Choice, Experience, and Wisdom from Many Wells   Leave a comment

I want to do some thinking out loud here. Nothing new, since I do it frequently. But it’s an experiment with a more specific kind of thinking I share less often here, because for many people, negative experiences with Christianity raise painful associations and memories that make even a mention of Jesus or the long, rich, varied and potentially very useful Christian tradition anathema to them. So if you’re still deeply allergic and over-sensitized to some of the more toxic forms of religion, well, here’s your red flag. But if you choose to go forward, simply treat the following as another kind of practice, like tai chi or dancing when no one’s watching, or waving at the moon.

Try it out for what it’s worth, without preconceptions. If you need a prod, here’s one: “I can’t dance” doesn’t cut it. Everybody moves, and everybody can move rhythmically. That’s all that’s needed. The rest is mere practice and polish.

As a Druid I feel almost a compulsion to follow wherever the light leads. I’ve rarely been disappointed, which is why I keep doing it.

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One legacy of my Christian upbringing is a fascination with “wisdom from the borders.” Unlike my more fundamentalist cousins, my mother was drawn to Christian Science with its focus on healing, and my World War II vet father was a member of the “God made the world, I farm a small piece of it, I’m grateful for its seasons and gifts, and that’s already enough for me” school of deism. From that initial gift of my parents’ openness to possibility, I learned and grew the most, before I took other paths, through insights from the periphery, or even outside the official “party line,” of Evangelical Christianity, or “EC.”

EC is, after all, just one sub-branch of one faith, but it’s a sub-branch that sometimes gets a bad name for its often unreflective adherence to dogma, especially in the face of good counter-evidence. Because of that, it also gets a lot of press from agnostic and atheist strands in contemporary thought and journalism. One of the regrettable but understandable consequences of the debate is that many people write off a whole religion because one or two particular flavors of it that they happen to know or have experienced just make them gag. It’s a “baby with the bathwater” thang.

goat-and-sheepOne of the EC dogmas that bothered me the most, from about the age of 8 or 9 onward, and that has set many other people’s teeth on edge as well,  is what’s more recently been called “damnationism” — the apparent and deeply problematic need to condemn whole swaths of humanity to eternal torment because they don’t happen to believe the right things required by one stream of orthodoxy, all so we can hang with the sheep and not with the goats for the rest of time. Finally, some writers are even starting to call that out for what it is: a blasphemous perversion of an original truth.**

Greetings-From-Hell

Hell, MI, 48169 — an actual place, population approx. 260, located 15 miles NW of Ann Arbor.

One of my favorite writers within the universalist stream of Christianity, which doesn’t clutch a self-righteous need to condemn everyone else but Christians to hell, is Thomas Talbott. Universalism can be conveniently summed up in just two words: love wins.

Talbott’s insights do come cloaked in evangelical language, because that’s his particular upbringing. But he looks far beyond the surface, like I hope you will, and like most people learn to do when they realize either a pretty or ugly face is often the least interesting and important part of a person.

Here’s an excerpt I want to work with, from Talbott’s fine book* The Inescapable Love of God:

In fact, our bad choices almost never get us what we really want; this is part of what makes them bad, and also one reason why God is able to bring redemptive good out of them. When we make a mess of our lives and our misery becomes more and more unbearable, the hell we thereby create for ourselves will in the end resolve the very ambiguity and shatter the very illusions that made the bad choices possible in the first place. That is how God works with us as created rational agents. He permits us to choose freely in the ambiguous contexts in which we first emerge as self-aware beings, and he then requires us to learn from experience the hard lessons we sometimes need to learn. So in that way, the consequences of our free choices, both the good ones and the bad ones, are a source of revelation; they reveal sooner or later — in the next life, if not in this one — both the horror of separation from God and the bliss of union with him. And that is why the end is foreordained: all paths finally lead to the same destination, the end is reconciliation, though some are longer, windier, and a lot more painful than others.

When I read sound insights from the Wise working in other traditions that may ring notes that jar a little, I like to try out alternate versions, to see how they work when clothed in other terminology. How much of the wisdom survives the change? How much of the difficulty is merely semantics? Here are Talbott’s words again, re-garbed in non-theist language:

In fact, our bad choices almost never get us what we really want; this is part of what makes them bad for us, and also one reason why our subsequent experiences are able to bring good out of them. When we make a mess of our lives and our misery becomes more and more unbearable, the hell we thereby create for ourselves can eventually resolve the very ambiguity and shatter the very illusions that made the bad choices possible in the first place. That is how the patterns of the universe often respond to us as rational agents. They permit us to choose freely in the ambiguous contexts in which we first emerge as self-aware beings, and then let us learn from experience the hard lessons we sometimes need to learn in order to gain wisdom. So in that way, the consequences of our free choices, both the good ones and the bad ones, are a potential source of growth and discovery; they reveal both the suffering of separation from our own highest good and the bliss of heeding its shaping pattern.

That’s interesting to me. How much did I change? Well, “God” gets replaced with patterns that inhere in lived experience, and “redemption” becomes growth and increased insight. The universe becomes aware of itself in us and in other beings. Is that “true”? Well, let’s be Druidic about it and test it, for years if necessary, rather than bothering with any belief or disbelief about it before we even have a foundation of experience to reflect on. Whether the patterns of the universe tend towards love is an experiential question, and really not a matter that mere belief can adequately resolve either way. And for how many other questions like it is this also true?

These insights issue from what used to be called the “perennial tradition,” or the philosophia perennis, a well of wisdom common to the depths of all valid traditions, part of the heritage of humanity rather than the exclusive possession of any one culture or tradition. It’s also part of folk wisdom in the West that emerges in sayings like “what goes around comes around” and “what you do comes back to you.” The added insight here points to the value of “bad” experiences, just as useful — or misleading! — as the good ones. For ease and comfort can mislead us about the pain and suffering in the world, just as our own pain and suffering can blind us to the beauty and wonder and possibility around us. From all I’ve seen, life, fortunately, is bigger than either.

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iolo-morgannwgOne of the streams from the early days of the Druid revival and the writings of Iolo Morgannwg*** runs with a Welsh version of such wisdom, offering a vision of a cosmos in which all things move toward growth and increasing consciousness, over countless eons, through every imaginable form, and in every imaginable experience. In this conception, the universe is a flow of energies, and its current sweeps us/we ride it from Annwn (ah-noon) and Abred (ah-bred) to Gwynfyd (gwin-vid) and ultimately on to Ceugant (kye-gahnt), a kind of infinity. Eventually we all experience everything.

Unlike the Christian sense of redemption or heaven, you’ll note, these are simply points along the flow. Another way to see it: the mouth of the river as it enters the sea is not superior to its source in the springs on a distant hillside. All is flow. Things may slow down or speed up as they move along the river, adjusting to the current, to the shore, and to each other.

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I had the privilege this last Saturday to take part in an open discussion on the topic “Have You Had a Spiritual Experience?” Those who attended were mostly older than me. Graying or white hair framed almost every face as I looked around the circle of the dozen or so of us who attended. But when the question arose about how many of us kept to some kind of spiritual practice, every hand went up. I found this wonderfully inspiring.

The point that everyone wanted to tackle: what’s next? How do we work with spiritual truths, with the patterns of life we’ve all encountered, and continue to grow in wisdom and love?

Those questions also continue to drive me on my own path and underlie my explorations on this blog. Thank you to all who read this blog for joining me for a few minutes each week and for considering these things, too.

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*Talbott, Thomas. The Inescapable Love of God. 2nd ed. Cascade Books, 2014.

**Favager, David. Hell to Pay?: The Blasphemous Absurdity of Damnationism. Amazon Digital/Kindle, 2015.

***Iolo Morgannwg — from the foreword to the Sacred Text Archive to Morgannwg’s collection Barddas:

However, this is one of those visionary texts which is worth reading for its own merits, irrespective of whether it is ‘genuine’ or not. Taken at face value, the Barddas remains a fascinating text. It has resonances with the Upanishads, Kabbalah, and Freemasonry. The Bardic alphabet presented in the ‘Symbol’ section is completely invented, based on Runic and Ogham, and has utility as a magical alphabet. However it is about as genuine as the alphabets of J.R.R. Tolkien. The ‘Theology’ section appears to be based on Iolo’s peculiar Christian views (he described himself as a Unitarian Quaker). ‘Theology’ also contains a great number of Triads, some of which may be from authentic ancient Bardic lore. The ‘Wisdom’ section has a great deal of mythopoetic information, some of which is authentic, some not. The Barddas is great reading if you are at all interested in the ancient Druids, as long as you keep in mind the background of its creation.

IMAGES: goat and sheep; greetings from Hell, Michigan; marker — Iolo Morgannwg.

 

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