Monday, February 24, 2020

Spiritual Independence

I have discovered recently that the underlying reason for my codependence is anxiety.  The way I came to that was by recognizing my overdependence on external validation and seeking approval of others.  The reason for this, as it turns out, is my lack of trusting myself.  And the result has been living from a place of ongoing anxiety.  The anecdote is confidence.  So I am slowly working on building my confidence in various areas of my life. 

Once I recognized the weak boundaries I have with certain individuals in my life, at one point it dawned on me that I likewise have weak boundaries with the Catholic Church.  I seek the approval of Church figures, I don't trust my own conscience, and I operate from a place of anxiety.  This led to a spiritual quest that took me on a mission of finding a place of worship where I already agree with the people there so that I don't have to face disapproval!  It did finally occur to me that no such place exists, and that what I actually need is to work on embracing the potential conflict that may arise if and when I speak my mind.

An interesting but sad thing happened as I allowed myself the freedom to think for myself.  You see, that's the problem with codependence, boundary violations, external validation - you let someone or something outside of yourself tell you who you are, what to think, and how to feel about any given thing.  I grew up with this sort of dysfunction in my family of origin, but it was once I realized it bled over into my faith life that the rubber hit the road.  I realized that I didn't understand the very word "conscience" itself, supposedly something the Catechism of the Catholic Church claims is of paramount importance even above and beyond church teaching.  Because the RCC teaches that a conscience ought to be "formed" by thorough study of what the Church teaches and why.  Basically, if I didn't agree with something the Church taught, my conscience "wasn't formed" well enough.  Come again?!  So only people who agreed with the Church had a fully working conscience?  This of course is ludicrous.  The very definition of conscience implies that no one outside of oneself can affect it. 

Once I allowed myself to listen to my own conscience, without fear of judgment from "Catholic authorities", I started to ask questions that I never dared ask before.  The trajectory of my unraveling faith was as follows.

1. Even before I started down this road, I believed in universal "salvation" (though I use that term loosely, for I don't believe in original sin nor the idea that God "needed" the atoning death of Jesus in order to let me back into His good graces in the afterlife).  What this meant was that I didn't believe my religion was the one true religion.  Perhaps, at my most serious in the faith, I thought we were "the closest", but certainly still missing bits and pieces of information.

2. I started to object to certain teachings of the Church that went against my inner sense of justice.  Namely, I disagree with the Church's stance on LGBTQ rights.  I disagree with the excessive fixation on sexual ethics to the near exclusion of all other transgressions.  I disagree that God would make some people attracted to the same sex and then impose lifelong celibacy on them.  Celibacy ought to be something entered into willingly, after discernment, and given there is the other valid option of a lifelong committed relationship (namely, marriage) held out as an alternative.  In other words, I couldn't get on board with the Church's anti-gay marriage rhetoric and the various discriminatory practices by Catholic institutions done in the name of "religious freedom".

3. Once I loosened the control the Church had on my conscience, I started exploring various religions, which I've done previously.  But this time, I started to notice something.  Each group seemed to be using certain critiques to discount the teachings of other groups, without applying the same critiques to themselves.  This became most noticeable when I was watching a popular Orthodox Rabbi on YouTube.  He was of course critiquing Christianity as a whole, but he said - how can mainstream Christians reject the idea of Mormons or Muslims reinterpreting Christian Scriptures and claiming additional revelations and prophets, yet they accept their own changes and reinterpretations of the original Hebrew Scriptures?  I knew he was right.  And then I added... and what is so uniquely sacred about the Hebrew Scriptures that makes them sacred beyond questioning?  If we don't believe in the more recent prophets' revelations, why should we believe in more ancient prophets' revelations?  Why can't God simply reveal Himself to each of us directly, based on our receptivity?  And so, I realized I could not follow any religion based on the supposed limited "special" revelation of supposed prophets.  The prophets of the world, or at least their followers and the interpretations of their revelations, don't agree.  Hence, we have as many different religions as we do today.  Some, like the Bahai, claim that all prophets are saying the same message, yet this has not at all been a universal understanding of religious prophecy.  The most recent prophet is always thought to be the more relevant one.

4. Once I left revealed religion behind, I automatically had to put down written Scriptures.  The Bible was no longer a source of authority for me.  A modern group of influential leaders could gather the inspired writings of more recent spiritual gurus, like Deepak Chopra, let's say, and declare these to be the Modern Testament, Scriptures that supersede all the others.

5. Without Scriptures or organized religion of any kind dictating the boundaries of where my thoughts could wonder, I began to look at how other faiths envision Ultimate Reality.  I started to question the nature of God as He is presented in the Bible and in Christianity.  I realized that this God, indeed was made in the image of man - with human weaknesses of character that led him to be full of wrath, fickle, power-hungry, jealous, violent, and then to smooth things over, merciful and forgiving.  It sounded like a control freak show, honestly.  You never knew "which" god you would get.  Mainstream Christians would tell gay people that their active engagement in homosexuality would invoke the wrath of God, but their own tendencies to lie, cheat, even kill - well, God was all loving and all forgiving then.  It was utter nonsense.  I couldn't believe in "this" god any longer.  I realized that this god was simply too small.

6. I was ok with God being less personal, more mysterious.  After all, technically that is what Christians already believe about God, yet they continue to try to make sense of Him with various attempts at domesticating Him.  If it's not the Trinity, then it's calling Him Our Father.  We are never forced to just accept the fact that God -whatever and whoever God is - is simply beyond our understanding.  We ought to just be grateful God created us, and do our best to live a life of purpose and charity, so that we can better know God in the afterlife.

7. Ah, the afterlife.  I started to wonder about what sort of an afterlife we might have, since I didn't have to parrot back "bodily resurrection" or "heaven and hell".   I was never particularly attached to the idea of having a physical body in the afterlife.  I was more or less thinking that our soul was what lived on.  I just didn't know the details.  As I pondered what the soul might be, I thought of consciousness.  Because it did me no good to think that we simply got reabsorbed into the Universal Force after death, and that the way we "lived forever" was in terms of the energy we left behind or our molecular restructuring or mere memories of those still living.  The kind of afterlife I always imagined was one where I was aware of myself.  Very anti-Buddhist.  I wanted to keep the Ego.

8. So I looked into what consciousness really was.  I watched a certain video by an atheist that explained the biological functions of consciousness, how certain parts of the brain are involved in our ability to be conscious of ourselves, and then it dawned on me - the implication is that once the body dies, so does the consciousness.  There goes my afterlife.  And this created a bit of a panic on my existential journey.  For better or worse, I am not prepared to abandon the idea of immortality.  I know it may sound cliche, and to some even naive.  But if I have to go through the rest of my life believing that when I die, that is the literal end of me and I will never again see any of my loved one, not the ones who went before me and not the ones I'm leaving behind?  Well, I'm sorry but I simply cannot imagine going through life with that world-view.

9. Thank God ( ;) ) I remembered an old argument by religionists against the secular materialistic scientific world-view.  Science as we know it today is actually rather new in the history of humanity.  It has definitively answered lots of questions that previously religions merely had theories about.  Yet I realized I was finding myself being swayed - yet again - by an outside source.  I was allowing the "scientific community" to tell me who I am, what to think, and how to feel.  So I shook off the depression and despair long enough to think this through.

In a way, science can be compared to religions in that it provides an alternate world-view.  Just like religions, it makes certain assumptions.  It holds certain values in higher esteem than others.  It has well-respected "prophets" and "authoritative writings".  Most markedly, it has set up a system of checking for evidence of theories within the material world, and rejects out of hand anything that doesn't exactly fit into its scientific method.  Sound familiar?  Religions likewise draw certain boundaries and just don't venture past them for fear of being proven wrong.

What's more, by definition science deals with the material world.  How, then, can science possibly answer any questions about the existence or nonexistence of a spiritual realm, when it is simply not equipped to measure frequencies beyond the physical?  It is easy to say that if we can't measure it, it doesn't exist.  But it is not very honest to do so.

10. And so where I find myself is here:  I do not know what the nature of God is, nor what exactly awaits us in the afterlife.  However, I have had enough spiritual experiences to tell me that there must be something worthy of mention there. That science has no more ultimate truth than does religion.  One thing I think science does a much better job of than does religion is to focus on the improvement of our world, here and now.  Religion often prioritizes the afterlife over the here and now to the point of ignoring the legitimate needs of our planet and certain marginalized people.  Religions tend to cater to the poor, though not universally and often with limitations, not to mention failing to see how minority group membership status affects poverty.  Yet for all the bad things that religion has done and sadly continues to do, there are also things that religion is doing better than science, providing hope, meaning, purpose, comfort, as well as high standard for character formation.  We need both.  Perhaps in a few hundred years, there will be talk of ecumenical discussions between the scientific community and the religious community (singular), like there is today within religions.  Religions need to band together and focus on what they as a whole bring to the table, because if they continue to bicker among themselves, greedy to win maximum adherents, people will simply trickle out and get lost in the sea of science, living for today, but with no hope for tomorrow.

I know some people don't need the affirmation of God or an afterlife to feel fulfilled.  There are also people who don't seem bothered by their religion going against what science has already established as fact.  We need to accept that different people need different things to lead a happy life.  We need to find a way for science and religion to talk to each other, not over each other.  But that's for another day.  For now, suffice it to say that I am holding on to that last shred of spirituality that was nearly extinguished by my newfound freedom of thought.  And that I need to focus my attention on reframing my own religious tradition in a way that I will find meaningful, a way that I can teach to my children while maintaining integrity.

If indeed I need a label for this new spiritual adventure, perhaps Spiritual and Religious is the best available term.  Not specific to any one religion, but rather valuing different aspects of several different religions.  Yet spiritual first and foremost, pursuing an individual and unique spiritual practice, building fellowship in unusual places, and only supplementing and falling back on religion as a way of being grounded in something that - while I don't believe in it literally - has stood the test of time and certainly holds certain valuable truths about the human condition.

Alternately, I certainly am "Spiritually Independent", and so perhaps this term is even more appropriate, since I am in need of labels ;)

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