“The quest for inner knowledge is rarely a popular one. It is too far afield of common interests and arouses the suspicion of those who fear and hate anything beyond their own horizons.” —Richard Smoley from Inner Christianity
What do you consider valuable? Is it something limited and precious or unlimited and boundless? Is it a thing that can be counted and sequestered away, hoarded and kept under lock, or not a ‘thing’ at all? What is the value of your spirit? What price would you put on God? Can we somehow lose either or are our essential possessions inseparable from us?
I recently had dinner with a Rabbi friend; we discussed the emerging spirituality1 of our time over beer and pizza, the ultimate Kosher foods. We exist in a very linear time based society; yet, it’s usually moot to connect a ‘time’ to ‘spirituality’. Spirituality isn’t necessarily something that is directly bound to or dependent on time. However, in this case, time is paramount…and may simultaneously still have no bearing. It’s all part of the paradox of our spiritual understandings as we can’t necessarily parse spirituality in a logical manner. I can sit here and dissect the history of spiritual thought and analyse my own; but, in doing so, the life of it is easily lost. However, our personal and societal understanding of spiritual growth and emergence is set in time.
We spoke about various waves of spiritual understanding throughout history—the windows of enlightenment and the drastic measures taken to close them by power-hungry people. The Desert Fathers and the Gnostics were too mystical and directly connected in their understanding of God; they were suppressed by the power of hierarchal thought. The opening of the Reformation gave way to the rationalisation of the Renaissance and the need to codify and explain spirituality.
People (in this and every age) want simplicity; they want a clarified and scripted version of spiritual reality. It removes the need for effort and time. We are in the age of instant everything; there is no surprise that people expect instant faith and spirit. As a side note, one of the criticisms of The Emergent Church and ‘modern’ faith in general is that it does not provide enough structure. Critics say, ‘it’s just a mis-mash of froofy faith with no real foundations.’ I would counter that faith is not at all about structure; religion, yes, but faith is about finding one’s own path to the Divine presence in everyday life. One needs only enough structure to open a space to walk that path. This is part of the reason I feel increasingly drawn to a Quaker consideration of faith.
How much time do we have to reach a common state of spiritual enlightenment before our spirits are irrevocably harmed? I believe we are in a middle state holding something with terrific power; perhaps something far more potent than any weapon we can devise. We have our hands on the red buttons of spirituality and lean upon them with random ignorance. I don’t know that ‘actual’ tangible damage is at hand; but there are strong hints toward this possibility. I think the parallels between weapons of mass destruction and spirituality are valid; both harness potent energies that can be used for some constructive purpose (give me some leeway with nuclear power here) or channelled into the most destructive forms imaginable. I sense right now that energy is building and only hope that it’s harnessed by the opening of our spiritual understanding.
A few weeks ago, I overheard a conversation about the war in Afghanistan (though, of course, it wasn’t really about that; the particular circumstances are only a mask for much deeper issues). The statement this man made was so shocking to me I didn’t know how to respond and missed the moment to acknowledge that I and probably many others think this is distasteful to say the least. He said (in reference to Afghanistan):
I think we should just nuke the place; make it all into a desert. All those people want is war and they’ll keep fighting till the last kid throwing a rock is dead. We are going to keep sending our boys over there…and they are just going to keep getting killed for no good reason. There is nothing there worth anything anyway.
This was said by someone who proports to be a believing Christian and holds a Bible study at his house (maybe he’s been focusing too much on those Old Testament passages where The Children of Israel are given licence to wipe out whole tribes and peoples). Later that evening I thought of what to say: that, obviously, in any war there are people who want nothing of it and are caught in the middle. That the enthusiasm of war isn’t always played out in the quiet rooms of home; parades and propaganda are for the street and that’s what we see on television. That war is not simply a conflict of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ but a continuum of situations that may lead to conflict. We seem to forget that every time we are in disagreement with someone. Also, more to the point, we must find a way to resolve our differences without resorting to violence. Yet we seem to become more polarised and ‘game oriented’ in war (in that someone must ‘win’ and someone must ‘loose’; if we try to stay in Afghanistan till we ‘win’ we probably will have to level the place and wipe it all ‘clean’). I should have said to him, ‘I personally do not agree with what you have said; are you going to kill me now? Does the very fact that I think differently than you give you cause strike me down?’
But this is the place we are in; most of our conflict at every level is over ideas and ideals (as, essentially, it’s always been). It’s just that now we have an opportunity to massively magnify this conflict in both the physical and spiritual realms. We are at a point of emergency; the emergence of a potent force of spirituality and we are both energised and frightened with the possibilities. My concern is that there is an open route here to aim this spiritual energy in a direction that is superbly harmful.
Much of this comes down to a concept of spiritual scarcity; we’re making decisions based on a materialistic view of the spirit. Much of what this man said reflects an understanding of a material god. Every Christmas there is a ‘necessary toy’ that every child must have; however, there are only a limited number of them, so anxious parents queue outside the store in hopes of purchasing one. We’ve given over to the same view of God; God all packaged up in paper and plastic on the shelf. When the doors open, we think we must rush in and pluck off a box of God before they are all gone. We don’t have an expansive and abundant view of God; we hide our concept of God away with jealousy because there is not enough to go around to anyone else and we are willing to use violence to protect our little paper boxes. (Note that ‘we’ here is not just ‘us’. I’m meaning that this is the trend of Fundamentalism and staid religious thought across the board).
We now find ourselves in a place where God is running out and we have the physical and spiritual weapons to ‘protect’ this concept of a scarce God. I suppose my question is how can we (how can I) foster the idea of a shared spirit of abundance before we hit that button that leaves little opportunity to do so afterward?
Of course, I have to consider my own comprehension of an abundant God; I’ve traversed a wide span of understanding here. I think, at one time, I believed God was super-abundant but limited in scope; that there was more than enough ‘God in store’ but that only certain people had access. Now I’m leaning more towards an unlimited abundance—that God is not someone who is contained at all. This is my emerging concept (not that I’m the first one to think it; but the idea is working its way past my logical brain into my spirit and there are sometimes barriers there). My hope is that I can have clarity with my beliefs of God and our interrelations enough that, when I’m in situations such as the one with the ‘nuke the bastards’ man mentioned above, my response is one of peace and wisdom. It’s far too simple to respond with a counter-argument or feed hostility with hostility. I believe what needs to emerge with us all is a spirit of peace when all seems polarised and contrary. If not we will repeat these cycles seen throughout history; but, this time, with amplified results. I pray we can magnify hope and harmony instead.
1 Note that I’m not necessarily referring to The Emergent Church which is a somewhat distinct though associated concept.