Posted: Sat, December 22, 2012 | By: Special Guest
by Alex McGilvery
I was checking out a facebook posting in which people were asked to suggest one additional verse to the Bible. What was interesting was the number that said directly or indirectly that we were expected to think for ourselves. One of Jesus’ final instructions to his disciples was that they were no longer slaves but heirs. Being an heir means responsibility. It means that we need to think about what we are doing.
That’s right. God doesn’t want us to be stupid. If you haven’t read Lincoln Cannon’s excellent article on faith and thinking please do so. Faith and thought are not mutually exclusive. Faith and science are not enemies. These are lies that you have been told in order to make the world simpler. They are lies and they are insidious ones. It is this thinking that has kept the debate around global warming going long past the time that we should have been making radical changes to our way of life.
There are lots of people who are too lazy to think. They are not all religious people. Read any collection of comments on a youtube video that mentions any element of religion and you will be astounded at the stupidity of the responses, both religious and atheist. Because the world doesn’t work the way you want it to is not proof that God doesn’t exist; because the world seems work the way you want it to isn’t proof that God does exist.
Religion doesn’t make people stupid. Laziness makes people stupid. I know that religion is on Hank’s list of things that damage your intelligence. But I would argue that the causation is backward, the less intelligent chose a religion that won’t force them to think too much. Religion properly applied needs intelligence. To be faithful in the way that Lincoln talks about takes hard work. We look at drugs or neuro-stimulation as ways of enhancing morality, yet religious disciplines have been doing that for millennia.
My brother watched this video on game theory and asked what you would need to do to become a Level 42 Christian. Many people would assume that you would need to memorize the Bible and spend lots of time in prayer to become so holy. Gaming though isn’t about just information. We have Bibles around to read. Memorizing is a useful exercise for the brain, but knowing the complexities of the scripture and how they weave through the stories, histories and poetry of the bible is essential. We need to wander through the landscape of the Bible as people wander through World of Warcraft, in order to learn what it is going to teach us. There are no shortcuts. Just as you can’t shortcut learning WoW to gain levels.
No scriptures are simple. There are no gold bound books that tell us in exact terms what God expects of us. The Bible is not the inerrant word of God. That doesn’t mean that scriptures in general and the Bible in particular are not useful for us to know. Take something as basic as the Ten Commandments. Most people are aware that there are Ten Commandments, but most could not tell you what they are or what order they appear. Even fewer people know that the Commandments make several appearances in the first five books of the Bible.
Hitchens was aware of this and uses it as a beginning place to suggest that the commandments are unsupportable. The problem is that he has his emphasis backwards. Historians will tell you that the more something, like say, ten rules for living, show up in different sources, the more likely they are to be important in the culture of the day. Variations are expected. Complete lack of variation between one source and another is a red flag and suggests that the sources were altered. Knowing the Ten Commandments is important, but knowing that there is more than one version is even more important. Most important is knowing how to interpret that multiplicity and variation properly. I want to point out that this is not some special religious method of justifying obscure texts, but normal historical practice. I don’t have space to go through the whole article, but it does show that reading scriptures is more work than reading the comics in the paper. You need to understand history, literature, culture and be aware of your own biases.
The same is true for prayer. If you don’t understand meditation and contemplation and you don’t have the mental discipline to follow through, it won’t make much difference. The reason Tibetan monks’ brains are more empathetic is because they have worked for years to make them that way. It isn’t an interesting side effect of meditation, it is the purpose. Mastery takes time, effort and discipline.
Jonathan Haidt talks about religion, transcendence and evolution in this video. He suggests that we have a lower “secular” mind and an upper “sacred” mind; and that mystical experiences are the result of being uplifted to this sacred mind. While in this sacred mind we become better people. We don’t hate our enemies; we forgive wrongs; we feel love for all around us. Haidt goes on to talk about the evolutionary value of this sacred mind in creating cooperative groups that compete internally and cooperate externally. Nothing unites us quite as quickly as a common threat.
There are different ways of achieving the sacred mind. Sometimes a place will do it, sometimes being in a large group of people with a common purpose, and sometimes religious practice. Places that cause us to stop thinking about ourselves and just stare in awe are likely to move us up Haidt’s secret staircase to the sacred mind. It is the experience of losing oneself that defines this movement. We are no longer an insignificant speck, but a part of the cosmos. Crowds also create this possibility of losing ourselves to a larger whole. He talks about celebratory crowds, but dances quickly around the loss of self that results in destructive mobs or the acquiescence to evil that happens with extreme nationalism.
It is the third possibility that I would like to explore further. Haidt mentions religious ritual; then shies away quickly, but religions are created around people who spent much of their lives in this sacred mind space. Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed and others are defined by their insistence on love, self sacrifice and justice – the very things that Haidt talks about as indicative of a sacred mind experience. The interesting thing is that none of these people are tied to one particular location. They are uplifted wherever they go. The reason for this is their spiritual discipline.
Jesus in particular spends much of his time in the wilderness in prayer. In the opening chapters of Mark, the disciples are constantly going out searching for him to drag him back to the people. In Christian tradition it is this being in an attitude of constant prayer that sets Jesus apart from others and connects him to the divine. Even Jesus, who the gospels call the Son of God, has to work at staying connected with the sacred! He emphasizes prayer as an important vehicle to develop and maintain a relationship with God. Paul carries that emphasis into his letters. Much of his general advice is to pray.
So what is prayer? For most of the modern world, including religious people, prayer is about asking God for what we want. Many of the post-theist authors start on their journey away from believing in a God with whom we can relate with the failure of God to answer their prayers. It doesn’t matter whether God didn’t show up with a new bike or a cure for the cancer that was killing a favourite teacher. Prayer, however, is deeper than just being a spiritual version of a mail-order catalog.
Prayer as practice by the masters is more about changing what we want than it is about getting what we want. It is a meditative discipline – the same kind of meditative discipline that creates a higher level of empathy. It isn’t about talking. The proper practice of prayer takes discipline, focus and careful thought.
Being religious doesn’t mean that you stop thinking. In fact if you are serious about it, like everything else in life, it demands a high level of self awareness and an open mind. You can not check your brain at the door if you are going to be effective at living out your faith, not if you intend your life to be a visible and compelling argument for the value of your religion.