Alvin James, our new TherapyFriends blogger, writes about how he yoked together many perspectives with one perspective. October 2020.
I have always enjoyed religion in my life and in those of others.
But the power of prayer, and the very human activities of congregation, celebration, the public display of respect and honour for others among us, seem to me to be such good and abiding qualities in any person’s life.
Religion clearly has a more prominent place in some peoples’ lives and cultures than in the lives of others. Like anything we ascribe to, the power of religion can also be woefully misused, misconstrued and is every bit as susceptible to causing bad outcomes, just as with any other group endeavour on which we might embark.
Being nothing close to being a theologist with formal study on religions, I am not well-read in comparative religions. But even at an early age attending Catholic kindergarten, I always felt that beautiful supporting lift of connectivity and common purpose in religious events. The prayer, the fellowship and the egalitarian ethos would all glow within me and those around me.
Whether celebrating a rather austere and reverential Lutheran christening, or the full-force delights to the senses of an Orthodox wedding (the long time spent actually at church only being a part of the days-long tradition!), the feeling was great.
That “lift” of high spirits and fellowship would be there at a backyard Beltane barbecue with some very jolly Wiccans in far south New Zealand, or at a surprisingly serene Kava ceremony in Vanuatu. And I felt it while dutifully paying respect with friends at their family graves through a suitably spooky graveyard, just before midnight after a very solemn Easter service in the village church. That lift of spirituality bubbles up to the surface, becoming that ineffable essence that truly binds us all. That night, the bubbles in the kvas (an Eastern European brewed fruit-based summer beverage) probably helped as well.
By the time I was in my late teens, and having taken in the goodwill, joy and what I would call a “relaxation of the soul” religion could offer, I faced myself with all the requisite teenage angst I could muster, to come to a decision.
Upon facing myself however, I realised how deeply dishonest it felt to try to choose one belief system over another. I was mistaken in knowing myself it seemed, to try to force such a choice. After maybe a year of spinning the wheel to find my ‘spoke’, it became clear that selecting a particular belief would not be a single choice I was likely to ever make. I had come to loathe the thought; it seemed unnatural to me.
Rationally I suppose, since I first noted the Anglican church opposite the Catholic church off the high street when I was around 7 I think, I’d since rather suspected that the likelihood of one religion being “right” over all the other ten-thousand-plus other religions was a bit dim.
Yet we innately know when we are “touched” by that elated tingle … I do at least. It is that sweet moment of sudden clarity, that funny little blink of the eye when something indeed changes for the better within us. It is when we gain that joyful sense of identity that we are not alone. For we are, however briefly at such a time, together.
Later when I had just finished university, my favourite sister-in-law, a gratifyingly wise middle-aged Jewess, pronounced that “Bubula, you are for sure one of them metaphysical pantheists!”. It was before Google, so I had to take her word for it.
She had listened while scowling into her tea, nodding from time to time, as I had explained that it seemed to me that we are all trying to get to the centre, on the same wheel of existence, which had many spokes. She just nodded and said, “We all really think that Al. I think we all do.”
I was aware some time later that I was hardly the first human to utter those words, and it is entirely possible my vision came from a Buddhist dharma chakra I had seen on Discovery channel while falling asleep one night.
In any case, not being qualified to judge if my sister-in-law was right or not, I took her at her word. A metaphysical pantheist I must be then!
The word pantheism derives from the Greek words pan (all) and theos (god). Thus, pantheism means All is God. I think Albert Einstein wrote well on pantheist thought:
The parts that fascinate me, once you accept the wheel and spoke thing as being at least partly valid, are the methods by which we progress towards that centre of the wheel, unwittingly, purposefully, or somewhere in between.
For example, the effects of many prescription medications have had wondrous effects on several close friends through the years. They do seem to help – in the main. While a bit more complex than Xanax or Prozac, I have noted similar effects from a good deep-seated religion in people’s lives. The Pentecostal folks I would see at Shoney’s diner in Texas after their church were glowing with good faith (and very high hairstyles).
I have friends who I see as “better people” with the support of one or the other, or both. I also have friends with neither in abundance, who are perfectly lovely people and seem happy.
A third leg on that supporting tripod would be therapy of course. The lasting benefits from therapy I think are very much akin to the similar but separate roles medication and religion may have. All in their ways light the path forward, to progress and proceed ahead with the provided support, energy, and knowledge of themselves.
That said, my rather funny downstairs neighbour shared a little snippet with me one night. I went bowling with her occasionally and liked her since I saw her at a florist in town. She had put flowers in her hair, and playfully boasted she was twice crowned the Queen Alexandra of the Blossom Festival, a prestigious local honour.
Later, in her flat, she showed me the proof. The photos were indeed funny. Next to one, was her in a full-on habit. Another joke? I asked. No, in fact. She told me about a romantic relationship she had when she was a nun, running a community service agency. Yes, she should have really should have told her love interest she was a nun at the start. She did not.
But this was an example of a person who did have that triumvirate of all three support methods – the religion (perhaps not quite effectively followed), the medications (perhaps too many), and the therapy (I never envied that therapist). The relationship with her paramour and the church both ended badly.
But I must say, she did grow from the experience. She was, by her own account, stronger for knowing herself and her beliefs. She also smoked pot a bit, something which I’ve never quite taken to (only lived in two places where it was legal), except when scoring music or doing some kinds of art.
I have also tried other substances one might ingest to explore new views, some in religious contexts, some in medical contexts. Perhaps luckily, I am a bit of an “addictophobe”, so have never managed to experience anything for an extended length of time (other than coffee and the occasional aspirin!). Some were great, some were not pleasant at first, but most did their thing, and I benefited from the new perspectives.
Use in the religious context does marry the mighty power of dogma with that of the spiritual substance chosen for that religion’s adherents. I’ve often wondered who the first person was to eat the worm found in a bottle of Tequila, smoke an unlikely weed high in the Afghan mountains, or chew the first coffee bean in Ethiopia. Nonetheless, mind-altering substances have been part of religious ceremonies for a very very long time.
It has been a long time since Communion wine gave me a kick, although the undeniable spiritual opening-up from other substances certainly did.
In those cases, there was a structured ceremony, and almost always a guide of some sort through the ceremony and experience. For the spiritual journey would often be a long one (as it does when you exist in harmony with the soul of the universe for three days!).
End of the day, I make no recommendations for any person, but yes, I have seen friends and family be those “better people” with some appropriate substances (including appropriately prescribed medications), an appropriate religion for them, “good-fit” therapy or counselling, or any combination there-from.
When people ask me my personal religion, of course I trot out the “metaphysical pantheist” moniker, with queries often following like “Hmm, where they are from? Do they have a ‘metaphysical temple’ somewhere?”
Otherwise, an admittedly more sincere answer might be “Shirley MacLaine-ist,” a nod to the amusingly and touchingly sweet writings of the eponymous not-so-bad actress, quite good dancer, and unquestionably brave spiritualist.
But closer to the truth is that “my religion” comprises everything that makes personal sense to me, with equal respect to everything I have yet to understand (why do the flat earth believers seem so devout in their beliefs?).
A bit simplistic perhaps, but it is a gut feeling in the end, and one always rather knows when something “feels right.”
Of course, I would be woefully lost without the soulful Yiddish sagacity which sprung forth from the Pale of Europe, the tribal beliefs and rather cluey social structures of Borneo and Sarawak, and the wondrous shimmering majesty of the Muslim faith. I am comforted equally by the shared principles of musubi in the Shinto belief system and those of “the Force” in the Jedi belief system.
Gravitating towards the “light,” and the hope of a unifying and undying force all around us, would seem to me to be a rather natural human instinct. Hinduism’s Diwali, a festival celebrating the light conquering the dark, mirrors many others around the world.
Yet I have felt that some really do fear, and are even repelled by, that light. Perhaps they feel it means to them as well, the “journey’s end?”
My always ardent Satanist friends (those from predominantly Christian societies) are strangely devoid of the basic realisation that to believe in their decidedly naughty fallen angel Lucifer, inherently includes belief in the “light” side, and the life of Christ.
For that is the Bible from which their Lucifer comes, as well as Jesus, an undeniably bright teacher and leader, revered politely as well in the Koran. Yet his own light, while in some ways recognised, is rejected by their Satanist brand of Christianity. Please note that I say “brand” here because I do think that unless you first believe the Christian Bible, you could not also believe the biblical Satan exists; they would necessarily go hand-in-hand.
So in some cases, I think that is why religiously at least, people push against, or limit themselves in some way from proceeding to that light. Maybe because they feel they are “not done” yet. Or coupled with some fear of success? No idea, I am also no therapist.
I will note though that people may side-step their gut feelings about what they do or don’t believe due to social factors. Perhaps not wanting to disappoint their family or peers plays a role with that. My belief in reincarnation for example, would get a better reception in Lahore and Los Angeles than in Leeds and Lviv.
How much we want to progress towards that light and “journey’s end”, may well depend on what we think “happens next”. For those of us who have managed a few glimpses into our past lives (or concurrent ones depending on your particular view of multidimensional personalities), I find death only takes a few seconds, and frankly, birth is by far a more tiresome experience in the cycle of life after life. I generally like to skip that part as much as possible, although karma may well come back to bite me on that front.
For many decades, and probably centuries, it will remain an anathema to many folks to countenance multi-religiosity, let alone my “buffet” approach, as once suggested by a staunch Anglican matron in deepest Nottinghamshire.
One summer evening at her table, she put a swift end to my musings on how there is something to learn from all religions. “Now really Alvin,” she snorted. “You do pick and choose your beliefs like the Baroness selecting sandwiches at the charity tea!”
I took that to mean that I had either chosen too many, was deciding too slowly, or indiscriminately chose the wrong ones.
Being her dinner table after all, I assured her quickly I attended Trinity-All Saints’ at home with my girlfriend Abigail and her parents. She seemed relieved. All quite true, although I omitted that after six months, I’d lost interest, both in Abigail, and the long-winded Abbot. I also omitted my opinion that Jesus might have been John the Baptist reincarnated. Just not the time or audience.
Matron’s Brussels sprouts were beautifully steamed, seasoned, and exceptional; not so her tolerance for the vast breadth and variety of extant beliefs it seemed. Let alone endorsing or learning from more than a single faith, no. She was a lovely person, and a faithful product of her upbringing.
As a result of all that, I likewise refrained from telling her one of my favourite parables: The Muslim man who was also secretly Jewish.
This man in the story, was really a kind person. Yet he lived his later life with a nagging fear that someone, particularly his wife or two sons, would discover his belief, which others would no doubt see as blasphemy. Worse yet was his inner terror of damnation by his chosen god, whom he pretty much saw as being the same god.
He battled often with his heartfelt but heretical faith in his mind, but he was not able to deny the beauty and the truth he saw in each religion, despite the differences: One religion being more recent and modern, and even with a messiah; the other one two millennia older, still waiting for a credible messiah. Both faiths held him firmly.
As the tale goes, as he was passing, he turned to his twinned faiths and suffered profoundly from the dichotomy in his soul. As his soul went towards the light, his immediate afterlife showed him not one but two Abrahams, each on separate mounts high above him. As each slowly began to draw nearer and nearer to each other, they fiercely battled for his eternal soul. The sound was deafening, and the horrified man shouted to each for mercy.
In a final fit of fury and maelstrom, the two Abrahams made contact, producing a searing white light as the two became but one.
In the resulting sweet calm and glowing sense of love, that one entity then reached out to touch the man on his cheek, instantly vanquishing the spiritual dichotomy that had plagued him through his recent earthly existence.
For he knew in that instant, he was, and always had been, that “one.” And now, he was at last, one with all. His soul moved on.
That which divides us, I feel is only evil. Dualism, binarism, sexism, racism, classism, and all the isolating and separating “isms” of our world, serve well no person, well-intended or not.
Religion and therapy are but two of many methods which see us come together and be whole. They can give us the power to overcome our obstacles as we proceed on our journeys towards our common light.
Which is why, for now, I’ll stick to my little “one wheel with many spokes to the centre” idea.
I guess I just like most of the spokes — “buffet” or not!
Please note most names and some locations were changed to protect the true identities of the actual persons.
Abraham however, was indeed one of the three Abrahams of the respective monotheistic religions.