I grew up during the ‘60s in the US, that great time of revolution and social change. Many social institutions were being challenged, most with good reason. One of the primary institutions under scrutiny was religion, especially Christianity. The many hypocrisies of its leaders and the betrayals of its founder were very obvious. The lack of credibility of many of its dogmas due to the development of knowledge over the centuries further undermined the its validity. Textual criticism, the ability to analyse a book and see how it was put together from many different sources and times, was particularly good at calling into question the accuracy of many Biblical claims. And so the Church began to lose followers, especially among people in my generation.
There were a number of alternatives based on the message of Jesus that were put forward, but these were rejected, especially by the Roman Catholic Church. It was their way or the highway. So, off many people set on the highway, sans religion. This did not seem to be a problem for that group on their journey. It wasn’t until the next generation came along, that signs of danger began to surface. Dubbed the ‘Jesus movement’, many young people were being recruited by Christian fundamentalists as well as other cults.
Young people are vulnerable to such recruitment because they are seeking an identity. This is a normal part of human development. But if they are coming from homes with insufficient emotional support, such as working parents too busy to take time with them, or abuse or neglect, then a religion which promises them belonging, forgiveness, salvation, and power is an irresistible magnet, drawing them in like hapless iron filings. The result of this movement in the US, which started in the 1980s, is now on display for the world to see.
I would suggest that Ireland is at a similar point in its spiritual development today. The Irish Church has disgraced and discredited itself in many ways. The number of people who go to church regularly, who take the hierarchy seriously in their pronouncements, or who deeply believe any of the Christian message are relatively few, especially among the current younger generation. This is simply a fact of life. Whether you like it or you don’t, doesn’t matter. What does matter is the response that is made to this state of affairs.
If we simply ignore it, then a strong possibility is that missionary movements, of which there are already a few in the country, will come and do the same thing that they did in the US. Fundamentalist churches and preachers are extremely well funded. This is because they facilitate the power of the superrich and their multinational corporations. It is in their interests to promote a population who will not challenge them in their exploitation of a country or the planet. The sole focus is on being saved and following the rules of the church, no matter how oppressive and bizarre they might be. The history of Roman Catholicism in Ireland is a good example of how people will follow the most irrational of rules if they think that their salvation depends on it. The ritual of ‘churching’ in which a woman, who has given birth was made ritually clean from the impurity of that event, is a good example.
Another alternative is that coming generations will simply uncritically adopt the identity of consumers. This was on display during the years of the Celtic tiger. Conspicuous consumption was all the rage. People competed for the fanciest house, the greatest number of houses, the most lavish holidays, the most expensive schools for their children, etc. This left many people in very precarious predicaments when the crash hit. They had been lured with the marketing line – ‘you are under borrowed’ – and ended up losing their home rather than enjoying the prosperity promised them. This has resulted, as designed, in the upward rush of money to the financial elites.
What is at stake here is how we identify ourselves. What do we believe in? What is the point in living? What does it mean to be a psychologically healthy human being? When the time of our death arrives, what will provide us with a sense of a life well-lived? How do you answer these questions for yourself?
It is just these sorts of questions that I have addressed in Spirituality: A User’s Guide. In my own journey to answer these sorts of questions, I found myself drawn to ways of healing my inner emotional pain. We are fortunate to have discovered effective ways to understand and heal emotional pain in the past 20 to 30 years. Not surprisingly, it’s all about love. Being loved, loving others, reducing our fear, and helping others and the environment to be loved as well, is, I would suggest, what it’s all about. Believing in love is the basis for a belief system, but constructing that system is a whole other task.
Let’s look at some aspects of a spiritual story. If we don’t believe in heaven and hell, then what sort of story do we tell ourselves about what happens when we die? Some people are able to be content with the thought that that’ll be it – end of story. But for many people, this is a depressing and scary thought. Thus, it does not meet the criteria for a psychologically healthy spiritual story for them. And since there is no way to know for sure what does happen when we die, then it’s important to use a story that works for you.
If we want our children to get ahead in life, how does that influence the way we treat everyone else’s children? Is it ‘me and mine’ first and devil take the hindmost? Or do we try to set up social policies that make sure that as many people as possible enjoy the greatest benefit? What’s our attitude to those who amass huge amounts of money? Do we admire them and want to be like them, or do we see them as parasites on society? What do our heroes look like? Do we make friends with the powerful, the local lords, or do we work for an inclusive society with transparent workings of power?
If you have children, what do you say to them about who you are or what the meaning of life is? Or do you just ignore this topic, relegating it to the dark press where other topics like sex are hidden? Of course children are very astute, so what you say won’t make nearly as much difference as what you do. Do you spend every waking moment pursuing more and more, or do you prioritize spending time with them in an emotionally nurturing way? Do you allow them to demand all the latest gadgets as seen on TV, or do you help them to see how they are being manipulated and show them where the real value of life is to be found?
Obviously, the construction of a psychologically healthy spirituality, spiritual story, or meaning of life is a huge task. But we are not the first to do so. It has been done many times, over and over. Sometimes the outcome worked really well, while in other situations it was eventually abandoned as unsatisfactory or destructive. Looking at what has been done previously, especially the most recent effort in the West, Christianity, but other efforts as well, can be very useful. Take the best and leave the rest!
I review this history in the book. Jesus was essentially about social justice – love your neighbour as you love your self; do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Buddhism has honed meditation techniques that are essential to being a whole human being. The overdevelopment of the rational mind has disappeared other levels of reality, levels needed to balance out the obsessions and other limitations of the rational mind. The stories of the first peoples, sometimes called Natives or Aboriginals, prioritize stewardship of the earth. They lived and thrived for thousands and thousands of years. After less than 300 years of the Industrial Revolution, we are rapidly making the planet unliveable for human life as well as destroying many other species. Developmental psychology has convincingly outlined what it means to love infants, children, ourselves. What many people think is loving has been shown to be anything but. Quantum physics has demonstrated that we can’t have access to absolutes, so there’s no point in insisting that we have the absolute, god-given truth. What we need is a story that is personally workable, and which tolerates everyone else’s story. Stories that don’t tolerate other versions are psychologically unhealthy.
However, we need more than intellectual tools for constructing our spiritual story. We also need experience. The more years of diverse experience upon which we have reflected compassionately, the truer we will be to life as it is lived by as many people as possible. But there is also an internal type of experience which is central to our task. We need to connect with the other side of our minds, the non-rational part. This is best done through meditation, mindfulness being one of the best avenues for this journey.
Modern society is so thoroughly biased towards the rational, scientific world view, that this other side of our mind is either thought not to exist, or seen as a more primitive, useless aspect. It is not. It is that part of ourselves that connects us with all that is. It is accessible to each one of us, though it takes effort to escape the grasp of our rational mind. When you do come into contact with this energy, it provides you with a perspective that cannot otherwise be gained. Some have called it ‘the still point in the turning world’, the constant motion of the rational mind having been left behind. In this stillness, we know that we are one with the entire universe. Without this awareness, any spiritual story will be incomplete, sectarian, and setting up a ‘them and us’ version of reality.
In summary, what we need for a healthy spirituality is a workable story that allows us to sustain human life and the planet. I am asking you this evening to look at the importance of addressing this task. I have written this book to help you with it. It is based on my personal experience as well as the accumulated wisdom of what I found to be the most effective and useful knowledge currently available. I am not telling you what to believe or what your story ought to be. But I am pointing out that IF your story is not based on love, the practical, hard-work type, not the romantic ideal, then you may find it contributes to the problems of Ireland and the world today rather than taking you and us to a better place.