Thursday, June 14, 2012

The spiritual life and the problem of the ego

The Red State Mystic has been on a hot streak lately at his blog - and his latest post, "A Responsible Forgiveness," (and also a post on another blog that Derek points to, here) got me thinking again about the question we've been asking around the blogosphere for the last year or so: "What exactly is the church for?"

Many people seem to believe the church exists to do "corporal works of mercy" - or even to "seek to transform unjust structures of society." And mercy, certainly, is an excellent thing; the corporal works of mercy are incredibly important, without doubt. ("Seeking to transform unjust structures of society" is just way too ill-defined for me, and leaves way too much room for political and personal interpretation and mischief. That's another post, I suppose.)

In any case, the truth is that nobody needs the church to do those things. Anybody can decide, on their own, to do charitable works, or to work to change the law to be more just, according to their own lights.

I don't deny, though, that Christianity provides a way of looking at the world that may both encourage and guide people in works of charity and justice. It's just too easy to forget these things, and to curve in ourselves and our own little lives. Religion can be a model, or a guide and inspiration for action; Christianity (via its parent, Judaism) certainly does provide a particular worldview and inspiration for action in the world. And that is important - but it does have a precursor; people don't arrive at this worldview by themselves.  First, we need to learn that it exists, and then what exactly it is and where it comes from; this means a deep grounding in the Bible and in the tradition, since the tradition interprets the Bible.

So, even if you believe that Christianity (or Judaism, or Islam, or whatever religion you're talking about) exists in order to do good works - well, you need some background in order to know what that entails. You need the Bible and you need the tradition in order to judge for yourself whether or not this is a worthwhile understanding of the world - and to guide you.

There is a further problem, too: the belief that the spiritual life is about "doing good works" takes the very tip of the iceberg and makes it the whole. Or - to use an arboreal metaphor - it tears out the roots and expects the tree to continue to grow.

I suppose it could - but from the evidence in front of our eyes: I don't think it will. The twentieth century by itself is enough evidence for me that plans and designs to "do good" can end up doing horrific evil. It is enough evidence, for me, of the problem of the human ego, and (of course) the problem of the human will to power - and of the damage these things can cause. Attempts to re-shape the world according to human desires and plans have failed miserably, most of the time.  More than that:  all such attempts have become extinct - which means they are simply time-bound "solutions" to the human situation.  They don't last; none of them have - except religion.   Religion is the constant; everything else is a variable.  And that says that Religion is seeing from some "higher" vantage point; it's talking about something human beings in particular eras simply can't see, with our limited vision.

It is, of course, true, too, that religion has made its own share of errors - but these, too, almost always seem to come from the assertion and/or elevation of human ego. And, in fact, the only place one finds - occasionally - an attempt to subjugate the human ego is - you guessed it - in religion itself.

The attempt to subjugate the human ego is, in fact, the entire foundation of Alcoholics Anonymous; most of that foundation does come from religion - and A.A. openly acknowledges this fact.

RSM's "Forgiveness" post really helped me think some of these things through; rather than typing it all out again, I'll just cut-and-paste my comment there:
This is a very good post. I especially agree with this part: ‘Just because my sin has been cast “as far as the east is from the west” does not mean that it hasn’t left an indelible mark on my life and, sadly, on the lives of those around me.’ That’s where the “responsibility” you’re talking about here comes in.

But this is not an attempt to “win God’s love”! It’s a recognition and acceptance of the reality that we are sinners – and it’s a way to try to make things right with other people. It’s a debt we owe, just like any other debt we may owe.

It’s true that we can do nothing to merit the Grace of God; it’s true that we don’t deserve it, and that we can’t earn it. And sometimes it appears to me that the Evangelical thing is a worry that somehow we’re going to lose God’s love by “improving”! In other words, unless we acknowledge at all times that we are bad, bad, bad – and that nothing we do can change that fact – God will abandon us. Because that is the basis of the relationship! But of course, that is – as they say in A.A. – “pride in reverse.” It still leaves us at the center of the universe; we’re still focused on ourselves! The point, really, is to let go of all that, and become “channels” or “instruments” of God’s will. The ego has this incredible stranglehold on us, and it just won’t let go! That, to me, is the entire goal of the religious life: to get the ego to relinquish its death grip on our lives and our minds. A.A. says it this way: “We have not once sought to be one in a family, to be a friend among friends, to be a worker among workers, to be a useful member of society.” That’s actually really hard for the ego to accept!

A.A. says that the entire basis of its program is “ego deflation at depth.” It’s to get us out of the center of the universe. If we pray (along with the hymn): “Let holy charity mine outward vesture be, and lowliness become mine inner clothing” – this is a prayer to live in love and humility. (A.A. also says that “Humility, as a word and as an ideal, has a very bad time of it in our world. Not only is the idea misunderstood; the word itself is often intensely disliked.”) But those things – charity and humility – are by definition focused on God and on other people, not on ourselves.

Fortunately, we really will never get to the point where we’ve “arrived.” We don’t have to worry about becoming angels; it ain’t gonna happen.

“Taking responsibility” is not a “work”! It isn’t an attempt to earn God’s favor. It’s an admission of our own part in the events in the world; it’s an acceptance of reality, and an attempt to make things as right as we can with other people. It’s a way to become simply “one in a family, to be a friend among friends, to be a worker among workers, to be a useful member of society.” And, we hope, to do God’s will.

Granted: we're going to have to point to the result here, rather than to the process! As A.A. points out, nobody's interested in "humility" for its own sake.

But, I think, many people CAN identify with the problem of the outsize role that the ego plays in all our lives. We ALL know - if only at a subconscious level - that our unchecked egos have played havoc with the facts of our lives, again and again. Is there anybody who doesn't identify at least a little with the opening lines of Matthew Arnold's "Self-Dependence"?
Weary of myself, and sick of asking
What I am, and what I ought to be,
At this vessel's prow I stand, which bears me
Forwards, forwards, o'er the starlit sea.

And is there anybody in the world who doesn't long for things that Bianco da Siena speaks of in his Discendi Amor Santo (translated "Come Down, O Love Divine" for the hymn of the same name):
Come down, O love divine, seek Thou this soul of mine,
And visit it with Thine own ardor glowing.
O Comforter, draw near, within my heart appear,
And kindle it, Thy holy flame bestowing.

O let it freely burn, till earthly passions turn
To dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
And let Thy glorious light shine ever on my sight,
And clothe me round, the while my path illuming.

Let holy charity mine outward vesture be,
And lowliness become mine inner clothing;
True lowliness of heart, which takes the humbler part,
And o’er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.

And so the yearning strong, with which the soul will long,
Shall far out pass the power of human telling;
For none can guess its grace, till he become the place
Wherein the Holy Spirit makes His dwelling.

Well, that's what the church is for. When the ego lets go, the world opens up; our self-imposed limitations are removed, by the grace of God.  The result described here is sacred light that "illumines" our lives, and our paths through life.  It's a "holy flame" that burns away our endless passionate grasping after ourselves and our own short-sighted desires.

"Corporal works of mercy" are not equivalent to faith; they're the result of faith, as here. The church says that when the ego finally lets go - even a little, as at first - we can really go someplace interesting at last. As A.A. puts it:

When a man or a woman has a spiritual awakening, the most important meaning of it is that he has now become able to do, feel, and believe that which he could not do before on his unaided strength and resources alone. He has been granted a gift which amounts to a new state of consciousness and being.

He has been set on a path which tells him he is really going somewhere, that life is not a dead end, not something to be endured or mastered. In a very real sense he has been transformed, because he has laid hold of a source of strength which he had hitherto denied himself.

Who wouldn't seek after such a thing - if it could, in fact, be sought after?  It can't be, though; it's the serendipitous outcome of the letting go of ego, and of one's own ideas and thoughts about the world; it comes from trusting God - via the indirect means mystics (and A.A. members!) have found and reported back to the world - to open up to us the vast, amazing vista of living that we can only get fleeting glimpses of on our own.

More on this later, I think.  I've been wanting, for a year or so now, to talk about A.A.'s "indirect" means to spiritual awakening (which is, again, IMO, almost identical to what mystics - and from time to time the church - have always taught).  Maybe now's the time to go there.....

No comments: