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God and Not God

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"All that can be said of God is not God." -- St. Catherine of Siena

I once skated perilously close to the edge of religious fundamentalism. It almost killed me. Literally, not figuratively. The year I turned 30, the thought of taking my life never left me. Fundamentalism, I've realized in hindsight, is a straitjacket for the human soul. With its penchant for absolute certainty, fundamentalism squeezes the sap of mystery from the tree of life. And life without mystery is so dull and constrained as to be hardly worth the living.

I've spent the second half of my life healing from religious wounds, which at times has required a cold, hard look at whether religion is a net plus or a net minus for the individual, the human collective, and/or the planet. You can make a good case either way.

On the one hand, it could be argued that religious values -- charity, generosity, honesty, hospitality, and forgiveness -- establish the universal ideal to which we humans should all strive. Also, faith begets hope, and hope makes possible the survival of experiences that would otherwise crush us into oblivion. On the other hand, why is religious faith so often perverted for purposes of separation, oppression, and/or domination? And why is it that my agnostic and atheist friends have moral compasses that are almost unfailingly true, so much truer than that of the average believer?

In the 1980s Scott Peck's The Road Less Traveled ascended to the New York Times' bestseller list. It remained there for a full decade, making publishing history. Peck, who died in 2005, was a psychiatrist whose experience in repairing broken souls taught him a funny thing about religion. Sometimes religion is the crux of the illness, and sometimes it is the path to healing.

Much of the appeal of The Road Less Traveled lay in riveting accounts of three case histories, counselees whom Peck called Kathy, Marcia, and Theodore. Kathy, "the most frightened person [Peck] had ever seen," had lived for 25 years under the total domination of her mother, who appropriated a vindictive God and a judgmental faith as instruments of control. Kathy's successful therapy, which required many months, involved acknowledging her anger at her mother, using that newly released energy to break free of her mother's grasp, and abandoning forever the "monster-God" whose vengeance her mother had appropriated to keep Kathy "a good little girl."

The cases of Marcia, "the poor little rich girl," and Ted, the hermit, proceeded very differently. Marcia, the only daughter of socialist intellectuals, lived a sensually deprived existence devoid of color, joy, or enthusiasm. Like her parents, she was a devout atheist. Therapy focused on her emotionality, long neglected or suppressed. As Marcia's relationship to Peck deepened in both mutual respect and warmth, Marcia's enthusiasm sprouted, and her whole being blossomed. Symbolic of her inner transformation, Marcia's manner of dress evolved from drab to riotous with color. And although her therapy never focused on the topic of religion, Marcia spontaneously developed a belief in God, and a tender, loving and one at that. "Enthusiasm" after all comes from the Greek for "In Theos."

Ted's case was the most stunning in its specifics and deserves to be read in entirety. In short, Ted had lost both his enthusiasm and his once devout religious faith through a chain of devastating events by which everything he loved dearly was stripped from him. In defense against further loss, Ted had developed an almost impenetrable cynicism and had lived more or less as a hermit for seven years, driven to therapy only by the realization that he was wasting his gifts and his life. Extreme secrecy, however, the legacy of childhood denigrations by taunting brothers, made progress agonizingly slow. Breaking the lock of secrecy, naming one by one the losses -- including his religious faith -- and grieving them eventually restored Ted. On the final day of therapy, Ted signed his last check to the therapist by his full name Theodore, the first and only time he did so. "Theodore" means literally "lover of God."

My own healing, still in progress, has taken yet a different tack. I've come gradually to the realization that religion and spirituality, although related, are not one and the same. Of the two, it's spirituality that's the real McCoy.

The Quaker educator and activist Parker Palmer defines spirituality as "that longing within the human breast that makes us want to connect with something bigger than our own egos." I like Palmer's definition because it's universal. Everyone is spiritual; it's a given. I'd go him a step further, in solidarity with Native American wisdomkeepers. Everything is spiritual. Spirituality is the unseen face of matter, to paraphrase Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit scientist-priest who held that every particle in the cosmos has a Within as well as a Without.

What then is religion? It is the discipline -- the practice -- of spirituality. Insofar as religion nurtures our spirituality, it is useful and positive. Insofar as it suppresses, anesthetizes, perverts, or extinguishes our spirituality, it is negative, even evil. It is telling that Jesus felt quite at home in the company of fishermen, tax collectors, Samaritans, and adulterers, but for the religious leaders -- the Pharisees -- he had only the harshest of words. "Blind guides" and "whitewashed sepulchers" he called them, presumably for crushing genuine spirituality in the vise of legalism and dogma.

Reading Peck's Road Less Traveled spurred my awakening. And so I was eager to hear Peck when he spoke in Tucson where I was a grad student in the mid 1980s. Peck -- like a Zen master -- liked to shock his audience to break their collective trance. He didn't disappoint. One bombshell in particular has lingered until this moment and is the thesis of this essay. Peck laid out a hierarchy for spiritual development in four steps: chaos, fundamentalism, agnosticism/atheism, and mysticism.

Those whose lives are chaotic often turn to fundamentalism as a curative. It works, but only temporally. Fundamentalism's rigidity tames the chaos, but it does so by invoking a legalistic God and a thicket of regulations so dense that one is trapped. The spiritual seeker who has fallen into the trap of fundamentalism, if he or she is lucky, eventually rebels against the "monster-God" and may even abandon the notion of God altogether for a time. Under the right circumstances, Peck saw agnosticism or atheism as a step of growth rather than the gateway to hell.

But humans need meaning, and frequently the detour through unbelief returns the spiritual seeker to a more holistic and all-encompassing faith: mysticism.

Mysticism, much maligned, is the bedrock of the great religions. It is said, "All mystics come from the same country and speak the same language." The most widely read poet in America is Rumi, the 13th-Century Persian and Sufi mystic. A deep vein of mysticism from the middle ages nourishes Christianity to this day. That vein includes the Rhineland mystics Hildegard of Bingen and Meister Eckhart, the Spanish mystics St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, the great English mystic Julian of Norwich, and Tuscany's St. Catherine of Siena. The 20th-Century's aforementioned Teilhard de Chardin is but a modern offshoot of this ancient lineage. Curiously, the greatest scientists of the 20th-Century's twin revolutions in relativity and quantum mechanics were also mystics at heart, if not card-carrying: Einstein, Heisenberg, Schroedinger, de Broglie, Pauli, and Eddington. Einstein perhaps captured it best:

"The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical. It is the source of all true art and science."

In the simplest of terms, a mystic is one who stands in awe before the great mystery that engulfs us. Mystics are begotten in different ways. Some evolve, stepping through Peck's four stages. Some, like Teilhard, are forged in a crucible of fire. A lifelong student of mysticism, my mentor John Yungblut wrote in Discovering God Within: "The mystic is under greater constraint than others. He must not merely perceive connections between apparently disparate things and ideas, but make one of two or more worlds which he experiences as in deadly conflict within him." Torn between science and faith, between the material and the spiritual, Teilhard remained faithful to both, ultimately modeling for us a new paradigm.

"There is neither spirit nor matter in the world; the stuff of the universe is spirit-matter. No other substance but this could produce the human molecule."

Still others, a rare few, are whisked into mysticism by the spontaneous experience of "cosmic consciousness." When, where, and whom it strikes is complete mystery. Although such encounters remain ineffable, mystics throughout the ages and across cultures describe them in remarkably similar terms: "oceanic" feelings, a sense of union with All-That-Is, an overwhelming sense of being loved, and a loss of the fear of death.

The life of one whom mystical consciousness brushes is forever transformed for the better. Let one household example suffice. In 1798, while returning at 18 years of age from a late-night dance, William Wordsworth was suddenly "disturbed with the joy of elevated thoughts," the inspiration for "Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey." This wondrous poem resonates with allusions to a consciousness that permeates and unites all objects of creation, among them the following:

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things.

Mystics without Wordsworth's poetic gifts often turn silent, the paltry reach of words wholly inadequate to the loftiness of their "elevated thoughts."

And so it is that those to whom "God" is most clearly revealed tend to leave the mystery intact. Hence the wisdom of St. Catherine, who understood that whatever of God words can describe is not truly God.

(This essay, which first appeared in Like the Dew on October 17, 2012, is adapted from the last three chapters of the author's book Reason and Wonder.)