The morning after I wrote “Why I embrace unorganized religion” I had an Aha! moment that smoothly spoke in a few words what I had struggled to express in several pages. Writing is a mystery. For me, the process seems to stir up the contents of my cranium, loosening up what had been fixed, uncovering what had been hidden.
Much of the mental stew sinks back to the bottom of the pot again. Some rises to the surface of consciousness, bubbling over with a fresh insight. Such as…
Clinging to a filter that obscures reality is a primary vice of organized religion and its fundamentalist followers.
Filters. We all have them. The words of the language(s) we use are filters. Our memories and beliefs are filters. There are many kinds of filters that come between us and reality, personalizing our perception of the universal.
I don’t know enough about this subject to speak about it in a scholarly fashion. So I’ll stick with the intuitive flash that burst in my brain yesterday: What gripes me the most about fundamentalists, whether they be members of the RSSB faith that I’ve been associated with or followers of some other religion, is that they cling so strongly to filters that cloud their vision of reality.
Again, no one sees things as they are. At the least, I’m going to be conscious of what is, or seems to be, via my own consciousness. So there’s going to be an “I-filter” no matter what. I perceive; I think; I feel; I imagine. I can’t experience reality in any other fashion except through me.
Whoever I am, and I’m still trying to figure that out, I’m not simple. My life history, genetic heritage, and god knows what else have combined to produce a complex web of predispositions, proclivities, prejudices, and presuppositions that clothe naked experience in many coats of many colors.
I can’t help that. Neither can you. Innate ways of looking at the world (such as a bias toward pessimism or optimism, skepticism or belief, thinking or feeling) are so ingrained in our being it is terribly difficult to make major changes to the primal “I-filter.” How many people do you know, leaving aside the mentally ill, whose basic personalities have markedly changed over the course of their adult lives?
It’s the filters we place over the lens of our consciousness voluntarily (or quasi-voluntarily) that I hold people accountable for. These conceptual filters are much more apparent both to our own self and to others. We should be able to recognize when we’re blatantly distorting reality by viewing things through the prism of our beliefs. This is the value of collegial give and take, of frank discussions where other people point out our biases, of forums like this where ideas are shared and challenged.
Unfortunately, religious beliefs tend to be intractable. Political opinions are changed much more easily than religious opinions. In large part this is because true believers don’t regard them as alterable opinions, but as set-in-stone facts. Jesus saves. Guru is god. Allah will judge. Buddha-nature is compassion. When a fundamentalist of any stripe has come to believe in, well, a fundamental conception about the nature of reality, this belief filter is laid over their innate “I-filter,” thereby doubling his or her distortions.
As I described in my previous post, my goal in writing “Return to the One” was to present Plotinus’ mystic philosophy as accurately and clearly as possible. Necessarily I was going to have to write about his teachings through the filter of my own self, for “Brian Hines” was going to be on the cover of the book, not “Objective Truth.” But I struggled diligently to separate my personal conceptions from Plotinus’ own views.
An aside: it’s sort of ironic (or, some might say, karmic) how I began working on a book that ended up changing how I viewed Radha Soami Satsang Beas and, more generally, my whole approach to spirituality. For it was the guru of RSSB, Master Gurinder Singh, who suggested to me various mystics who might serve as worthy subjects for a “Mystics of the West” book. One of these was Plotinus, to whom I was most attracted.
Further, it was Master Gurinder Singh who looked me in the eye at an author’s meeting in India and said, “Stick with Plotinus, of course,” after I had asked him, “If I find a conflict between the teachings of Plotinus and of RSSB, which should I go with in this book?” So the guru himself, who I have a lot of respect for, advised the obvious: a book about Plotinus should be about Plotinus, not some other philosophy.
Apparently the RSSB staff who gave me so much trouble about “Return to the One” didn’t get this message. For they couldn’t help viewing my book through the filter of their faith in Radha Soami Satsang Beas. This isn’t all that surprising—one would expect that the Vatican would try to put a Catholic spin on any book that it was considering publishing—but RSSB holds itself up as a “science of the soul” and not a typical religion.
Well, I’m still waiting to be convinced about that. I have a thick file folder filled with emails between me and the RSSB staff where a depressingly repetitive theme is evident. Basically, it went like this:
Me: “Please tell me why you think the manuscript needs to be changed. Is there something poorly written? If so, I’ll improve it. Is there something not true to the teachings of Plotinus? If so, I’ll fix it.”
Them: either [silence] or: “Consider how your RSSB beliefs relate to Plotinus. Tell the reader how your guru has caused you to understand Plotinus’ spiritual message.”
Me: (if the latter response from Them) “I can’t tell the reader something that isn’t true. I wrote this book, not the guru. My personal self necessarily is reflected in my writing, but I’ve been able to distinguish my own beliefs from Plotinus’ teachings.”
And so it went. I was trying to write a book about Plotinus. They wanted me to write a book about how Plotinus agreed with their own religious beliefs. Not only were they unwilling to view Plotinus in as unfiltered a fashion as possible, I came to realize that they actually were proud of how immovable was their distorted view of reality. While I was trying to see Plotinus as clearly as possible, they wanted him colored with RSSB paints.
That I couldn’t do and still be honest both to myself and to Plotinus. So I ended up going my own way with the book. And increasingly, with my spirituality.
I want to emphasize that I don’t consider myself to be free of prejudices and blind spots. However, I know myself well enough to be confident in saying, “I’m doing my best to see reality as it is, not as how I believe it to be.”
No religion will say the same thing. If it does, then it isn’t a religion. It’s a science. Science tries to remove as many filters as possible from man’s perception of reality; a religion tries to impose an additional filter on believers. This is how I distinguish science and religion.
By their attitude toward filters shall you know them.