The way we humans don’t behave ourselves, we couldn’t blame an exasperated God for saying, “Don’t make me come down there.”
We run this world badly. Though we may take chicken soup to a sick neighbor, that’s a minuscule dent in the misery we pile atop suffering, century after century. It is that reality that makes us say of human life, “Just what in blazes is going on here?”
And yet ... And yet in our spirit, soul, psyche — that tucked-away quiet place within — there is a window that admits a light that will nourish us to grow goodness if we lean toward it like a plant to the sun.
That force for good will always elude a clear view, and people know it only when they feel it. Religious hierarchies have been built to serve it, but it’s meaningless unless a solitary person turns loose its power within.
If we want to seriously pursue the mystery, we discuss it with someone like Peter Bolland. He’s a scholar who studies guys with long beards to figure out what they’ve said so we don’t have to.
Bolland is a philosophy and religious studies teacher at Southwestern College in Chula Vista. He also is a blogger and musician (peterbolland.com). His lectures for the San Diego Oasis program are among the most popular for that low-cost series, which attracts seniors especially.
He is a mellow San Diego State University graduate of 57 who lives in San Carlos. A quick smile and 6-foot-3 height mark the man. His reputation is that he can talk about the meaning of life to both retirees and their grandchildren — and keep both from falling asleep. He actually talks like real people talk.
His opinions are timely because one of the pillars of society is being weakened. The cause is enlightenment or disillusion, take your pick.
According to a KPBS report, about 3 percent of American adults severed religious institutional ties between 2012 and 2014. We’re talking about 7.5 million people. In sports terms, they went from being team members to free agents.
For Bolland, such a huge dip in religious allegiance is as fascinating as twine to a cat.
Bolland says many people are pushing away from organized religion because it doesn’t seem to address their spiritual needs. They’re turning to science and dismissing church dogma and doctrines. They are departing from the faith of their parents and their own childhood.
However, he also says when Americans are asked if they believe in God, 90 percent say yes. Within that group, there is a wide variance in exactly who or what their deity is. Fewer are defining God in the old-fashioned way. People are increasingly thinking of stories like the virgin birth and the resurrection of Jesus as metaphors and not actual events.
Question: Peter, people often say, “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual.” But when asked what that means, they fumble for an answer.
“Here’s why you get no answer,” he says. “ ‘Spirit’ is a word we use to denote a God concept. Such people no longer believe that God is the figure Michelangelo painted on the Sistine Chapel. Spirit is a way of talking about a mystery of the universe that one feels inside. By its nature, it defies exact definition.”
Two centuries ago, it was called transcendentalism and deism, especially the deification of nature.
“Exactly,” he says. “This is nothing new, only renewed.”
Well, here’s a counterpoint about the beauty of nature: In reality, nature is vicious.
“Right. It’s true. There’s a shark out there eating a seal as we speak. But look, that’s the surface. Underneath, in the depths of nature, is a harmony and beauty that we draw strength and comfort from.”
We seem to turn spiritual only during tough times. Otherwise, we just go about our daily lives.
Bollard says, “When you are forced to stare into the abyss and confront misfortune or death, it becomes clear that the little game you’re running is temporary. You just drop all the nonsense when you get cancer or when you lose a child. Those are devastating blows, but they also bring a kind of weird clarity. You just stop messing around (with life).
“In a religion like Hinduism or Buddhism, where you are not necessarily worshipping a specific deity, you are embracing the fact that you are already one with the All. That’s spirituality.”
Hannah Arendt famously referred to “the banality of evil” when describing the Nazi Adolf Eichmann. What is evil?
He says, “I’m drawn to the Hindu response to that. Hindus teach that there’s no such thing as evil. What we call evil is people doing horribly thoughtless, destructive things. There clearly is the capacity in us for tremendous violence and cruelty, and we can fairly call that evil. But in Hindu belief, evil is not a thing; evil is the absence of good. I think both Thomas Aquinas and Plato would agree with that.
“The alternative, of course, is the dualistic view: There’s Satan and there’s God, and all evil comes from Satan and all good comes from God, and there’s a cosmic battle. Personally, I’m not so sure about that.”
Bolland does not seem enamored by fundamentalist/evangelical Christianity or Mormonism. Those are the main groups experiencing brisk growth today.
He does say, “I think conservative religious perspectives offer something appealing to certain people. A lot of people are looking for answers; they’re not comfortable with questions. They want to be given the truth.”
(That sounds dismissive to me, but let’s move along.)
“There’s a feature of religion that people have always hungered for and gravitate to. The Buddhists call it sangha, which means a community of people. Within the sangha, there’s a coming together around an ethical perspective or fundamental beliefs.”
In other words, a church or synagogue?
“Or a Wiccan coven,” Bolland says with a smile.
What is the difference between who I am and what I am?
“When people ask, ‘Who are you?’ they can be given a list of sociological labels: I’m a father, I’m a Republican, etc. But to answer the question ‘What are you?’ requires examining the essential self underneath.”
In everyday life, it seems most of us want to be better than we are. Why are we not?
“A lot of us have a desire for virtue, morality and compassion that we rarely nail in our actions. The realities of life can put us into unavoidable conflict with the ideal, and we’re left with alternatives, each harmful in its own way. These difficulties are like wounds that need healing, and that’s why we turn to spirituality and religion for understanding and comfort.”
It seems to me that the riddle of humanity is that we are tribal, social creatures, but we often operate individually as rogues.
“We are self-interested. That’s a biological imperative. I have to breathe air, I need to drink water, eat food and so on, but I survive better in a community. So I learned how things like compassion and cooperation are actually in my self-interest. Perhaps that’s the conditioning that took hold over tens of thousands of years.”
When or if organized religion goes out of our lives, what replaces it?
“As formal religion shrinks numerically, spirituality is largely taking its place. And also, even living in a secularized world, there is still a hunger for a spiritual connection. So family, the arts and nature, these are all taking the place of what traditional religion used to do.”
Peter, it seems to me you are taking spirituality — a general word that’s as old as religion — and giving it a new definition. For example, a devout Baptist would describe herself as spiritual. But it seems that in current usage, spiritual implies a turning away from doctrinaire religion. Should we not give it a creed-name of its own, and thus not offend the Baptist lady?
“I would say to our Baptist lady: Of course, religious people are spiritual, but we still need a word for this growing phenomenon of those who have rich lives of the spirit, but who draw practices and beliefs from many different traditions or from a sense of oneness with the universe.
When are enough possessions enough? Since you don’t know how long you’re going to live, you want to provide for the future and maybe leave something behind.
“We are by nature driven to be hoarders, and we associate that with security. Look, there are people that are starving. In our middle-class lives, this may not be so obvious. But in our brain, we still have that fear to protect ourselves from want and famine. However, that can result in sort of a pathology that has been called ‘affluenza.’ That’s the disease of stuff.”
You have written about how we obsess about our looks and despair over our aging bodies. Obviously, you were talking about cosmetic surgery.
“People are free to decorate themselves, but if it’s a symptom of our unwillingness to grow old, it’s a losing battle that we need to control by acceptance. Happiness doesn’t come by being young, but by being whole.”
What do you think happens after death?
“I have no idea.”
You may disagree with Bolland’s views, but he invites that because a good teacher appreciates a vigorous shake of the head more than a languid nod. Who knows where a stimulated mind can travel.
You know what? The most bewildering philosopher in a thick, dusty book doesn’t know a damn thing more about life than you or I. What a good teacher does is ask us the right questions so we can come up with “Ah, ha!” answers for ourselves.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org