As many of you know, I have tended to have some very strong views on (generally against) religion. This makes being in a very strongly Catholic area of a very strongly Christian country interesting to say the least. My views on religion and those who practice it are evolving. In summation, my view of mysticism is continuing to grow more negative while my view of spirituality is becoming way more positive. I am also separating those two aspects, even where they overlap. Something like “love the sinner, hate the sin”. I would phrase it as “embrace the believer, reject the belief.”
When it comes to mysticism, there is not only the Christianity here but also the Kastom belief. The former not having driven out the latter much at all. Both are, in fact, very strong here. There are two major problems I have with the mysticism as its practiced here.
My first problem is magical thinking. Gaea and many of the other health volunteers are working very hard on hygiene and sanitation. Primary among the problems are diarrheal diseases. These are not terribly difficult to reduce in impact by fixing water supplies, improving toilets, and increasing sanitary practices. However, when sickness is blamed on “walking in the footsteps of devils,” “black magic sent by a jealous person,” or “God being angry at someone for changing denominations of Christianity,” these changes just do not seem as important to people. Believing that there are devils out there to cause sickness means that steps aren’t taken to prevent the real causes. Church leaders supporting the notion that peoples’ lives suck because they don’t go to church or pray enough exacerbates the problem. Every time there is a negative outcome for someone, I can guarantee that I will hear at least once that the people involved don’t pray or go to church enough as a primary cause. We know that a specific set of symptoms is consistent with, for example, Hepatitis A or Typhoid. We know that these are caused by germs and transmitted by oral-fecal contamination. Whether this is guided by mystical forces or not is somewhat irrelevant. Let’s prevent things that we know how to prevent and be open to the possibility that we can actually prevent them.
The second problem I see is that of dependence. As I see it practiced, the Christianity here perpetuates a sense that they need outside help to accomplish anything. Every meeting is begun with a prayer phrased as, “Papa God, please give us good thoughts in this meeting and give us good outcomes as a result of it.” My problem is the word ‘give’ and its implications. What I am focusing on here is a very small bit of semantics that I feel could make a HUGE difference. Using ‘help’ instead changes the whole meaning by giving a sense of empowerment. ‘Give’ means that the asker is incapable of acquiring the result themselves. ‘Help’ or ‘guide’ means that the asker can get things accomplished themselves but can get more and better things accomplished with assistance. The former keeps people in a subjugated role and feeling powerless to help themselves. The latter empowers people and enables them to take an active role in lifting themselves up. The former is very much the tone of the belief as I see it practiced here. I don’t even think it is inherent in the teachings themselves. I don’t know the bible well enough to quote it, nor do I have the internet available to research quotes. Having read much of it and talked with Christian PCVs, I know that there is plenty in there that shows God helping those who help themselves. At best, this is the church neglecting to help people empower themselves with the teachings they have. At worst, its ignoring parts of the teachings (whether intentionally or not) and keeping people needing them.
Spirituality, however, is becoming more and more important and positive in my life. I can even describe myself as a spiritual person these days (a phrase I used to have a knee-jerk rejection to.) Part of this is that I don’t see “spirituality” as inherently mystical and think the phrase needs to be either replaced or reclaimed from those connotations (a separate rant for another place).
Part of this is my deepening study of Buddhism and my attempts to apply it to my own life. Part of it is taking the experiences on my path and realizing how others are dealing with the same issues. I’ve always attempted this and keep these ideas in mind however, the problem was that they stayed in my mind. As with many things, gaining more time for introspection and living in a very different culture is (I hope) moving me past intellectual understanding and onto a more visceral level.
What I learn over and over again is that everyone is doing their best to live a good life and create a good world. There are many disagreements about how to do this and many ways to get to a good world. Sometimes we start out with the best intentions and get deluded into bad actions but we all want the world to be better.
It is always much easier to rail against the “wrongs” of the world than to find a “right” everyone can agree on. I find myself very drawn to a metaphor Ajan Chah used about the right path being a foggy road*. We can, at best, outline a path down the middle and give warnings when one is veering too far to one side or the other. The negatives are useful at times to prevent us from straying too far. They also drive us apart too easily. Better are positive statements of solutions which we can come together over.
I continue to point out wrongs as I see them. At the same time, I am working very hard on developing my ability to come up with suggestions for a better way. More building up than tearing down. I am continuing to develop my sense of compassion. Even with all of the faults we have, humans are amazing creatures. Our capacities for love and joy are amazing when they shine through. There is nothing more touching and inspiring than an open heart. I can only hope that the openness I am finding here will help me to do the same.
*From Jack Kornfield’s A Path With Heart. HIGHLY recommended, lots of thought provoking material.