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Spirituality in a Time of Seriousness: Levels and Religion

1. Baking a Cake for Israel One of my favorite Onion articles came two weeks after September 11. The satirical newspaper had begun in a more innocent time, the frivolity and possibility of which seem hard to remember now: the … Read More

By / August 1, 2006

1. Baking a Cake for Israel

One of my favorite Onion articles came two weeks after September 11. The satirical newspaper had begun in a more innocent time, the frivolity and possibility of which seem hard to remember now: the interregnum between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the “War on Terror,” with the dot-com era booming and the Clinton administration presiding over what some were already calling the pax Americana. In this time of relative lightness, The Onion found fertile soil in the ludicrous rhetoric of the Clinton-hating Right, and the obscene details of the Lewinsky scandal — pornography in the field of politics.

But then came the attacks on America, and suddenly satire didn’t seem so funny.

Two weeks later, though, under the overall headline of “Holy Fucking Shit!”, The Onion roared back into action. The sinister pattern that has marked American politics for the last five years had already begun to take shape: the warmongering masquerading as patriotism, the co-option of our grief into a particularist narrative of “American values,” and of course, the omnipresence of fear and its exploitation. And The Onion captured it all. When that September 26 issue came out, I remember exhaling a little bit more, and returning a bit closer to normalcy, humor, irony.

Among the columns in that issue was a satirical report of a woman in Kansas who baked a flag-shaped cake to commemorate the victims of 9/11. It had perfect pitch: gentle ridicule of the many similar and pointless gestures that were being made across America at the time, and yet, a note of sympathy too. All of us, it seemed, felt the same way as the hapless housewife in Topeka: we wanted to help, but we were impotent to do anything. I remember biking down to the Red Cross on 8th Avenue, and being upset that they didn’t need any more blood.

Those of us with emotional ties to Israel find ourselves in a similar moment now. We are similarly helpless to do anything (unless we’re willing to leave our comfortable material homeland and fight for our spiritual one) and similarly bereft of certain comfortable illusions — primarily that of normalcy. As I wrote about earlier this year, I was struck, while living in Israel for the year, by the one-sided normalcy of the current situation. On the Israeli side, 2005-06 was a relatively quiet year for suicide bombers, and the separation wall going up gave many Israelis I spoke to a sense of resigned, frustrated… security. Yes, on the Palestinian side, the same separation wall was imparting a sense of doom. And yes, the rosy years of the Oslo accords — which overlapped with the rosy years of Clintonian prosperity and (relative) peace — were long gone; the idea of an Israeli-Palestinian marriage had been replaced with one of a divorce. But at least the separation was happening.

Now, of course, those illusions are shattered. Notwithstanding the relentless media coverage of the bombs in Lebanon, contrasted with only scattered mentions of those falling on Israel, Israel seems more vulnerable than ever. And unlike past episodes of violence, the sense vulnerability is especially acute for Americans like me who distort the Israeli landscape according to its nodes of spiritual significance. For God’s sake, they’re hitting Tsfat! Meron! One of the birthplaces of Kabbalah, where only two months ago I danced on Lag B’Omer! Intellectually and politically, the attacks on Nahariah and Haifa are far more significant. But emotionally, the idea of rockets raining down on the Ari’s grave makes me furious — and sad.

Such American distortions of Israel have been a longstanding amusement for Israelis, who laugh at portly American Jews “getting in touch with their roots” before hanging their clothes in immaculate hotel bathrooms. We probably deserve the ridicule — we go on our birthright trips and UJA Missions, bob in the Dead Sea, and get the hell out of there anytime things get rough. And we sentimentalize.

My own recent year in Israel was no exception. I spent my time in Jerusalem, writing a book called God in Your Body and studying the heretic Jacob Frank — not selling software in Hadera or raising kids in Karmiel. Yes, I did my time at the Misrad HaRishui and sampled hummus from Lina to Sa’id, but ultimately I, too, was in Israel for “spiritual” reasons which now seem all the more indulgent in the wake of the latest waves of violence. Is spirituality a luxury, even a form of decadence? And is the notion of spiritual practice in wartime as ludicrous as the Kansas woman baking a cake for 9/11?

2. Lower and Higher are Equal

All “higher” activities of human life — art, music, hunting, sports, spirituality, reading — are luxuries that depend on “lower” levels such as survival, health, security, food, shelter — being secure. You can’t perform (or enjoy) a work of modern dance when you’re starving, or play golf when the course is being shelled. This is why the whole rhetoric of “higher” and “lower” is misleading. As Ken Wilber talks about in his work, our intuitive, improper understanding of hierarchies short-changes both the high and low: the higher faculties of humankind look like irrelevant doodles, and the lower ones are subjugated. So some intellectuals think it’s beneath them to get their hands dirty, and some military folks think the intellectuals are effete and barely human. Likewise, some Marxists think religion is absurd (and dangerous), while some religious types see the economic determinism of Marxism as reductive (and dangerous).

For Wilber, all this misunderstanding stems from an incorrect notion of hierarchy. From the top down, the error comes from believing that higher means better. And from the bottom up, the error comes from believing that more necessary is more real. In fact, none of this is the case. Neither higher nor lower is better — and neither higher nor lower is more real. On the one hand, higher depends on lower. On the other, it is the higher that builds upon the lower, and rises to the next level of development.

The conceptual structure that Wilber advocates is that of “holons,” levels of being which “transcend and include” each lower level. Wilber points out that this is how ordinary physical reality is understood all the time. For example, it is meaningless to ask whether atoms or molecules are more “real,” or whether cells or bodies are “better.” Of course, both molecules and atoms are real — and while bodies are obviously better than mere cells, without the “mere” cells, the bodies couldn’t exist. In fact, atoms and molecules and cells and bodies are each holons, including their component parts but also transcending those parts as well. And so on up the chain of being to planets, solar systems, and galaxies. Each level could not exist without the lower one, yet each level is not reducible to the lower one either.

Applying this model to the question of spirituality in wartime answers the problem of the Kansas Cake. Of course, questions of survival are more pressing than questions of spiritual well-being. But not because they are more important — simply because they are more pressing. Indeed, it’s not even clear that the questions of war and peace are really questions of “survival” more important than the primal needs that higher pursuits such as religion, dance, hunting, and competition often address. Spirituality, in the sense of contemplation, healing, and personal growth, may well be a purely higher pursuit akin to opera or modern dance. But religion in its mythic sense — more on that below — is also more basic, and more primal, like the need for sound and movement itself.

Even if spirituality is purely a higher pursuit, though — that is, even if it is basically a leisure activity that expresses something noble, but inessential, about the human condition — it does not mean that the survival needs are more important — only that they are more foundational. Indeed, as is often observed, insisting on the maintenance of “higher” activities can itself be an act of resistance: putting on the dance performance despite the war, or continuing one’s education despite a terminal illness. In such moments, the refusal to be reduced is an assertion of dignity.

3. You Can’t Handle the Truth

So far, so good — and convenient for me: now continuing my spiritual practice isn’t a narcissistic indulgence, it’s actually thumbing my nose at Hezbollah. By refusing my dignity to be compromised, even vicariously, I am asserting my humanity, which is defined precisely by my ability to pursue the “higher” callings of art, religion, etc. Higher doesn’t mean better — in a time of war, the soldiers are certainly more important, and I depend on them much more than they depend on me (unless you buy the claims of the haredim that their Torah study shields Israel from missiles). But higher does mean higher, in the sense given to aspiration.

This rosy picture collapses, though, when that religionists and their opponents each want to lay claim to something “essential”: that spirituality isn’t just a pleasant activity like sailing, but expresses the essence of the human condition. Or, conversely, that it’s all a delusion, and a distraction from whatever really is essential (making money, or helping the poor, or whatever).

On the face of it, there is no immediate reason why spiritual practice should be any different from sailing, bowling, dance, art, reading, or the kinds of arcane scholarship that are routinely funded by academic institutions. All of these are beautiful, and all are basically irrelevant to core questions of human survival. But religion, and by extension spirituality, is different. Spirituality tries to make claims about ultimate reality. Religion tries to set down rules and laws. And it’s all supposed to have something to do with truth.

And so we get into trouble, because a claim to truth seems like a claim to essence, and it’s all too easy to laugh at a group of Meditators for Peace when the Galilee and Southern Lebanon are being shelled. If we look closely enough, though, this is really, again, a question of the level of truth in question. The meditator, if she is careful, is not really saying anything about the truth of tactical military operations, the truth of geopolitical alliances, or the truth of internecine strife in the Near East. She is trying to see something about the truth of her own being, or the truth of Being itself — but not the truth of life’s particulars.

As Ken Wilber remarked to a reporter from Shambhala magazine, the Buddha does tell you the truth — but he doesn’t tell you how to change the oil on your car. Therefore, if you want to live in the world of appearances, more than the Buddha’s teaching is necessary. This greatly pissed off Wilber’s interviewer, since there is a Buddhist notion that the dharma is perfect, and tells you everything you need to know to be happy. Of course, while you can be perfectly happy with the dharma, that type of happiness either doesn’t include cars, or does include mechanics who can change the oil for you — once again, a question of levels of truth. ====

The problem is that the levels of truth in religion and spirituality are mixed up all the time, not least by religionists, and atheists, themselves. Not mixed up in the sense of incoherence — rather, mixed up in the sense of disagreement and controversy.

First, consider the “normal,” unreconstructed religionist. For such a person, religion really is about the cliche of following rules, doing what you’re supposed to do, and believing in the literal truth of the stories of the Bible. Religion is, in this light, still conceived of as about the “higher” human faculties — but not anything trans-rational, personally spiritual, or contemplative, only moral, intellectual/theological, and ethical. Religion, in this mindset (which is far more common than my own, of course), exists on the level of everyday reality, and is about a set of beliefs, precepts and principles, to which the individual will is to be conformed. We may still have religious experiences, of course — as I’ve written about before, both Bushian evangelism and Al Qaeda Islamism deeply value personal religious experience — but only within the bounds of religion, and, crucially, only interpreted within fixed categories. Anything more than that is “putting yourself above the Bible” or straying from the true path.

This is what Wilber calls “interpreting a state in light of your stage” — some kind of mind-state, which a meditator might just see as a mind-state, or a contemplative experience, is interpreted in mythic language, e.g., as a message from the Virgin Mary, or Allah, or Christ. And the truth to which that experience refers is neither psychological-subjective nor Absolute — but relative, normal, and everyday. So: Jesus told me that I was going to win the football game. Or: The Archon El told me that the world will end in 2012. Contemplative mindstates, interpreted down in terms of everyday reality.

(As an aside, perhaps this is one reason American Jews are more progressive in their religiosity than Israelis: they literally don’t understand the words they are singing. Even when they do, the literalism of myth is still distanced by the language and thus not “ridiculous.” Statistically, only about 15% of American Jews say they believe the statements of the Bible and liturgy. The rest of us find it easier to just sing.)

Second, consider the secular fundamentalist — less familiar, and less dangerous, but it is still the exact mirror image of its religious twin. Just as the religionist does, the secular fundamentalist, believes that religion is about true or false historical statements, and obedience to various pre-set principles of belief and action. Only she doesn’t believe any of them. And, also just like the religious fundamentalist, she denies the validity of trans-rational religious experience, in her case lumping it together with pre-rational nonsense. Crystal healing is bunk, and therefore so is all “energy” work. Made-up images of angels are delusion, and therefore so is any insight gained through meditation.

Granted, the secular fundamentalist gets plenty of help from the New Age, which confuses pre-rational and trans-rational all the time. But the great irony is that the skeptic thinks he is the voice of reason and clarity, whereas he in fact is the voice of fear and ignorance — because he simply does not know what he is talking about. Not because the “trans-rational” faculties are beyond human capacity, but because he simply hasn’t tried to experience them. Simply go on retreat for seven days, and you’ll see that you can have deep insights into your own consciousness while at the same time perfectly maintaining the rational faculties of doubt, inquiry, and the rest — and while, of course, also tending to all the “lower” needs of your body. Or, simply do a “magic” religious ritual, and you’ll see that, whatever the source of the mindstate, mindstates and shifts and insights do indeed occur.

Of course, none of this says anything about the mythic structures in which religious experience is interpreted — that’s on a “lower” stage than the experience itself. Obviously, the move from a mystical experience to “I had an experience of Jesus Christ” is an interpretive one, which is susceptible to questioning. But the experience itself, purely as an experience, is not. As the bumper-sticker says, dancers also looks insane to people who can’t hear the music.

Third and finally, consider the New Age enthusiast. He, too, has a contemplative experience, but ascribes to it all sorts of relative-world power. Such as: If everyone meditates, there will be world peace. Or: if Olmert and Nasrallah would just look inside themselves, they would discover their inner wisdom and war wouldn’t happen anymore. Nonsense. The experience is the experience. It has transformative personal power. It may, indeed, prevent violence in the long-term, as people slowly learn to cultivate more compassion and less ugliness. But in the short term, all the conventional rules of engagement still apply. In fact, to separate out the “higher” moment of religious/contemplative insight from the “lower” mythic language in which it has been laminated is, itself, a luxury reserved for the small percentage of people privileged and interested enough to do it. This is the insight and the failing of Jewish Reconstructionism, which gets the theology more “right” than any other denomination, but which errs in thinking that theology is really important. As Wilber acknowledges, most people have more pressing concerns: emotional comfort when a loved one dies, or pure physical survival. Insisting on proper god-language when someone is in the hospital would be the problem of the Kansas Cake all over again. When a fundamental need is unmet, the higher questions look like doodles.

So, in all three cases — the religionist, the secularist, and the New Age enthusiast — it’s all the same problem: mistaking levels of religion, or reality, leading to great mistakes about the value and role of religious/spiritual experience. On the one hand, spirituality in a time of seriousness can look like decadent. On the other hand, if we never ask the higher questions, we remain trapped in the flatland worlds of secular and religious fundamentalism. It’s not that life can’t be happily lived in that way: life can also be happily lived without fine wine, music, or the Super Bowl. But for some people, it will be impoverished. Both higher and lower are important, but they each have their different takes on “truth,” and talk past each other when they argue about what’s essential and what is not.

4. Religion Reconstructed and Un-

This is also why it’s so hard for a contemplative to translate her theology into a shared religious vocabulary. To take a Jewish example, consider the question of the divinity of the Torah. In traditional categories, either God wrote the Torah, in which case we better listen to it (religionist), or people made it up, in which case we don’t really need to (secularist). But I, like the Reconstructionists, end up somewhere less clear and more complex. I don’t necessarily believe in what the Good Book says, but I do believe in something which inspired it. And the less attached I am to the idea of literal Biblical truth, the more my appreciation of the Bible grows, because then I can see it not as bad science or bigoted law, but as a beautiful effort to address real concerns about identity, survival, distinctiveness, and control. And then I can translate the Bible’s concerns to my own, since I share so many of them.

Unlike the New Age enthusiast, I don’t think that the “Something which inspired” the Bible is experienced the same way by me and by men in the 6th century B.C.E. Unfortunately, I don’t think my Biblical forbears had an idea of a “transparent God” of whom it is said “God does not exist; God is existence itself.” No, I think they had a notion of a human-like deity in the sky who presides over the world he has created, and who cherishes his special people. But I do think that that belief answered questions that are similar to ones I have, and with wisdom that accumulated over centuries of community, folklore, and story. And because I was raised in this civilization, its tools and even its myths feel natural to me. I may not believe in its statements about God, but what statements about God make sense anyway?

That is, of course, a rather complicated — and yet still quite partial — answer. It fails badly as a creed for large numbers of people, most of whom lack either the time, the interest, or the aptitude for parsing all these theological arguments. It also puts a large gulf between me and those Jews who really buy into the Jewish myths in a literal, unreconstructed way. And it even fails the many people (including many ‘traditional’ Israelis) who would prefer to be “bad” traditional Jews rather than twist Jewish theology around to suit their view of the world. To me, it’s honest theology; but to them, it’s twisting. Fine, you don’t believe the earth is only 5,766 years old — don’t believe it. But don’t call yourself religious.

Here again, flatland fundamentalism: a notion that religion is about certain statements of fact that you either believe or don’t believe. The same problem once again.

Whereas, in fact, the whole point of “there are no atheists in foxholes” is that facts, theologies, and dogmas are really not what religion is about at all. It’s just not about that level of thinking — it’s about the deeper needs for a god, the primal yearning for a father or mother, and the desire for order in the midst of chaos.

This is how I maintain my religious lifestyle even absent a belief in Torah MiSinai, or the various permutations on that theme one can learn at progressive institutions, or any familiar theological apparatus at all. The apparatus doesn’t dictate the practice; belief does not dictate love. The apparatus is both too low and too high — too rational for the contemplative experience to which it attempts to relate, and too rational for the emotional needs that underlie its sophisticated rationale.

This is also how the most anti-spiritual religious Jews are, in a way, the most spiritual. These are the people who want no explanation provided for what they do, who insist that they are following God’s word. In other words: their spiritual-emotional need to “follow God’s word” is so strong that it can scarcely be seen at all.

And this is how secularism is itself a form of devotion. About a year ago, I mentioned the “there are no atheists in foxholes” adage in an earlier article. Zeek received an email from an irate reader who said that, while he had never been in a foxhole, he resented the implication that his atheism would be so easily compromised. I thought to myself: how many religious people have such strong and unwavering faith? And what deep needs — for truth, for honesty — underlie it?

A spirituality that cannot withstand the foxhole — that does not deeply address meaningful human needs — isn’t worthy of the name. Because the ultimate lesson of “levels in religion” is that religion ought to speak on all of these levels: the highest level of the contemplative, the conventional level of the worker or the soldier, and the primal level of the human being in stress or pain. These levels do not speak well to one another, but a religious community is one which shares the vocabulary anyway. That way, there is a God to turn to when all is uncertain, a God to love when all is perfect, and a God to guide the times of in-between.

Who’s to say which matters more — the lower, fundamental needs, or the higher, heavenly hopes? Or the everyday world of families, communities, and love? And who’s to quibble over the theological or atheological details? Whether it’s God or atheism one clings to, it is the clinging (devekut) which matters: the “one fortunate attachment” in Buddhist terms, the “sharp dart of longing love” in Christian ones. Perhaps all the rest is commentary.

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