Last night I met some friends, a rather eclectic group. Among them was a Catholic (call him M) who practiced contemplative prayer and was a strong advocate for mysticism and Eastern Philosophy. Another did some work on the side counseling people on how to overcome their psychological conditioning. Another was a lapsed Catholic. Then then there was a Protestant minister (call him J). Finally, there was yours truly; former Muslim turned Agnostic, who may or may not be Buddhist depending on how you define the term.
The discussion started when M asked the following question: Do we need to remind ourselves that we are human? Immediately upon asking the question, we pointed out that we’d first need to know what a human was. This led to a variety of perspectives, the most fruitful of which was J’s claim that human beings were those who had a divine spark. M then talked about how religious ritual was about “re-conversion”. I then asked if this was the Christian answer to M’s question — that yes, we need to remind ourselves that we were human, and that going to Church was the reminder — the “re-conversion” reminding us of our divine spark. Both J and M agreed that this was a tenable conclusion.
This discussion reminded me of why I feel comfortable with the deeply religious (who treat religion as an inner transformation rather than wish-granting), and why I actually feel I share something in common with them, despite the obvious doctrinal differences between our views. In particular, some broad views we share are: 1) this life is unsatisfactory, 2) there is a means by which we can find greater peace in this world and 3) this means is an inner process rather than an outer one.
Life gives us plenty to dislike. There is crime, privation, illness, people who irritate us, and so on. However, this is the “good news”, for we can always hope to address these issues by playing life’s game better — moving to a better area, working harder, and so on. Less encouraging are the structural flaws in life that present no-win situations, such as the realization that more happiness something can give us, the greater pain we feel from its loss? Or how we crave human companionship, but find people our greatest source of frustration? Life’s unsatisfactory nature seems compatible with the Christian view of the fallen world. One can then (perhaps go out on a limb) and draw parallels on the nature of the fall — what is original sin, what is the tree of knowledge, and how this relates to philosophical views such as how we suffer when we cling to notions of right and wrong.
Then there’s the question of finding greater peace. Although many treat religion as a means of getting worldly goods and therefore do not transcend the world, but chain the divine to it, there are those who seek something greater than this world, this greater thing being their wellspring of joy. For instance, take those who find bliss in contemplating the divine or who even pray to the divine not for goods, but for inner gifts like peace, peace, wisdom and perspective. These are the ones with whom I feel a kinship.
As for the inner work, if one believes that by transforming ourselves we can transform our experience of the world, then there’s an interesting correspondence. For many, ego is a huge perceptual filter, a distorter, and a barrier to experiencing God. As some say, to the extent that self is there, God isn’t. Embracing humility and letting go of pride (if we generously define them to be more than the extreme cases many claim they are), we come to some fascinating parallels.
In fact, at one point, M and J asked a question: why was Moses prevented from seeing the promised land? They agreed that it was due to Moses’ sin in bringing water from the rocks in the desert. Yet what was the nature of this sin? M said it was egotism — Moses basically wanted credit for this miracle (presumably by doing it his way). What’s interesting in this interpretation (and interpretations vary) is how it can be seen as a statement of our condition. What does it mean to take credit for something? It means saying that “I” am the sole (or most important) entity responsible for it. To see what’s wrong with this view, let’s compare this to a rock falling off a ledge. Do we credit the rock for falling, or do we cite all the causes that made it fall — a weak ledge, wind, precarious balancing? Why then do we not do the same for us — crediting our upbringing, the very fact that we’re in the world (we had nothing to do with that), the books and people we encountered, and so on? To pretend I’m the sole cause is to claim that I’m independent of the universe, that I somehow can stay untouched by it all and freely choose what to do. This is one view of the independent self, and ultimately humility can be seen as a rejection of it.
To the extent that this self is strong, our pain is strong, and one of the greatest acts of wisdom is the recognition that it’s this sense of self that’s the cause of our pain, rather than the things that happen to us.
Now, not all religious people would go this far, but those who take faith as a transformative process would agree in kind, if not in degree (although some may even agree in degree). In fact, for some, religious scriptures are (perhaps among other things) a “map of the soul”, a metaphorical (and perhaps literal) description of our inner challenges, the mental/spiritual stages we pass through as we journey through the wilderness of life.
This is why I feel comfortable around people with a deep inner faith. While we may not agree with the metaphysics of reality, we share a deep recognition of the flawed nature of life, a longing for something better, and a belief that this something better comes about not by playing the same rigged game of the world, but by the self-transformation that can transcend it. This is why I — an agnostic — can read “The Imitation of Christ”, Ecclesiastes, The Beatitudes, or passages from St. Thomas and find inspiration in them without sharing their metaphysical views.