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Spirituality and Chocolate

One of the things that confirmed my former distrust of religion took place when I was in the second grade. My best friend was a little girl who lived near me. She and her parents were very Christian, and my parents were very not. I didn’t ask my friend about what she believed, but I knew that I, and my family, did not hold the same beliefs. My friend decided one day that she couldn’t reconcile the fact that we were best friends and that I didn’t believe in God. She told me that if I didn’t start believing, we couldn’t be friends. With infallible seven-year-old logic, I told her that that was absurd, and it would be like me telling her she had to stop believing to be my friend. This did not go over very well, and we stopped talking for a few days. Her parents subsequently convinced her that she should make up with me and stop pressuring me to have the same beliefs as her.

Until recently, I have steered very clear of discussions pertaining to religion with people who adhere to a specific church. But in the last few months, since my own spiritual awakening, I have cautiously stuck my toe back into the theological discussion pool. This is because my own experience has caused me to reframe how I interpret a lot of my past experiences, and to reconsider the judgments and assumptions I made about others’ beliefs.

The first few discussions I had were very validating and open exchanges with other people whose path to spirituality had also been fairly winding and not always conventional. But more recently I’ve had some conversations with people who are stricter adherents to one specific religion or another, and those conversations have been frustrating and confusing.

Let me preface this by saying that I experience what many call God as a universal consciousness that, if I clear my head enough (or sometimes even if I don’t), I can recognize is part of me, and that I am a very small part of it. The sense of “I” that separates me from everyone and everything else seems less substantial than it used to, and I also am capable of feeling more compassion and acceptance of myself and others than I did previously. Most religions, including Christianity, have something to say about God as the unnameable, unfathomable source of all existence. They also usually say, at some point, that God is love, and that God is accessible to everyone without any external help. So I think that the major religions have much in common, and are different culture’s ways of interpreting what is a universal experience. That is why the same themes, archetypes, and stories show up in totally different regions at different points in history.

So to me, and many others, one religion does not invalidate another. Experiencing a profound sense of connection to the Virgin Mary does not mean that someone who connects to Ganesha is wrong and is worshiping a false God. It just means that the Virgin Mary is a symbol that resonates most closely with your experience of Spirit, while Ganesha is what provides that connection for someone else. Others connect to spirit through nature. Some religions don’t anthropomorphize God at all, claiming that doing so may limit our ability to experience spirit.

The thing that is really giving me trouble these days is this very idea, that one path to spirituality is “better” than the next. And in this age of diversity and political correctness, it is rare that someone would come out and say that their religion is the only way. But I’ve had some conversations lately where that has been the not so subtle subtext.

So substitute “Chocolate” for your specific religious institution of choice, and the conversation goes something like this:

Me: I’ve discovered ice cream lately. Boy, is it great! I’ve tried several flavors, and I like home made vanilla the best so far.

Them: I was raised with Hershey’s chocolate ice cream, and it makes me really happy. I don’t know that much about your vanilla, but I’m sure it’s fine.

Me: I don’t object to chocolate, there are qualities I enjoy, but vanilla is what really works for me. I’ve also tried coffee and pistachio so far. I’m going to try some other flavors too, and see how I like them.

Them: But Hershy’s chocolate is the original flavor, you can’t really like ice cream unless you like chocolate.

Me: Actually, there were flavors before chocolate that shared similar qualities, and all ice cream is made of the same basic components, they just have different flavors.

Them: Just try some more chocolate. I’m sure you’ll come to love it the way I do, and then you’ll understand. All those other flavors are just poor imitations, you can’t really love ice cream unless you love chocolate ice cream.

Me: Check, please.

After a while, I find myself wondering why the fact that a different flavor of ice cream (spirituality) is most appealing to me (after a lifetime of searching for one I like) should be so difficult for someone else to accept. The conclusion I tend to jump to is that the fact that I believe in something that on the surface seems different (or really just less clearly defined and dogmatic) is unsettling to them and may call into question their own beliefs. Which is weird to me, because I can’t imagine telling someone that their connection to God isn’t as strong, or valid, or advanced as my own. That would just be lame. I’m not questioning the validity of their relationship with God, why should they question mine?

And to get back to the chocolate metaphor, who can say what anything in this world smells, tastes, looks or feels like to another. One of my ex-boyfriends was red-green colorblind. He literally and provably saw the world differently than I did. Does that make what he saw a lie? Of course not. What I respond to and how I experience the world is not exactly the same as anyone else, and is not subject to debate. It just is. Perception by its nature can not be anything but individual and subjective.

So I guess I’m a little sad that I haven’t been able to have a more constructive conversation regarding religion so far with people who are less universalist than I am. But I’m also kind of amused that in some ways, those conversations have born a striking resemblance to the one I had with my friend in the second grade. I’m just glad that her parents’ take on their religion left room for people with different views, so we could still be friends.

Rocks and Viruses

I’ve been thinking a lot about where the line is between a religion and a cult, or a philosophy and an ideology. I think it is obvious that the main differentiator is the individual – do you need your beliefs to be simple and dogmatic, or can you engage in critical discourse? Does your relationship to the world change, or is it fixed?

But what about the nature of the belief system itself? How does it deal with challenges? Both political parties in the US have changed tremendously over the past 100 years. Sometimes one or the other seemed more dogmatic and purist, but sooner or later that purism was fractured by reality and the changing demands of society. So the two party system has continued, in spite of massive changes in the values and demographics of American society. At the same time, more extreme and ideological political systems, such as Communism, have largely failed. Pure, unadulterated capitalism has also failed. I guess I should say how I define failure – I believe a system has failed when basic ethical norms are regularly violated and are not adequately punished or prohibited by the system.

Democracy (theoretically) allows for self-correction, adaptation, change, and most importantly, ongoing challenges by members of the system. Any system that prohibits these things and threatens to harm or dissociate itself with those who challenge it is what I would consider a simplistic, dogmatic system. That’s when it enters the realm of cult or ideology for me. I think that the fact that the Bush administration is so far out of favor now is a testament to our system’s resistance to reverting to an ideology. The tension between the parties MUST continue to exist in order for our country to continue to mature.

I think an interesting analogy (and I ripped this off from Neal Stephenson) is the idea of viruses. An organism that is going to survive for the long term is one that can sustain multiple attacks from external sources – environmental and viral. It adapts, builds antibodies, evolves. If you apply this to a social system, cults don’t have much in the way of antibodies. They isolate themselves from critics, define themselves as “special” or “chosen” in some way, and those individuals involved must either turn all their energies towards accepting and supporting the beliefs of the group, or risk expulsion. I think one of the main features most conspicuously lacking in cult-like organizations is humility. From the Nazis to the Branch Davidians to Scientologists, you’re not likely to see members of these groups involved in any kind of public or academic discourse on the nature of their beliefs, and I suspect this is because these systems have no immune system. Belief in a superior race or creed does not lend itself well to humble self-examination, which doesn’t leave much room for testing and debate.

Compare this to Christianity or Buddhism, and you see organizations that have evolved, broken apart, re-formed, adapted, changed, and are very much a part of the intellectual and spiritual development of the human race. I am not claiming that there are no Christian or Buddhist factions or individuals that are dogmatic and ideological, but the systems themselves have proven over 2000+ years that they can withstand change and growth.

So my litmus test for an organization of any kind is, can you throw rocks at it? Can you test and question the beliefs, and do the members of the group regularly examine their own ethics and behavior based on those beliefs? If rock-throwing is taboo, then it’s probably not a system I really want any part of. But if rock-throwing is encouraged, if the system does not fear viruses but welcomes adaptation and change, then it just might be worth checking out.