Culture wars

We all know how hard it is for fundamentalists, the mainline religious, and what are called New Agers to live together. Although the three groups all believe in the reality of spirit, in a very real sense they live in radically different worlds, because they perceive different realities.

But those three at least believe that we are a blend of body, mind and spirit. Materialists eliminate spirit as “unscientific,” whatever that means. Behaviorist psychologists, if I understand their arguments, eliminate even mind, regarding thought and all internal human existence (presumably including their own) as an accidental by-product of chemical processes of the brain.

How can people holding such different viewpoints live comfortably together?

Well, we can’t. Not very comfortably. Strained tolerance is about as well as the various sides usually do. Each sees its own values under assault; each feels that its values are not respected by others or by society as a whole; each (to cite yet a third case of the same thing seen differently) sees others living in a fantasyland and forcing others to live there as well.

For each of the participants the stakes seem infinitely high, because of two connected assumptions. The first is: “It’s us against them, and only one can win, and the result will determine human life for the indefinite future.” The second, acknowledged or not, is: “We’re on our own.” And disagreement over high stakes breeds fanaticism.

This is where wars between cultures begin, and that’s precisely what is going on today throughout the world.

To resolve this culture war without anyone losing, we’d have to find a common starting place, which surely can only be agreement on the facts underlying human existence. If we could agree on the facts, we could fight about interpretations and values later. But where is agreement on the facts to come from? Divine revelation? Scientific theory? Abstract reasoning? Intuitive knowing?

The authorities one believes in are partly determined by one’s values, and in turn those authorities help shape those values. It is a reciprocating process. But one man’s authority is another man’s superstition. Fundamentalists feel about Evolution the way materialists feel about the Bible: They see it as a superstition that warps the intellectual processes, and thus ultimately the values, of those who believe in it.

I would argue that what we believe comes partly from what we have been taught (implicitly and exquisitely) by our life experiences, partly from what we have reasoned out or resonated with (in other words what we have more consciously chosen), and mostly from personal experience. What I know, because I’ve been there, is in a different category from what I only believe. This is true even if what I “know” is wrong.

What we feel we know, we do not need to defend with vehemence or anger. It is what we believe — that is, what we cannot be sure of — that may tempt us to kill one another, for what we are unconsciously unsure of, we defend with redoubled vehemence.

The scriptures say Jesus came that we may have “life more abundantly” — which I understand to mean life deeper, wider and richer than commonly experienced. I certainly believe that life more abundantly is possible. In fact, I know it, from personal experience, which is the only way we really know anything. Those who have been imprisoned know what freedom is in a way that those who have not, do not.

For a certain type of mind and personality, religion is the best, perhaps the only, avenue to that greater life. For other types, religion may serve not to open up the way, but to close it off. Just as humanity comes in different races and nationalities, so it comes in different psychological types, and members of each of these types can fulfill themselves only in a certain way. It’s no good expecting fundamentalist Christians to find their spiritual growth in shamanic practices, or to expect Episcopalians and atheists to find their own growth in the same way. A path exists for each, and what is a path for one is trackless wilderness for another.

To be an enemy of religion per se is as foolish as being an enemy of spirituality, or of expansion of consciousness, or of any other way of achieving growth toward becoming what we are meant to be. I do not see a necessary contradiction among them.

There are many paths, and we all have similar needs and similar intuitive certainties — certain things that seem to all of us self-evident. After all, at a level far beyond our conscious reasoning, we come out of the same world and are part of the same world, within the sensory realm and beyond it. As our experiences are not necessarily mutually contradictory, neither are the explanations — unless one says “this interpretation is the only valid interpretation.”

But of course this is exactly what usually happens. It is too bad. Arguing over which path is best wastes precious energy that could be used to better purpose.

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