(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
Ashley King was the daughter of two well-off believers in the religion of Christian Science. At age six, Ashley developed a lump on her leg which turned out to be bone cancer. She could have been treated and cured at that early stage. Instead, her parents took her home and treated her only with prayer. The lump grew to be as big as a watermelon. Child services took Ashley away from her parents but by that time it was too late to save her. Doctors, however, said her pain could be managed and greatly reduced during the time before she died.
Her parents sued and won back custody. They refused pain management for Ashley and instead admitted her to a Christian Science sanitarium where she was treated with water and prayer. Near the end of her life, she was shrieking and crying out in pain. She lingered in that condition for several months until she died.
Less than 15 miles from here is the well-known Creation Museum. One of its exhibits shows animatronic Adam and Eve figures interacting in Eden with dinosaurs who roar and rise up as if to threaten viewers. It’s a big hit with children.
The lesson the museum wants to get across is that the Biblical story of creation and a 6000 year old earth are true. But countless scientific studies of geological rock layers, fossils, carbon 14 dating, and other fact based measurements – all prove totally different facts. The earth and our universe are approximately 13.82 billion years old – a time proven by satellites measuring radiation coming rom the edge of the universe. Sadly, however, 43% of Americans say they believe in the Bible’s version of creation and that the earth is very young.
In parts of Appalachia, there are small churches whose ministers and members regularly handle rattlesnakes as a part of Sunday services. Many have been bitten and, while they could be medically treated and saved, most refuse. The practice comes from three verses in the Book of Mark in the New Testament which says that Christians are protected by their belief in Christ such that they can handle dangerous snakes and won’t be harmed by poison.
In our country, diseases such as depression or addiction are often blamed on the negative choices of individuals. Gay, lesbian and transgender people are also believed to choose their sexuality. Such ideas come from Scripture stories about Adam and Eve. In those stories, they willingly chose to disobey God”s orders. Since it is believed we are their descendants, we too willingly choose our actions.
Neurobiologists, however, have proven that we have limited control over our actions or thoughts. They are determined by our body’s biochemistry. Being gay, being challenged by addiction disease and depression, or even being happy, these have been proven to originate from genetics and brain chemistry. Indeed, most neurobiologists say that our consciousness – even our awareness of what is happening right now – are what they call “neuronal illusions.” All our thoughts are ultimately produced and interpreted by chemistry.
What these illustrations indicate is that despite abundant facts and science based proofs about how our bodies and nature work, many religious superstitions still hold an irrational sway over millions of people. Despite that fact, I believe spirituality also offers proven benefits based in fact..
As with most aspects of life, I look for grey areas and nuance within any argument or belief. That’s the reason I’ve focused my message series this month on looking at paradoxes. I believe much of life is a paradox. Very few things, in my opinion, are absolute. They are, instead, an ironic blend of good and bad, bright and dark, easy and difficult or somewhere between two opposites. I discussed two Sunday’s ago the paradox of how pain is to be avoided and embraced. Last week, I considered the fact that disruption is both chaotic and productive. Today, I want to examine how spirituality is both superstitious and fact based. Two seemingly inconsistent ideas are nevertheless both true. That is the definition of paradox.
Carl Jung, the famous psychoanalyst, believed that spirituality is a basic human yearning equivalent to hunger for food. Each person, at some level he said, seeks to understand his or her reason for existence. We want to understand universal truths as we seek ongoing growth in our cognitive and emotional selves. We hunger for some thing, some awareness, some force – whatever we might call it – that inspires awe.
The key to healthy spirituality is to pursue individual awareness of meaning and awe. The unhealthy version of spirituality, Jung believed, is fundamentalism which rejects individual belief and instead dictates a static, once-and-for-all belief system that cannot be questioned.
A common definition of superstition is “a belief, practice, or rite irrationally maintained by ignorance of the laws of nature.“ In other words, for me, any form of spiritual fundamentalism is the equivalent of superstition.
Jung thereby established what I believe is the paradox topic of my message. Spirituality is superstitious as I’ve shown several examples of. But, importantly, spirituality is also fact based. And therein lies both the irony and the need to understand. Even though both statements are true, and thus a paradox, all forms of spirituality are not good. Superstition and fundamentalism are clearly unhealthy.
This realization came to Carl Jung when he was only twelve. His father and eight of his uncles were Lutheran ministers. As a child, he had been told what to believe. As a boy sitting on a hillside overlooking a new Cathedral built in his town, with a blue, sunny sky and puffy clouds overhead, he saw a vision of God sitting on his throne high above the Cathedral. Suddenly, in his vision, a giant turd fell from beneath God’s throne and smashed to pieces the shiny new Cathedral. (Now that’s a vivid image!).
This vision was Jung’s epiphany. Spirituality and whatever we believe God to be, or not be, cannot be something told to us. Instead, they are things we must determine through our own searching and discovering. And this concept is key to Jung’s beliefs about spirituality – and his core ideas about human psychology.
Jung taught that the way to mental and spiritual wholeness is to become self-aware. He called this process individuation. We must look inward, instead of outward, for self-validation, confidence and contentment. This is part of the paradox of spirituality. We must lose our egocentric self and its desires. We must find our genuine self that hungers for inner peace, simplicity, compassion and meaning. Individuation is about transforming the belief that things outside ourselves can make us happy – things like money, God, alcohol, the opinions of others, power, or status. It’s our inward reflections on life, purpose and kindness that helps us discover lasting happiness. That is the heart of spirituality for Jung – to examine both ourselves and the big questions of life – and thereby find the kind of peace that comes from discovering our own path to Truth.
Such awareness helps us to see ourselves as we really are, instead of how we want to be seen. What we’ll develop is the kind of humility that initiates our compassion, empathy and growth. Individuation is closely tied to spirituality because it is all about personal discovery.
Fundamentalism and superstition, on the other hand, are beliefs that are not our own. They are ideas from ancient writings or traditions lacking rational explanation. They lead to unhealthy thinking that life is to be feared, that we are sinful and bad, and that we should all feel shame. Fundamentalism encourages such thinking by telling people the only solution to life is to believe as they are told – and to accept the kinds of irrational ideas I mentioned at the beginning.
Truths about healthy spirituality, however, have all been proven. They are widely accepted by scientists, doctors and psychologists. Numerous studies have shown, for instance, that certain forms of prayer or meditation reduce stress, improve moods and increase overall good health. Mediation, reflection and even prayer that leads one on an inner journey are what Jung promoted – to search for our own answers and thereby gain contentment.
Medical studies, as another example, show that stress, whether it be from work, illness or finances, causes our brains to initiate the fight or flight response. That floods our bodies with the hormone cortisol which helps protect us in times of emergency. If we feel constantly under stress, however, cortisol causes high blood pressure and a diminished immune system. Meditation, prayer, worship or other spiritual practices have been shown to stop the fight or flight response and its negative affects on our health.
Mindful prayer or meditation can move us to an inner awareness that ironically detaches us from the self. Much like Buddhism encourages letting go of desire, healthy spirituality can help us to recognize our vulnerabilities and accept simplicity. We come to realize that we are but one small part of the universe. That humbles us which leads to empathy and service to others.
One study from the Cancer Center at the University of San Francisco indicates that meditation, prayer and other forms of spirituality are highly effective ways people cope with crisis – particularly health challenges. Finding an effective coping mechanism is what Carl Jung promoted. Effective coping moves beyond the prompts of ego that focuses on self-pity and non-stop sorrow. It finds hope through positive thinking, gratitude and compassion.
Other studies indicate that just being in spiritual community initiates hopeful and empathetic thinking. Studies from Duke University and the Harvard Medical School show that any form of spiritual community, whether it be a church congregation, a yoga class or any like minded group that examines big ideas about life, they all promote inner examination and a sense of well-being.
Social isolation or a sense of loneliness, whether real or perceived, are high predictors of depression and poor health. But, any form of healthy spiritual community, these studies show, are proven antidotes to mental and physical disorders.
Such is the ironic paradox of spirituality. It’s why I, along with many other people, hesitate when pursuing anything labeled “spiritual”. We link it to fundamentalist superstition. Importantly, I have found for myself the point I want to make. Yes, spirituality can be superstitious. But, it can also be fact based and life enriching. I see it defined within that paradoxical context. Unhealthy spirituality is fundamentalist superstition. It rejects rational thinking. Healthy spirituality, to the contrary, promotes pathways to humility, compassion, and happiness.
Like Jung, I believe that spiritual thought, introspection and practice are essential to a centered life. I reflect and even pray from time to time when I’m alone or especially when I’m faced with a challenge. Usually, I find in my meditations that my troubles lie within me. I focus on my loss, my pain, my worry, my finances and how those make me anxious or sad. The key words in such thinking are “me” and “my”.
That is the primary reason I rejected, twelve years ago, the Christian faith and religious belief in general. Contrary to Christianity’s alleged promotion of values like concern for others, its theology is founded on a concern for the self – to win eternal life, to constantly feel shame for allegedly sinning – and thus jeopardizing eternity in paradise. Christianity was not a spirituality of my own making – even though I mistakenly turned to it many years ago as a way to cure me from being gay. I thought I could change – and that God would do the changing. Had I, early in my life, engaged in transforming my thinking from worry about what the outside world thinks of me, to seeking understanding and love of my inner self, I would have begun the process individuation. Instead of looking to my soul and my heart, I looked to religion and unhealthy spirituality.
When I came out and turned away from religion twelve years ago, I experienced my own life paradox. I had to reject spirituality in order to find it. I had to discard the unhealthy variety and find the good. For me, this spiritual path of my own making is not perfect. I still stumble and fall. But mostly, that’s OK. I’m not a bad person, as I was once led to believe. I’m simply a person, like all others, who occasionally fails. I can either feel shame and self-loathing, or I can stand up, make amends and move forward hopefully wiser and stronger.
Superstitious spirituality is, for me, a path to nowhere. It leads to
a meaningless life and an empty death. The spiritual path of my own making is one that has freed me, empowered me and beckons me onward to grow and make a difference. Spirituality can be frightening and full of dark superstitions…………………spirituality can be beautiful and enriching. That’s the ironic paradox about it. But, I trust, we will each choose the one that is beautiful and good.
I wish you each peace and joy.
Let’s conclude my message with what I encourage – reflection, meditation, prayer or silent thinking. As I pass out what I call communion stones, take the stone when it comes to you, hold it just for a moment as you accept the love and good thoughts put into it before you. Add your own caring thoughts and psd the stone to the person next to you. Use these stones as a way to experience community in your heart – to feel the common bonds of trust, sharing, acceptance, love and peace in our congregation.