This book is a Get Out of Jail Free card and a passport back into the playground.

The aim of this book is to set you free. But free from what? Free from neurosis. Free from the feeling that you have to obey authority. Free from emotional intimidation. Free from addiction. Free from inhibition.

The key to happiness, mental health and being the most that we can be is absolute and unconditional self-acceptance. The paradox is that many of our problems are caused by trying to improve ourselves, censor our thinking, make up for past misdeeds and struggling with our negative feelings whether of depression or aggression.

But if we consider ourselves in our entirety in this very moment, we know these things :

1. Anything we have done is in the past and cannot be changed, thus it is pointless to do anything else but accept it. No regrets or guilt.

2. While our actions can harm others, our thoughts and emotions, in and of themselves, never can. So we should accept them and allow them to be and go where they will. While emotions sometimes drive actions, those who completely accept their emotions and allow themselves to feel them fully, have more choice over how they act in the light of them.

Self-criticism never made anyone a better person. Anyone who does a “good deed” under pressure from their conscience or to gain the approval of others takes out the frustration involved in some other way. The basis for loving behaviour towards others is the ability to love ourselves. And loving ourselves unconditionally, means loving ourselves exactly as we are at this moment.

This might seem to be complacency, but in fact the natural activity of the individual is healthy growth, and what holds us back from it is fighting with those things we can’t change and the free thought and emotional experience which is the very substance of that growth.

How to Be Free is available as a free ebook from Smashwords, iBooks in some countries, Kobo and Barnes & Noble

It is also available in paperback from Lulu or Amazon for $10 US, plus postage.

The ebook version currently has received 593 ***** out of ***** ratings on U.S. iBooks.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

BOOK REVIEW : Make Christianity Great Again by Leroy Grey

I received a free review copy of this ebook because the author read a review I wrote of Jesus, Interrupted : Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible & Why We Don’t Know about Them by Bart D. Ehrman. Ehrman is a respected Biblical scholar and one need not be a believer in order to find his book interesting. In fact Ehrman was no longer a believer when he wrote it. Leroy Grey’s book, on the other hand, exists very much within the born again Christian paradigm. I am not a Christian and never have been. My life philosophy has been heavily influenced by concepts expressed by Jesus as recorded in the gospels, but I don’t believe in the supernatural and see those words, and many of the stories which have come to surround the figure of Jesus, as a poetic expression of existential psychological principles.

I see three distinct problems with the title of this book :

1. The link to a political slogan cheapens the subject matter. (The link to Donald Trump is conscious, as is indicated by the book’s description on Amazon : “…just as President Trump has called all loyal, patriotic Americans to Make America Great Again…” Political slogans are propaganda, regardless of which party or candidate they are used to drum up support for. They are an attempt to bypass critical assessment by a crude appeal to emotions. If the aim of this book is to encourage critical assessment of the mainstream churches’ interpretation of the Christian message, then it hardly seems appropriate to associate it with a form of discourse aimed at bypassing such thought. 

2. When was Christianity great? If, as Grey claims, the mainstream churches are not founded on a true assessment of Christ’s teachings, then clearly he is not claiming the power and popularity of those churches as Christianity’s greatness. Was Christianity great in the very beginning when it had only a small number of followers? Maybe, but smallness and lack of immediate influence is not what we usually define as greatness. Wouldn’t a more appropriate title be something like Restoring Truth to Christianity?

3. The title is liable to leave mainstream Christians feeling like they have been the victim of a bait-and-switch. Since the popular conception of Christianity is associated with the mainstream churches, believers in those churches are liable to assume that this is a book about making what they believe in “great again”. But then when they read the book, they may feel that it is about trying to destroy Christianity as they know it.

In placing an emphasis on personal experience of God through meditation, Grey takes a position similar to that of the gnostics. He presents this as an alternative to the fragmentation of Christendom into thousands of seperate denominations. Maybe. There are others who recommend personal experience of God through the ingestion of psychedelics as a way to bring us together. (Leroy isn’t advocating the use of such substances, but he did use them before becoming a born-again Christian.) Such dreams of social divisions healed are yet to prove themselves, but I’m always curious to see what comes of them. If something works for people, more power to them.

Grey places a lot of emphasis on a religious experience he had in which he was “taken to Heaven alive”, saw a bank of angels and received a mission to foster community and help others to experience such communion with God. Such experiences are not so uncommon apparently. There seems to be a potential for them built into the human brain. Once again, the use of psychedelics has been known to facility this phenomena, though this was apparently not the case with Grey at that time. Of course, the fact that someone experiences something like this does not mean that what appears to be happening conforms to any external reality. I don’t know how we could prove that it doesn’t, but it is perfectly reasonable to interpret it as the equivalent of a very vivid dream. That life-changing insights might arise from such an experience makes sense when we consider the fear-based conservatism characteristic of much of our thinking. We tend to settle into habits of thought and belief which protect us from uncertainty. Genuinely original, out-of-the-box, thinking might confront us with some horrific truth about ourselves which we find unbearable. We might discover that everything we ever “knew” about ourselves was wrong. But a spiritual experience like that described by Grey can temporarily eliminate that box we have such trouble thinking outside of. For some people, the catalyst is a near-death experience. If you fall off a cliff and you know you are going to die, then there isn’t much point keeping up the habits of mental self-protection. By the time you miraculously land safely in a soft bush, you’ve already seen the bright light of a reality unfiltered by conceptual thought, and the ordinary has revealed itself as magical by comparison to that deadening day-to-day dogmatism. And the answers to the big questions of our life may be quite obvious with those barriers removed.

What response are readers likely to have to this account? We don’t have any evidence that it actually happened, certainly none that some celestial being is the true source of the message expressed in Grey’s book. This could be seen as an unfounded claim to authority. It’s like when Neale Donald Walsch wrote Conversations with God. Conversations with My Deeper Self just doesn’t have the same ring to it, but it can be so much easier for writers to claim to be taking the Archangel Gabriel’s dictation than to stand or fail on the quality of the ideas they are expressing. The only real authority is truth. If I tell you that 2 + 2 = 4, my voice carries authority because I can demonstrate the truth of what I say with four bottle caps. Spiritual insight is not quite as clear cut as that, but the general principal still applies. Spiritual wisdom, like a valid scientific theory, turns mystery into something comprehensible. Our ability to see some important aspect of reality of which we were previously blind is the evidence which gives the wisdom its authority. Don’t tell me about the day God spoke to you. Don’t tell me about how many years you’ve meditated. That’s important to you, but it carries no weight with me. Tell me something that causes the scales to fall from my eyes and nothing else matters.

Grey believes that the doctrine of the Trinity is a lie. His argument seems to rest on the idea that the oneness between God and Jesus expressed in the Trinity concept is exclusive and thus a denial of our ability to be one with God too. Maybe it is my ignorance of traditional church doctrine on the Trinity, but I can’t see why the idea that God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit are different manifestations of a single entity precludes our ability to also achieve oneness with them. “Our oneness with God and Jesus Christ is a oneness with their Perspective, their Purposes and their personality, infusing us with more love, more peace, more forgiveness, more patience, more of all the fruits of the Spirit. And all this leads to greater unity between brothers and sisters in Christ.” This seems very reasonable, and I do realise that fighting over interpretations of the Trinity is one of the things which has divided the church, but I can’t see any reason why the two ideas are necessarily in conflict. Let’s say God is love. Jesus was a man who lived love to the full, thus he was a manifestation of love in human form. The holy spirit is love in us, which brings us together just as Grey describes. The three are different, but the same in that they are all love. Is this not how the concept of the Trinity is supposed to work? Again, maybe I’m just ignorant of doctrine, but it all just seems like arguing over semantics.

Grey claims that God wants Christians to seperate from the world and form specifically Christian communities. This is how he interprets II Corinthians 6:17 : “Come out from among them and be seperate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you.” But then he says that this was the example set by Jesus when he and his followers went on the road rather than being fixtures in society, but surely what they did was the opposite of Paul’s advice. They went out and mixed with the unbelievers and they touched the unclean. How else could they bring salvation to those who most needed it?

I have nothing personally against born again Christians forming their own communities. I often tend to find such people a little bit creepy, so if they want to keep to themselves, that’s fine. But I think it is important to recognise the risks of it turning into something unhealthy as we have seen in many self-isolating religious cults. Ideology has a way of interfering with honest communication, and honest communication, i.e. love, is the soul of community. We can see this problem arising from “politically correct” political philosophies which motivate the repression of all that is not accepted by them. Is this not also a danger with religious ideology? What if Grey has a fixed idea of what God wants and others feel differently but keep their feelings to themselves for fear of disrupting the harmony of the group? Without ideology all that is needed is for people to express themselves honestly, because there is no right belief or right way to feel.

If one is insecure in self and particularly insecure in one’s own belief system, then it makes sense one might feel more comfortable with the reinforcement of being surrounded by like-minded people. For me the goal is individuation - bringing all aspects of my self together into a harmonious and secure integrated whole. Mixing with people who think and behave differently from myself is important toward that goal, because the friction that arises as a result is how I become more aware of those aspects of myself I have yet to own and make peace with.

Grey claims the churches have rejected Christ’s command to “not be called teachers” (Matthew 23:10). I think the point he is trying to make here is that the Holy Spirit is the teacher and it is not the role of ministers or priests to teach so much as to help the individual to open up to instruction from their own inner manifestation of the Holy Spirit. This is a little bit like what I have said above about authority. That which illuminates has its own authority and it is important for us to avoid getting an inflated sense of our own importance while serving the interests of that authority and those who can benefit from knowledge of it.

Grey’s advocacy of meditation makes sense. It plays an important role in many religions. The benefits of stilling the mind and opening up to inner guidance are well established. I never had the discipline for it myself. I just get bored and give up. But clearly it works for others.

However, as with Grey’s story about going to heaven, he can’t expect his personal experience of God’s voice during meditation to carry any weight with others unless what he claims God told him makes sense to them. An account of an experience others did not share does not carry intrinsic authority. But, if God really does have a message for us which we can hear when we meditate, then perhaps it is possible for others to test it out and experience it for themselves. What I like about this approach is that it undercuts human authority structures. If one believes in the kind of God Grey believes in, then the authority comes in there, but it cuts out the middle man. It should be the role of a teacher to make themselves unnecessary. If Grey’s meditation method gives people a hot line to the big man, then they will no longer have any need for him, his books or his webinars. This should be the deepest wish of any teacher, that their students will grow up and leave them behind.

Grey argues a lot against the interpretation that Jesus was God. I’m sympathetic to this, because, to me, Jesus was just a very wise and psychologically healthy man. I don’t believe there was anything supernatural about him at all. But it seems as if Grey downplays the scriptural “evidence” for the argument that Jesus was God. He doesn’t mention two key passages in the Gospel of John  : “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John 1:1 and “The Word became flesh and lived for a while among us.” John 1:14. Is it not understandable that if Word = God and Word Made Flesh = Jesus, then Jesus = God Made Flesh? Personally, I don’t take it literally but see it as a way of acknowledging the archetypal connections between Jesus the man and God the theological concept. I’m not a Christian though. If Grey is going to persuade dyed-in-the wool believers in the Trinity, it seems like it would be a good idea to tackle this early passage in John head on.

There seems to be a weird disconnect in Grey’s approach. He is claiming that the Christian church betrayed Jesus’ true message, and yet he often quotes from Paul’s letters as if they were an authentic account of how Christianity should be, even while pointing out that Paul was someone who was distorting Jesus’ message. This is particularly weird in a passage in which he claims that one of the foundations of Jesus’ message was “All Priests Equal Before God”. “There are to be no cultural or ethnic walls, no slavery, and no greater distinction given to male or female members of ‘Christ’s body, which is the Church.’ (Colossians 1:24) For ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28). Again, compare this to Paul’s and most of Christianity’s position, in which women are not allowed to preach.” Paul wrote the letter to the Colossians and the letter to the Galatians, but Grey doesn’t acknowledge here that he is quoting Paul against Paul. (Later he tries to reconcile this inconsistency by saying that he views some of Paul’s statements as authentic expressions from God and others as Anti-Christian errors.) Surely the consistent position, if Paul corrupted Jesus’ message, would be to disqualify Paul as a source for true Christianity. Why does Grey not confine himself only to words actually attributed to Jesus himself? Perhaps because he needs to quote Paul to back up his own “God given?” prejudices in favour of Christian community which might not be sufficiently supported by quotes from Jesus.

Grey quotes 2 Chronicles 7:14 : “If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” He interprets “and seek my face” as a call to direct contact with God through meditation. This seems reasonable, but, from my own pantheistic perspective, I see “God” as an integrative, in the social realm - loving, principle within the natural processes of the universe, so I think to “seek the face of God” can be a call to look outward and perceive the integrative principals through which all creation comes into existence, just as much as it may be a call to look inward to find and be motivated by that principle within ourselves. Surely this is a necessary insurance against solipsistic wishful thinking. Haven’t we all seen too many out-of-control self-proclaimed “prophets” who looked only within themselves for guidance?

In defending his idea that we should seek God’s direct word through meditation, Grey says : “First, I must point out that Jesus says we must hear God’s Word. Not once does Jesus say we are to read the word of God - always we are to hear it.” Of course. He was speaking to people who were illiterate. And the word of God he was communicating was the new edition, most of it not having been communicated in the books of the Old Testament.

There is a key passage from which Grey quotes which is worth examining in its full context. Jesus has been accused of driving out demons by the power of Beelzebul : “Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house. Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. And so I tell you, every kind of sin or slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognised by its fruit.’” Grey places great emphasis on the line “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters”, taking it out of context as support for his belief that Christians should gather together in separate communities. But Jesus is talking against that which divides. My own interpretation of this passage is that it is that “the Holy Spirit” is a way of referring to truth. That which is factually true is the essence, or spirit, of any whole (the words “holy” and “whole” come from the same root, so “holy” refers to wholeness or integrity). It is that which gives it its integrity. Lies divide us, because everyone can have their own lie, but the truth is the objective ground on which we can all come together. It is that on which we may agree, and, in agreeing, be one. So I think the bit about gathering is not a reference to geographical proximity, but a call to serve the cause of truthfulness, such that we can find common ground. No sin can fracture society and blight people’s lives like a lie can. Even when something as horrific as child sexual abuse occurs, the largest part of the psychological damage which results comes from the fact that the child’s experience is generally isolated within a network of lies which prevent the healing process.

For me, “God” is a mythological way of referring to integrity. All of life comes about because of the meaningful integration of matter. And our “soul” is our integrity, the coherence of all aspects of our being into a functional whole. What is described as being “born again” seems to me a sham - the adoption of an artificial state of discipline in which the new self is split off from the old “sinful” self. This seems to me to be the loss of the soul. There may be “spiritual” feelings, but they are dissociated, not the natural fleshy experiences of the healthy child. The more neurotic we are, the less emotionally healthy we are, the more alienated we are from integrity and thus the more likely it is to seem like something otherworldly and magical. A newborn is not disciplined, split off from - or at war with - its biological urges (“that sinful flesh”). If Jesus’ advice that we must be “born again” can mean anything to me it is that we can return to the playful and loving naturalness of the child by practicing unconditional self-acceptance. Idealism is the root of all evil, and the source of religion’s dark side. To look at ourselves and the world from an idealistic perspective - one which feels it should be looking at something of “God-like purity” - is to poison our relationship to ourselves and the world. The worst evils we humans commit - such as the deliberate infliction of suffering on the innocent and defenceless - is something we are driven to by the oppression of idealistic expectations which undermine our self-acceptance and kill our ability to feel love. What is most important is not high morals or “spirituality”, but honesty.

I’ve been very critical here, but I have to say that there is much in this book which I can sympathise with. Christianity as a religion is a travesty of the teachings we find in the gospels. The mainstream church’s brutal persecution of those who didn’t accept their dogma has been horrendous. The meditative approach to Jesus’s words which Grey proposes, and which was practiced in the past by many individuals as well as gnostic sects, is the only sensible approach for anyone who wants to use Jesus’ words as a pathway to some kind of enlightenment.

I would recommend this book to Christians who want to have their worldview challenged. (As a non-Christian, I’m not really in the target audience. I found it interesting and stimulating because I have a fascination with the psychology of religion as well as my own eccentric interpretation of the gospel message.) But I would suggest that they keep their critical faculties sharp. Just because someone is accurate in their criticism of others, doesn’t mean that they may not also be profoundly mistaken in their own cherished beliefs. And a lot of people who claimed God spoke to them have proven untrustworthy, sometimes dangerously so.

Friday, 15 September 2017

The Psychological Function of Hell

Devils and seducers-Picture is from the Vision of hell by Dante Alighieri, popular edition, published in 1892, London-England. Illustration by Gustave Dore
Copyright: sebastiana2012 / 123RF Stock Photo

It can be useful to compare belief systems to home appliances and our mind to an electrical socket. As long as an appliance has a plug which will fit in the wall-socket it can draw power, regardless of whether it is an appliance which is in good running order and does something useful or a faulty appliance which shoots out sparks which cause the house to catch on fire and burn down. We will often come to believe something which conforms to some psychological need, regardless of whether it functions well to meet that need over the long term. It may be a false satisfier. When this is the case, trying to argue against the belief based on evidence can be futile. What is needed is less to understand the belief system as to understand the nature of the need which causes us to be attached to it. We want to understand the nature of the socket if we are going to find a better appliance to plug into it.

Reading religious texts has led me to contemplate the concept of Hell. Some texts spend a lot of time talking about who will go to Hell and graphically describing it’s torments.

Jordan Peterson, in his series of lectures on the psychological significance of the Bible stories, argues that religion has to be more than “the opiate of the masses,” because, if you just wanted something to make you feel good, you wouldn’t have the concept of Hell. 

There are strengths and weaknesses to this argument. Some see religion as a tool for controlling “the masses.” In this context perhaps the opium comparison fits. A drug dealer has the addict wrapped around his little finger. How? Because if the addict doesn’t get his dose, he suffers withdrawal symptoms. His heaven becomes a hell. Either way, it works as a pacifier. The addict is either too wasted or too sick to stand up for himself.

However, I agree with Peterson that religion is too complex and meaningful a phenomena to be dismissed in this way.

I agree with him that we can look on the concepts of Heaven and Hell as representing states of being in the world. If we go down the wrong path our life can certainly become a hell. Take a happily married man with children. One day he is tempted to have an affair. From that point on his life becomes dominated by the fear of being found out. When he is, his family breaks up and he sees his children growing bitter. He knows that his simple mistake may have negative consequences into future generations, when he had hoped he would be the rock on which his children would get their best start in life. That’s a common form of hell. For someone else it might be ending up in jail.

I experienced my own hell while in hospital for a breakdown - a time when my mental suffering was so great I begged for death. The mistakes I made that took me to that point were mistakes in thinking. It wasn’t a departure from moral behaviour, as far as I’m aware. And my aim in my writing has been to try to help others to avoid ending up where I did.

Peterson’s focus has been on how the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps and Soviet Gulags occurred. What is it in us that makes us capable of turning our world into Hell? From this perspective, the religious texts make some sense. If such events occur because of the collective effect of individuals abandoning moral responsibility and honesty in their own lives, then it is not beyond the bounds of probability that we could make real the horrors of the Book of Revelations. We really could all go to Hell.

The problem is that the idea of Hell, as it occurs in religion, is often not functional. Sure there are real hells and potential hells, but does the concept that we might have our flesh burned off endlessly for eternity inspire in us the kind of behaviour which will prevent us from bringing them upon us?

If we take this idea literally, what kind of cosmic order does it speak of? If we lived in a state where order was maintained by the threat of torture, we would rightly consider it the most oppressive of dictatorships. And in such a state, it would be hard to achieve anything positive. Living in permanent fear doesn’t bring the best out of people. Imagine if someone pointed a gun at your head and told you to assemble a piece of Ikea furniture, telling you that if you didn’t have it successfully assembled in half an hour they would blow your brains out.

And belief in Hell is not a defence against becoming a participant in the kinds of atrocities seen in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. People who professed a belief in Hell have been known to burn people alive or crucify them. Hell could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So how might this idea have developed and what is the need which it satisfies, albeit in a pathological way?

First, lets look at another psychological phenomena which fits a similar pattern - the mental illness known as obsessive compulsive disorder. This is an anxiety disorder in which a link forms between an anxiety and a ritual. A person may be obsessed about the possibility of catching a deadly disease and feel that, in order to protect themselves, they have to keep washing their hands with fresh bars of soap, perhaps unwrapping and disposing of the paper wrapper around the soap while wearing rubber gloves. Or someone may feel that, if they don’t line all of the books on their bookshelves exactly straight, one of their children will die. This is a form of what David A. Kessler, M.D. calls “capture”. [Capture : Unravelling the Mystery of Mental Suffering, 2016]. The mind has a tendency to come back to anxious thoughts - in a field of neutral information, such thoughts have a charge of significance - and so the neural pathways to those thoughts become more well-developed. If there is something which soothes that anxiety then the mind will get into the habit of associating the anxiety to that which soothes it, and so what starts as the equivalent of a dirt track becomes a superhighway circling endless around between the anxiety and the soothing ritual. This individual condition gives an idea of the socket into which the religious belief appliance can be plugged.

If we want to see how the religious conception of Hell originated we need to go back to another religious story, that of Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This is a symbolic way of acknowledging the birth of idealism. Idealism, in this context, means the idea that we should set a standard for our behaviour and try to maintain that standard through self-discipline and group discipline. This is the beginning of criticism. This is fine except that it gradually leads to an undermining of self-acceptance. Thus we come to resent some of the criticism. Eventually it lead to feelings of guilt, which turned our attention back towards ourselves making us more selfish and ego-embattled. It generates anger. So the story of humanity can be understood as a conflict between idealism and the wounded ego. This expresses itself as a battle between discipline and defiance, which at base is defiance of criticism.

For society to hold together we need to maintain discipline. This is what we mean by civilisation - it is our defiance we are attempting to civilise. But self-acceptance is always being eroded and the defiant impulse becomes increasingly strong.

We know that we need to restrain our defiance of moral principles so that the society on which we all depend can be maintained, but the more the pressure builds the harder that is.

I think this is where a concept such as Hell may have become perversely attractive. Normally we would think that beliefs motivate behaviour, but I think that, sometimes, behaviour can motivate a belief. You know that maintaining your discipline is important. You don’t want to suffer the individual consequences of misbehaviour. And you recognise that society is dependent on such discipline. But that is a rational motive, and what you are trying to restrain are some pretty powerful emotions or drives. Now what if someone told you that people who broke the law would suffer after they died? You might actually welcome that idea, because it might be just what you need to motivate you to maintain your discipline.

Unfortunately, this is liable to be a negative feedback loop. It helps to motivate restraint, but it doesn’t solve the problem of the erosion of self-acceptance which is driving the defiance which needs to be restrained. Thus, in order to be effective, the stories about how terrible Hell is have to get worse. And the worse they get, the more we are captured by them. And, of course, as with the person with obsessive compulsive disorder, reassuring rituals become locked in by this capture.

When we see people who place a high importance on the threat of brimstone and hellfire we can see that they are people who are having a hard battle restraining their appetites, or they are people who are cynically manipulating such people.

If we learn to cultivate unconditional self-acceptance we can heal the spirit of defiance at its source, live according to the necessary moral principles without internal struggle and discover our spiritual relationship to the universe and our fellows. Thus can we leave Hell behind us and know Heaven.

Copyright: stevanovicigor / 123RF Stock Photo

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

BOOK REVIEW : Holy Bible : New International Edition, 1978.

How does the Bible come to take up a central position in the life of someone who doesn’t believe in the supernatural?

It began in my adolescence. Someone gave me a pocket-sized copy of the New Testament, and, out of curiosity, I read The Gospel According to Matthew. It had a profound effect on me. I don’t remember the details of my response at that time. What stays with me was that the line “…I will make you fishers of men” brought tears to my eyes.

I had a very troubled adolescence, the beginnings of a tendency toward depression and anxiety which would plague me up until my mid-forties. I felt both ashamed and afraid of the strength of my sexual desires, desires I lacked the confidence to act on anyway. I developed obsessional thoughts. I was afraid I might gouge out my own eyes or that I might kill a baby.

I wondered what life was all about. I wondered why, if what we most want is to love and be loved, we don’t all just love each other. Why do we pursue things like wealth or fame or power, which are such poor substitutes for love? But then my own capacity to love was eaten up by my fear and guilt.

The gospel of Matthew dropped into this context. Did the thoughts about gouging out my eyes come before I read “…if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away…”, or after? Before, I think, but it wasn’t a conscious part of the obsession.

There was something in this gospel which attracted me, but there was something which stuck into my flesh like a thorn. If the truth hurts, does that mean that what hurts is necessarily true?

I was afraid of my sexual desires. Into that context comes the line “…anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart…” But why would it matter to me that I was committing adultery in my heart? I wasn’t married and anyway I was agnostic about the existence of this God who disapproved of adultery.

I desperately wanted to be reassured that I was O.K. Here was a book telling me I was a sinner. But it was telling me this within the context of a poetically expressed vision of redemption.

Somehow I would need to learn how to resolve my inner conflicts, depressions and anxieties. Whether what I had read in that book would end up helping me with that was an open question.

My parents were Quakers. I was taken to the Quaker meeting house a few times and attended Sunday school there, and some form of religious education was a part of primary school in my time. I don’t remember much of that. It didn’t seem to change things much. I remained an agnostic. My parents were not really religious. Their attraction to the Quaker church, into which my mother was born, had more to do with their pacifist politics.

I read the gospels of Mark, Luke and John a bit later, around the same time I read Sigmund Freud’s A General Introduction to Psychoanalysis, where, with some relief, I read about his patients who, like me, suffered from obsessive thoughts about committing terrible acts.

Jesus’ words continued to float around in my mind, but what context could they have in the absence of a belief in a supernatural God or an after-life? The promises of Heaven were no use to me, because I didn’t believe, but the ethical principles were not easy to dismiss. Who could tell me how to live a meaningful life? And who could tell me how to relieve my suffering?

What gradually dawned on me was the idea that there might be another way to conceive of God. I read a biography of the psychiatrist Wilhelm Reich - a student of Freud - who viewed God as a cosmic life energy. According to him, emotional and social problems are caused by blockages in the flow of this energy. This I could related to. I could see that my psychological suffering was associated with fear-based blockages in the free flow of the life energy in my body. Reich associated the free flow of the life energy in the individual with love of others and enthusiasm for productive work.

Wilhelm Reich

Later I would encounter the ideas of Australian biologist Jeremy Griffith, who also provided a non-supernatural definition of God, saying that “God is integrative meaning,” by which he means :

1. The tendency in nature for smaller less complex wholes to integrate and thus form larger more complex wholes - e.g. single-celled organisms forming a community of single-celled organisms and then growing a membrane so that they become a multi-cellular organism with the capacity for increased complexity through specialisation of those cells.

2. The ability of truth to integrate items of data into a coherent framework which allows for the reconciliation of previously conflicting ideas.

3. The fact that love manifests social meaning through the integration of individuals into a functioning community.

Jeremy Griffith

That was over 25 years ago. Only recently I became aware of Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, who looks for psychological insight in the Bible and defines God as “the Logos - the spoken word which brings habitable order out of chaos”. This is compatible with, but less all encompassing than, Griffith’s definition.

Somehow, over the years a framework of belief grew in me which has enabled me to integrate the meaning I finding in the Gospels with the fact that I still have seen no evidence for the existence of the supernatural.

There is a kind of matrix of love which exists in the realm of possibility. This is the Kingdom of Heaven. God is the creative principle of the universe which brings order out of chaos and is expressed in us as love, the force which brings order out of chaos in the social realm. God in Heaven is an imagined possibility, but an possibility having force to change lives through the power of faith in his existence. When order comes out of chaos in the natural or social world, that is God making “his” presence felt in the real world. This is organically arising order, not imposed order.

What are we? We are the creative principle of the universe as expressed within the limitations imposed by a physical body and an individual personality. The physical body and the individual personality are temporary. The creative principle of the universe, which inhabits this temporary form, is eternal. Mortality or eternal life? It depends on your perspective. Identify with the eternal whole of which you are a part, and you are eternal. Identify with your body or your personality and you are mortal. In practise it is a question of whether one identifies more with one’s body and ego or more with the process one is engaged in. A mother who forgets herself in caring for her child, in doing so participates in God because her identification is with the eternal creative process of life itself rather than with her temporary body or personality.

What is love? Love is our awareness that, at base, we are one, all limited parcels of a single creative principle. Love is God. Through love God is made manifest. We can picture God sitting on a cloud in the heaven of our imagination, but when we feel love for others, God is real and active in the world through us. There is nothing supernatural about that, it’s the product of natural evolution. Our capacity for love arose because the nurturing of children is beneficial to a species’ survival.

It is only now that I’ve read the Bible as a whole. The story of Adam and Eve in the Old Testament had been important to me because an interpretation of it plays such an important part in the work of Jeremy Griffith. I was a supporter of Griffith for a while. Now I’m a critic of his ideas. Once I realised I couldn’t agree with the central precept of his theory - that we have a genetically-encoded conscience which is critical of the rational mind’s experiments in understanding - I had to come up with an alternative way to view the internal battle between good and evil.

Adam and Eve, woodcut, Germany, 1514, Metropolitan Museum of Art

If our problems are due to a blockage in the free flow of the life energy, then compromised self-acceptance is central to that blockage. The self-accepting individual looks outward and participates unselfconsciously with others in pleasure and in problem solving. A lack of self-acceptance cause us to look obsessively inward or to interpret the world around us in the light of our need to service our wounded ego. Guilt is a spanner in the works.

Where does guilt come from initially? From a mistake unforgiven or a demand for improved behaviour we find ourselves unable to accommodate. In a world full of angry and selfish behaviour, guilt may often seem justified. But how did our propensity for anger and selfishness grow?

Idealism is the root of all evil. Somehow we arrived at the idea that we should make a strict division between good behaviour and bad behaviour and strive to promote the former and restrain the latter through both self-discipline and the imposition of social discipline on others. On the surface this seems reasonable, which is why our problems have persisted so long. The problem with it is that it tends to undermine self-acceptance. The individual pursuing self-discipline gradually accrues a feeling of guilt over his mistakes. And when he feels that others are being too strict in their demands for improved behaviour, he gets angry at the criticism. All of this begins small. We begin with give and take, with self-forgiveness and forgiveness of others. But overtime the love has trouble compensating for the corrosive effect of the idealism.

This is what the story of Adam and Eve is about. They eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, i.e. their experimenting minds arrive at the concept of idealism, and, as a result they become ashamed of their nakedness and clothe themselves. Nakedness is a symbol for honesty. In the absence of idealism we are happy to be honest, to let it all hang out, but once we feel that we may be judged for our imperfections we feel the need to cover our asses with a protective coat of lies. The devil is described as “the accuser” and also as “the father of lies”. Idealism accuses us of not being good enough and in so doing inspires us to lie. And the arrival of idealism also cast us out of Paradise, our unselfconscious existence in nature, and alienated us from God, because, when our self-acceptance is undermined it opens up a black hole in us which drains our ability to love others and thus to participate in God.

There is much in the early parts of the Old Testament which I had a hard time seeing in any kind of positive light. Why are these people killing all these cows and sheep and burning them? What good will that do? Who is this God who tells his followers to kill a man for gathering wood on the Sabbath? Why does he tell them to slaughter all those infants when they lay a town to waste?

Jordan Peterson helped me to see these things in a different light - to see the Old Testament as an account of how our concept of God evolved. We have a habit of approaching some problems by doing things and then asking ourselves why we are doing them afterwards. So we performed the idea of sacrifice before we came to really understand the practical nature of sacrifice. i.e. making a bargain with the future in the way that we sacrifice a few years at college in order to get a high paying job as a lawyer. Burning something valuable to us so that the universe could smell it seems primitive to us now, but we have the benefit of hindsight.

Jordan Peterson

As I came to the end of the Old Testament it occurred to me that it was really a story about the importance of maintaining integrity, personal and social. Some of the laws may seem unreasonable now, but the aim was to find a codified way to mediate conflicts and thus maintain the integrity of the society. If there were a prejudice prevalent at the time, that would be reflected in the laws. Most of us don’t believe in slavery, so owning slaves is against the law in our countries. At the time the books of the Old Testament was written, owning slaves was considered acceptable, so laws are about how to treat slaves. This is a problem for those who believe in a supernatural God who could have got Moses to tell people to release their slaves. It is not a problem for someone who sees the Bible as a human document recording our search for the divine.

If the Old Testament is treated like a novel in which integrity is presented as an all-too human figure, then it makes more sense. A jealous God sending out armies to attack cities and slaughter their inhabitants seems unworthy of worship, but if we see the moral of the story being - “If you don’t maintain your personal integrity and the integrity of your society, both will be laid waste utterly!” - then it makes sense. God is blood-thirsty and vengeful only because he is a fictional character representing realities which we ignore at our peril. He is also loving, because if we work with reality, we are liable to be blessed. A farmer who diligently tends to his fields is liable to prosper and eat well; one who sits under a tree drinking and forgets to sow his seeds is liable to starve. In this scenario, God’s nature is determined by our behaviour not by God’s will.

One of the ways individuals and societies come a cropper in the Old Testament is by worshipping idols. If God is a representation of integrity, to worship an idol is to value something else more highly than we value our integrity, to “sell our soul” for riches, fame, power, or whatever. When we do that, it doesn’t end well.

The emphasis in the Old Testament is on laws and the need to obey them. It is lots of “thou shalt not” and not much “it would be a good idea if we”. A stranger could come to your door fatally wounded and looking for help. If you turned them away and closed the door on them, you wouldn’t be breaking any of the Ten Commandments.

With Jesus we get the articulation of a positive way to live. Love your neighbour as yourself. Be non-judgemental. Be humble. Be generous. Be honest. Value human relationships over wealth.

His message was that “the Kingdom of Heaven” is close to us - the potential matrix of love is all around us and inside us, just waiting to be made manifest - and that we should repent of our sins. Sin is a religious word for selfishness. We are selfish because our compromised self-acceptance turns us inward so that we view the social world from the perspective of our need to reinforce our wounded ego. Feeling guilty about being selfish doesn’t help. If just makes us more selfish. The Greek word which is translated as “repent” apparently means, more literally, have a change of consciousness. He was telling us to change our consciousness in such a way that we could open up the Kingdom of Heaven. He assured us that God would forgive our sins. If God is the love which manifests when the guilt which blocks it is removed, then of course the sin is of no importance once the floodgates are opened.

What of the Book of Revelations? I don’t pretend that I can make sense of its complex symbolism. I’m no Jordan Peterson. But this is the gist of it as I see it. The social world is built on lies and delusions. The apocalypse, or revelation, is what happens when this becomes apparent because humanity arrives at a framework of understanding which exposes all others. This is the point at which the little boy points out that the emperor is naked. Jeremy Griffith thinks he has that framework of understanding. He’s wrong. But it is on its way. Wherever there is earnest dialogue amongst the informed, it is coming into being.

Copyright: rolffimages / 123RF Stock Photo

What about the judgement and the “lake of fire”?

One of the things that happened on my journey was that I faced a crisis where the bottom dropped out of everything for me. I lost all faith in myself. I ended up strapped to a hospital bed begging doctors and nurses to kill me because I felt that the whole of human history, all the suffering of the countless millions and the effort they had put in, was all going to come to nothing, to be rendered worthless, all because of my weakness.

When the bottom drops out of your world and you find yourself naked in the face of the unknown, it feels a lot like hell. So I don’t see it as a matter of judgement and condemnation. The warning is to follow the path of truth, so that there is always something dependable under your feet. But if I can come back from hell, anyone can.

“And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged accord to what they had done as recorded in the books.” Revelations 20:12

If we achieve a full understanding of our psychology and how it relates to the rest of the natural world, it stands to reason this will change our attitude to people who are now dead. Some will be revealed to be closer to the truth and others further from the truth than we had generally believed. I think this is the kind of judgement being described, but we shouldn’t underestimate how disturbing this may be for many of us. Our ego gets very bound up with our beliefs and to find that we were wrong in a very profound way is disturbing.

I would like to believe that, if this massive shake-up is on the way, carrying with it the likelihood of intense and widespread existential crisis, maybe the ideas which helped me to repair the damage brought on by my own crisis of this sort, expressed in my book How to Be Free, will also be a help to some others.

Of course there is so much more which is worth saying about the Bible, but this will have to do for the time being. 

Friday, 4 August 2017

BOOK REVIEW : DMT - The Spirit Molecule by Rick Strassman, M.D.

What if we could trace the biochemistry of mystical or religious experiences? Materialists might see this as a way to explain away such events as aberrations arising from physiological disfunction, much as they sometimes tend to see depression as nothing more than a shortage of serotonin, as if the happiness of a dog were produced by a sufficient amount of tail-wagging. This would be no more rational than to think that our understanding of how the eye works lessons the size and magnificence of the galaxies we can see with it. The reality of such experiences can best be assessed by the effect they have on the lives of the experiencers. This says nothing about whether anything experienced as existing in an external physical sense actually has that independent existence. Think of it this way. If you read Hamlet, you are reading a work of fiction, but the play actually exists as a coherent creation which has the power to effect how you live your life. If someone has an experience which is far richer and more powerful than that, but of which there is no identifiable author, then that is something real, the mysterious nature of which is not so easy to explain away.

N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) is a powerful, fast-acting psychedelic drug, the active ingredient in the ayahuasca brew used by Amazonian tribes for their shamanistic rituals. It is very similar in structure to serotonin, and occurs naturally in many plants and animals, including humans. Between 1990 and 1995, Dr. Rick Strassman administered this drug intravenously to 60 volunteers. This was the first psychedelic drug research on human volunteers to be performed in the United States in over 20 years. While the avowed aim of the research was to test the physical effects of the drug at different dosages, Strassman was hoping to explore his theory that such altered states of consciousness as near-death experiences, dreams and psychotic hallucinations might be mediated by the body’s production of DMT. He calls the substance “the spirit molecule” and believes that it may be produced by the pineal gland. (In 2013 researchers reported finding DMT in the pineal gland of rodents.) DMT is very fast acting when injected. The trip would begin almost instantly and be completely over in half an hour.

Some of Strassman’s volunteers did describe mystical states or something akin to a near-death experience. But the hardest thing to explain was that a significant number had encounters with alien beings, some of whom performed probes or other surgical procedures on them. The similarity to reports of alien abduction couldn’t be ignored. Strassman initially tried to use the conventional psychoanalytic approach to dreams, looking for some symbolic relationship between the drug experience and the key current issues in the volunteers life. This was not productive. The volunteers insisted that these were not dreams, but something more real than everyday reality. So Strassman was forced to adopt the strategy of viewing these creatures as something which might actually exist in some sense. The best hypothesis he has been able to come up with is that they are the inhabitants of some kind of parallel universe or some realm of dark matter. This is a troubling idea, especially since one poor man was pack raped by alien alligators in this DMT realm.

Not surprisingly the most interesting part of this book is the account of the psychedelic experiences of the volunteers. The book as a whole is tantalising and fascinating but a little unsatisfying, because there is still so little data on which to assess Strassman’s hypotheses. This is hardly his fault. He explains in great detail how hard it was to organise his study, how many things went wrong and why he wasn’t able to go on to further studies. By honestly and clearly describing the struggles, the risks and the mistakes, along with his inspirational vision of what could be in the future if enough people support psychedelic research, he has provided an indispensable resource.

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

A Big "What If?"

Copyright: alexmit / 123RF Stock Photo

What if there were a framework of understanding which could unite the perceptions of the mystic, the fundamentalist and the atheist into a single whole?

This is very much a “what if” experiment. Ride with it and see where it leads. For simplicity’s sake I’ll state speculations as if they were fact.

The universe is made up of energy. Matter is a structured form of that energy. Energy is eternal. It changes form, but it never ceases to exist. 

Energy is conscious, but it is a formless consciousness, lacking the kinds of limitation needed for the structured consciousness we call thought or sensation.

The universe is a place where structure arises from formless energy. The ways in which this happens may be mysterious to us, but our existence is evidence of just how complex and meaningful the products of that process can be. Apparently there are more connections in our brain than there are atoms in the universe. We’re pretty complex.

We are highly structured systems of energy which persist for an average of about seventy years. We have bodies which shape raw consciousness in a way we experience as physical sensations, ranging from pleasure to pain. And we have a brain which shapes raw consciousness into images and words.

The universe is a meaningful place. Complexity arises through relationship and meaning lies in relationship. The meaning of any part is defined by its relationship to the whole.

As individuals we sometimes identify with our separateness and sometimes with our connectedness to the whole. When we are in a loving relationship we identify more with the bond we share with the other person than we do with our seperate existence. Or an artist may think more of the meaning which is coming into the world through his art than he does of where his next meal is coming from.

We are not just our body. We are also meaning. We are not just the instrument, but also the music which plays on that instrument.

But we have a problem. To a significant degree we have become cut off from our source of meaning.

The creative principle of the universe is manifested by the emergence of more complex wholes from a meaningful relationship between less complex parts. This looks like the part selflessly surrendering to the needs of the whole.

We know that we are selfish, not selfless, so are we in a state of rebellion against the theme of the universe, against that which created us?

It is within the context of this question that religion arose.

Aware of our sinful, i.e. selfish, nature we could not look upon the face of God, i.e. acknowledge the theme of the universe which gave birth to us. We feared God and sought redemption through sacrifice and prayer.

To the degree that we were insecure, we needed the comfort provided by picturing a God with a human face.

ROME, ITALY - MARCH 12, 2016: The fresco God the Creator by unknown artist from end of 19. cent. in the church Chiesa di Nostra Signora del Sacro Cuore. Copyright: sedmak / 123RF Stock Photo

In the Old Testament there is an emphasis on laws. If selfishness were not to lead to the collapse of the society there needed to be laws. Such laws are a compromise. They don’t solve the underlying problem, and they are based on the prejudices prevalent in the society, hence the absence of such current day laws as : “Thou shalt not own slaves.”

The New Testament seeks to address the underlying problem of the need for redemption from the selfish state into a state in which we love our neighbour as our self. That is to end the separation of humans and God.

The Bible relates stories. Our state of insecurity determines our relationship to those stories. Just as our insecurity may require God to have a human face, so it may require the stories related in the Bible to be literally true.

What matters in a story is its meaning. We read fictional stories and respond to them as if they were real. Do we weep for Little Nell? Or do we weep for ourselves, because we know what loss is like? We fear Dracula, not because vampires are real, but because we fear death, or something worse than death.

The stories we read in the Bible are profoundly meaningful, because they are stories about what we fear and about what we crave most deeply. We fear that we may lose that which makes the suffering of life bearable, and we hope to find that which redeems us from our state of fear and trembling in the face of the absolute.

We could argue forever about whether or not a story is literally true. A fundamentalist will insist that Jesus was born of a virgin, walked on water and rose from the dead. An atheist will insist that all of these things are impossible.

Meaning is to a story what the soul is to the body. If we get too caught up in the worldly - and whether or not something happened literally is a worldly question - then we can lose that which has a higher value. In meaning we find the transcendent. Through meaning we participate in the eternal.

Having separated ourselves from the worldly to find the meaning, we then come back to the world to make it real. What matters is not whether Jesus fed the hungry with seven loaves and a fish, but whether we ourselves feed the hungry.

KRAKOW, POLAND - DECEMBER 19, 2010; Christmas Eve for poor and homeless on the Central Market in Cracow. Every year the group Kosciuszko prepares the greatest eve in the open air in Poland. Copyright: praszkiewicz / 123RF Stock Photo

Selfishness is the knot that needs to be untied for us to feel at home in the universe that gave birth to us, for us to be re-united with God. Selfishness is the natural self-directedness of the insecure or otherwise suffering individual. Hit your thumb with a hammer and you’ll have trouble thinking about anything else but your thumb. In the same way, our insecurity turns us inwards. It can be a negative feedback loop. We behave selfishly. We feel guilty about behaving selfishly. The pain of the guilt directs our attention even more strongly toward our self. This makes us even more selfish. Thus the knot tightens.

Assurances that God forgives our sins may ease the problem, but they are founded on faith rather than rational understanding.

If we try cultivating unconditional self-acceptance and find that it produces a better result than trying to force ourselves to be less selfish, or punishing ourselves, then we learn through our own direct experience what it means to find redemption.

The relationship between Hell and Heaven can be understood in the relationship between the body and meaning. 

The body makes suffering possible. Meaning makes that suffering bearable. Pleasure is experienced in the satisfaction of bodily needs or the easing of bodily suffering.  The psychological insecurity which comes from being cut off from meaning may interfere with our ability to feel satiated by the satisfaction of these needs.

What is bliss? It isn’t a thought, though it may accompany a thought. It isn’t a physical sensation, though it may accompany a physical sensation. Bliss is loss of self-consciousness. Bliss is when we are so enraptured by something that we forget ourselves.

If the universe is conscious energy, perhaps bliss is it’s default state. The limitation provided by a body and mind increases its ability to manifest meaning, but carries with it the price tag of suffering, something which can be increased or decreased depending on the thoughts that form in that mind. So, from bliss we come and to bliss we will go. And while we are alive, the secret to bliss is love, the meaningful connection that allows us to forget ourselves in a union like that from which we came. This may be love with another person or love of an activity.

So the concept of eternal life is one of identification. Do we identify with the body or ego, which are temporary, or with the process in which we participate? If our consciousness is that of the universe limited by a temporary form, then we are at least as much the eternal as we are the temporal.

Concepts of life after death often revolve around the idea of the persistence of the personalty into a post-death realm, either of punishment or reward. Like the focus on stories being literally true, this is an indication of how insecurity makes us cling to what we know. We fixate on that which we can’t fully accept, and so, not truly accepting our personality we can’t imagine leaving it behind.

So let’s cultivate unconditional self-acceptance and find out whether doing so blissfully realigns us with the creative principle of the universe.

Copyright: noltelourens / 123RF Stock Photo