By Jose Tirado
When 2013 came to a close, I noticed that the urge to look back and reflect had become as ritualized as the displays of holiday cheer and the near-ritual presentation of “Christmas movie classics” on television. In my case, those things I had dismissed as mistakes are rarely reviewed enough to not pop up again. And again and again, in fact, each year it seems sometimes. Out in the wider world, paeans are written to those who have died, big events are relived via grainy video and talking heads are pulled from their well-funded think tanks to muse over the meaning of the year or its events, eager to sound authoritative and offering what are supposed to be novel reflections and committed resolutions for the year ahead.
Perhaps there is a deeper reason to this regular reflection, a need, quite old and as human as almost any other, despite our failing to enact significant changes. This is the need to find meaning in the world we live around us. To establish some connection to what is and what has gone before in order to project out and plan for what might come in the future. I don´t disparage this, nor place undue emphasis on it. I celebrate it in fact. But its limitations are in the locking of the looking-back into a form of unthinking nostalgia or to, as suggested above, institutionalize this activity so that after a while, the exercise becomes an excuse for inactivity; a robotic reaction designed to give the impression of reflection, while allowing neither reflective responses nor determined commitment for any future change. But, do we change? When confronted with our past or with patterns which bring out our outrage, do we utilize this reflective pause on meaning to commit to new ways of acting in the world? A recent exchange highlighted this for me. I asked hypothetically,
If USAmericans were dying in the streets from exposure to the weather, or,
their children were regularly being fired upon in schools, or,
the homeless beaten to death with impunity (by the police) or,
tens of millions were at near-poverty levels not seen since the Great Depression, or,
levels of violence committed by armed vigilantes were being done and excused by the official judiciary, or,
studies showed that half of all USAmericans were living at or near poverty levels, or,
every phone call and email message was being monitored, or,
millions had given up hope that their children would ever see better days they they themselves, or,
the average accumulated debt of students was now higher than the great crisis of 2008 and will condemn tens of millions of young people to penury and near serf-like conditions for the rest of their lives, or,
corporate destruction of food sources, the wider environment and the areas in which most people lived was now so contaminated and polluted that illnesses in certain areas were shockingly taken to be at Third World levels,
well, something would be done, no?
Yet each of these events or circumstances has historical antecedents and is repugnant enough that one would suppose immediate action would triumph over resigned inertia. That mobilization would be an easy thing as the need for social and economic justice, for community and for “righteousness” would compel people to act in solidarity for an end. But instead, we are left with ever more increasing outrages, from radiation leaks in UK power plants to new oil spills from platforms on our oceans to more slaughter in the world´s continuous outpouring of violence and a growing, fascist-style resurgence around the globe.
What helps us to understand, to make sense of these things, of our intractable laziness or of our reluctance to change? Who puts context into the content of human events and, with such a perspective, provides us with blueprints we can follow? What force do we have available to us to assist in cohering together the events which seem arbitrary or capricious but which have a deep hold over our lives? Well, religion is one. It can be a force for reflection on the failings of human communities while providing impetus for change, viewing both within a broader, moral context. And it can enshrine our deeper sense of wonder so as to continually lift our vision to beyond the immediate, providing us possibilities of something greater than we can presently imagine.
However, the institutionalization of this wonder or awe, and the creation of mediums to filter and interpret the individual sense of connection to the whole of existence by way of a priestly class or dogmatic set of regulations, I find problematic insofar as it lends itself to human tendencies to dominate and coerce, qualities I think inherent to all institutions we create. And this tendency of institutionalizing disempowers us and oftentimes asks us to resign ourselves to conditions in life regarded as inevitable. But the impulse to discern larger meaning remains potent, attractive, and potentially liberating.
Thus, while the many attacks on religion or on the excesses of religious intolerance perpetuated by fanatics seem justified to me, the attendant vicious dismissal of this nobler impulse to find higher meaning in our lives and blanket condemnation of religion and spirituality I find counterproductive. At best. It embodies, on occasion, the self-same intolerance it often condemns and adds to it a patronizing display of elitist condescension of absolutely no use to those of us who seek to empower the masses to fight against oppression and the many oppressive forces we face.
The simple fact remains that, Marx´s or any other Left hero´s condemnations of the oppressiveness aside, most people in the US retain a religiosity, at least a connection to spirituality that informs (and, in fact, defines) their ideas of fairness and the search for social, economic or political justice. In fact, it is safe to say most movements of such a nature were informed and often led by religious people, ministers, priests, nuns, etc., whose commitment to those religiously informed visions led them to attack the injustices of their day with passion. This is no place to excuse the abuses of religiosity, the same determinative certainty which acts as an oppressive weight on human wonder and democratic spirit, but instead is a reminder that out of the religious or spiritual framework, comes a deep regard for the sanctity of life, or justice and what is often dismissed as trite “good will”. The numbers of spiritual or religious groups committed to transforming our world are many and, barring those groups overt commitment, they have drawn out from their followers leaders of remarkable inspiration. These groups and their members have included, for example,
The Society of Friends (Quakers) and George Fox,
The Catholic Worker and Dorothy Day
AME Baptists and Martin Luther King, Jr.)
To name just a few.
What I find most distressing these days is the angry dismissal, the lack of compassionate identification with and the sanctimonious disregard for people who believe in God or some kind of “higher power” and the attendant glib dismissal of spirituality as against the grain of “rational socialist theory.” For example, I have seen numerous discussions on Facebook speaking vigorously of the need to disavow “the people” of their “opiate” and that once in a socialist society (“after the revolution”), we can “dispense with religion” and live “rationally and in accordance with a proper analysis of our material conditions.” If this sounds like a dry, lifeless Eden, it is. And such barren visions do not foster poetry and the elevation of wonder; such fact-filled, materially focused landscapes reject the fecund warmth of gospel songs, for example, and the hand holding solidarity of “spirit-filled” peoples. It mocks the simple faith of those who found solace (and survival) in their spirituality. What would they do with those of us ardent socialists who wished to sing praises to Heaven, to give thanks to Amida, to pray in our hearts with gladness, to find in rivers and mountains holy presences, who see the sacred reflected in nature or find divinity in the panentheistic regard for all “Creation”? Would we be forced to flatten our hearts´ innermost melodies to the diminished tones of the Hegelian dialectic, the Communist Manifesto or the latest Zizekian, or Badiouian lecture?
Can we say that the sentiments contained here below, in these two different prayers, one Christian and one Buddhist, represent an offense to reason and must therefore be forcibly removed from the hearts of those who hold similar sentiments in the name of rationality and replaced instead with material descriptions of reality and more rationalistic aspirations for which these are dismissed as silly? Let us consider:
You alone are unutterable,
form the time you created all things
that can be spoken of.
You alone are unknowable,
from the time you created all things
that can be known.
All things cry out about you;
those which speak,
and those which cannot speak.
All things honor you;
those which think,
and those which cannot think.
For there is one longing, one groaning,
that all things have for you …
All things pray to you that comprehend
and offer you a silent hymn.
In you, the One, all things abide,
and all things endlessly run to you
who are the end of all.
Prayer of Praise, St. Gregory Nazianzen, c.330-389
May all beings everywhere
Plagued by sufferings of body and mind
Obtain an ocean of happiness and joy
By virtue of my merits.
May no living creature suffer,
Commit evil, or ever fall ill.
May no one be afraid or belittled,
With a mind weighed down by depression.
May the blind see forms
And the deaf hear sounds,
May those whose bodies are worn with toil
Be restored on finding repose.
May the naked find clothing,
The hungry find food;
May the thirsty find water
And delicious drinks.
May the poor find wealth,
Those weak with sorrow find joy;
May the forlorn find hope,
Constant happiness, and prosperity.
May there be timely rains
And bountiful harvests;
May all medicines be effective
And wholesome prayers bear fruit.
May all who are sick and ill
Quickly be freed from their ailments.
Whatever diseases there are in the world,
May they never occur again.
May the frightened cease to be afraid
And those bound be freed;
May the powerless find power,
And may people think of benefiting each other.
For as long as space remains,
For as long as sentient beings remain,
Until then may I too remain
To dispel the miseries of the world.
Excerpt from the Bodhicaryavatara
–Shantideva, c. 8th century CE
One doesn´t have to like or agree with such sentiments, but one cannot deny their depth of feeling and richness of humanity.
What I see all too often these days are revolutionary automatons, ready with the quick firing slogan and well-honed theoretical position, sharpened by hours of debates on the Internet about this or that theoretician and utterly dismissive about the human connections to wonder and mystery, to spiritual understandings of Life and human events. Instead, a dry intellectuality, cultured in sterile, atheistic materialism and mechanically likened metaphors dominate their discourse. And they wonder why few buy into their ideologies?
This elevation of cold rationality, of what my mentor, the late psychologist Eugene Taylor called , “the rational ordering of sense data alone” leaves out the expressions of human with non-human solidarity of Native peoples and hundreds of millions of people around the world out of the picture, lessened, in this stale view, by their adherence to spirituality and religious sentiments.
If we are going to find a way out of the relentless exploitation of our planet to the point we endanger all forms of life on it, we will need all hands on deck, so to speak. And while reasoned analysis and properly discriminating the facile and the facetious from the effective will be essential to the task, we will still need our dreamers, our poets, our responders to those unseen voices of ancestors, those who hear the mountains and the trees weep, who receive their inspiration from longing and illumination via the higher concepts in the heart. We will need people who hold a vision of things as they should be, and oftentimes, those are religious visions. Pure Lands, Heaven, Shambhala, all these places the heart sees and knows are there, if “there” is perhaps a bit far from where we live now.
I understand the appeal of those dreams, and still hold fast to the explanations of science and their precise analyses of phenomena. But I want to live where both are welcomed, for both are necessary. My feet walk on the Earth it is true, but my heart soars to the heavens, and in between I take the nourishment which sustains me, and live among those whose sensitivities to either realm are perhaps less finely attuned. We need each other, in short, and only by mutual acceptance and tolerant respect for the diversity of human aspirations will we be able to make that better world. And whether the outcome is seen as designed from above or brought about through the labors of below, I remain more invested in the work at bringing it to fruition, more than in the description.
The greatest emancipation from the strictures of empire and its laws is the proper living of our lives. This means to engage all whom we meet with an awful sincerity so subversive as to challenge us to become “holy”, as it were, in our most ordinary exchanges. This is often at the heart of the religious vision. That we are to live communally, eschewing hierarchy and prejudice and relying instead upon the innate understanding that all of us (“all sentient beings” as Buddhists say) wish to avoid suffering and thus, to maximize our joy. But a Life so authentically lived also recognizes the futility of arriving at such if this undertaken with the intellectual tools of oppression, or the commonly mistaken rewards of material possessions for the sale of hours of our lives. Our lives are not for sale, nor should they be rented out. Our lives, authentically lived, are the thing before concepts such as ownership and commerce began and rediscovering that “Eden” has been the aim of the spiritual impulse when considered socially.
We as humans are not the activities of ideologies, but the communal reflections each, of divinity, which is understood most universally among spiritually inclined people, as love or compassion. In such a vision, inequality cannot be conceived, nor oppression undertook. And it is precisely that kind of vision that the great spiritual leaders appealed to time and time again, even if their institutions co-opted the message or persecuted the messenger.
The quick dismissal of religiosity fails to grasp the deep allure these messages have historically had and how we return to them often when envisioning how to live. And, given that we are surrounded by the dry aridness of materialism and positivistic reductionism, I will (along with millions of others) choose the poetry of religious activism, such as that which informed Dorothy Day, the Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thich Nhat Hanh, the Liberation Theologians, Thomas Merton and others, over the stock security and lifeless sterility of scientistic atheism.
We needn´t reduce our choice here to the full-on pursuit of evangelical certainty versus the equally certain humorlessness of the new atheists. Our desperate times require all manner of human dreaming and conceptions of a future “paradise”. I just know that the one I will work for and hope to live in, will be more filled with tropical colors and rich, diverse, and succulent choices of nourishment than the parched sterility of the materialists´ mechanistic paradise.