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Moving Past the Limitation of Sin

Being lost is not seeing the paths all around because of looking for the ‘right’ one. We encourage freedom of imagination in our kids because we want them to not get locked into bad habits. We entreat each other to think outside the box when confronted with adversity and seemingly insurmountable struggles. Corporations hire coaches and gurus to help make the stagnant, movable again. Our very existence as a species is due to the variations possible within the seeming limitations of genetics. Life changes, expands and manifests in new ways precisely because it is not caught in a singular way of being.

As in life, so then in each and every human being. Living is ever-expansive because our potential is not limited by any single identity or story of who we are. Being trapped, stagnant, and confined is what occurs when we get locked into a narrow way of visioning who we are and therefore what we are capable of achieving. This is true of ourselves and, given the interconnectedness of relational reality, of those we look upon.

Sin, within the framework of conservative fundamentalist religious traditions, is a way of framing humanity within a restricted vision. It is a declaration that the wholeness of humanity is found within a story of depraved, immoral and inherently self-serving boundaries. It removes intent and will, replacing it with an assumed knowledge of what lies beneath or at the core of a person. Behavior ceases to be a window into the multiplicity of human rationale, of the varied reasons, thoughts and stories of justification, and becomes an empty expanse unworthy of exploration. Why did the person do what they did? Well, we can look at what they say, but really it’s this thing called sin, the insurmountable evil at the heart of humanity.

The problem of sin is not simply that it’s a false idea, but that it separates us from looking at our potential. Our varied lives of layered thought and emotion become lies and obfuscations hiding us from our ‘true selves.’ This process of singular-visioning inexorably leads to shame and doubt, shame of who we are and doubt about our capacity for change and growth. Unfortunately this process is not limited to the notion of sin, it occurs any time we select a rationale for our behavior, separate it from the interactional and reciprocal reality of our relational lives, and make it the unalterable core of who we are.

library-of-knowledgeHow often have any of us faced failure and in the midst of defeat, callously declared “I’m just a loser” or “this is just who I am” or “I’m only ever going to be this way”? We may not be thinking of sin, but we are most certainly embarking on a similar path of limitation. Similarly, when we break someone else’s behavior down to a singular reason, we are artificially limiting our understanding of their humanity.

By selecting merely one potential rationale for our decision-making, we have cut ourselves off from the complexity that is our story-making, the formation of our identities. Instead of the multiple interconnected layers of a full life, we are crushed beneath the weight of simplicity and the desire to forge a clear direction forward. This process is not concerned with health, well-being or truth; it is a means of razing the trees to the ground to save the perceived forest.

Every one of us makes decisions based on a variety of factors, explicit and implicit, historical and future-projected, conscious and unconscious. Further, none of us are immune to prejudice, bias, appeal to authority and the myriad of other emotive-logical cognitive failings. To be called out for one stone out of place and have the whole of our identity-structures or personal narratives defined by it is to place the need for righteous judgment above and beyond that of humanistic understanding.

The determination of right and wrong does not occur starting from the assumed superiority of a singular position. This is where culture wars and the relationship fights we later feel ashamed for having gotten into, begin from. An understanding of ourselves and others begins where morality does, within the relational network that is our humanity. Individual actions can still be judged, but they need not overshadow the whole of that person, nor should they become the main or only lens through which we see ourselves and one another.We do not walk the path of understanding those around us if we begin and end with what we disagree with. Separation only furthers itself, it does not rejoin what was sundered.

Growth along the scale of human progress is a waltz between what we believe ourselves capable of being and the depth and quality of the relationships we live our lives through, it is not a sprint to a pre-determined goal. Dwelling in the space of potential means identifying the infliction of pain and move to reduce it by stretching the bounds of our empathy through touching the strands that bind us together.

 

© David Teachout

1

The Insidious Lure of Dogmatism

“Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said. ‘One can’t believe impossible things.’

I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” ― Lewis Carroll

The humor of impossible thoughts is found in our refusal to consider any of our own thoughts as belonging there. Why of course someone else might think the impossible, but not me, says the self-assured mind of every human being. We are dedicated to our picture of reality. What each of us considers wrong or impossible says a great deal about that ideological perspective. To practice pondering the impossible is to step outside our mental boundaries and see what wasn’t caught in our framing.

Traveling down the road of the impossible is filled with anxiety. The depth to which we rely on our sense of being right and our belief that the vision of reality we hold is wholly accurate cannot be overstated. Consider for a moment a time when you found out you were wrong about something important, that sense of being off-balance and the gut-wrenching concern over what else you may have mistaken. For most of us that experience is short-lived, our minds eagerly moving on to what is more basic to human experience, that of feeling right, even if it is feeling right about having been wrong.

While the road of the impossible is not one of ease, it is an inevitable journey each takes with every realization that a small or larger piece of our worldview no longer is able to shape the experiences we’re having into a workable whole. The anxiety involved can be a seen as a form of aggression, us seeking to hold our experience within a particular set of boundaries and the larger reality pushing back, a bending and bowing out the frame. Which brings us to fundamentalism:

“In its avoidance of difference and diversity, in its turning its back on tolerance, fundamentalism is actually terrified of aggression. In fact, fundamentalism seeks to manage aggression out of existence.” (Samuels, 2005)

Contrary to the picture of the fundamentalist, particularly the religious kind, being a gun or flag-waving belligerent, the outward display hides a deep-seated need for the world itself to no longer be pushing against the boundaries they’ve set up. Let’s face it, if the world completely and utterly conformed to the dictator’s or zealot’s every ideological whim, there’d never be a perceived need to do anything by force. It is precisely because the world and every person in it exists in varying degrees of freedom that some form of force is committed, though always with the hope of eventually creating a world where nothing ever steps outside the constraints of their perspective.

“Fundamentalism offers fundamentalists a chance to avoid the knock-on effects of an encounter with social, cultural and political differences. The fundamentalist self is thereby protected from inner and outer experiences of conflict and aggression within the self. Aggressive rhetoric and pronouncements made by fundamentalist leaders are not the same as the ordinary reciprocal aggression engendered by a real and mutually enhancing meeting with someone or something strange and new… Such pronouncements construct a perimeter within which aggression does not show itself.” (Samuels, 2005)

IMG_1432That world of ease and lack of aggressive push-back is precisely why fundamentalism is a form of psychological escapism. Whether we ourselves are using it to some degree or fascinated by someone else wrapping themselves in it, the enticement is universal. Make no mistake, fundamentalism is not itself constrained by ideology. It is not a force found only in religious circles or despot-leaning political ideologies.

When we come across something that doesn’t fit neatly in our picture of the world, that initial pushback is fundamentalism’s sweet voice. Our avoidance is concerned with not wanting to deal with the aggression of a reality bigger than any one of us. When labeling a person to dismiss them, it is fundamentalism making barriers.  What differentiates a ‘true believer’ from a ‘false’ one becomes a way of establishing the echo chambers of personal security. Declaring our personal experience sacrosanct and incapable of being criticized is the force of fundamentalism attempting to limit reality to the confines of our need to be right.

The lure of dogmatic belief or fundamentalism is one we are all prone to and it is insidious precisely because the end result, that of feeling right, is so basic to our continued living within a world that constantly and often in surprising ways, reminds us of our limits. Denying those limits through mental escapism will only ever blind us to the expansive reality waiting to be explored.

 

© David Teachout

Featured image provided by Unsplash‘s David Marcu

References:

Samuels, A. (2005). Fundamentalism – Its Appeal to “Them” and Fascination for “Us.” Psychology, 20(4), 52–55.

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Our Mind Provides A God To Be Filled In

Divine love seems inexplicably tied to divine judgment at times. With even a cursory search online the subsequent finding of so many articles and images depicting people of otherwise benign feelings supporting hatred and irrational judgment, the only seeming constant in a species devoted to exhibiting the divine in their lives is divisiveness and cruelty. There is assuredly much to be questioned in how this happens. As a former adherent to a particular brand of fundamentalist Christianity, I can with rueful head-shaking recall many a moment of self-righteous judgment and resultant hurt feelings, even among those I would have called my spiritual brothers and sisters. As I began to fervently question the ideological grounds for my thinking I rarely had to pause for long to be reminded why the search for another answer needed to continue.

The divine or, if the desire is to be more personal, a god, seems most often to possess a sense of transcendence, a broad interconnection between various other characteristics. There is always both a connection to one or more human qualities and then the concept of god is placed in a space above or beyond these connections. At once it is immediate and far away. Much the same occurs when we consider concepts like “patriotism” and “joy,” where there are certainly behaviors associated, they never quite encompass the whole of the feeling.

The ability to collect disparate data and then feel a sense of the transcendent linking them altogether is likely just how our brains organize experience. Putting together the vast amount of information provided by experience, the brain creates a seamless reality often even if it needs to make things up. Our sight, for instance, is not nearly as comprehensive as we like to think, focused primarily on identifying movement (likely from our evolutionary predator-prey history) and funneled through only a small section of the overall eye. The image that we “see” is largely a creation of the brain, built from the constant movements of the eye taking in data, with focus on any changes that are noticed. Anyone who has been startled by finally seeing someone who’s been standing right beside them for a length of time is well aware that sight is not all-encompassing.

Our brains create images that are broader than the data we are taking in, weaving together threads into a whole. That this whole means we miss some things that are there and add other things that aren’t is the stuff of memory research, where people have been known to utterly ignore a person in a monkey-suit or add false details to someone observed during a heavily charged emotional experience. A personal narrative, possessing the quality of transcendence, seems foundational to human experience.

Interconnection-PlatformEverything from skyscrapers to iPads, social organizations and the places we call home, is a creation out of transcendent intent, a form cobbled together out of pieces of information, often only initially considered in the imagination. I am reminded of people who lament how cell-phones have created distance within families, but during natural catastrophes the Red Cross raises millions from small donations through texts. We growl at the person talking loudly on their phone in a restaurant and yet rush to it when wanting to make sure a loved one is safe. Every form, while still retaining the potential of its original intent, possesses a space for the filling in of anyone’s desire, however different it may have been from the original.

Concerning the divine, while particular manifestations of a god idea can be used to justify any manner of behaviors, this stems from a quality of humanity, determining personal purpose through identification with a transcendent concept. People will defend their country, not even recognizing that the concept of “country” is a largely arbitrary term tied to imaginary lines on a human-made map. We’ll lament and/or wax eloquently about “family,” but rarely stop to consider that the concept means many things to many people precisely because it is bound only to data selected by each person and therefore each of us does not need to be bound to any singular form of it.

Transcendent concepts require information and experience to exist, but they do not require any particular set of information. “Family” can mean blood-relations or those you are close to, and “god” can be filled by any number of notions concerning behavior, ethics and aspirations. By reminding ourselves of how our big ideas can hold whatever we want to put in them, we can move beyond discussion of a god and focus on what people are filling it with. We can use it to separate one from another, to condemn and mock, to find shame in our very natures, or we can fill it in with what is humanizing and uplifting, a call to exhibit the best of our nature, to work towards the building of community, a committed union.

What form meaning takes is open for debate; that we will build meaning out of the parts of our lives is inevitable. If we begin in separation that is all we will find. Beginning from a place of human connection, separation and shame will have no place.

 

© David Teachout

3

Disagreement Is Not Mental Illness

We construct our personal experiences, the relationships we engage in and the seeming choices we make through the mind’s eye that is our conscious lives. As we do these things, we typically believe that we are mentally coherent, sane and possessed of a degree of accuracy we deny to those who disagree with us. Unfortunately it is that last point, the acceptance of a quality that is denied to another, which often defines mental health. In other words, mental health or mental illness is often used as a means of differentiating Us and Them.

Within the world of Us vs Them, to be mentally healthy is considered a quality belonging to the dominant, whether it be an individual person or a culture. The pejorative use of “you’re insane” is practiced in debate to demean or otherwise dismiss the contrary party, by selecting one or another behavior or idea, removing it from a broader context and then condemning it. When this singular behavior or idea is placed against the now broader and more comprehensive position of the person making the judgment, seeing the other from a paternalistic high ground becomes easy.

Let’s note first that calling another person “insane” or “crazy” for the purpose of denigration or dismissal is puerile at best and demeaning to those who truly do suffer from a debilitating and/or clinically disruptive pathology. That those who are using this condemnatory wording typically have little knowledge of psychology is an easy observation, as is the equally obvious point that the purpose is not one of diagnosis in the pursuit of helping the other. Psychology, specifically therapeutic practice and the diagnostic skills that are one support for it, serves as a means of generating understanding through empathic communion. It is about sharing the space of humanity in which we all reside and seeking through relationship bonds to support the person moving into a greater and more healthy expression of their life. Using any form of diagnosis, clinical or arm-chair, to dismiss or otherwise remove the other from a mutually beneficial space of generating understanding is as profoundly unethical as it is dehumanizing.

Declarations of “insanity” seem to be offered when faced with two situations: 1) an idea or behavior that is not agreed with and 2) as a substitute for being uncomfortable.

  1. There are few areas in life where disagreement is on greater display than that concerned with religion. Within many social circles it is commonplace to mock or otherwise demean the religious ideas of others as being insane, “obviously” stupid, and/or indicative of mental illness. The memes alone, were they applied to a minority group, would be considered a profoundly disturbing display of dehumanizing dismissal. Rather than looking at the whole of a religious system as a means, tentative at best, to give structure to an uncertain reality and therefore as an attempt to address the existential crisis we all must work through, examples of ideas or behavior are isolated and taken as singular proof that if a person believes or does x their entire life can be characterized as a waste-product of a mental illness.
  2. At the base level of individual observation, we are all profoundly conservative. Our fight/flight/freeze response is generated by a sudden change in perception as we are jolted out of the assumption of a continuity of experience. When faced with a behavior or idea that is considered odd or otherwise weird, we fall back on, largely unconscious, standards supplied to us from our socio-cultural backgrounds. Every generation laments “the kids these days,” even as every community shakes their collective head at the new person moving in with non-“traditional” hair, piercings, clothes, spouting political rhetoric, etc. Being uncomfortable, or what is otherwise known as the “ick factor,” is then dealt with by declaring “there’s something wrong with the person.” That “something wrong” is the perceived lack of a mental health quality.

Culture-and-Mental-Health1-Sadly this tactic of declaring the behavior and ideas of those identified as different or strange or simply other, does more than diminish the struggle of those who truly are suffering from mental illness, it radically limits our ability to consider the enormity of the human experience.

There are few ideas now considered amazing that were not initially thought of as impossible or ridiculous. Everything from fashion to the expression of social bonds has evolved from and through various iterations that now would be looked at as politely quaint if not absurd and horrendous. We exist, each of us and our communities, in a bubble of our own limited cognitive structure. What is “normal” and “correct” feels that way precisely because it stems from a projection of our own identity.

“Individually and collectively, our very existence depends on our ability to reach accurate conclusions about the world around us. In short, the experience of being right is imperative for our survival, gratifying for our ego, and, overall, one of life’s cheapest and keenest satisfactions” (Schulz, 2010)

Noting the limitation of our individual and collective perceptions is less about embarking on some flight into cosmic relativism, than it is concerned with humbly asking bigger questions when faced with that which we disagree or find uncomfortable. There is no set of values that is somehow present in one and absent in another; we all pursue truth, admire honesty and seek to maintain our integrity (to name but a few examples). Disagreement and discomfort are not indicators of the other person’s lack of care for these things, it is a pointer towards the profound breadth to which humanity seeks to answer how we put them into action.

Rather than using disagreement as a means of identifying and then dismissing the other as “insane,” we can instead seek to understand the why and how of the person’s worldview that led them to this idea or behavior. In the end, there may need to be steps taken to ensure the safety of self and society, but such will be done from a place of a broader understanding and appreciation of humanity, not as if seeking to excise a cancer.

 

© David Teachout

 

Resources:

Schulz, Kathryn (2010-05-25). Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error (pp. 4-5). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

 

5

Your God Is Not My God

Civilizational struggle is often based on the notion that one or another group doesn’t share in the other’s values and thus warfare or other forms of struggle are about one value overcoming another. This way of looking at civilizational conflict is far more about self-promotion than providing any analytical power. Values do not demand a particular action, they are identifiers for actions already taken. Community is a value, but it would be strange indeed for a person who feels that value from going to a local meet-up to tell the person who feels it at their local church that what they’re feeling is not only wrong, but not a proper or accurate manifestation of community. Now, the fact that some people actually do declare these types of things gets us to the point, the portrayal of struggle as one of the promotion of a set of values against the absence of those same values, is entirely about power, namely, the power to declare sacrosanct to one group a quality that belongs to all of humanity.

Consider this, if it is acknowledged that values are shared by everyone, but manifest differently due to the guiding influence of world-views or philosophies, then the simple slogans of warfare become difficult to sustain. No longer can a person say “they don’t care about life!” or “they fear our freedoms!” Instead, declarations give way to questions: “how does that person/group define life?” or “what does the person/group believe is the nature of human existence such that certain behaviors are allowable or contemptible?” These questions don’t translate well to bumper stickers and they certainly don’t help a goal of portraying the opposition as that most evil of entities: “the other.”

Faced with the difficulty of delving into world-views, of noting the similarities between self and the enemy, there is a deep desire to find a means of buttressing the simplicity of values warfare. No more powerful means exists than identifying values with one’s own deity. Not only do values become identified with an all-powerful force, but they are removed yet further from the affairs of human life. Also, since often the means of knowing said deity is tied to faith, dialogue itself ends as faith is the most basic self-referential form of knowledge.

The struggle of our times can be considered one between civilizations, but it could just as easily be looked at as between gods. Connecting values to a deity, or simply ignoring the foundational weight of world-views, is a way of placing the visceral quality of emotivism over rational dialogue. This is true regardless of whether one believes in a deity or doesn’t because even the non-believing (which can include atheism or simply a believer in a different deity) group will often start and stop with the god in question. This passive acceptance of a concept that obscures any hope for generative dialogue is for the purpose of dismissiveness.  This occurs because “god” is an empty vessel:

With “god” all that exists is the mental space, there is no potential or actual shared experience because there’s no commonality outside of an internal construct. There’s no way to externally verify between two or more people that what one is thinking is the same as another. All that is possible in this scenario is the sharing of yet further words/concepts and the approval or disapproval of their appropriation for “god.”

The believer has their god become a repository of their needs, desires, and self-narratives. The non-believer can simply fill the deity in question with some form of anti-rationalism or moral failing and move on, all without dealing with the underlying philosophy of the person in question or any identification with the shared values of their mutually-held humanity.

We can see why the focus on deity so easily obscures dialogue by looking at how the god-concept is identified with.

IMG_0283

Socio-historical Context

All gods come out of an initial socio-historical context, providing the parameters for their purposing. It’s little wonder that the desert nomads of what is considered the modern “Middle East” consider paradise to be some version of a land “flowing with milk and honey.” When faced with the endless rolling hills of sand, that would sound like heaven on earth indeed. Indeed, those who attempt defending the odd and fantastical images of apocalyptic visions tacitly accept this point. In every qualification that the prophet in question wouldn’t understand modern weaponry or nation-states is an underlying acceptance of religion as deriving wholly from human experience.

“All gods are homemade, and it is we who pull their strings, and so, give them the power to pull ours.” -Aldous Huxley

Familial Background

When it comes to each of us personally coming into contact with the gods, we do so through our families and the particular culture we were born into first. Consider that the deep disapproval of apostasy (non-belief or change in belief) is connected to maintaining the homogeneity of home and hearth, rather than any connection to the actual existence of a deity. We enter this world kicking and screaming, find comfort and meaning through the foundational attachment relationships that set our thoughts and emotions in order and are often carried through our first decade or two on this earth via the rituals (birth naming, baptism, manhood rites, feminine mysteries, marriage, death ceremonies) handed down by some form of religious tradition. That is a considerable amount of resources invested in maintaining the continuity of community, thus leaving it would have the greatest of consequences.

“Ancient societies had anthropomorphic gods: a huge pantheon expanding into centuries of dynastic drama; fathers and sons, martyred heroes, star-crossed lovers, the deaths of kings – stories that taught us of the danger of hubris and the primacy of humility.” -Tom Hiddleston

Personal Perspective

Lastly we are brought to the individual, the final gate through which god-hood passes. Siblings can grow up in the same family and have quite different memories and understandings of its history and dynamics. Little wonder then that a similar development occurs in one’s relationship with the god-concept. It is not terribly surprising people are drawn to particular religious denominations and theological positions that support actions and points of view they already participate in and adhere to. This is where the desire, at the level of society or civilization, to control how a value is “correctly” manifested takes place at the level of the individual. If god be for me, who can be against me?

Two-paths

Where to Go from Here:

Promoting the notion of “your god is not my god” is two-fold: one, a person’s god-concept is not immediately accessible simply because the term “god” is used or even contingent upon the amount of study given to a particular religion, there are layers to a person’s god-concept that can only be understood through dialogue, listening and active empathy; two, a rigid focus on the god-concept can easily blind a person to the existence of an underlying world-view or philosophy. Complex theological systems were not created to deliberately confuse people nor exert control over the masses, they are a testament to the human need to create a foundational structure for meaning and an acknowledgment that simply declaring “I believe in god” means very little without a context.

We are all, every last one of us, in a struggle to provide meaning to an existence that doesn’t come with an instruction manual. There is no value that is not shared by everyone else, no matter how dissimilar they may support it because our shared humanity is far broader and far deeper than any single behavior. Every person looks upon the world with a different lens, to varying degrees capable of seeing clearly the interconnected pieces that give it substance. There is no view that holds the market on limitation, we are all limited. In the exploration of those limitations may very well lie the ability to expand the boundaries of our own views.

 

 

© David Teachout

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Religious Trauma Syndrome: How Some Organized Religion Leads to Mental Health Problems

Ideas have consequences, otherwise there’d be no push to convince people that some are more right than others. There is no blanket condemnation of religion when noting that some iterations of it lead to severe harm. There is much work still to be done in removing the sanctity from particular ideas and allowing the space in society for people to find healing from authoritarian fundamentalism. My story coming out is only one among many: http://lifeweavings.org/2015/03/06/my-journey-from-faith-to-freedom/

ValerieTarico.com

Religious Trauma Syndrome- AnguishAt age sixteen I began what would be a four year struggle with bulimia.  When the symptoms started, I turned in desperation to adults who knew more than I did about how to stop shameful behavior—my Bible study leader and a visiting youth minister.  “If you ask anything in faith, believing,” they said.  “It will be done.” I knew they were quoting the Word of God. We prayed together, and I went home confident that God had heard my prayers.

But my horrible compulsions didn’t go away. By the fall of my sophomore year in college, I was desperate and depressed enough that I made a suicide attempt. The problem wasn’t just the bulimia.  I was convinced by then that I was a complete spiritual failure. My college counseling department had offered to get me real help (which they later did). But to my mind, at that point, such help…

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Immortality Reflects the Value of the Present

I remember the day of my Christian salvation experience, that moment when, in the spirit of spatial irrationality I “invited Jesus into my heart.” There are countless others who have experienced a similar moment, reveled in its purifying quality and soberly accepted the reality of a world in which death was no longer the enemy but simply a momentary stop on the way to worshiping the Lord in a celestial body. I was a child but I recognized then the awesome power and weight of divine final judgment; that moment when having given up this mortal coil there exists the recognition that one lacks the essential component to confer everlasting life. Fear of damnation and eternal torture at the hands of a supposedly loving ‘God’ drove me to the contemplation of my mortality and not rather an exploration of life’s many manifestations, the potential for something new and glorious.

Thankfully whereas then I saw “through a glass darkly” now I see “face to face,” the reality of life’s continuance, of the abundance where death is not a finality but merely the end of only one manifestation of nature’s abundant forms. Death has lost its sting and not because of some sacrifice by another. Life goes on, it must, it cannot do other than perpetuate its own life-giving-ness. Where in that should fear reside? Where in a universe that has all that we can even potentially comprehend, pushing us by virtue of creative constancy to the frontiers of inquiry, is there a place for having lack, either here or in the moment of our final breath?

Life breeds more life just as love manifests more love and joy luxuriates in the openness of more joy. I believe the existential angst that death often brings results in a profound need to believe in a continued continuity of experience. Stories of what exists beyond death are numerous and often fantastical, exhibiting the imaginative manifestation of humanity, each story drawing from personal experience, cultural myths and familial ties. We want to keep going on and our bodies, caught as they are in this middle earth, can only conceive of something new from within a place of personal knowledge. What truth they all have in common is a heartfelt desire for personal continuance in some form or other.

We create narratives out of implicit memories of emotional connections to events we are automatically shifting our perceptions of to fit a worldview, pushed by internal demands that seem to flow from the universe itself, resulting in a constant stream of meaning-making desire. This desire should be celebrated rather than dismissed. Such desire can be and is a source of connection to the inevitable continuance of creative expression, where the cessation of the ego in death is not a place of finality but an emergence into a near-infinite potential of nature’s possibility.

That possibility, like the myths and legends and stories shaped through human history, manifests the values life holds for each person. If one lives a life of judgment, then the afterlife will exhibit such. If one lives a life of acceptance and celebration of connection, then the afterlife will reflect this. The relationship one has with immortality is not about whether one’s conscious presence continues, but rather the connection to the life currently practiced. Ask yourself what object of desire should continue on when this form has ceased and there you will find the connection to your own immortality. If such is life-denying then so shall death be, but if such is life-giving then so shall the eternal be.

 

© David Teachout

8

Faith, Like All Ways of Knowing, Is A Matter of Personal Identity

To know is often metaphorically described as “seeing,” as in “I see the truth” or “I see what you mean.” Sight is felt in experience as an immediate act, a feeling that is undiminished regardless of an increased understanding of how optics work and how the brain filters and fills in information. To speak of engaging with sight is an odd phrase precisely because sight is as indelible to our usual experience as breathing and the maintenance of a heart beat. We do not consciously choose to see, we simply do it. The same goes for beliefs. Attempt for a day to act without any beliefs, for that matter even a mere minute, and the sheer overwhelming demand of projecting our understanding upon the world as beliefs will become glaringly obvious. To know or believe is basic to human experience, an inevitable compulsion resulting in what is commonly referred to as a worldview.

Weeks ago I came across an article titled “5 Ways to Be a Better Atheist.” Honestly, I no longer refer to myself as an atheist, not having suddenly reconverted to a theistic paradigm but because I think the term is without any intrinsic meaning, much in the same way that I think the term “god” is lacking in intrinsic meaning. Still, as the article was written by a Christian believer, I was intrigued as to whether the same tired arguments and bad stereotypes would be trotted out. I was immediately struck by the author’s distinction between “evidence” and whether such “warrants” a particular conclusion. The difference is commonly missed by the layman or internet philosopher.

 

Evidence Does Not Lead to Conclusions, A Worldview Does

The reason for this misstep or conflation between particular points of evidence and a conclusion is not merely due to philosophical ignorance, but a, likely non-deliberate, strategy.  If a particular set of data can be inevitably bound to a particular conclusion then the strength of that conclusion increases in perceived legitimacy, making, as it does, any questions about the evidence and how such a conclusion was reached null and void. Essentially this is the root of fundamentalism, whether it manifests in religious, political or social ideological systems.

Unfortunately for those who would like their conclusions to be the one and only for all eternity, evidence doesn’t demand a particular ideology to accompany it, though quite obviously it usually does. Further, facts do not necessitate particular conclusions, though obviously people who hold to them will declare that they do. What all too often happens, and what the author of the article laments, is the existence of a caricature of theists being insane, mentally disturbed, anti-rational, anti-science, people who utterly lack any evidence and believe anyway. This depiction is great as a dehumanizing tactic, but dismisses the very real difference between evidence/facts and conclusions and utterly lacks any nuance concerning the means by which people determine what is and is not knowledge or beliefs.

There is evidence for the resurrection of the Christian Christ, but as even the author of the original article contends this doesn’t mean that such evidence warrants a particular conclusion. Historical documentation, supposed eye-witness accounts, personal experiences, etc. all are evidence. Is there other evidence to consider? Absolutely. Is there multiple means of coalescing the data into different conclusions based on different analysis? Very much! But that doesn’t mean the theist is an idiot or against rationality. At one time in our lives we’ve all believed something that wasn’t true, only to find out that the evidence we thought led to a particular conclusion did not in fact do so. History is replete with examples of learned people, even scientifically literate people, who came to what eventually was deemed a false conclusion. The evidence didn’t go away, it just got re-analyzed, expanded upon and a new ideological structure was provided to make a new picture out of them.

 

Just what is knowing all about?

Knowing or believing is an extension of our automatic interaction with life. The means by which someone personally justifies their beliefs is as much about providing a secure foundation for their worldview as it is about getting to “Truth.” A person’s central desire is a world and their place in it that makes sense to them, where desires and demands can be met. This worldview is put into practice by each person’s identity, a self capable of moving forward in life and meeting the ebb and flow of living. Knowledge and beliefs are bound to this frame, they are the substance of the worldview that the person is using.

We cannot help but hold beliefs, many of them constrained by our socio-cultural upbringing. Let’s face it, none of us started with a blank slate and consciously worked through each and every belief we hold. The point of contention comes up when a person needs to personally justify themselves in the face of inquiry. For the sake of brevity we can isolate paths of knowledge to three: faith, authority and rationality. These epistemic systems are the quick and dirty answer to “how do you know?”IMG_1770

The worldview of an identity determines which method of personal justification is going to be useful. There is no singular choice here, no overarching method to put in place. Take the path of authority. Everyone uses it to varying degrees. Existence and all the subjects of study involved are simply too big for any single person to study, choosing an authority to trust is not only inevitable it’s logical. Does this mean that the authority is “Truth”? Clearly not, but then that’s not the end goal for anyone all the time and often not even any of the time. What is at issue here is how the authority is chosen, which brings us back to worldview and a person’s identity. The selection of an authority figure is an extension of the person, it’s why when such a figure is attacked, figuratively or otherwise, it is felt as a personal affront. In all the ways that count, it most certainly is personal, their worldview and sense of self has been harmed.

So then what about faith and rationality? As a general term this whole process of utilizing a path of knowledge to establish the substance of a worldview and therefore of one’s identity, can be referred to as “reasoning.”  As “reasoning” is an inevitable enterprise of the human person, calling it a moral good seems about as absurd as calling perspiration a moral good. Unfortunately, in the modern social debate between secularists and religious believers, “reason” has been marginalized as belonging to a particular group, setting up the tactic of declaring anybody who disagrees as being contrary to or opposed to “reason.” The result is a particularly absurd gang-like verbal warfare between self-proclaimed “rationalists” and what are derogatorily referred to as “faith-ists.”

No person always uses only one path for personal justification. The most informed of us will always be ignorant of something and when faced with that absence of knowledge, will rely on the authority of someone else. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this as a general rule, it saves time and quite often holds no negative consequences. Further, authority is not the flip-side of faith anymore than it is of rationality. The same goes for faith and rationality, they are not the opposites to authority or to each other. They are all paths for personal justification. They are all tied to the demands and desires of an identity struggling within a worldview.

There is a difference between the path of faith and that of rationality and authority. The difference is found in the purity with which it is felt to be tied to one’s identity. Authority and rationality have a public or external component, they rely on more than the internal desire of the person, the felt demand to hold one’s beliefs as accurate. What faith is, is justification via personal identity, it is the felt sense that one simply knows because to deny it would be to deny one’s very self.

 

We Use Many Ways to Justify Our Beliefs

The fact is, we all use faith as personal justification, just as we all use rationality and authority. None of us use any of them all the time, we’re simply not capable of it. Caricaturing someone else as doing so is not only false, it is belittling to their humanity. Declaring that one does so is simply gross delusion. The only difference between people is the subjects and the substance of those areas that the paths of knowledge are utilized. Often a person will use one or more in the same area. What person claiming faith won’t refer to their holy book (authority) or attempt the construction of an argument (rationality)? What person claiming rationality won’t quote an expert (authority) or when cornered on a point of ignorance simply declare they know themselves to be right (faith)?

The reality of our lives is that we as human beings are not calculating rational machines. Our interests guide our behavior and our worldviews provide structure for our identities to interact with others. These interests and worldviews are bound to the relationships we form with the people we trust and the ideas that provide meaning. There are plenty of places to meet in open generative dialogue because we are all human. A person may come to a false conclusion based one path of knowledge only to come to a true conclusion based on another or even the same one. We won’t ever know better how the result happened or what could be found helpful along a path if the only response is dismissal.

 

 

© David Teachout

 

 

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