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DOORS – Chapter Seven

October 18, 2017

Working With Symbols


On the one hand there is the real world and on the other there is a whole system of symbols about that world which we have in our minds. These are very very useful symbols, all civilization depends on them, but like all good things they have their disadvantages, and the principle disadvantage of symbols is that we confuse them with reality, just as we confuse money with actual wealth.” – Alan W. Watts

The Mystics

So I studied the lives and teachings of Christian mystics and discovered that, as enlightening as they were, there was much sorting out to do. Most of them lived long time ago and though experiencing the same reality as present days mystics, they nonetheless wrote about it in another time, language and culture.

Being the product of their age, they naturally assumed and took for granted things that today we would consider racist, abusive, superstitious or simply untrue. Think, for example, of the cosmology of Dante’s Divine Comedy, of Joan of Arc’s hate for early reformers or the condoning of slavery by some others.

I had to take into consideration the religious context of their time, that often negative, fearful, guilt laden view of the human condition, and how strict asceticism, hate for the body and everything carnal, underpinned their entire religious upbringing.

A pervading dualism, in which the spirit was good but matter and body were not, was their starting point and few managed to escape it, like Francis of Assisi. Though he was still influenced by these ideas, yet he proclaimed a holistic and positive perspective on God and creation. Still, he died at a fairly young age for the privations and rigors to which he submitted, but confessing that he should have been kinder to his body and thus recognizing the deficiency of the ascetic model.

Even so, because in popular piety asceticism was considered such a mark of holiness, Francis was more often remembered for his body-denial than his positive views of God, humanity and nature. So, while mystics spoke from experience, their works were still influenced by and remembered through the religious mindsets of their time.

To truly benefit from them, one would need to not only translate their works into our present mode of understanding, but also search for their core experience of the divine and separate it from mere cultural accretions.

The Theologians

While mystics made ample use of symbols, metaphors and poetry, theology was more uniform and straightforward. Though the language appeared stuffy and unintelligible at first, once I became familiar with the terminology it was fairly clear.

I read both, mystics and theologians, and each filled a timely need. Mystical writings were poetic, cryptic and hard to understand, but proceeded from experiences that I could actually relate to. Theological ones were more rational and helped me to make sense of things, but remained strictly within the speculative and theoretical sphere.

Theologians appeared to write mostly from their educated heads and rarely from any experience of the divine. For the most part, theological talk appeared as the conversation of an intellectual elite somewhat stuck between worlds. How? Because theology appeared as more reason than faith, yet not reason enough to know rationally and not faith enough to know without reason.

While attempting to be the link between reason and faith, theology didn’t seem to be truly capable of either. For all its intellectual subtlety it seemed too bound to ancient sources to admit new data and too suspicious of mysticism to let it teach other ways of knowing.

Was it still useful? Very much so, but just as much as tradition. They are both very helpful, but also limited in their scope without personal experience. After all, Christianity started with a mystical experience and only developed its scriptures and traditions as a consequence of it.

Theology and tradition, without present and personal experience, cannot stand. It is like a three legged table with a missing leg.

Those Who Crossed the Veil

Apart from present day mystics, there was also a contemporary field of study that dealt specifically with personal experiences, the study of NDE (Near Death Experiences). I had looked into it a few decades earlier and now I felt drawn to it again.

I wondered what more I could gather from those who claimed to have actually been on the other side and I discovered that, since I last looked into it, the available data had grown exponentially. Because of advances in medicine, particularly the ability to revive people who’ve been clinically dead, as well as due to growing scholarly interest, there were now more books and papers than I could ever get around to.

I found that people who had NDEs, had as much difficulty expressing what had happened to them, as the mystics did. They too, had no other symbols to describe their experiences, but what their cultures, languages and religions had taught them. For this reason, NDE from different parts of the world would often be told and interpreted differently.

It was actually those differences in the accounts that made it easier to sort things out and understand better. A poor choice of words, an embellishment, a cultural bias or a religious preconception were easier to recognize when comparing the accounts. That’s how the core of an actual NDE could be recognized and separated from the cultural elements of its description.

So it turned out that, no matter where, in which culture, religion or no religion at all, most NDEs were essentially the same. Cultural, philosophical and theological persuasions did impact the descriptions and interpretations, but not the actual nature or quality of a NDE.

I wondered why theology did not take these accounts into consideration, when even the Bible contains similar stories. Some Church journals might publish an occasional NDE account, but usually only such as would lend support to the institution and its doctrines. Obviously they couldn’t really consider the broader spectrum of them without it raising questions about their theology.

But I don’t mean to put down theology, as I did spend some years studying it and it did me good. It surely clarified many things, but also made me aware of its limitations. There is so much more to Christian thought than the mere mental acquisition of facts and figures.

God is much more than that, and to talk about him, which is the meaning of theo-logy, I had to be willing to move beyond some “established” doctrines and dogmas, at least beyond my previous understanding of them. Having too many preconditions and preconceptions, would have hindered me from moving forward.

I was in a journey of discovery and to assume or claim finality for whatever I knew at whatever point, was equal to making an idol of it. None ever sees the full truth or the complete spectrum of ultimate realities and to pretend to, is equal to making a substitute of it, a lie.

To avoid the paralysis that such pretense brings about, I had to remain open, humble and flexible. Whether from science or personal experiences, I had to consider new evidence and not limit my “truth” to ancient sources alone, no matter how inspired they were. There had to be a present discovery in progress, and for that, I could not afford to lose my childish sense of wonder.

In any case, what most impacted me from this new look at NDE, was the realization that religion had no significant bearing on them. Everyone who faced the infinite, the light at the end of the tunnel, or had a life recollection, never felt judged on the basis of theological, doctrinal or traditional church dogmas.

What people felt, from the light that they encountered, was always unconditional love and acceptance. If there was any judgment at all, it proceeded from themselves, and even then it was not from a religious perspective, but from the standpoint of love.

This lack of distinction between that which is religious and that which is not, and the lack of validation for any religious institutions, as the one and only, caused me to also reflect on my own.

I was grateful for my tradition, for it had been my mother, tutor, guardian, school and family, and I couldn’t have done without it. I needed that container to grow in, with its programs, myths, metaphors and symbols for each stage, but now it was time for more.

Being no longer bound by the doctrinal requirements of a single church, I began to explore more freely and to understand better the role of religion, its myths and interpretations. Though I still recognized their value, especially for the early stages of life, I could now see their limits and subjectivity.

The Pattern

Through it all, I became increasingly aware of a pattern beyond my experiences. I could see a living design, like a presence running through my life and interacting with everything in it, as in a dance.

The design (logos) gave coherence to everything, the good, the bad and the ordinary. All of it contributed to my advancement and, with time, some things became clearer and more significant, while others simply fell by the wayside.

Since great truths can only be learned by stages, the design lead me gradually through partial and intermediary truths, what we usually call symbols and metaphors. Of course, I didn’t think of them as such when I was fully invested in them.

It was only when I came to a better understanding, that my previous and partial truths appeared as the symbols they were. Then, the literal certainties that I so carefully guarded before, began to look childish, and it humbled me.

As I became aware of how much more was hiding beyond those symbols, I realized how little I really knew. I had confused the symbols with God and His design with a system of morals and doctrines. I was beginning to feel like the old bishop who’s quoted for saying “The older I get, the more deeply I believe, but the less beliefs I have”.

I too, was becoming more aware of God’s presence and feeling less of a need for those symbols and supplements that had accompanied me in my youth. They had done their work and now it was time to let them go, along with many ideas that I used to have about God.

For a long time, in fact, I had held to some very human notions of God, a mixture of my own projections, popular ideas and those of my tradition. They were images that had worked well for a time, but then grew insufficient and now looked childish.

The nature of religious institutions

Due to their nature and to the pedagogical role that they fulfill, religious institutions continue to use these images. They are good teaching tools, some more than others, of course, but as with children who can be taught together only till a certain age, and then have to seek further learning outside the classroom, so it is that people seeking further growth have to look for it outside the church.

The analogy is not mine, but comes from the apostle Paul, who described the religious establishment of his day as a paidagōgós, meaning a tutor, teacher or guardian. In his view, such schooling was needed only to take people to maturity, but not after that (Gal 3:24).

As vital as this initial schooling might be, at a certain point it is no longer helpful and even becomes a retarding influence. This is why, I believe, so many people eventually move out of their original churches, at least for a while.

There has to be this necessary crisis of faith and a moving out of school, at least inwardly, or there is no more growth. The religious establishment could not lead them any further, because the congregation itself (classroom) sets the bar at its average learning ability, usually basic.

Because of its constant turn over of people and the variety of ages within its walls, the church cannot operate any differently. Even if it could it would not encourage further learning, partly because it cannot teach what it is not prepared to and partly because of its reliance on funding from participants; numbers meaning support, stability and continuity.

Then, there is also the fact that spiritually mature people tend to be institutionally unreliable. They are like graduates who’ve moved out of school; they may still appreciate and support the old institute, but their thinking has moved out of the classroom. They have heard it all, many times over, and now they long for more.

Relying on numbers for their survival, religious institutions then try to keep everyone on board by cultivating dependency and childlikeness, instead of maturity. Whether knowingly or unknowingly, they do this by emphasizing sin, guilt and absolution (their exclusive type), in a cycle that rotates on a pivot of fear and fosters communities of stunted believers.

On the other hand, we know that no stable organization can be built on something which isn’t clearly defined and that keeps changing. To endure beyond the generation of their founder, all religious institutions have had to bind themselves to something unchangeable, whether it be a tradition, a structure, a doctrine or a role that they claim God gave to them alone.

There has to be some non negotiable point upon which the institution can rest, which is why most religious movements, who usually started as a revolution against the institutional status quo, eventually freeze into a new form, disappear (preferable) or return to the old one.

Movements are usually young, small and free to take new daring leaps, but religious institutions must settle for the average capacity of its people to grapple with ultimate realities This natural default is usually a superstitious one, but while it is easy to recognize superstition in an older traditions, it is nearly impossible to spot it under a modern disguise.

Yet superstition is in each of us. It is rooted in our feelings of separation and fear of the unknown; it is manifested in our efforts to either protect ourselves from the unknown or use it for our own profit. Hence, ego centered religion, instead of God (love) centered.

Whenever we see fear in religion, then we see superstition at work, as the apostle wrote: “Love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love” (1John 4:18). This shows that we are still in school and haven’t yet experienced what it is all about.

Whether individually or as a whole, eventually we do grow up, but it is a matter of three steps forward and two backward. Ours is a slow and tortuous development towards something for which there is no visible plan, for which our senses and intellect give us no evidence. It is only with time that we acquire other means of knowing,
which is why we speak of faith, why religious talk is always metaphorical and why it can never contain what it merely points to, at least not in any final form. That is also why the claim of orthodoxy is somewhat paradoxical, because it tries to assign finality to religious words and ideas, which there cannot be.

Yet, anyone valuing numbers and congregational influence, must build their religious enterprise on the assumption of orthodoxy, the fixed point. A mystic may depart from it and generate a new religious movement, but he will never be able to turn it into an enduring institution. His successors may be able to, but the price will be a return to orthodoxy, and the result will be different from what the founder had envisioned.

I got a bit off my subject here, but it was for a reason. Through it, I explained the history of my church and why religious boxes eventually fail to deliver what they actually point to. Mine had even disappeared, and yet I was not left empty handed but with a trove of experiences.

Most valuable of all, was having lived through the early stages of our movement, when it stepped outside previous boxes, and before it built its own. Through that, I had the privilege of seeing and experiencing God operating in places and ways that others said couldn’t be done.

From that, I learned that God was into change, movement and doing things that no box built in his name could ever contain. From that, I derived a sense of direction that drove me onward, out of my own boxes, myths, stories and images. It’s not that they weren’t good anymore, it’s just that they pointed me to something greater beyond them, and so they became the past.

Santa and parables

Perhaps, to make this whole things clearer, I could use Santa as an example. Although some Christians denounce him as a fictitious character usurping the true meaning of Christmas, I actually think that he makes a perfect illustration of what I am trying to say.

A child believing in Santa, sees him as something greater than he, a benign, magical being that knows everything, reads his letters and rewards him with the desires of his heart, if he’s been good. Parents even use Santa to encourage good behavior and discourage the opposite, and it works.

Through this play that the parents stage, the child learns about a generous, universal entity to whom he must give some account. Now, some believe that it is wrong to teach children a lie, that it could create confusion and undermine whatever one tries to teach them about a “real” God. That might be true, but perhaps there is more that they can learn from it.

The fact is that childhood is full of myths, stories, morals and fantasies that aren’t factually true, but that contain true lessons nonetheless, that shape character, that help children deal with the deep things of life, and yet on their level.

Everyone employs myths for this very purpose, and there is no group or individual who isn’t working through some sort of myth. Religion is a primary example of this. Even its children’s Bible stories are usually fairy tale renditions of things that would otherwise be too gruesome for little ears.

The Bible itself is full of things that are allegorical, symbolic and metaphorical; stories that aren’t actually true, but were told and written to teach a true principle. That’s how the gospels ended up containing so many parables, which can be read at many levels, with many interpretations, according to age and spiritual maturity.

It is said that Jesus taught nothing, but through parables (Mark 4: 34). Yet, it also says that privately he would explain the parables to his disciples, but even then it was merely the next level at which they could be explained, as even they could not fully understand: “I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now”. (John 16:12).

The fact is, that when it comes to God and ultimate truths, there is nothing else but parables, meaning different renditions of a much greater reality than what could ever be contained in straight human language. It is not made for it.

Any such talk, always needs metaphors to carry us across, which is the literal meaning of the word. Another word for it is symbols, which mean to throw together, to make a parallel, a connection. We can only see indirectly, at least for now.

So that’s how even Santa can fit in and carry a child across, until the time in which he will learn not to take his childish parables so literally and will seek for deeper truths. After all, isn’t this what happened also with all our early and equally unrealistic images of god? Didn’t they also look like Santa?

Let us also not forget how Christmas was originally a pagan festival, later infused with Christian themes and resulting in a syncretism of symbols and parables. While Roman culture became imbued by Christian ideas, Christianity also became very Roman.

Just as Christ was first interpreted within its Jewish culture and myths, Christian universality was then realized in a global empire, where it acquired more layers of interpretations, myths and symbols. What has come to the present, is not at all what had first started in Palestine. It doesn’t need to be, for there is no such things as a pure religion.

Myths, symbols and parables are good, and I must stress again how they are not lies, but deep truths encased in story forms. We can use them according to the need, to teach ourselves and others things that cannot be taught any other way.

There was a time in which I took myths literally, until I understood better the intentions of the authors and the purpose of their stories. Then I realized that they pointed to something beyond themselves, beyond questions of historical accuracy and to something more permanent.

No, Santa wasn’t literally real, he wasn’t reading my letters, neither was he dressed in red and riding on a sledge. Yet, the old bearded man, like my old ideas of God, had stood for something much greater and mysterious, which I was now beginning to know better. The stories, in short, had merely been the packaging for something far better.

Once the contents were revealed, then the old packaging could be distinguished and separated from them. This started a chain reaction of unpacking, discovering and discarding so much more, and the sensation was one of immense discovery, of breaking forth into new spaces, wider and freer than anything I had ever experienced before.

So I’ll close this chapter by briefly summarizing the most crucial factors of this period. First was the dissolution of my church, becoming more aware of its flaws and shortcomings, seeing some of its myths falling or needing reconsideration, then was my delving into studies and allowing that to bring into question some of my previous “certainties”.

All this, then caused me to take stock of what I could really count on, which I knew by experience, and what instead had merely been in my head. Discovering some of these differences is what then helped me to move forward, while still including my past and recognizing its value for having taken me that far.

By letting go of dated myths, of shallow and literal interpretations, I was finally beginning to see beyond them. There, I found something far greater and more beautiful than I had ever thought, and I was beginning to connect to it at a deeper and more satisfying level than ever.

Obviously, it was the right conclusion to what had been before and, as always, a new beginning.

First the fall, and then the recovery from the fall, and both are the mercy of God. —Julian of Norwich


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