Friday, February 4, 2011

Belief, Faith and Experience - Levels of Experiencing Religion

I wish to continue to discuss the social categories and dynamics of religion, picking up where I left off with the discussion of legitimacy and authenticity. I would like to now focus on the three types of religious sentiment, and look at belief, faith and experience and how they can shape a religious organization as well as the opinions and practices of the individual adherent.

This brings us to the discussion of the three fundamental levels of experiencing religion, as based upon the definitions of religion given previously. Ken Wilber proposes (in the book “A Sociable God”) that there are three basic levels to religious practice and adherence, and these are belief, faith and experience. (See chapter 6, pages 105 - 111.)

Belief is the lowest level achievable by a member of a religious body because it does not require any examination or analysis of one’s creed. It only requires a complete embrasure and acceptance of a codified belief system or doctrine. Believers do not question their beliefs. They tend to interpret liturgy and sacred scriptures in a literal sense, and negatively judge those who are either outside of the faith or dare question any of the foundational beliefs that make up the base of that creed. Believers are passionate, often anti-intellectual and zealous because they adhere unconditionally to dogma and doctrine, and eagerly proselytize their beliefs to others. Religious wars, crusades and terrorist attacks are typically promoted by a minority of overly zealous believers. Tolerance and inclusiveness are usually not their modus operandi, since to admit anything different than what is dictated in their religious creed would, in their mind, jeopardize their belief entirely. Those virtues typically characterize individuals who have begun to actually examine their beliefs and question their basic spiritual assumptions.

The next level is faith, which represents a state where believers have progressed to the point of examining the nature of their beliefs, allowing for the intrusion of doubt, speculation and the inclusion of alternative perspectives; something that would have been impossible for a believer. To those who have faith, beliefs are not the source of their religious involvement, but rather it is an intuition of Deity, where they begin to apprehend a Godhead that has become more intimate and transcendental. Therefore, those who have faith avoid any kind of literal interpretation to doctrine, liturgy or sacred scriptures. Faith is a religious perspective that can admit that spirituality is full of paradoxical qualities which can’t be fully explained or determined through doctrine or dogma. Faith is a natural maturation of belief, and leads its adherents ultimately to become spiritual seekers.

We should keep in mind that zealous believers are also typically provided a great deal of spiritual experience through an active pursuit and full engagement of their religious doctrines. Yet this acts as a mechanism for merely reinforcing what they already believe. Still, that kind of spiritual experience is closely guarded, carefully defined and rigorously controlled by the religious organization that sponsors it, whereas people of faith seek their experiences independently and even outside of their mainstream religion.

This leads us to the next level, which is that of spiritual experience. Experience is superior to both belief and faith, since it is a kind of knowledge of Spirit that is outside and beyond the usual confines of a religious creed. Experience verifies the tenets of a religion, but usually in a manner that reveals far more than the original intent of those tenets. This is why spiritual experience can be considered dangerous and inimical to the dogmatic practices and rigid doctrines of the believer.

Spiritual experience is where individuals have direct and unsupervised encounters with the Deity, as a deeper perception of Spirit or a peak experience, either of which allows for a temporary insight into (and influence from) one of the authentic trans-personal realms. (Wilber has called these the psychic, subtle or causal domains of higher consciousness.) Spiritual experiences can also cause powerful cathartic realizations to occur, generating a profound internal transformation that can become permanent. Experiences are ephemeral, even when they cause transformations, so seekers are required to integrate those experiences into their base of spiritual knowledge, translating their messages from a deeply personal and subjective sphere into one that is objective and easily understood by others.

The integration of spiritual experiences into one’s personal spiritual knowledge is a process of structural adaptation. A peak experience is fleeting, despite the fact that it represents an authentic spiritual experience; it needs to be examined and analyzed so that it can become part of the seeker’s permanent knowledge of things spiritual. A single peak experience can’t alter the conscious mind of spiritual seekers, but a series of them can and do alter seekers in a very profound and permanent manner. The process of continual spiritual experience, which builds one’s spiritual knowledge through adaptation, also fosters a corresponding process of transformative growth and an incremental expansion of conscious.

So we have belief, faith and experience, representing the three levels of religious expression. Each of these levels represents progressive stages of spiritual maturity, knowledge and insight, which an individual acquires as they seek to directly apprehend the nature of the Godhead. But what of the nature of the various religions themselves? Certainly, the qualities of belief, faith and experience would be quite different depending on the nature of the organization in which they occur. Some religious organizations and institutions are closed off and don’t allow individuals to directly experience the numinous manifestation of the Deity; others require their members to ultimately move up this ladder of realization.

In the next stage of our consideration of religion, we should examine the different kinds of spiritual organizations that exist, particularly those in the U.S. We should examine the “source” religion as it is found within the underlying strata of our culture, and how that source religion changed and split up over the past century. We should additionally note that all religions are in some fashion the same and they are also quite different, nor should we eliminate quasi religious political systems or even atheism from our considerations.

This leads us to examine the nature of religion itself, to determine the structures and dimensions found within the cultural matrix in which they occur. One of the more insightful and valuable points that Ken Wilber makes in his book is that academics who study the sociology of religion have developed a theory which states that all religions seem to be fundamentally the same at their core or “deep level,” and that obvious differences are believed to be just surface translations. This theory was proposed in the 1960's by the eminent sociologist and professor, Robert Bellah, and distilled by Wilber in his book.

Bellah’s theory subscribes to the notion that all religions are the same, even though through a deeper analysis, this notion appears to be superficial and does little to explain the intrinsic nature of religions and their obvious differences. Adhering to this theory forces scholars to ignore rather than explain the differences between religions. Although somewhat limited by today’s standards, his theory was ground breaking nonetheless. Bellah’s approach to theorizing the function and structure of religion is  referred to as “symbolic realism.” This theory is presently in the process of being augmented with a different and more subtle approach, called “structuralism;” a scholastic mechanism that has been successfully used to explain a number of social organizations. Interestingly enough, structuralism has its origins in modern linguistics. This adaptation of Bellah’s theories was put forth by the sociologist Thomas Robbins and psychologist Dick Anthony.

Symbolic realism proposed that all religions underlie a universal religion at the level of the social linguistic deep structure. However, structuralism has maintained that religions that have a different surface structure must also have a different deep structure, just as different languages have both a different surface and deep structure. While not wanting to get deep into a discussion of the merits of symbolic realism vs. structuralism, it is important to note that different religions focus on different priorities in regards to legitimacy and authenticity, and that each of these two different perspectives have their own distinct deep and surface structures as well. Ken Wilber made some additions and minor modifications to these theories so that they would use the differentiation of legitimacy and authenticity, adding two more dimensions to the concept of surface and deep structures. I have found Wilber’s modifications to be quite useful and they seem to fix some of the flaws that the structuralist approach to religion still appeared to contain. Wilber’s contention is that legitimacy and authenticity entail different deep structures and surface structures in religions that focus on one of the pair, to the obscuring or altogether omission of the other.

Legitimacy in religion incorporates a deep structure of meaningfulness, social integration, membership status and symbols of immortality (collective destiny), as well as an exoteric mythic civil (mainstream) religious organization. Authenticity in religion incorporates a deep structure of non-rational engagement that precipitates conscious evolutionary growth, promoting a universal mysticism and an esoteric mystery religion; where paradoxical perceptions are valued, matriculated and utilized to act as transformative mechanisms. The dynamic contrast between exoteric and esoteric religions is fundamental to the difference between legitimacy and authenticity. Whereas surface structures change slowly through a process of evolution and re-translation, deep structures change through revolution, so the change in a deep structure, when it happens, is rapid, catastrophic and intense. It should also be understood that deep structures are not monolithic, that they can and do change, but the most common changes are surface changes.

After Wilber has throughly examined all of these theories about the sociology and psychology of religion (and added his own modifications), he then uses it elaborate on one of Bellah’s main theoretical premises, that of an American civil religion (see pages 124 - 139). This is where the concept of a “source” religion enters into our considerations. The source religion for the U.S. is the civil or state religion that shaped the ideals and insights of the founders who wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. This is the first time that I had ever been exposed to the theory of a basic civil religion practiced in the U.S., but it seems to make sense, since America’s pluralistic culture can tend to be homogenous in certain areas, such as language, education, and the mainstream civil religion shared by the majority.

This civil religion, based as it was on Anglo Protestantism, was a legitimate rather than an authentic religion, which Wilber says: “served good mana on a mythic-membership level and it offered an easy abundance of taboo-avoidance and immortality symbols” (pg. 124). America’s civil religion linked Protestant Christianity with obvious political expressions of nationalism and patriotism, producing such slogans as “In God We Trust” or “One Nation, Under God.” One could also easily define other state or civil religions in this manner, particularly in the manifestation of monolithic communist governments, such as in the former Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China, to mention just two. The ramification of this theory of an American civil or state religion becomes quite insightful when we consider what happened to that spiritual institution in the late 20th century. 

The American state religion began to fail in the 1960's, and was rapidly replaced by new religions or by a reformation of the old Protestant paradigm (Evangelism, Dispensationalism, Fundamentalistic Christianity). The mainstream creeds began to lose their effectiveness and their membership began to drastically drop off. Wilber continues this analysis with the statement: “As the old translation-convenant finally disintegrated, it left in its wake three separate lines of development, lines that were already in existence” (pg. 125). These three lines were broken into two groups, those who found fulfillment in secular rationalism and those who chose to be seekers of authentic religious experience.

Seekers of authentic religious experience could also be broken into two basic groups; those who were ready for personal transformation and those who weren’t. Those who couldn’t transform became alienated by secular rationalism and took refuge in various pre-rational immortality symbols and mythological ideologies, either as fundamentalists or as new age religious cultists. Those who could transform chose spiritual paths that would best facilitate that need, so the various movements centered around esoteric religious interpretations, such as earth-based spirituality, theosophical and eastern religious transplants, were born. As diverse as all of these movements presently are, they have one point in common; they have given birth to an ever growing minority of spiritual seekers in America, which will hopefully one day become the dominant form.

Wilber writes: “Since established religion represents a compromise with the ongoing secular institutions, the only other possible host of revolutionary [religious] thought, however unwittingly, is the noninstitutionalized religious sector” (pg. 127).  So what we have in America, and perhaps by some extension, Europe, is a natural competition between regressive and progressive spiritual forces, which will ultimately lay the foundations for a completely new spiritual perspective in the West. We can see this dichotomy at work not only in religion, but also in politics and the collective cultural social psychology. There is a polarity between those who are socially and culturally conservative and those who are socially and culturally progressive.

Our current spiritual crisis in the U.S. is caused by the promotion of reactionary religious doctrines by various orthodox (or ultra-orthodox) organizations, which have attempted to enforce the failed legitimacy of the civil religion (American Protestantism). These reactionary forces disguise themselves as religious orthodoxy, patriotism, social conservatism and old-style family values, but are actually regressive reactions to the onslaughts of science and secularism. The fear of change and the desire to return to more fundamental values is completely contrary to adaptation and spiritual evolution.  It creates a kind of schizophrenic social pathology in which the future and all its potential is feared and rejected rather than embraced. Such fears, on the level of the social collective, represent a powerful regressive movement in our culture. Yet to our benefit, there is an equal counter force in our culture generated by a progressive spiritual movement that encourages tolerance, curiosity, courage, openness and optimism.

The conservative political movement in this country has defined conservative values as being religious and spiritual, in addition to fiscal conservatism and patriotism, and has defined its liberal opponents as being secular, unpatriotic, socialistic and anti-religious. This perspective is, of course, quite erroneous, since they appear to have excluded the possibility of individuals independently validating their spiritual beliefs through personal experience, and so, to them, there can’t be any evolution or growth of ideas. The viewpoint of orthodox religion and that of its political partner, social conservatism, are static and locked into an idyllic perception of the past. Since the technological world is rapidly changing and science is pushing back frontiers at even a greater pace, it would seem to be as vitally important for religions to be pushing back the frontiers of higher consciousness.

A progressive approach to spiritual studies and discipline would be the obvious new wave of the future for organized religions. A small number of groups and non-institutional organizations have already begun to trail-blaze this new direction, and it is only a matter of time before the rest of the Western world catches up to that small minority. In the meantime, social entropy gnaws away at the foundations of moribund orthodox religious institutions, and the dire necessities of the post modern world will even quicken their eventual end. However, that ending may be quite messy, as the current state of our post modern world seems to indicate.

Regressive social forces are not restricted to exoteric religious organizations, and these tendencies can bleed over into pseudo occult or spurious esoteric cults, producing an aberration of progressiveness that can never be authenticated. Such organizations, while pretending to be cutting edge or so called “New Age,” actually possess the same deep structure as extremely conservative fundamentalist religious organizations. They are typified by dogmatic or doctrinal tenets that can’t be evaluated, since they block any real means of testing or authentication.  These reactionary forces can also be defined as rebellious or counter-cultural, but they are still a negative reaction to science and secular rationalism. However, the counter-culture in some cases produced a real desire for authentic spiritual experiences and inspired some to become true spiritual seekers. That movement continues to gain momentum and depth.

The religious struggle in our present age, according to Wilber, is the struggle to somehow establish or resurrect legitimacy in a world where legitimate religion is no longer viable, due to the powerful social effects of science, technology and the necessity of secular government institutions. The struggle is represented in the world today by violent reactionaries, but is actually an inward search for an authentic religious experience. A resolution of this struggle will either produce a world that embraces authentic religion, conscious evolution and esoteric spirituality, or one that has destroyed itself - there seems so little possibility of compromise.

The relevance of these considerations to the greater occult community is that we, who are pagans, initiates and ritual magicians, by definition having formed an esoteric organization dedicated to Gnosis and spiritual evolution (i.e., the Order of the Gnostic Star), must represent the cutting edge of progressive thought and spiritual practices in the world. Our path must be one that is authentic, so for this reason we teach and share the mechanisms of the liturgy, rituals, and ceremonies of a modern transformative magick, as practiced within the Western Mystery Tradition. We don’t require anyone to blindly adhere to any doctrine or dogma, since whatever we hold as collective beliefs must be verified by personal experience.  We are proponents of conscious evolution, spiritual growth, continuous transformation, and ultimately, enlightenment and spiritual ascendency.

Our esoteric organization teaches the methods of conscious transformation, and these become the tools that the seeker and practicing ritual magician uses to foster a spiritual discipline of continuous transformation. Transformation develops depth, insight and stability at higher transcendental levels of being.

Ultimately, continuous conscious transformation has the effect of causing a complete social revolution within external religious organizations, permanently changing the translation of integrative forces and the nature of meaningfulness itself (doctrine, liturgy, sacred scriptures). In this manner, religion loses its literal interpretation of myth and lore, but does not lose its inherent mysteries, myths and paradoxes, thus removing from religious experience dogma and doctrine, and replacing them with individual and collective searches for authenticity based on transcendental transformation.

Wilber defines a true transformational organization as one that is based on the Buddhist Sangha model (a community of monks with a common goal or interest), which is analogous to an organization in the western tradition that I call a “Star Group.” This kind of organization is a close knit group that retains inter-personal access and is an appropriate place for rational inquiry, logical reflection, and a systemic study of all relevant philosophical areas. Such a group would reject dogmatic beliefs and insist on experience, and a peer review of those experiences. A Star Group is not a monastery or secluded group of individuals living in isolation (such as a Sangha), but a group of disciplined adepts living in the world, but periodically meeting to engage in important group activities. Such activities would include establishing a combined methodology or approach to acquiring total enlightenment.

The purpose to this kind of approach would be to destroy that “exclusive identity of consciousness with the mind,” but not destroy the mind itself, which would be subsumed into a larger supreme identity (pg. 134). Spiritual service and ego effacement would be promoted, as opposed to elitism and exclusive sect membership and its artificial ego enhancement. Therefore, all individuals would be subject to an examination by their peers, to “remind ego of its phase specific and intermediate place in over-all development” (pg. 134). This kind of group practice would foster a sense of selflessness that allows the transformation of one’s ego, so it may be transcended and allow for the greater levels of conscious development to occur without obstacle or impediment. This kind of organization is exactly what the Order seeks to realize in the formation of the autonomous local magickal temple and its membership.

A Star Group has its opposite, which is represented by regressive cults of the supposed “new religions.” Wilber points out that these groups can be identified by the following characteristics, and they should be avoided by all seekers as sinister traps and obstacles to true enlightenment.

According to Wilber, regressive cults are based on the dynamics of a pre-personal fixation on a “cult leader,” with consequent obedience to a father/mother figure/totem master, with self to clan fusion and disassociation (participation mystique) with group ceremonies, slogans (mantras of propaganda), and group mythic apocrypha. (See page 133.)

Entrenched members of such groups usually show borderline neurotic or psychotic dispositions with ego weakness and concrete immersion in the cultic experience, causing them to have difficulty in holding an abstract location in their mind. These people are typically engaged in a narcissistic involvement in their group, having low self-esteem along with a correlative difficulty in handling moral ambiguity, contradictions (paradoxes) or complex choice structures. Such a group fosters an atmosphere of passive dependence on an authority figure.

I think that behind Wilber’s Freudian terminology, we can easily see such a cult member as a person who believes that he has no individual worth, and who is therefore completely subsumed into the group. Within that protected environment he receives all of his personal worth and undergoes a kind of self-inflation through a deep identification and participation in the group. Such a person is barely able to function alone, and is completely indoctrinated into the group-mind, being unable to engage in any kind of critical thinking outside of the rigid definitions of that group and its limited view of reality. I can recognize these symptoms all too well, since I have experienced them myself when I belonged to a cult disguised as a witch coven.

A regressive cult highly discourages the very things that would make it a dynamic and creative organization, such as the power of  “active adolescent independence” (transcendence from subconscious dependence to self-conscious responsibility - pg. 132), rational self-reflection, critical appraisal and logical discourse.  Uncritical or unconditional allegiance to the totem master constitutes much of the psychological foundation of the cult. Such an organization, as described above, is exactly the opposite of what the Order seeks to form in the various spiritual communities of this country. For this reason, the by-laws were produced and consensus was made the pre-eminent method for the self-governance of an autonomous temple.

The contrast between a Star Group and a regressive cult could not be more obvious to anyone who has endured, even for a short time, such a terrible group dynamic. However, the various new age organizations, as well as fundamentalist churches, seem to produce these kinds of regressive groups in great abundance. Even an experienced adept has, at one time or another, been exposed to these kinds of groups, and likely endured a harrowing escape from them. Individuals who are suffering from extreme neurosis or psychosis should never be allowed to practice magick or occultism in organizations sponsored or underwritten by the Order or its members, just as temples that succumb to the excesses of a cult mentality should be banned or shunned. The Order sponsors a healthy regimen of occult practices and beliefs, and attempts to create a local organization that is safe, creative, dynamic, open, inclusive, and compassionate.

In order to illustrate the contrast between a Star Group and a regressive cult, I have shown the latter in its worst possible light. Many groups don’t fit this paradigm, and even those that are dysfunctional have redeeming qualities. Sometimes the endemic problems of a group have more to do with its structure, practices and doctrines rather than a despotic or tyrannical leadership. The world is not black and white, but more like various shades of grey. Still, there are two practical rules that can determine the objective worth of any organization, and that is the democratic rule of consensus in some form or another, and the critical appraisal and objective examination of all beliefs and practices.

Nothing should be done simply because it is traditional or because some authority figure has deemed it so; everything should be subject to question, analysis and rational dialogue. All beliefs and practices should have a practical reason for their adherence and use, transparently known by everyone who is a member. These two practical rules can easily determine the difference between a dynamic, democratic and creative organization and one that is locked into a stasis of irrefutable doctrine and inflexible dogma. We should also keep in mind that the emphasis of religious and spiritual engagement should be on authentic experiences rather than legitimacy - a confusion between these two perspectives can have very unfortunate consequences.

I, for one, have had my fill of dysfunctional groups and organizations, and therefore, seek the path of either a solitaire practitioner or the company of a loose confederation, an enlightened Star Group. Remember, the decision to stay or leave a group is always your one power of self determination - you should never allow that right to be abrogated by anyone.

Frater Barrabbas

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Frater for this wonderful, interesting and thoughtful essay. I hope it is read and appreciated and acted upon far and wide. :)