I’ve never been one to shy away from the use of “I.” Obviously. This puts me at odds with the powers-that-be who set forth the guidelines for giving talks (a.k.a. satsangs) at meetings of the spiritual group, Radha Soami Satsang Beas (RSSB), where I still hold forth once a month or so. Until I’m fired for heresy by the powers-that-be, that is—an ever present possibility.
Last Sunday I glanced at a memo from the Western RSSB representative, Vince Savarese, which said that it isn’t good for a speaker to say “I” very often. I disagree, so I quickly stopped reading the memo. From my days working in state government I remember the value of being able to respond to criticism from a higher-up with an “Oh, I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to do that. I must not have gotten the memo.”
On our local public broadcasting radio network, OPB, I recently heard an interview with John Danforth. Danforth is a moderate Christian Republican who used to be a U.S. Senator from Missouri. He said that while he agrees with most of President Bush’s policies, he doesn’t like how fundamentalist Christians are inserting themselves into the political process.
To assert that I am on God's side and you are not, that only I know God's will, and that I will use the power of government to advance my understanding of God's kingdom is certain to produce hostility. By contrast, moderate Christians see ourselves, literally, as moderators. Far from claiming to possess God's truth, we claim only to be imperfect seekers of the truth.
Which gets me back to why “I” really is a humble, not egotistical, word. Consider the difference in tone between saying “I am searching for the truth” and “This is the truth.” There’s no “I” in the second sentence, but it is hugely more self-assertive—especially when the truth being referred to is religious or spiritual, not scientific or material.
I’m sure that I often sound as if I’m sure about what I’m talking about. For that, I apologize. I should be writing “I believe…,” “I think…,” “I suspect…” and the like more often than I do. In my defense, I assume that the reader knows that what I’m saying is just how I see things, and not how things really are. My spiritual vision is blurry, like most everyone else’s.
Even those regarded by some as Perfect. Such as the Indian guru Charan Singh, and his successor Gurinder Singh. Yesterday three issues of a new RSSB magazine, “Spiritual Link,” arrived in the mail from India. I’ve thumbed through them but find it difficult to resonate with the articles.
For one thing, the frequent use of the phrase “perfect living Master” jars my sensibilities. In the past I’ve used these words in my own writings, so I understand that they reflect an ardent devotion to a spiritual teacher. The devotion is understandable. However, it doesn’t need to be expressed in words that can’t be defended, for they neither reflect a directly experienceable reality nor a loving, humble attitude toward spirituality.
In his other essay Danforth says, “At its best, religion can be a uniting influence, but in practice, nothing is more divisive.” In my opinion, using the word “perfect” to describe a spiritual leader is highly divisive. For it strongly implies that anyone who holds views that are different from those espoused by the Perfect One is, by definition, wrong: imperfect, deluded, uninformed, misguided.
It would be another thing if a devotee were to write, “I look upon _____ as being perfect.” Adding “I” to a statement in this fashion converts it into a profession of personal belief, not a proclamation of universal truth. Strangely, though, in the aforementioned Spiritual Link magazine all articles written by devotees are anonymous, while quotations from spiritual greats are identified by name.
I’ve unsuccessfully argued with the editors that the magazine’s policy should be just the opposite: those who are least likely to be speaking spiritual truth should be named so the qualifications of the “I” doing the saying can be assessed by readers. Also, this would permit mistakes, questionable assertions, and the like to be brought to the attention of the author.
It’s humble to say, “I think… . Now tell me what you think.” It’s egotistical to hide behind a curtain of anonymity that allows you to say whatever you want without being questioned or challenged.
Nobody on this plane of existence is perfect. This is one statement where I’ll omit a prefatory “I believe that… .” Perfection implies unchangeability, or at least perfect harmonization with changing conditions. The human body changes all the time and so does the human mind. It isn’t possible for either body or mind to perfectly mirror the truth of the cosmos, however we might view the nature of that truth.
Yesterday I saw a CNN report that Spain has made gay marriage legal, joining Belgium and the Netherlands (and likely soon, Canada). That made me think about the comment by the supposedly “perfect” guru Charan Singh that I wrote about in my previous post: Homosexuality is contrary to all laws of Nature and no decent society approves it.
Well, now three decent societies have approved of gay marriage, desiring to extend the rights enjoyed by heterosexual couples to homosexuals. Does this mean that Spain, Belgium, and the Netherlands aren’t really “decent” societies? If you believe that Charan Singh was perfect and every utterance of his reflects ultimate spiritual truth, then apparently this is the case.
Naturally I hold a different opinion: Charan Singh had his own views on lots of subjects, as do we all. Some of those views were defensible; others weren’t. His personal opinion about homosexuality was, in my own personal opinion, one of the latter.
I just wish he had been more inclined to say “I believe” and “I think.” For then gay people like Steve, who left a moving comment on that post, would have been less likely to take Charan Singh’s personal opinions on this subject seriously.
Humility is realizing that our “I” doesn’t encompass the big picture, the Eye of God, if you like. It’s honest to say “I.” It’s dishonest to purport that our own individual views reflect the whole of reality.