Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Something Spiritual for Christmas?


Or, why our Immigration Policy is
The Hand Of God Moving in Mysterious Ways.

I have a new IPad app that lets me listen to British radio stations (oh yes, the thrill of it all!) and I recently caught the tail end of a conversation with an Anglican Bishop who was bemoaning the decline in Church attendance. He made the following comment:

"The Evangelical movement has failed as a reform movement within the Church."

I was amazed he had ever thought it could be one, when, to paraphrase my youngest daughter, it could best be described as "petri-dish mysticism" [i]. So, lest I be damned at Christmas, let me explain: First, churches operate at two levels:

1.     The communal and religious: the human urge to come together and sing uplifting songs, hear the word of their God expounded, and unite in worship and that warm feeling of virtue and connectedness. Enjoying communion - being part of a spiritual community.

2.     The individual and spiritual, or mysticism: an individual and direct personal spiritual connection to God, the Godhead, the Universal Soul (or whatever term works for you).

The first is the visible part of the church: the people it includes and all the charitable, generous, open-hearted and 'inspired' works they do. Which is the part of most Christian churches that's dwindling just as fast as their congregations are aging and dying.

The second is the personal spiritual connection that's always been distrusted and tightly controlled by Christian churches. Known as mysticism, it's about personally penetrating the 'cloud of unknowing' to reach and connect with the ineffable mystery of God. And that's why the Evangelical movement in Catholic and Protestant churches is a problem: it's a hybrid form of communal mysticism. All that speaking in tongues and spiritual healing and what looks uncomfortably like mass hysteria is the spirit of Christ, or the Holy Spirit, or whatever you want to call it, reaching down and overwhelming the faithful with bliss and rapture. It's a group orgasm of the spirit.

And if you think this doesn't have anything to do with you let me remind you that our Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison is a very senior Evangelical. His faith guides him, and therefore his attitudes and actions. And this is where the 'petri-dish mysticism' comes in. There are four levels or stages of transcendent experience involved in mysticism. They are:

1.     Bliss, or rapture.
2.     Illumination - the enlightenment bit, where you get new insights and a little humility.
3.     Exstasis, the separation of the soul from the body, and:
4.     Merging with the infinite, the Universal Soul, or God.

The problem is that Evangelicals aren't reaching beyond the first level. The 12th century Christian mystic and Augustinian monk Richard of St Victor described it thus:
"In the first degree spiritual feeling sweeter than honey
enters into her soul and inebriates her with its sweetness.."
That inebriation, being spiritually drunk (on the Holy Spirit), is what Evangelical services offer. Mass drunkenness, without alcohol. A cathartic emotional release which can wash away guilt and pain and regret without the understanding, insight or reflection of personal mediation or prayer. When people break out into babbling and gibberish it isn't a sign of over stimulation, mental intoxication and emotional overload it's a sign of holiness, of purity, of God's acceptance of who you are, with all your faults. And there's the rub. If this emotional and spiritual hot-tub washes only God's chosen vessels then we are, by definition, absolutely worthy, upright and deserving, true and correct in all our opinions and beliefs.

The Catholic and other traditional churches' long-held suspicion of this 'rapturous connection' is based on a genuine spiritual concern. People who are in this state of spiritual and emotional openness are enormously suggestible. And there's plenty of charismatic individuals in any generation willing to allow themselves to be first adored, then worshipped as beyond ordinary conceptions of morality, then obeyed to the letter in any despicable act or impulse. Cult leaders from Jim Jones to Charles Manson are notable examples of rapture followed by bloodshed. And while the Church may debate the degree of demonic influence involved the results here on earth are still bloody, appalling and socially destructive. 

Defensiveness, cults and reactionary politics

And it's not just religious cults that feed on this emotional and spiritual orgasm. When historian Robert Waite described Hitler as the 'Psychopathic God' this process is exactly what he had in mind; the cynical and systematic manipulation of people's emotional states to prey on their religious needs and instincts. The cult of personality around Lenin or Mao are similar extremes, but you can see the same fervour at an Obama rally, or in the cult of personality around Ronald Reagan among the conservative 'faithful'. People in groups will quickly connect and hype each other up emotionally, but intellectual processing drops to the lowest common denominator just as quickly. There is no need, or use, or room for intellect, discernment or logic. Just the rush, and the obedience of the herd.

That rapture, for the solitary individual praying or meditating is a sign that you're becoming spiritually open and emotionally responsive. It's there to motivate you to engage in the hard work of reflecting on yourself and your place in the world. On honestly seeing yourself in a broader context, which should produce humility. 

Instead Evangelical Churches favour an anti-intellectual Biblical literalism whose status as 'the absolute truth' is directly proportional to the fevered fervour of their emotional and spiritual experience. Which is the greatest, most powerful experience of their lives.  So there are no questions which can't be answered by their 2000 year old book of fables, myths, eye-for-an-eye morality, xenophobia, selective editing and obscure metaphysics. 

The head-shaking and derision this elicits from the rest of us does not make them feel loved. It only serves to amplify their self-imposed cultish isolation. And with all cults isolation breeds defensiveness, suspicion and a pseudo-martyr complex. God knows, they know they're right (about everything no matter how ridiculously uninformed they may be). They have God's miracle of orgasmic spiritual fever to prove it. 

This is the mindset that inspires reactionary politics: suspicion of outsiders, possession of a Holy Truth that others lampoon, direct authority from God for their opinions, no matter how small, or petty or cruel, or selfish, or self-serving or .. well, you get the drift. And when they get the power to punish others for their temerity in questioning God's chosen people.. well, watch out, Buddy.

I once worked with an Evangelical Catholic and his most prominent trait was an astonishing level of spiritual arrogance. He truly believed he was 'chosen of God' if not chosen by God. He was, unsurprisingly, reactionary and conservative, and he closely identified with the authority structure of the organisation, becoming progressively more humourless and authoritarian the longer he held any organisational power over others. He went from being regarded with amused condescension, to mockery, to animus, to fear and eventually outright hatred for his punitive, bullying manner and acts of spite and petty revenge.

The 'holier than thou' reactionary politics of Evangelical Christians is consistent with history's worst religious excesses. Pogroms, massacres, jihads and crusades all stem from religious fervour and fear. Fear which morphs into hate, and hate which generates violence. 

The cumulative weight of micro-aggressions targeted at refugees and other outsiders makes our society uglier and more hateful. It isn't just the 'boat people' who suffer. We all do when they arrive here damaged and in pain, embittered by their treatment, angry and resentful. And while Scott Morrison and Tony Abbott may keep them from staying here we will all still have to live in a society with new norms of behaviour that are progressively more hate-filled, mean-spirited and extreme, less tolerant of difference and diversity, more abusive, authoritarian and violent. 

And no God worth a good goddamn could be pleased with that.

And A Merry Christmas to You All.

PS: If anyone would like to engage me upon the rest of the four levels of transcendent whotsit, mine's a very large rum.

[i] An acerbic and insightful young lady, she once memorably described the idea that pole-dancing empowered women through physical mastery as 'petri-dish feminism'.


Maozze said...

Well said.

Let us not forget the preposterous anti-abortion/pro-capital punishment facet that, along with a blindly rampant individualism (I did say preposterous), is instilled in these cultesque parishes.

Heaven help us.

Lee Dalton Kear said...

Indeed sir, when God is your guide, no amount of blind and irrational confusion and self-contradiction is a problem. The Lord giveth and the happy and deluded taketh liberties with basic reasoning until the shortest distance from A to B is a moebius strip of pretzeled communion wafer.