Monday, June 8, 2009

Sailing Into The Wind?

Suppose you need to cross a lake against the wind to a rendezvous at a cabin. A sailboat cannot sail directly to an upwind destination. It takes a series of alternating left and right turns, sailing 45 degrees left of the destination with a starboard wind, then “coming about” to sail 45 degrees to the right with a port wind. Does this zig-zag pattern have a parallel in the spiritual journey? Let’s consider how Scott Peck describes some of the directional changes in the spiritual journey.

Leg One - from Chaos toward Order: We all start our life journey in chaos; as infants we cannot even communicate well enough to get what we need or predict how people respond to our needs. If we’re fortunate enough to live in a stable home with relatively mature parents who do their best to understand us, we begin to learn to trust an emerging order. We learn how life works in the physical, emotional and spiritual dimensions. We can visualize this discovery as an arrow, beginning at the lower left of a page, moving up and toward the right at a 45 degree angle, thus moving both “to the right” and “up.” Not everyone makes this move so smoothly, especially people whose environment doesn’t easily reveal the order of life. Peck notes that religious groups, in their evangelistic work, are quite good at helping these folks discover a sense of order in their beliefs. “Conversion” is the label often applied to this quick movement from chaos toward order. Perhaps you know someone who has made such a life shift. If so, you may appreciate how attached they can be to the value of moving “to the right,” with all the religious, social, political and cultural implications that may imply. The corrective progress for living in chaos is the discovery of order.

Can one sail too far in this direction? Can one become so attached to the journey “to the right” that it becomes more important than the destination?

Leg Two - from Order toward Questioning: People who grow up in an orderly environment (and some who convert to it) sometimes come to believe in so much order that they become certain about everything. That is until some surprising life experience shatters the illusion of certainty, opening up a question. In fact, the order (or “orthodoxy”) of virtually all religious groups is comprised of a mix of two elements. The first element is what I’ll call the “Laws of the Kingdom,” which are accurate descriptions of the fundamental laws of life, or “natural” laws, the created order. The consequences of choosing to live in harmony with, or of violating these laws, are automatic. No authority (other than the Creator who established this order) needs to enforce these. They apply to everyone, regardless of religious affiliation or lack of such. The law of gravity, in the physical realm, is the iconic example. A spiritual parallel would be the law of sowing and reaping, or karma. The second element of religious order we’ll call “the rules of the club,” the club being whatever religious organization one relates to. These rules are constructed, established and enforced by religious authority. They are arbitrary, in that the consequences of keeping or breaking these rules are also applied by that authority. Only those who live under that authority receive the consequences. One example would be a rule that one cannot eat meat on Friday, which was constructed by the Roman Catholic church, then later rescinded, much to the dismay of those who liked “Fish Fridays.” The important point of all this is that when life calls into question the order under which one lives, that may raise some important questions. For one who lives in superorder (more order and certainty than what actually describes reality) the corrective experience is questioning. This movement can be diagrammed with an arrow moving right to left, again at a 45 degree angle toward the top of the page, beginning where the first line ended. As Peck noted, most religious organizations are not good at helping people make this move, often giving people derogatory labels such as “backslider” or “agnostic.” Actually, “agnostic” would be a good term here, because it simply means “without knowledge, or “I don’t know.” Perhaps you know someone who has needed to make such a shift in their spiritual life; perhaps you can appreciate how uncomfortable this shift makes those in the same congregation who are still pursuing more order in their lives. The big trouble here is that both groups tend to focus on the leftward or rightward aspect of the vector, rather than noting that both are moving toward the top of the page, which represents the movement “toward reality,” “toward truth,” and “toward the Divine.” Both are moving “into the wind” against the flow of unspiritual living, as a sailboat making starboard and port tacks toward its upwind destination. The correction for “too much order” is to question, to discern, to sort the true order from the false.

Can one sail too far in this direction? Can one become so attached to the journey “to the left” that it becomes more important than the destination?

Leg Three - From Questioning to Understanding: Once someone has sorted and abandoned false order and false certainty (or when someone who has grown up in a respectful agnostic home begins to seek truth) another shift can occur. This movement will again approach a life of order, another move “toward the right” but with a belief that encompasses both certainty and uncertainty, using both faith and doubt in a continuing dedication to understanding truth. Someone on this leg of the journey is likely to be clear that truth is “what is real,” not “what we believe” as declared by some religious council. A person well along this leg of the journey will become increasingly comfortable with paradox, with uncertainty, and with mystery. This person will believe in many of the same things as the person who appreciates order and orthodoxy but will understand them in a different way. Rather than being attached to a traditional observance of “Fish Friday” this person may understand the spiritual value of an occasional fast, a spiritual retreat or some other means of simplifying life long enough to become more clear about an important matter of spiritual progress. This person understands the important principles when they exist behind the “rules of the club,” and will live according to the principles, with or without conforming to the “rules of the club.” This person may even observe a “rule of the club” because of the recognition that a club has a right to make rules that define membership, even when this rule does not reflect some ultimate reality. Moving toward Understanding is a correction for too much questioning. This person is quite interested in living in harmony with the "Laws of the Kingdom," both because they recognize the authority of the Creator, and because it is recognized as a terrible waste of energy to fight reality. This leg of the journey can be represented by an arrow beginning at the end of the questioning arrow, pointing toward the top right corner of the page, curving upward at the center between right and left, toward the top middle, avoiding another pendulum swing to the extreme opposite side. This person has the destination clearly in view and is close enough to make the final turn and complete the journey with fine course corrections. It is this person we need in the room when those at earlier phases of spiritual development are caught up in arguments with each other about whether “left” or “right” is better.

Spiritual Assessment, the theme of this blog, will take into account each persons relationship to these possible movements along the way in their spiritual journeys. Let’s be clear: this is very different from religious judgment, in which someone on one part of the journey “labels” someone in a different place with a derogatory label. A good spiritual assessment will see whether the person needs help moving farther along in the direction they are going, or whether it is time for a shift, to “come about” and tack in the other direction (in sailing terms) to correct for where they have been, or to close in on the destination.

This description is an adaptation of M. Scott Peck’s observations, which I heard him present in a Community Building Workshop; these observations are also recorded in his book “The Different Drum.”

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