Pluralism

Here on Sophia Street, we enjoy the same crazy weather as the rest of Vancouver.

Sometimes we look out at a sunny morning, and say, “Looks like a beautiful day.” But we know it’s a hopeful lie.

Here on Sophia Street, brilliant morning sun can yield to torrential afternoon rain. Thick afternoon clouds can part to create a translucent pink sunset. A grim grey evening mist can cleanse the air and by morning British Columbia is the most beautiful place on earth to live and breathe.

Here on Sophia Street, my inner weather follows suit.

Recently I found myself enraged by a particular criticism of the Jewish Renewal Movement, embedded in an on-line book review.

Really, it was a standard criticism.

Clearly the author had tossed off without much reflection.

Nearly all the on-line commentators had disagreed with it.

And yet, it hooked my sensitive inner fabric. It found a loop; it pulled and pulled until the other strands were squished tight, leaving my insides quite misaligned. And out of that tight place, I cried out in pain with a rant.

The book under review was a book about spiritual development. And the reviewer said something like, “Feeling spiritual is all very good fun. But what about the commandments we received at Mount Sinai?”

Really, it’s a standard criticism, one that pits two lowest common denominator stereotypes against one another: Jewish Orthodoxy as unreflective obedience to detailed practice versus Jewish Renewal as unreflective emotional indulgence.

Nearly all the on-line commentators disagreed with his criticism, pointing out the silly stereotypes.

And yet, I was angry, because I felt personally belittled.

Because I’ve worked for many years on “spiritual development,” and I have quite a clear idea of what it means to internalize the Presence of God and, in partnership with God, to sort through layers of feeling and thought, develop a clearer conscience, and a sense of being called to attention at every moment.

Because I don’t feel I’ve forgotten the commandments; I feel I’ve internalized them.

Because, for me, the whole point of a commanding God appearing at Mount Sinai during the infancy of our people is to stimulate us to understand what this might mean as we mature.

Because I’m reminded of Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development: In our earliest years, we learn about right and wrong through reward and punishment. The “right” thing is what evokes reward from the parental authority; the “wrong” thing evokes punishment. As teens, we shift our respect to our peer group, and the “right” thing is what gains us entry into the group. As mature adults, we may learn to internalize principles that can guide our thinking. The “right” thing brings about justice.

Because of all this, I experienced this reviewer as a child. Too young to understand the life journey of his elders, he challenges them from his childish perspective. He asks, “How could your nuanced view, born of disciplined life experience, possibly trump my youthful certainty?”

I experienced this reviewer as if he were one of my teenage children, asking for permission to do something completely absurd, against everyone’s better judgment.

So yes, he left me feeling annoyed and angry. And the feeling did not fade.

A few weeks later, I picked up an excellent book about spiritual development – specifically, about using the Enneagram system of psychology as a tool for spiritual development.

And still it hooked my sensitive inner fabric.

The author stated confidently that true spirituality is “radical personal transformation such that we know ourselves to be the Absolute, the Divine Itself.”*

True spirituality, she said, has nothing to do with religious practice and nothing to do with concepts of God.

And the context implied: anyone who thinks it does has not even begun the spiritual journey. Like the majority of humanity, they are asleep.

And I was angry. The epithet “asleep” hooked my sensitive inner fabric, squishing my insides tight. The edges of my fabric bristled.

I don’t use this particular system of self-study. Am I therefore “asleep”?

I use systems of self-study based in theology and religious practice. Am I therefore “asleep”?

Once again, I felt personally belittled. Once again, I felt angry. The feeling did not fade.

So much anger! In the morning, rain upset me. In the afternoon, sunshine did the same.  A position I disagreed with made me angry. A position I thought I agreed with made me angry.

Am I just caught in an inner storm? Do I just have so many sensitive hooks that I can never feel at ease? Or is something else, something of intellectual substance, at work?

Two opposing positions on spirituality, and both made me angry. Two opposing extreme positions that argue for their validity by distancing themselves from one another, and both made me feel belittled.

I don’t like the extremes. I don’t like the certainty. I certainly don’t like the way the affirmation of one position depends on the absolute negation of the other.

I think that I am a pluralist. Not a wishy-washy pluralist who can’t take a stand on the issues closest to her heart. But:

I am a militant pluralist, a metaphysical pluralist. Reality isn’t one way only. No level of consciousness is the “highest” level. No theology accounts for everything we attribute to God. No type of religious experience is more foundational or more transformative than any other. Many paths lead to awareness.

My mentor is philosopher William James who says we have many concepts of the self; every choice we make opens many possible paths; and many types of religious experience speak to our spirits.

Everyone needs to read William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience.

Of that I am certain!

*quotation from The Enneagram of Passions and Virtues by Sandra Maitri.


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