, I hope to encourage more respect. It’s a discipline we’ve forgotten. “Nothing’s sacred,” as the saying goes. I want to change that. Doing so doesn’t necessarily make me a pantheist. It simply makes me one who appreciates and employs a sacred tradition to get people to think more about what they’re doing.

So it’s pretty useless to ask me to define “God” or “divinity,” here or anywhere else, even though the spiritual permeates my work. If you ask me anything at all, ask how we might better achieve our potential as human beings, fulfill ourselves as I believe is our birthright. That’s what I write about.

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