Monday, August 20, 2007

Religion and Religions

Formal religion has no place in psychotherapy, but it also has no real place in religion. In this world, there is an astonishing tendency to join contradictory words into one term without perceiving the contradiction at all. The attempt to formalize religion is so obviously an ego attempt to reconcile the irreconcilable that it hardly requires elaboration here. Religion is experience; psychotherapy is experience. At the highest levels they become one. Neither is truth itself, but both can lead to truth. What can be necessary to find truth, which remains perfectly obvious, but to remove the seeming obstacles to true awareness? (ACIM: P-2.II.2)

I borrowed the title for this post from Jan Willem Kaiser. It is the title of a monograph and originally a presentation he gave at the Open Field Conferences in Holland in the 1960's. I've published several in translation under the title Four Open Field Books.

The topic is as relevant today as it was then, except to say that with the Course we can be even clearer now in some respects. The Course material quoted above (from the Psychotherapy pamphlet) makes a delightful quip about religion and religions.

The underlying point is this: religions in the plural, as worldly institutions, are the adaptations to the world of spiritual teachings, which in most cases were derived from teachers who were invariably misunderstood if not deliberately misconstrued, and whose teachings were adapted to worldly ends. The entire history of Christianity, starting from Paul's rationalizations which made Jesus' earthly life and presumed suffering as well as the notion of vicarious salvation the central focus, and which rendered Jesus' teachings fit to serve as a state religion under the emperor Constantine, later splintering in the Reformation under inter-European power struggles, all revolving around the politics of competing rulers, is political history, and has nothing to do with religion. The sophistry of modern "religious freedom," which seems to co-exist with a contrapuntal revival of a fundamentalism reminiscent of the Dark Ages, really is but the final, fractured form of the ego's relationship to a dualistic God, who is deemed to be the creator of this world, thus granting meaning to the ego's realm of the phenomenal world. The idea of God having created the world is essential to the world and to the ego, because it removes the objective reality of the world from question, and the theory of evolution does the same in non-religious terms.

The point here is that religion is experiential, and is only about what the Course would call the Holy Relationship, which in traditional language from the Jesus tradition is the First Commandment, to love our brothers as our Self and the Father above all. The Course describes this with the heavily symbolic expression of seeing the face of Christ in our brother, and the Holy Relationship.

Kaiser's article with this title, in many ways is probably the best definition of the Course anybody gave long before the Course arrived on the scene, and it is really an elaboration of another statement Kaiser made in one of his other books (as quoted in my The Gospel as a Spiritual Path, p. 115), which in itself sort of presaged the Course: "Presently the newly awakened psychology will gradually accomplish what pure religious devotion might have done: throw out Paul, and let Jesus in!" In other words, the point is to get disentangled from the ego's rationalizations parading as facts, and to take the risk of direct experience. I might add here that this article beats many current introductions to the Course, in essence because its author truly understood and represented the essence of Jesus' ministry as best he could understand it without the benefit of its modern variant in ACIM.

In the article Kaiser elaborates on the ego's self-justification which is the basis of our illusory experience, namely its fundamental drive to substitute its interpretations for the facts. He then goes on to describe religion as follows (p. 70 of Four Open Field Books):
"This is Religion, Service to God, and only those who are willing to drop all conceptions, theories, systems and methods will experience what it means and where it leads. This is the only true, universal Process of Liberation which tradition calls Transformation, which is then undergone in the Hands of the Supreme Himself.
No man will ever be able to define this mysterious Process, nor will any description of experiences under this process be comprehensible to outsiders or capable of being "used" by them.
This is Religion, Service to God, and it means the restoration and full development of the one vertical relationship, God and Man."


The crux of the problem is summed up in the Course in terms of the little willingness, which is our willingness to let go of the ego's judgment, the willingness to be wrong, which alone is required to honestly ask Jesus or the Holy Spirit for help. But the ego always attempts to jump back in. In another pithy description the Course describes this temptation as follows:

"Do not attempt to give the Holy Spirit what He does not ask, or you will add the ego to Him and confuse the two. He asks but little. It is He Who adds the greatness and the might. He joins with you to make the holy instant far greater than you can understand. It is your realization that you need do so little that enables Him to give so much." (ACIM:T-18.IV.1:6-10)


In short, since it is the ego's judgment which traps us in our substitute reality, the essence of the journey is to let go of it entirely, since the ego's judgment is entirely self-serving, capricious, and therefore not in our best interest. The Course's appeal to the intellect, since it is a very sound logical presentation, is merely a matter of hand holding along the way, for the Course's process is designed to lead us beyond the intellect entirely through our own first hand experience. Hence the workbook, setting us on a track to application of the Course's theory in our daily lives, is central to the curriculum, so much so that Jesus defines teachers of God as those who have completed the workbook at least once.

Kaiser, in his monograph quoted above also writes:
"The story of Theseus in Greek mythology is very instructive. After killing the Minotaur in the maze of impure human reasoning and feeling (the monster of lower urges in man), which he found thanks to the "thread" of logical thinking which Ariadne (Ariachne) had given him because she liked him. Theseus decides to take her with him as his bride.
But on his way "home" he gets the divine intimation that he must leave her behind in Naxos. He obeys but is so overcome with grief at his "infidelity" that he forgets to hoist the white sails, which were to be the token that he had returned a victor over the Minotaur. So when his father, waiting on the rock of illusion, saw the ship with black sails coming, he threw himself from the rocks and perished. THAT IS WHY THESEUS SUCCEEDED HIM AS KING.

Here it is. Accomplishment of the One Thing Needful demands more than we can bear. It is only going through apparent failure, utter darkness and despair, that man can come to an: "All is fulfilled."
If this does not happen the old "king." that is he who lives enslaved to the Minotaur, will not die but will go on reigning.
Alas, they who brought us new philosophies, new creeds, new ideologies, have never deserted "Ariachne" when the moment to do so had come.
They all hoisted "the white sails."
They all became famous and were hailed as glorious conquerors of evil. But the old "king" continued to reign. That is: things did not really change." (as quoted in: Four Open Field Books, p. 64)

And so, while the Course emphasizes Atonement without sacrifice, since we give up nothing to gain everything, we usually have the experience of loss simply because we think the ego and its baubles were quite something, and it takes us a while to appreciate that things are getting better when they seem to get worse from the standpoint of what we thought we knew.

The Course also offers various instructive suggestions as to what it means to leave the ego behind, using humor to help us overcome our resistance to do so, as in:

"The giving up of judgment, the obvious prerequisite for hearing God's Voice, is usually a fairly slow process, not because it is difficult, but because it is apt to be perceived as personally insulting. The world's training is directed toward achieving a goal in direct opposition to that of our curriculum. The world trains for reliance on one's judgment as the criterion for maturity and strength. Our curriculum trains for the relinquishment of judgment as the necessary condition of salvation."(ACIM:M-9.2:4-7)



The more we understand this issue and recognize it in ourselves, the more we will understand how important is the second step of the Course's forgiveness process, the asking for help from Jesus or the Holy Spirit in looking at the situation differently. Unless we truly surrender the ego's way of looking at things its way, and justifying its position, we cannot and will not truly ask the Holy Spirit for help, let alone rely on the Holy Spirit for the Answer. Only too often we keep filling in the blanks with the ego's answers. And so we think we know the Course and we hoist the white sails. This way we always surreptitiously end up with at best the ego's version of forgiveness, which the Course calls forgiveness to destroy.

This process is in fact the same that happened in early Christianity, when Jesus' teaching became rationalized into a system and an -ism, i.e. an organized religion, which served the rulers of the world quite well. This all started with the crystallization of a doctrinaire certainty about him, which effectively prevented us from doing what he asked, namely to pick up our "cross" and follow him. Instead we established a church based on the notion of an exclusive ownership of eternal truth, which simply became a power institution in the world, lording it over everyone, not to mention pursuing and attacking anyone who didn't buy the story. And the canon of the NT as interpreted by this emerging power structure, was held to represent that truth, based on the ludicrous presumption of direct transmission of the Jesus' teachings through the apostles. In other words, we claimed "we got it," we hoisted the white sails, and the old king (the ego) continued to rule.

This is how it goes every time when we pretend to ask the Holy Spirit for Help, but our ego really jumps in prematurely and starts filling in the anwers, and we "add the ego to Him," as the Course calls it. When we truly do ask for help, and wait for the Holy Spirit to provide the Answer in His time, we end up afterwards, looking behind us at nothing but the ashes of those once seemingly rock-solid ego beliefs. We could not let go of them, but little did we realize how much we suffered as a result of putting ourselves in chains, or how silly they would look after we let go of them.

Putting two and two together we can thus see that the historical phenomenon whereby genuine and universal spiritual teachings turn into "world" religions, is nothing but the ego's method of seemingly co-opting the very teachings that would threaten its existence, and giving them a different meaning in the process, just as we do when we turn forgiveness into "forgiveness to destroy."

And so the Course, while making a strong appeal to the intellect as part of its instruction, can and will lead us beyond it through its practice, and finally in Lesson 189:
"Simply do this: Be still, and lay aside all thoughts of what you are and what God is; all concepts you have learned about the world; all images you hold about yourself. Empty your mind of everything it thinks is either true or false, or good or bad, of every thought it judges worthy, and all the ideas of which it is ashamed. Hold onto nothing. Do not bring with you one thought the past has taught, nor one belief you ever learned before from anything. Forget this world, forget this course, and come with wholly empty hands unto your God."

And everything hinges on the "Little Willingness" to let go of our ego's judgments once and for all, but gratefully we only have to do it one miracle at a time, lest the fear were too great.

Copyright, © 2007 Rogier F. van Vlissingen. All rights reserved.
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