Sunday, October 16, 2011

Belief and Believing

I write as someone with a long-standing interest in religious and spiritual philosophies. I generally argue against materialism, which means I am usually understood as being 'religious'.  But I am also not aligned with mainstream religion, as my general philosophy is informed more by comparative religion and meditational practices.

The point of this post is to consider ideas about 'believing'. Nowadays it is just automatically assumed that if you're religious, you're 'a believer'. Religion and belief are practically the same thing in most people's minds. The main belief that religious people are supposed to have is that there is a God - and much else flows from that. This belief, furthermore, is understood to be something that can never be demonstrated to be true. So in the popular mind, religion is almost always assumed to amount to 'belief in something which can never shown to be real'. In fact, many people assume that this is what the word 'religion' means. They will often say, 'I don't have beliefs', meaning 'I am not religious'.

However through Eastern philosophies - manly Yoga-Vedanta, and Buddhism - there are different approaches to the whole question. These approaches are based on experience and insight. This insight comes about spontaneously for some people, but for others requires long periods of meditative discipline, along with reading, discussion, and contemplation. It is religious in a sense, but quite different to the above-mentioned belief-based approach.

In these types of schools, belief is certainly required, in that, you have to be willing to take the time to really go into the questions and do the practices. But what comes out of it is a realization. 'Realization' has two meanings: one is to 'understand something that has previously not been understood' and another is to 'make something real'.  Realization contains both meanings. Through it, we begin to understand something about the way things really are; and our way of living actually begins to reflect this understanding.

Another key difference with this approach is that, where belief is something that can be easily manipulated through organisational power structures, individual realization is quite an autonomous process. In other words, if you can become established in it, you really can become a light unto yourself, rather than someone who is dependent upon a dogmatic belief system to give them a sense of identity and direction. This has a lot of implications for the way 'religion' is conducted in the world. In fact, I think the whole tendency of the 'Eastern' approach is about empowering the individual search for truth, rather than subordinating the individual to the organisational dogma.

The Case of Fr Anthony de Mello is an interesting illustration of this. A Jesuit and psychotherapist, Fr De Mello became an inspirational spiritual teacher and wrote many popular books on the spiritual path. He thought himself part of the Catholic Faith, however his books were subject to caution - short of outright condemnation - by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (what used to be known as 'the Inquisition'.) The caution was based on the fact that Fr De Mello's ecumenical and universalistic approach was incompatible with Catholic dogma. Nevertheless, his books remain popular with progressive Catholics.

There are have been thousands of such cases, and not only in Catholicism.  Most of the antagonism against religion is directed against dogmatic and authoritarian institutions. So it is interesting to reflect that there is a kind of 'natural spirituality' that is not part of any particular religious structure or authority. This also shows up Dzogchen, Zen, and Sufism, among other things. So it is important if you want to understand the wider spectrum of spiritual philosophy, to understand that it is not at all simply a matter of believing what you're told. The Great Way is broad enough to accomodate many different types of seekers.

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