We have defined the Covenant recently, but what does that mean? How does following it affect us? How does it shape our choices and beliefs, in practice?
As we said, the Covenant is what divides all things into two worlds, the secular and the spiritual – the secular being the world of fact ruled by Reason alone, and the spiritual being the world of feeling, value, context, and meaning chosen by whatever so moves us to so choose.
To abide by the Covenant, we must take that seriously. When someone tell us that their belief is that the world is less than ten thousand years old, for example, we do not give them a pass. They have made a secular statement – a statement of fact about the age of the earth. The Covenant requires that all statements of fact be justified using the tools of Reason alone. Telling us that their belief (or their holy book) says so does not of course provide any reasons to believe in what is being said. Reason requires proof – that’s how the secular world operates. So we must reject their assertion as undemonstrated until they can do better. Secular statements require secular proof.
(It should be noted, for those who are not familiar, that shooting down a claim is not the same thing as demonstrating the opposite of the claim – see the post on the Skeptic’s Principle.)
So an assertion that the world is only ten thousand years old or less is a secular claim that has to be judged by Reason, what else?
Here’s another example, based on an experience of mine. I dreamed that I was with my father, who died many years ago. We were doing garden work in my dream, digging and planting. It was very pleasant to be able to be with him, very nice to be in his presence again. However, were I to claim that I was really conversing in my dream with the actual spirit of my dead father, the first thing we have to know to respect the Covenant would be “is this a secular claim of fact or a spiritual claim of value?”
The answer should be obvious. If I indeed did claim to have really spoken with my actual dead father in a dream, it is a claim of fact about the actual world. This is not a spiritual claim, as defined by the Covenant, but an assertion of factual truth. Therefore it must be evaluated as strictly as any factual claim – by Reason alone. And if the assertion can not be justified as necessarily true (not just possibly true, according to the Skeptic’s Principle which applies in all secular truth claims) than it is discarded as unfounded.
Let’s take the big elephant in the room: many people claim that a supremely powerful being called God exists. Without getting into exactly what the word “God” specifically means here – which would be required if we were to go forward – let’s move on as if we had well-defined that term.
Well, any statement of “X exists” must be a secular statement, again with respect to the Covenant. To claim that something exists is to make a fact based claim about the actual objective world. Saying that “God exists” is a statement that factually, in the objective world, the entity we have named “God” actually exists. Factually. For real.
The problem is, no matter how much we wish that was a spiritual statement, and up to our wishes and feelings, wanting it to be so doesn’t make it so. “God exists” is a secular statement, regardless of how much the truth of that statement means to us or how important it is to us for it to be true.
And as a secular statement, it can only be permitted according to the strictures of Reason alone. And like all secular statements, if if doesn’t meet the test of the Skeptic’s Principle, it must be discarded as unfounded.
So at this point you might be seeing the Covenant as little more than the final attack of Reason on spirituality. You may well be asking, if the Covenant exposes all this to the rigid demands of Reason, what’s left of spirituality in the first place? If God cannot even be said to exist, how can we even have a spirituality?
The answer is that the Covenant cuts both ways. It may cut us off from making factual claims we cannot prove, but it has another very interesting effect that I will be calling “immanence” which protects our truly spiritual beliefs from any trespass of Reason and the Skeptic’s Principle.
So read on to “The Covenant: Immanence“.
In the last article “The Covenant, Illustrated” we saw that embracing the division between the secular and the spiritual has significant consequences to our beliefs and practices. We saw that much of what is claimed by people as spiritual beliefs are really secular beliefs after all. And since all secular beliefs must defer to Reason above all, we saw how the tools of Reason, such as the Skeptic’s Principle, discard much of these beliefs as unfounded. So we asked ourselves, does the Covenant merely eliminate spirituality? Or can it indeed protect it?
The remarkable truth is that we can have both. Certainly, the Covenant does place many ideas that were mislabeled as spiritual back into their proper secular context, and in so doing eliminates vast swaths of these claims as unfounded. But as we’ve said before, the Covenant cuts both ways. And the key to understanding the other side of the Covenant is immanence.
I have referred to the dream I had of being with my dead father. And as we already noted, if I claim that I was really speaking to my actual dead father, that would be a secular claim and quite unjustified.
But if I claimed instead that I had the experience of being with my father, that is not only justifiable, but quite possibly true.
You see, I can quite easily have an experience of being with my father, without really being with him. And yet, the experience can be just as meaningful, just as moving, and just as profound to me.
The dictionary defines “immanent” as: “taking place within the mind of the subject and having no effect outside of it.”
My experience of being with my dead father was immanent. It wasn’t related to my actual father factually, and yet I still had a very deep and meaningful experience nevertheless.
This is immanence, this idea that we can have very real experiences that can profoundly touch us, even when the object of the experience may not even be actually involved, may not even exist. And it is immanence that in the Covenant guards and protects our spiritual experiences.
Now obviously had my dream been different, I may not have been able to honestly say I had a very real experience of being with my dad. If instead in my dream my dad had been purple, singing show tunes in Vulcan, and burying a bone like a dog, it would be unlikely for this to feel like any kind of real experience with my father – since I can assure you that in life he wasn’t purple, did not sing show tunes, and never behaved as a canine!
Ultimately, though, it is up to the individual whether or not the experience felt real enough, because in the end, it’s not about fact, but feeling – that’s what makes it spiritual in the first place.
The next thing about immanence is that within spiritual matters, it is essentially limitless, it’s that powerful.
We said that the claim that the earth is younger than ten thousand years old is secular, and it is. But the power and meaning of the story of a young earth is not secular, and the meaning it imbues us with is protected by immanence.
We said that the idea that I was really talking to the spirit of my dead father wasn’t justifiable, and could not be sustained, and that is correct. But the value of the experience of that conversation in my dream is protected by immanence.
We said we couldn’t even claim that the fact “God exists” is actually true. But God doesn’t have to actually exist for us to pray to him (or her), to be heard by him, and to hear his reply.
The immanent world is the world inside us, the domain precisely of our spiritual truths. We have experiences every day, not rooted in factual reality, that touch us, sadden us, fill us with anger, joy, hope. Every compelling film, book, or TV show, every story that has resonance, that goes beyond mere emotion to something more, something that connects with us in some intrinsic way demonstrates to us that the profundity we see is breathed to life within us by these stories.
Whether the story is fictional or a fable or both, it doesn’t matter. Whether we are provoked into thought (or better yet, action) by a compelling movie or a sermon in church, if we are touched it’s all the same. Each of these are rooted in our immanent experiences. Whether or not those experiences come from stories or truth is perhaps not the point. The point is how we are moved, and what these experiences mean to us.
That is immanence.
And with immanence, the Covenant is able to sustain and provide for all the spirituality we need.
This is ultimate truth of the Covenant. It explicitly divides the secular from the spiritual. It gives total dominance of all secular matters to Reason. But, through immanence, it permanently and completely insulates actually spiritual matters from challenges of Reason, such as the Skeptic’s Principle.
Ultimately, the Covenant tells us the truth that we wish we had known all along: that facts aren’t a matter of opinion, but everything else is. The Covenant tells us that no spirituality can ever tell us about the “outer” world, but at the same time, that only our spirituality can answer for us questions of the “inner” world – such as matters of right and wrong, worthiness, purpose, context, and meaning.
So long as we hold to the Covenant, whatever the form of our spirituality – Christian, Muslim, Judaism, Hinduism, Atheism, etc – we will be able to seek agreement on the facts, and to more harmoniously tolerate our spiritual differences.
In the final analysis, the Covenant is what we all must embrace, and what can potentially unite us all. The time for pretending to know what we do not know is over. We must no longer have a death-grip on secular matters that we have no factual justification for and therefore no right to embrace. Likewise, we must no longer consider our own spirituality more real than anyone else’s – the Covenant defends all truly spiritual beliefs.
A place for everything, and everything in its place – that is the Covenant. And accepting it’s truth is the first, last, and most vital thing we can do. I leave it to each of you to ask yourselves what benefit you can possibly get by rejecting it. I leave it to each of us to meet under the sacred Covenant.
We’ve been asking ourselves why the Covenant isn’t already front and center in our lives – as I am surely not the first person to have thought such things. So we ask ourselves, what is so scary about the Covenant, about keeping our secular and spiritual worlds separate? What gets lost when we embrace the Covenant?
In the last installment, we talked about one thing that gets lost: the ability to arbitrarily call oneself “special” or “chosen”, and get a big albeit unearned ego boost. Let’s proceed with the next thing we lose along the way when we embrace the Covenant.
- The safety net of believing in life after death.
This is a big one, although it is quite simple. We all know that one day we will all die. Most of us really don’t want to die, but we can’t change that. So what many do is simply choose to believe that somehow they will go on, usually with some “life after death” scenario. Because without that belief, all we have is a big scary “I don’t know” about what or if anything exists post mortal death.
This is the simplest to diagram of all of the four things lost:
- Only secular truths can speak about the factual nature of reality, according to the Covenant.
- The Skeptic’s Principle applies to all secular truths, so this means we have no right to claim any life after death exists with justification, without proof that it is necessarily true.
- That proof is obviously not present.
- Therefore, embracing the Covenant means embracing not being able to claim to know that life occurs after death.
The only way to avoid this sequence is to embrace the opposite of the Covenant: the idea that wanting something to be factually true, or believing that something is factually true, is enough to claim it really is factually true. And that’s probably one big reason why some folks run screaming from the idea of the Covenant – it strips away our ability to pretend the world is the way that we wish it was.
The same issues apply to the third thing we lose when we embrace the Covenant:
- The relief of believing that no matter the injustices of this world, the good will be rewarded and the wicked punished in the next.
To put this another way, this is the belief (or desire) of a cosmic force or entity who (among other things presumably) spends time making sure to balance the scales of universal justice, one who rewards the good and punishes the wicked.
It is comforting to think this. All too often life mistreats us, and much of the time there’s not a lot we can do about it. Believing in some kind of cosmic justice is a coping mechanism to handle the sometimes blatant unfairness of life, combined with possible circumstances that do not empower us to address it.
Nevertheless, the same issues above that applied to believing in life-after-death factually applies to believing in cosmic justice factually too. Now, I’m not saying that the wicked never get punished and the good never get rewarded, because I do believe that what goes around comes around, and we do tend to get back from the world what we put into it, up to a point. But believing that our choices are their own punishment (or reward) isn’t so much a factual belief as it is a value or context – which is perfectly allowed within the Covenant. Just so long as we don’t imply some kind of supernatural corrective force out there making things better, whether that “better” be fixing things in this life or promising the good heaven and the wicked hell in the “next” life.
So why would people not want to embrace the Covenant? Because if they did, they would lose the idea that cosmic justice is factually true – because that is a secular truth, and from what we can see, it can’t be defended.
There is one more thing lost in embracing the Covenant, which we will address in the next article, What Gets Lost, Part 4. See you there.
Now, as we covered the second and third things in the last article, we look at the fourth and final thing that gets left behind and lost when we embrace the Covenant:
- The inertia of thousands of years of belief and tradition.
The Covenant is in many ways the opposite of what we humans have been doing for thousands of years. It tell us that there are two halves to life – the secular facts and our spiritual convictions, and makes it our job to make sure that each kind stays on it’s own side. All statements of fact must be handled according to secular ways, in other words, by Reason alone. However, all our spiritual convictions, so long as they do not express statements of fact, can be freely embraced.
In contrast, for the past several millenia humanity has been blurring the line between fact and belief willy-nilly. Even today few stop to recognize that facts aren’t matters of opinion and plow right ahead embracing the wildest irrational beliefs, with no regard for reality’s own truth at all. Many seem to feel that if you believe in something strongly enough, want something badly enough, you don’t have to pay attention to stuff like evidence, proof, or justification. It is this willful ignorance and immature behavior that is thrown right back in our faces when reality reminds us time after time that when it comes to truth, reality always wins, and if we turn a blind eye, we lose.
But humankind has ever been willing to embrace utter irrationality in the service of some shortsighted goal or emotional craving. Many of us, myself included, have trouble always turning away from the spoiled child within to instead deal with the world as an adult. And since this has been going on since humankind invented religion and long before, it doesn’t seem crazy to us now – it seems normal. Conventional. Traditional.
It’s a gigantic and not particularly safe universe, and we grasp for any safety and reliability we can get. How reassuring it is for us to fall into the arms of institutions that our parents belonged to, and their parents before them, and so on. Although there is a natural human tendency towards progress and building a better future, there is also an equally natural and human tendency that opposes change and seeks refuge in “authority” and convention. Our rituals and practices change a little through the years, but it’s the traditions passed from one generation to the next that give us a feeling of constancy, and reassures us.
Perhaps if the Covenant had been invented two thousand years ago and been embraced by masses of people who wrote about it, extended it, developed rituals around it, and so on, by now it would be as comfortable as all the other elder religious institutions. Unfortunately, it was not – although if we are particularly optimistic we can certainly hope that what we do now can build a future where five hundred years from now or more the Covenant becomes such a tradition.
But for now, it isn’t. It isn’t the faith of anyone’s fathers and mothers (that I know) and it doesn’t (yet) have the attention of millions of people, let alone billions. The only one writing about it (that I am aware of) is me.
So it doesn’t deliver that warm and comfy feeling that the other time-worn belief structures do. And embracing the Covenant means at the very least modernizing one’s traditional beliefs significantly, if not replacing them entirely. For someone growing up in a religious community, embracing something much newer loses a lot of heritage and cultural history that goes way back. It takes a lot of courage to step away from the “truths” one has been raised with, and bravely invent one’s own truths. One simply cannot embrace the progress of the Covenant while gripping tightly the dogma of the past.
Giving up that context, which may as invisible as the air we breath as yet may also seem just as vital, is hard. Despite being justified by what the Covenant gives us, losing thousands of years of traditions is no small thing.
So there we have it. Embracing the Covenant is hard because it takes from us four things – things perhaps that actually harm us more than they help us in the long run, but that also are part of the fabric of our lives, that we allow ourselves to depend on, sometimes without even fully knowing how much.
If we embrace the Covenant:
We can’t be the “chosen” special ones because the facts don’t support it.
We can’t be comforted by the idea that when death comes we will go on past it, because the facts don’t support that either.
We can’t be comforted by the idea that even if the world seems unjust and unfair, some force or entity will make everything all right sooner or later – because the facts don’t support it.
And finally, we can’t take comfort in enshrouding ourselves in blind tradition and convention, because much of what has dogged our heels from our primitive past is flawed, and must either be modified or replaced.
These are the four reasons why, I think, this idea has yet to catch fire. It doesn’t gives us what we wanted – unless what we want is what we need.
Now what we need is more than a single true principle. Embracing the Covenant is fine, but how do we go from a single core principle like that to something rich enough, diverse enough, and functional enough to attend to all our spiritual needs? That’s a very good question, and one that I intend to keep asking and hopefully answering as this site keeps stumbling forward.
Try these two statements on for size:
I know I will never be able to breathe underwater without scuba gear (or other help.)
I know I will never lie to my partner.
I think it’s interesting how we feel pretty sure about both, but if we stop and think about, the second one could actually happen, even though right now we “know” it couldn’t. It is not impossible to imagine some potential (if not likely) scenario where lying to my partner might be the best thing. For example, someone grabs me on the street, pulls me into an alley. My partner, seeing I’ve vanished, calls out to me. The assailant with his guns to me whispers for me to tell her I’m fine and not to come into the alley, which I do, partly because a guy with a gun is telling me to and partly because I want to make sure she doesn’t come over and become endangered too. I’ve just lied to her.
To be sure, it was utterly justified, but nevertheless, that what separates the two sentences above.
It has to do with the mind and with the heart. The minds thinks and the heart feels.
What happens when we alter the two sentences to be more precise:
I think that I will never be able to breathe underwater without scuba gear (or other help.)
I feel that I will never lie to my partner.
The fact of the word “know” is it can mean either. And that’s very bad™ when it comes to communicating accurately about whether you have good reason to make a statement, or are simply articulating what you feel.
It goes the other way too. If a something is claimed factually true – like life after death – that’s for the mind to determine – the heart has nothing to add about whether or not there is justification for such a claim. Oh, the heart can speak all about how much we want or hope it is true, or how much we feel in our bones that it is – but neither of those apply to whether or not a secular claim is justified, and so are not relevant to that determination.
Likewise, the mind can present facts, pros and cons, but the heart ultimately has to make the decision on what it wants. Do you embrace or resist smoking? The mind can present facts about the truth of the dangers of smoking and the costs, but none of that makes the decision for you – ultimately it’s about whether the pleasure of the act outweighs your dislike of its consequences – a matter of feeling and heart, as there is no objective measure that X amount of downside is worth Y amount of reward. Each person has to look for that answer within themselves, and the balance point is at least somewhat different for each of us.
So next time someone tells you they know something – or uses similar words that could mean either thinking or feeling – ask them if it’s with their heart or with their mind. Then you can determine if they’ve broken the Covenant or not – and whether to take them seriously.
We’ve talked quite a bit about the Covenant, about how ignoring it is perilous and leads us either on the one side to confusing our beliefs about reality with facts about reality – a very dangerous situation – or on the other side to turning a blind eye to or even invalidating our very real experiences and convictions as meaningless. Embracing the Covenant fixes all that. The Covenant is critical and vital, the first step without which the rest are pointless.
But it is not enough.
What the Covenant does is, if you will, set up the board and pieces properly in the game of life. It lets us start off on the right foot. However, the Covenant alone merely frames our conversations and endeavors. It provides space for our values, but does not suggest which values to embrace. It carves out a place for us to assign meaning to our experiences, but does not endorse any particular meaning. All the Covenant does by itself is inspire us to keep the factual stuff on the secular side and the contextual stuff on the spiritual side – but alone it does not even hint what sort of context we should use.
That’s what our spirit is for.
The Covenant does not tells us that these choices are healthy, good, or worthy of us, and those choices are not.
That’s what our specific chosen Spirituality is for.
To put another way, I believe it’s clear that the Covenant is a necessary fundamental part of any set of rational beliefs. But it is only a part, not the whole – without more than just the Covenant, a belief structure will be incomplete. And that’s where each of us come in.
Spiritualities come in all kinds of forms. Take a recent social development – the acceptance (or lack thereof) of humans with sexual orientations other than heterosexual – normally called LGBT for (I think) lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.
Some Spiritualities find this unacceptable and claim it as a moral duty to oppose LGBT in all forms. Others preach tolerance or even embracement. Both sides could claim to be utterly Covenant compatible if both sides were committed to not mixing up their facts and their feelings.
And while it is true that from my perspective I see more contra-Covenant actions on the anti-LGBT side, there’s nothing about the Covenant by itself that is pro-LGBT. So long as the difference between fact and feeling is respected and observed, one could be utterly in accordance with the Covenant while still preaching that LGBT is “morally wrong” or “a sin”. (Although, the idea that it is a fact that sinning can get you sent to hell for real is utterly not compatible with the Covenant, since that claim is not justifiable by reason alone – i.e., it is not scientifically supportable. But so long as a “sin” is a spiritual concept and not considered factual, one doesn’t run afoul of the Covenant.)
Now, I myself am utterly pro LGBT. Just because I’m attracted to the opposite gender shouldn’t put any obligation on anyone else to be like me, is what I believe. Even further, I will admit to being repelled by the sight of seeing two guys lovingly kissing – to me it’s icky – but it’s not wrong and my discomfort should have zero impact on the choices of the LGBT unless I am willing to live my life under the same rules, unless I am willing to limit my actions to those that make no one elseuncomfortable. And my hope is that the more widespread LGBT acceptance is, the fewer people will grow up with the visceral reactions I have, and it won’t even be an issue.
These are my values. Not because the Covenant tells me to have them, but because my heart and spirit do. All the Covenant can do is frame the question of what we value, what we believe in, and what values we want to strive against, but it cannot answer those questions. We have to.
So please do not think that in promoting the Covenant I think that (were everyone to embrace it) peace and harmony would follow and people would no longer disagree. I simply think that what the Covenant helps us do is to have conversations about our differing values honestly and productively.
I hold the Covenant sacred, and I am pro-LGBT. Someone else may also hold the Covenant equally sacred, but be anti-LGBT. But at least the two of us would be able to speak the same language as we each tried to pursue our values. At least we would both would have to admit that neither value is more “real” or “valid” than the other impartially. We would be able to admit that the fundamental question and task of convincing ourselves, each other, and everyone else that our values are “good” or “healthy” or any other spiritual (but not secular) truth is our burden or calling if we choose.
Those who contravene the Covenant do create fundamentally irrational, broken belief systems. But embracing the Covenant is not enough, you still have to commit yourself to pursuing and embracing the good – and you need to find a spiritual path to figuring out what that “good” is, because for that, the Covenant alone is not enough.
It’s been said before, from time to time, that each of us are different people. That our true self is a combination of the various people we are. The thinker. The worker. The husband, wife, brother, sister. The day-to-day superficial us. The deeper, mostly hidden us. All these and more combine to make the whole person that each of us is.
One of the questions I’ve been returning to from time to time is, “what is the difference between having an ordinary experience and having a spiritual one?” What is the quality that being moved to tears by grief, love, or joy has that simply enjoying a party, a nice glass of wine, or a back rub, doesn’t?
I don’t think we can isolate and capture the answer to that question – this isn’t science. I’m not asking a psychological or neurological question here, I’m asking a spiritual one. And while we’re on that subject, while the scientific answer to that question may be absolutely correct in its own way and worth knowing, you can’t answer a spiritual question with a scientific answer, or vice versa. It’s really about whether we’re looking for the “external” answer or the “internal” one. Since it’s the “internal” answers I seek, we will leave the external one for someone else for now.
I think the spiritual answer that makes sense to me to this question of the difference between the profound and the ordinary comes down to the people that we are. I think that there is a deep self within all of us – perhaps even a deepest self. Though a rare few live with that self on top – people like perhaps the Dalai Lama – most of us live with our deep self buried deep under all the other people we think we are.
Yet in special moments our other selves move aside and our deep self is brought up into us. Moments of clarity and moments of resonance. Our joyous moments, loving moments, even our despairing moments. Times when we don’t just feel, we feel. When we are pierced through, whether we are lifted or broken by the experience.
So maybe that’s the answer – or at least all the answer that we need. There may be many selves within us, but it’s our deep self that is the core of our heart and spirit. The rest of the cacophony in our heads may be useful or an obstacle, depending on the voice and the occasion.
But I’d wager that recognizing and embracing our deep self is the first step in “getting right” with the cosmos – and with ourselves. And that in so doing, we put our foot firmly on our spiritual path.
I look forward to embracing the idea of the deep self further, and I am excited to see where it takes us.
We human beings have a lot of ways to connect with each other and communicate. A wry smile, a slumped posture, a playful tickle, and avoiding eye contact all communicate different things to those around us. Obviously, seeing someone bouncily putting the dishes away as they whistle a sprightly tune sends a whole different message than someone who is scowling while moving in sharp jerky motions and slamming drawers.
But in spite of these many avenues, language remains the base method to interact with each other, to share ideas, to wrangle through our differences and find common ground. These words I’m typing are full proof of that.
However, language may be the best tool we have, but it still has issues. There are many ways for us to miscommunicate. Of all the ways in which we fail to accurately communicate, the most common mistake in my experience is the scourge of Ambiguity – an embracement of imprecision or fuzzy thinking, sometimes accidental, sometimes lazy, sometimes quite on purpose.
You see, we all know that many of the words we use have different meanings. “Dust”, for example, can mean to remove dust, as in “the maid dusted the bannister”, but it can also mean to add dust or powder, as in “the chef dusted the cookies with sugar”. Although it would be hard for us to confuse those two, there are many other words with multiple meanings that are a lot less easily distinguished, but are nonetheless not at all the same.
Take the word “wet”. Even when only considering the descriptive uses of that word, there are many close but different ways to use “wet” to describe something. Here are just a few examples of the thirteen I found looking up “wet” as an adjective:
- moistened, covered, or soaked with water or some other liquid: His hands were wet.
- in a liquid form or state: The paint was still wet.
- allowing or favoring the sale of alcoholic beverages: Since Jackson was a wet town, he went there to buy beer.
…and so on.
Usually we instinctively try to figure out which “wet” people mean from the context, but if I told you the bench was “wet”, would I mean that it was recently painted or that it had simply rained recently?
When it comes to deep and nuanced conversations – such as all those we have when talking about things like values, spirituality, meaning, and truth – we run into this problem all the time! Many (perhaps even most) of these complex words have multiple meanings, each shaded slightly but significantly differently.
As a very brief example, let’s just scratch the surface of the multiple ways to use the word “faith”. There are many very different meanings for that word in any dictionary.
Let’s say there’s a fellow who wants to chuck the Covenant and get as many people as he can agreeing with him that it’s a good thing to believe whatever you like, regardless of whether it’s rational. This zealous fellow asks, “Isn’t faith a good thing? After all, don’t we have faith in each other, and in our community? Don’t we have faith that the sun will rise tomorrow? Faith is the natural response of humankind – so my faith that Zeus will carry me to Olympus when I die is perfectly fine, right?”
This is the scourge of Ambiguity in full attack. Because one of the meanings of “faith” is trust, and because we of course want to trust our fellow humans, we tend to react positively to the use of that word.
However, one other use of the word is “belief that is not based on proof”. So if we aren’t paying attention, we just got conned into agreeing that faith-belief is good practice simply because we think that faith-trust is!
This isn’t always done on purpose. The fellow above trying to defend his faith that Zeus is real? He may not even be aware that he is pushing Ambiguity at all – he may just think it makes sense to him. Thus even those who use and push Ambiguity don’t necessarily know that that is what they are doing!
It happens all the time, with all manner of high-impact words that many people use in significantly different ways – “good”, “justice”, “honorable”, “common”, “freedom” just to name a tiny few.
Perhaps this post wasn’t directly on the topic of spirituality, but it was smack dab center on the topic of avoiding miscommunication. Nothing turns a conversation into a tragedy faster than Ambiguity, especially when it passes undetected – that just means it blows up later, or worse yet, instead of exploding, it quietly poisons one’s thoughts with imprecision and flawed thinking.
The connections and interactions amongst us and our conversations are key to the core of spirituality I believe. Guarding against this most common and most dangerous of scourges is paramount if we value clarity – or each other. So let’s embrace precision in what we say, and demand precision in what others say as well. It’s up to us to pay enough attention to our conversations to be able to root out the hidden Ambiguities before they are abused, accidentally or not.
And always, always, always make sure that no such pitfalls are hidden in your conversations – because even if all participants are sincere, sometimes the language isn’t!
I was going to write about something else for this post. I was going to delve into the way people so easily accuse each other of “disrespecting” them and how as far as I can see, making that accusation is itself nothing less than the attack of one person on another.
I think the Christians have a saying – or maybe it’s the Jews – that man plans, and god laughs. While that is a bit of a cruel vision, perhaps that’s what makes it so ironically appropriate.
I think one measure of our humanity is our (for lack of a better word) vulnerability. Our ability to be touched. I’m not saying that you have to weep at the drop of a hat or be always on the edge of a nervous breakdown to be a human being – but I think our humanity is about what cuts through everything else and touches our soul.
I had two such moments this morning, for no particular reason other than they just happened.
I was waking up, and some stray thought made me think of the musical Man of La Mancha. Being a huge fan of that particular musical, I lounged in bed this morn and revisited via the ‘net it’s songs and story.
Everyone who reads these words, I do believe, should see this – either again or for the first time. If you can’t see it performed live, there is at least one film version I know of. The centerpiece of the epic is the song “To Dream the Impossible Dream” – and it’s this impossible dream that has the power to tranform (in the story) a wretched and abused prostitute into the lady she always was, and a hopeless mob of vicious prisoners into an inspired band of comrades. And the story doesn’t hand wave over these transformations, it earns them.
The musical and film have touched me deeply. They do not provide me answers – in many ways, they challenge a lot that I hold dear. But their truth is too obvious, too personal to be ignored or devalued. Watching either the film or the musical brings me at several points to tears. And even just recalling the experience, the musical’s truth this morning brought me to tears as well.
That’s true power. Not the faux machismo of strutting and pretending to be invulnerable. The musical’s power to force us to feel it’s truth – and my power to be willing to in that moment let it consume me with it’s pain and hope, to let it break me and remake me, to surrender to it and weep.
My second moment followed on the first moment closely. Honestly, the connection may not have been profound – it may have been the sounds of Man of La Mancha (which, by the way, I never played outside of my head this morn) that led me to another powerful experience that I think many people know. I’m speaking of the song “Fix You” by Coldplay.
“Fix You” has beauty and grace, and it’s too obvious to just say that and move on, that truth should be dwelled on for a moment. The story is that Chris Martin wrote it for his partner Gwyneth Paltrow (the actress) when upon the death of her father, he was at a loss on how he could console her.
But that’s just why it was written. The best songs and stories aren’t just about what the author intends, they are about what the listener hears. I saw one person say that what they got from the song was 9/11 and it’s aftermath – comparing the killing of Bin Laden as getting what we want, but not what we need.
Perhaps the the essential truths of these human pinnacles, these songs, musical, stories, is that they are true for each of us in our own way while connecting us universally at the same time.
All I know is that for the second time this morning, I was again racked with sadness and tears.
It’s not (I think) that I am depressed – I’m not elated, but at this moment, I am not down in general – the cloudburst of these two moments was immediately followed by a calm stillness and the sun returned. Nor do I think I am particularly overly emotional (ask my family that and they might laugh!), although to the folks pretending to be as untouchable as stone perhaps I seem so. And I don’t think it’s just manipulative chords and verbal melodrama – this wasn’t fake profundity, unless it’s all fake profundity, and I cannot believe that.
I think what touches me the deepest is how things like these speak to the shared plight of the fragile human condition. I think that’s ultimately what’s going on here – empathy and meaningful sentiment. Being open to the pain of others, to our own pain, to the pain of all – and in a way, that’s what our saints and saviors do – they take all our pain into themselves, to try to lessen ours – or at least share it if lessening is not possible.
Our shared plight – and everyone I believe shares in the plight of being human. I will never say that we privileged first world citizens have it anywhere near as badly as the truly destitute and abandoned across the planet. But that does not take from even the most privileged their pain and hurt, their feelings of being alone or afraid. So even though we can appreciate that there’s someone out there that has it much worse than we do, than our friends and family do, that doesn’t subtract one iota of loss or suffering that any of us feel.
Pain is real, even if we scoff at it’s source. We shouldn’t. It doesn’t matter that we think that the teenager who says her heart is broken has it so much better than a kid the same age in Asia, working in a sweatshop every day. Everyone’s suffering is real – as attested by the countless numbers of teens who “had it so much better” that still kill themselves.
Maybe in the end, if we focus on our shared plight, and not on who deserves to be permitted to feel pain, we will be the better people we were supposed to be.
All I know is I remembered Man of La Mancha – and the memory brought me briefly to tears. And a little later I listened to Fix You, and was touched again.
If we could all have, from time to time, moments of vulnerable compassion and empathy, and chose to surrender to feeling deeply, we could begin to build a world and be a people that we truly deserve.
Don’t you agree?