Spirituality for the Spiritual Wanderer:Countdown to Release of Karen Armstrong’s “Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence”

Warning for the believers that all religious discussion should be silenced, for the sake of preserving peace! This post is not meant to condescend, or patronize anyone’s own religious/spiritual practices; it is a free forum for people to discuss and ponder issues, for those that seek a silent, peaceful place to grapple with such issues, in the safe confines of this blog post!!

My Journey Away From Fundamentalism, to a Road of Wandering, Far, Far Away from the Jarring Distraction of Certainty..

The best practice of spirituality is to shut the door of your bedroom, and anywhere you can get far, far away from the chattering gales of brash certitude, particularly about metaphysical matters of which no one can be absolutely certain of. Fundamentalism, from my experience, is a deep neurosis, which really only makes sense, or seems sensible, when you’re already emotionally-weakened by a multitude of things in your life. My journey away from it was difficult, taxing, lonely, and it still is very difficult, analogous to getting over an alcohol addiction. You get addicted to the self-centeredness, gloating, and absolute self-hatred that soaks into your brain, like a porous, undeveloped sponge of a self/or identity that will soak   up all the masochistic, self-guilt messages from a fundamentalist sermon like an drug addict, gladly taking in every whiff of the drug of choice for the evening.

My fundamentalist addiction ended at a funeral, and my breaking point was the absolute disgust, shock, and continued unconscionable idea that a ceremony to honor a person’s death, could be used so selfishly, and profanely to instead divert our attention away from the person’s life and legacy, instead to a frightening aspect that this person’s life is proof we ourselves need to somehow dedicate ourselves again to a very punitive, belligerent, block-headed sadist of a God, who is only using the lives of supposed sainted few to remind us of how we need only to have blind adulation for this God, not to to love, not to forgive, not to have deep appreciation for the depth and beauty of the miracle of our lives, but to just vacuously escape the wrath of this God.
It was harder for me than ever to get over my grief, and I now have a terrible phobia of funerals for this reason, because I only remember being intensely angry. A part of me has forgiven that incident, as just a folly of humanity, trying so hard to feign certainty about matters they don’t really know anything about. But, a larger part of me is unable ever to fathom a form of religion that reduces the worth of our lives to just being about trying to escape the wrath of a not-so nice God. And, this God is evil, as though fitting the Gnostic belief that the Old Testament God is really the embodiment of evil (in my opinion, there is not clear description of God in the Bible, as the “God” in the Bible is merely a projection of how particular Old Testament characters perceive that God).

A God that punishes us for any fallibility in our limitations of knowledge and imagination, at this point in my life, seems far too domestic, far too human. I don’t think I could ever do religion ever again in my life, and I cannot even do atheism successfully either. Brash, fervid ideologies of any kind scare me, make me feel an almost impenetrable wall of darkness. Almost all these ideologies have certain figureheads, or personalities that become the face of this group’s entire ideology. People often talk as reverently about anything Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins says (I really like Richard Dawkin’s more scientific books, because he is a brilliant biologist), much like certain Christians may feel the same way about their preferred preacher for the weak. All of these ideas, including my very own, are fallible, and accepting that as a natural element of all our humanity was the road towards forgiveness for my past; an essential letting go of things, holding no antipathy and grueling hate towards it, and just accepting that neuroses (we all have them), and idiosyncratic beliefs are really part of human nature.

This takes me now to my current spiritual status, away from groups, ideologies, categorical thinking, which is really unconventional, and I don’t suggest people taking this road. There are many wonderful, thriving, and great groups that dwell within all ideologies and religions. Ever since leaving Christianity, I have had good church experiences (thankfully!) that have actually been an essential part of my own journey of forgiving the past. I think I would still attend a nice, edifying church service time-to-time, just to be part of some kind of community, seeing the ritualized ceremony acting out some essential myth that for some reason gives us intimations of transcendence.

Why Spirituality, and not religion? Well, my interest in etymology has been very interesting, indeed, for the meanings of the words religion and spirituality

These definitions are taken from the Oxford Dictionary online, and the origins of these words is particularly revealing, to me, as someone that is always looking up linguistic things online.

Definition of Religion  (Hyperlink takes you to definition page, to avoid any accusations that I am plagiarizing)
  “The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods”

I don’t like the word “belief,” and sometimes it can mean something deep, and even reverent, and really uplifting to others, but for me, that word feels odious, restrictive, as though any love, wonder and imagination involved with good practices of spirituality have been leeched from the word, making it a boring, sterile word like belief. Anyone can believe, and my Fundamentalist upbringing taught me that “belief” connotes something unflinching, unimaginative, restrained, binding-almost like an obligation- to escape your own conceited fate of possibly being burned to death for eternity.

Religion has often been an object for control, and subjugation, when almost subsumed by political interests, starting very long ago, and into the middle ages and beyond. It is not always (and I will keep repeating this, as if I don’t, someone will be hastily judging me for being anti-religious, which I am not), and there were pragmatic reasons/maybe good-intentioned logical purposes, at a given time in history, for religion to be more controlling, bureaucratic, dogmatic, than other times. But, there was almost always a political motive behind it, more so than a “spiritual or numinous,” or the transcendent qualities of religion that help humanity to aspire to think outside the box of societal political structures. When religion has a more strident spiritual or mystical side alongside it, this is what uplifts it more from the more prejudicial, hierarchical, mechanical laws and codices.

In the Middle English, the word even curiously originated as being “binding, and obligation,” relating more to a political obligation to have unswerving fidelity for some sovereign king. The idea of God being a anthropomorphic despot in the imaginations of some people in both the Middle Ages, and Renaissance, is inevitable, when the brute force of religious orthodoxy is subsumed again by political obligations or rules. At this time, we get a lot of kings, asserting they were divinely chosen, which again confuses the religious imagination to think of God as a mere king, an anthropomorphism the Jews spoke pretty frankly about, when the “God” character of a certain Bible story fears the Israelite having a king, as if to forewarn them that a king might alter or limit the spiritual/mystical dimension of their religion.

So, the fundamentalism understanding of God is starkly religious, domestic, and very human, because he hales from  the history of God being merely some deified sky-king, always bestowed with all the same honorifics as the King of England.  If you didn’t have the right ideas or notions of the King of England, it would be “off with your head,” and if you didn’t have the proper ideas of God, then you’d be burned at the stake, then burned for infinity and beyond, in some hell dimension (beyond the pale of just mere sadism).

Now, here is the definition of spiritual:
Spiritual: Of, relating to, or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things:

**In history, we always had traditions of religion, which are both more mystical and spiritual. You will find these voices everywhere in every religion, and it is where spiritual wanderers like myself look to, when trying to escape the more domestic, religious notion of “metaphysical” things.

At the time when religion was very politically-influenced (and fundamentalism is ironically very secular/politically-influenced),we have groups like the Quakers that assert ideas of pacifism, egalitarian virtues, and the idea of the holy spirit, highlighting elements of Christian scripture that were more spiritual and numinous in their understanding. The Quakers are, in my opinion, one of the more successful religious/spiritual groups, much like some of the Franciscan monks (and various other orders) in Catholicism are often the most successful part of Catholicism (Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox have always tried to preserve elements of the spiritual and numinous in their religion;hence, the reason for less fundamentalism/literalism in some effect,among their ranks).

As a spiritual wanderer, I recently rediscovered the Quakers, and the writings of Quaker mystics, much like a volume of St. Francis quotes I read nightly, have helped me chase the storm of fundamentalism nihilism far away. Again, spirituality is not about beliefs, and things that are more political in nature (binding and obligatory). It is about the spirit, or in more Scully-rational terms, things which pull at our heart strings.

A song by Johnny Cash, or a wonderful concert/theater performance, can be just as numinous and meditative to watch, as any religious sermon. The one thing our culture has done wrong is to completely disregard the meaning of spiritual, consigning it to the world of New Age thinking, even though spiritual simply means of, or relating to the emotions.  And how “new” is new age, when the human proclivity to create art, stories, music that takes them away temporarily, from their more domestic, stressful lives has been a part of human history, longer so than political institutions??

There are a lot of spiritual charlatans out there, and I have found that the best, non-charlatan spiritual writers, write more spiritual advice that can actually fairly logical, in premise, while still allowing us to ponder the human condition deeply. Take John Donne’s famous sermon for instance, where he says that simple, though deeply meaningful line of “No Man is an Island.” A phrase, so pithy, so provocative, that it even is the title of an excellent Thomas Merton book. Yet, it essentially tells the biggest truth of our spiritual or human condition that no human being is a stranger to the confusing existential questions and doubts that exist in our minds. We may have more orthodox religions that try to hard to control these things, or just neglect them, but it is spirituality, what we read about in well-written novels, see in songs, or poems, the crucial truth of humanity.

And while not Catholic (at this point, let’s stop with thinking we must “be a certain nominal label” to read certain things), I think the crucifixes of Jesus that would hang all over the Catholic college I attended for my undergrad years, had this very peculiar power to make me ponder just how that crucifix of Jesus hanging from the cross, did not seem to have just a literal meaning, but something almost deeper, as if acknowledging the same battle waged daily, day in and day out, over the paradoxical knowledge that there is sorrow and tragedy in our lives, and this truth, seen in bitter, sobering news-stories, cause us to feel burdened with a heavy sense of melancholy, or feeling disconsolate. And rather than transcend these things, accept them and forgive them with a certain shred of equanimity (while still finding practical ways to help bring justice to these situations, of course), we may start to feel angry, as if feeling wrathful and vengeful towards a certain prejudicial group may help assuage our own bitter pain and fear. Yet, it never really helps anyone, especially if this anger manifests in acts of violence. Injustice and the sorrow accompanying our existence should never be the cause of sowing more suffering for others, or ironically multiplying it. When seeing that crucifix, I weirdly had this feeling of I need to forgive my fundamentalist past, let it go, and only see just what vital lessons it has educated me on, in terms of my own spiritual growth.
This brings me now to Karen Armstrong, who wrote an excellent book called Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, a book that gave me some very helpful, though rigorously challenging ways to be more proactive about engaging with out humanity/ living life in a more spiritual (maybe even a bit Quaker) way.

This religious insistence that our lives are only about having qualified, correct, doctrinal-sound ideas has made many of us feel ridiculously embittered, annoyed, and very distracted from self-reflection. As a former fundamentalist, I never knew how to be compassionate. It was a word that was degraded in the Fundamentalist lexicon, to something more selfish, in that we must actively convert others, not because we love them, but to earn brownie points from the God-King. 

Karen Armstrong’s “Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life,” is so ridiculously challenging of a book, to read, and to ponder your own actions, that you’ll begin to understood more why people degrade compassion, because it is actually very difficult, in essence, of a thing to practice.

You may look at this books, and say to yourself cynically “Oh no! not another trite self-help book!” This isn’t self help; this isn’t spiritual charlatanism, disguised as exalted narcissism. Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life is really less about yourself, and more about how you’re interacting with others, and the challenge of trying to think  comprehensively about the complicated plights and situations that other people are in.

**As Fields of Blood, Karen Armstrong’s newest book is on the horizon of “the soon-to-be-released” category, I will be sharing with you all my own spiritual musings, examinations, and book recommendations, as a spiritual wanderer. This is not about what religion you are, or ideology, or what is the correct theology/doctrines/ set of beliefs to follow to escape eternal hell-flames. These posts are for everyone, and anyone that has ever felt alone, or as an outsider, for feeling like your spiritual imagination feels too wide, too expansive, at times, when sitting in either a church, mosque, synagogue, etc.

**Maybe, your particular religious  group actually equips you with ways to be more compassionate, because there are many wonderful examples of religious institutions that are actively trying to be more balanced with offering both spiritual/religious modes of engaging with the greatest questions that plague the human condition.**

Until October 28, 2014 (release of Fields of Blood) I will be reviewing books, across a spectrum of religions, that have helped me greatly, as a spiritual wanderer. And since Karen Armstrong’s newest book discusses the issue of whether religion can be solely  blamed for all violence in the world (a most ridiculous, facile argument), I think this is an issue to discuss, in terms of discussing issues of spirituality. Why is it that mysticism, ethical things achieved by some religious groups (like the Quakers, etc.) are too often ignored in the didactic popular media we have, that always wishes to reduce the complexity of almost all issues?

Spiritual Practice #1- Letting Go of  Controlled, Rigid Belief-
Tonight, lock yourself in your room, and give yourself a quiet space to think of any and all blasphemous thoughts that you can think of. Write them down, if you feel comfortable, and try to make peace with them, by remembering that our minds are “limited,” our brains are wired to think of multiple angles and perceptions of things.  Free up your religious imagination, and try not to worry about being damned for thinking silly things in your mind. It is your mind, and the benefit of this practice is really helping to strengthen the ability to empathize greater with others. If your brain is tightly wound with orthodoxies, and only thoughts of “my salvation,etc.,” you are neglecting the greater thought of your connection with other people, and the particular challenges other people face daily.

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