Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Cartoon Character of the Self

 We discover truths about the world that we think always true.  We cannot change these truths, though we can use them.  We also discover truths about our self.  These truths we can change; we can use them to change our behavior, so that what was once true about our self is no longer true.

We may think we are a generous person, but upon deeper reflection we may come to see that we are really quite selfish.  We may think that we are spiritually advanced, but then come to see that we are really still very sensual.  This is the realm of personal morality and ethics.  From the recognition of these truths, we may take it upon ourselves to work harder to become more truly generous or more truly spiritual.

We may also, upon recognition of our selfishness or sensuality, recognize that it is of the human condition to be selfish, to be sensual.  These are both personal truths for which we can take responsibility to improve, but also truths about the world that we cannot change.

We may be a little proud that we have discovered these truths about our self; proud that we have taken responsibility to change our self for the better; proud when we in fact find our self to be more generous and spiritual.

We may also recognize that as there is something universal about human selfishness and sensuality, so there is something universal about the human ability to take responsibility and make changes.

What are we to make of the fact that these things we take so personally, our vices and our virtues, are not just personal truths but truths about humanity in general?  Are our vices and virtue really ours if they are also general conditions of humans in the world?  In what sense is the entity that claims possession not itself just part of the general condition – each thinks he possesses? 

If I am what I am because of the general condition of being human, then what am I?  What would I be if everything general was eliminated and only that which is utterly particular to my own being were retained?  Anything?

I y’am what y’am even if I don’t know what I am!  I’ll eat me spinach and shut up.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Religion vs. spirituality

In common usage, the words “religion” and “spirituality” are often used as synonyms.  I would like to suggest that far from being the same, they are in many ways opposites.  A brief listing of differences:
  • Religion tends towards boundaries and limits, in particular that between “us” (the tribe or the group of true believers) and “them”; spirituality breaks through boundaries, in particular the boundary between the self and the divine (God, the Tao, Nature, etc.). Spiritual traditions frequently insist that we are all one.
  • Religion is about correct belief and faithfulness to the group and the religious tradition; spirituality is about direct experience and each person ultimately becoming her or his own master.  (As the priest is to religion, the shaman is to spirituality.)
  • Religion seeks clear boundaries and categories; spirituality is comfortable with the ambiguous.
  • Religion is ancient and virtually universal; spirituality is comparatively recent and far from universal.
  • Religion usually is very concerned with events of the past (the originating myths and covenants), and events of the future (the special destiny of the group); Spirituality is deeply concerned with the present.
Religion and spirituality exist together in “religion,” but the difference between the two often is manifested in contradictory messages.  For instance the spiritual part of Christianity says that “God is love,” “God loves each equally.”  The religious part of Christianity keeps finding groups that God excludes from his love (such as a current focus of exclusion, gays).

Personally, I do not believe that the religious spirit can ever be made compatible with naturalism and I think the term “rational religion” is a genuine oxymoron.  I do believe that spirituality is highly compatible with, even enhanced by an open naturalism, and that while spirituality requires a transcending of reason, reason is the best guide up to the point where spirituality alone can tread.  Dante portrays this idea wonderfully with the figure of Virgil (a personification of reason) serving as his guide as far as the summit of heaven.

In all my postings on this site, this distinction between religion and spirituality is kept.