Regarding Texts, Traditions, and Truth
Regarding Texts, Traditions, and Truth
It was the strangest and most beautiful sky I’d ever seen. After witnessing three dramatic changes in weather within an hour, I stood transfixed looking back on the sycamore I sat under. Its white bark gleamed in the bright, setting sun, with an intensely blue-black sky as a backdrop to the east.
Upon reaching the stream on the outskirts of town, the wind blew hard, and rain threatened. Dark, lowering clouds swirled around one, banking against the hills and gathering into huge masses over the fields, heightening one’s senses. Do I stay, and risk rain, or worse, lightening? The risk of lightening seemed minimal, and if it started to rain hard, I’d just ride the bike home.
It began to drizzle, but sitting under the spreading, budding branches of the sycamore, I saw more drops on the placid current in front of me than felt on my back from the wind coming out of the north. A few miles away to the south and west over the canyon and foothills, rain was falling harder. There weren’t many clear spaces left to the east and north.
Suddenly hail began to fall, small pellets of precipitation that made little splashes in the stream. A seagull tacked against the wind, and a large flock of small birds scattered in the distance. Feeling protected somehow amidst all the fury and tumult, I didn’t move.
The hail, which never reached sufficient intensity or size to sting, stopped as quickly as it started. The sky to the west began to open; within a quarter hour the sun was shining again, with small, fleecy clouds above the horizon evoking a pleasant spring afternoon. To the east however, the clouds had piled into each other and taken on an ominous hue, a blue-black sheen that could not have provided a greater contrast.
I walked back and forth along the stream for some time, taking in the incredible variation of light, color, and shape of the clouds and sky. One was agape, wide open and in a state of wonder. It’s a core religious feeling that is a combination of awe, humility, and love in the presence of overwhelming beauty.
Religious experiencing occurs in complete silence within the individual. It is like death; there is nothing more to be said.
But like an awareness and understanding of death, that doesn’t mean one just carries on and waits for it to happen, as the vast majority of people do. That way of living is unbecoming to a human being. Coasting precludes inward growth, and certainly the transcending of death.
Inward growth requires a non-accumulative kind of learning. And this is where the contradiction at the heart of organized religion comes in.
The experiencing of God is beyond all words, beliefs, ideas, images, knowledge, scriptures, texts, and traditions. Even one’s own prior experience of the sacred can be an impediment to experiencing it in the present. Yet religions would not exist without the intermediation of text and tradition, as well as some form of priestly class. Therefore religions impede, if not deny, the very experiencing of sacredness that they purport to permit!
Awareness and contact with the sacred--that which is completely beyond thought and knowledge--can only occur within the individual. A teacher can point the way, but the moment his or her teachings become more important than one’s own solitary enquiry, one’s capacity for direct perception of the truth and the sacred is diminished.
Religious feeling is not a personal thing however, but rather an inherently private and individual matter. The personal is oriented to self, revolves around ego, and is driven by will. Whereas the individual’s experiencing of God (or whatever one wants to call the essence of beauty, mystery, intelligence, and love that permeates the universe), is interior and private, but not personal.
If this almost inexpressible mystical experiencing in the individual is what spirituality really is, then what place does the diversity of religious and cultural traditions have in the scheme of things?
What matters is what one puts first: scriptures, or seeing for oneself; belief, or actual experiencing; insight, or the accretions of theology.
If one opts to remain in a religious tradition, one has to hold it lightly, mining for insight while being mindful that texts and traditions are never the truth, but at best an echo of the truth.
- Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He has been publishing in North America, Latin America, Africa, and Europe (and now New Zealand) for 20 years. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. The author welcomes comments.