Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Allegorical Faith

So far on my spiritual journey, I've come to realize and accept that there isn't one religion which will fit me perfectly, and that's OK.  Since one of the aspects of religion that I find life-giving is the emotional response I have when entrenched in it, I decided several years ago that I will stay within Catholicism, since this is the faith that I grew up with, it's the faith I'm most comfortable with, it's the faith I understand most (not to say that I understand it totally!  I don't think anyone does!), and it's the faith that brings me the most comfort emotionally and spiritually.

So when I came around the bend of my most recent crisis of faith, I knew that my resolution would not involve converting into any other religion, or even joining any other (non Catholic) church.  I still looked into different faiths, as I have in the past, but with a different motive in mind.  I long believed that at their core, all religions are one.  In high school, I presented my insights to a friend of mine by having her look at a doll and describe it to me, while I did the same while sitting on the opposite side of the doll.  Not surprisingly, we had different perspectives, and yet the doll was one and the same.  In various Eastern religions, the story of the blind men and the elephant accomplishes what I tried to accomplish with the doll.  (You can find the original story here.)

Several years ago, I came across a website that so enthralled me that I read its entirety with captivation, and then contacted the author to thank him.  Unfortunately, since there wasn't follow up in the form of an in-real-life community where I could continue this angle of the Christian faith, over time it lost its grip on me.  I never forgot it, but it has been hard to apply it in my daily life.

Maybe I'm going to have a second chance now to unearth a meaningful version of Christianity.  I recently have been reading through another website which reminded me of the first website encounter and built on it.

The nutshell version of what I've taken away from both of these websites:  What Jesus taught and what became orthodox Christian dogma are not one and the same.  What Jesus taught is simple: compassion.  In essence, it's the goal of every religion.

With this in mind, I realized why I've been having such a hard time settling comfortably for a longer stretch of time within any one religious expression.  If it's not the dogma, then it's the practice that just seems so busy, so chaotic, so messy and confusion.  Underneath it all, I know it's as simple as "I Am".  Perhaps it's my own fault for wanting to assign labels to experiences and to put words where only silence comes close enough to the truth.

On Justice Before Charity, I was stopped dead in my track when I read these words about the Trinity, the very concept that has been giving me the most trouble on my quest for "pure monotheism":

"Basil's teaching of the Trinity was not meant to explain and define God, but rather to emphasize that God could not be explained and defined. God is a mystery. How can there be one infinite God with three separate, infinite parts? This teaching was not created in order to limit God, but rather to liberate our conceptions of God from the Arians who wanted to constrain God to a distinct, describable being. The Trinity is not literally true--it cannot be--but is a beautiful reminder that any conception we have of God--however helpful--ultimately falls short of describing God."  (emphasis mine)

Believe it or not, this wasn't new information.  How many times have I heard that God is a mystery?  And yet I kept hearing the Trinity discussed so nonchalantly, as if it really were a literally true expression of God.  Seeing the above words, in context with all of the other information I was picking up on this and the other website, finally helped me distinguish between "what is" and "what is taught".

Organized religion developed with the masses in mind.  Some would say it was to help the common person relate to God.  Others would say it was to enable the powers that be to control the masses.  I'm convinced it was both.  Understanding religion as a historical and sociological phenomenon liberates me from the literalism that has plagued my spiritual faith development.

Therefore, I'm embarking on recontextualizing the tenets of my faith within an allegorical framework, where I no longer allow them to hinder me, but rather allow them to accomplish what they are there for in the first place - to point me in the direction of truth.

A Buddhist teaching about the purpose of religious practice (which can be found here) goes something like this:

"A person is with a small child who has never seen the moon before. The person points towards the moon, and says, "Look, the moon." The child could very well conclude that the person's finger is the moon. But the child should look to where the finger is pointing to see the moon for himself."  (emphasis mine)

The first obstacle that I had to overcome before finally coming face to face with this conclusion was that I have been brainswashed with the ultimate guilt-trip.  Even writing this here now stirs in me the words I heard so frequently that were meant to put me on "the right path".  What are these words?  "Jesus died for you and me."  Think about it.  If someone DIES so that you may LIVE, then you are forever indebted to them and eternally grateful, right?  Or at least that's the decent thing to do.  This concept is so emotionally charged, that it was difficult for me to dig through all of the implications and insinuations and finally ask myself: Is this even true?

I'm not questioning whether Jesus was a historical person or whether he was crucified for threatening the sociopolitical status quo with his teachings.  I think these are facts beyond contestation and don't require faith.  It's when his suffering and death are directly linked to me, when I am essentially blamed for this horrible death Jesus endured, that the guilt reflex is activated.  I think the guilt reflex is what keeps a lot of people from questioning or seeking beyond what they are told.

During my most recent research, I kept telling myself (as if to force myself to believe it) that I love Jesus, that I want to follow him, but that I just don't believe God has one unique incarnation.  Either we focus on God being supreme and hence above our human existence, or on God being universal and thus within us all. (Hence my issues with the Trinity, since I kept taking it literally.)  Finally, I took an honest look at my life and thought; how can I say that I love someone that I don't really know?

Now, I know plenty of Christians who would agree with this last point, and stress the importance of a personal relationship with Christ.  I know the drill - read the Bible, pray, and mingle with like-minded individuals in order to reiterate that this Christ I say I have a relationship with is indeed a real person, since my fellow Christians also know him and love him and follow him.  With all due respect, I'm not convinced that simply reading about a person I've never met, and then attuning myself to his spirit is the same as truly knowing someone.  I can know "of" him.  I can say that I like him based on what little I do know about him.  But can I really say that I "love" him in the same way that I love a relative or even a good friend? 

I'm getting side-tracked.  The point I was making is that I paid lip service to wanting to follow Jesus because I love him when in fact I don't know him.  I know of him, and I like what I do know about him.  And I do want to follow his teachings, because the teachings I'm aware of that have been attributed to him really resonate with my inner sense of morality.  But I can't say that I want to follow him "because I love him".  That's not being honest with myself.  I also can't say that he is more to me than a good teacher.  The argument I've heard is that Jesus EITHER is who he (supposedly) said he is, OR he was mentally unstable, OR purposefully deceitful.  Now I see that there is one other option: the information we have about what Jesus actually did say (about himself and everything else) is incomplete and/or has been skewed in the process of being written down.  This last option finally frees me from the guilt reflex and allows me to indeed claim Jesus as my teacher without necessarily buying into Christian orthodoxy.

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