Continuing from the previous article
Middle Adult - Learning life
In my 30s and 40s, like most people, I was very busy with life and family responsibilities. The 30s and 40s are worker-bee years. You do your best to earn an income that supports your family, and try to raise your kids and give them good values. They are very busy years and leave little time for spiritual reflection. During this time I learned more about effective communications, worked more with attitude change that I had studied earlier, and took college acting classes to improve my communications capabilities. I also learned that I'm a creative person (big surprise), and whatever I do needs an element of creativity in it to be fulfilling. (Well, I sweep the floor sometimes and even find that... well... satisfying.) But my need for creativity was an important discovery. It goes hand in hand with investing yourself in what you do, and has a lot to do with being part of God's creative work.
At some point during my 30s and 40s, I arrived at the painful realization that I couldn't help anyone. No matter how analytical you are, and no matter how much knowledge you have, giving knowledge (insight), doesn't fix anyone. This was especially true of those closest to me, which really hurt. This was a bit of a spiritual awakening for me. Pouring knowledge into people doesn't make them any smarter than a bookcase, or make them act any better than a mad dog. I began to realize that experience is the key. That means living life and learning, often the hard way.
It was through working with people and being a parent that I learned something very different about God. To a child, the parent is the pattern for God in their early years. Harsh parent, harsh image of God. Loving parent, loving image of God. My theology had been that God can't accept a sinful person in His presence. But like most adults who confront those theological ideas face to face, you realize that you love your child and accept him as he is, even if you do discipline the child. I remember a host of other people in politics and religion who were passionately pro-family and anti-gay. Then their own children turned out to be gay. Suddenly they gained an entirely new perspective. It reminds me a lot of what Tevye went through in Fiddler On The Roof, my most favorite movie, as his daughters went against his Jewish tradition. We do God a giant disservice when we paint Him in such rigid theological terms.
Understanding attitude change in education, ministry, and business was foundational to concepts that came later. In my 40s I began a quest to understand meaning and purpose in life. What I realized in my 40s is how important experience is to our development. I began studying semiotics, which deals with the symbols (words) we use for communications. Attitude change concepts were foundational to that understanding. In studying Eugene Gendlin's work, Experience and the Creation of Meaning, and Jerome Bruner's Acts of Meaning, I began to understand how important experience is to us in forming meaning. Even understanding our words is reinforced by experiences, and very reinforced by emotionally laden experiences. I studied the role of narrative (narrative psychology), in stringing these bits and pieces of experience together. While knowledge is very helpful in life, you can read and study endlessly and learn nothing and change nothing about yourself. Experience is key to it all.
One difficulty with psychology is that the strict focus on the individual, while critical in the discipline, does nothing for the development of social concern. The short age of "self actualization" had gone out of favor. Psychology does address relationships when the individual requests it, but seems to embrace very little of the idea of self-sacrifice for others, or to be "other directed" and look to the larger good. The field is slowly evolving, and efficacy is largely dependent on the skill of the counselor. Social psychology, which is my leaning, at least realizes the role of others in people's lives, and that our meaning paradigms at least are mostly formed by others.
Research in the late 1990s linked epinephrin (adrenalin) to linking emotion to memory. The more traumatic the experience, the higher the level of epinephrin, thus the more vivid and disturbing the recall or disturbing flashbacks. Lowering epinephrin directly after a traumatic experience moderated the re-experiencing to the point that it was controllable or not disturbing. Science clearly supports the role of emotionally laden experience, which is foundational to attitude.
I closed out this era of my life realizing that I actually can help people. As a parent, friend, psychologist, peer, or spouse, you stand beside them as they experience their lives, and help them interpret their experiences and deal effectively with them. Knowledge helps, but it is experience that creates both intelligence and meaning. I studied and wrote extensively on this on the www.visualwriter.com Web site in the Human Condition section. The human condition is what writers supposedly write about.
Most people need both support and guidance. Even then many find it very difficult to overcome their fear of change, loneliness, separation, and ego concerns (to name a few obstacles). This hinders (read prevents), their ability to act rationally and control themselves. So the "messages" to control yourself and change, always speak loudest to those without the problem, and has least influence on those with the problem. People change very slowly, their attitude modified majorly by cumulative life experience, and minimally by messages. But it helps for the guiding message to be there to encourage them to change and point them in the right direction.
Middle age - becoming expert level - gaining a pot belly
In my 50s, family and work responsibilities lessened. What I began to deal with at this point, unbeknownst to me, was this compulsion to know the right things so that I wasn't experiencing life in error.
I don't want to give the impression that a correct belief isn't important. The wrong path can cause disaster, but it is how we learn. What is most important is priorities. Knowledge, the Apostle Paul reminds us, means nothing if we don't have love. Love - caring for others - has to be our first priority. That is the core message. God is love. But as the Apostle John tells us, God is also the Word.
One of my earliest experiences in this era of my life was to understand a very powerful concept. It came to me when I was studying the brain and how we form concepts. Simplified, it is thought that we use a small piece of information and use it as a pin to stick other similar pieces of information to (~eigenvalues). All chairs get stuck to this one pin. An interesting thing happens. When a chair gets wheels, we use that to form another category: bicycles. So our brain is an open system that expands. What would happen if our brain didn't have this unique capability? The knowledge that we could gain would be very limited and totally unorganized. We probably could not think - we would act more instinctively like lower animals.
Open systems are important. They allow expansion. Closed systems severely restrict thought. When you look at very conservative thought, that thinking is locked into almost instinctive positions, and can't accept anything new. When you look at very liberal thought, that thinking is never locked into anything, so everything new is accepted but nothing can be accomplished. I've had managers at both extremes - both ineffective. The successful manager was the one in the middle, not embracing every new change, and not rejecting all change, but able to selectively embrace constructive change and control the pace and direction so that it could be accomplished. Open systems are vital to growth, but they have to be controlled.
Religions tend to like closed systems. They don't like change - change really causes problems in meaning paradigms and beliefs, so change is discouraged because it is difficult for believers and leaders to cope with. It's like saying, "God changed." Religions make statements like "prophecy has come to an end. Everything is written in the Bible that is going to be written. Everything is known in religion that is going to be known. Authority is in place and it cannot be changed. Traditions can't be changed: no women in authority in the church, no... The music can't be changed...." The position of many in the church is worthy of ridicule. We wonder why mainstream denominations aren't considered relevant by new generations and why all Christian denominations are declining.
Christ ran into the same problem with the Jews. Animal sacrifice was commanded. Distrust and hatred of others was endemic - they couldn't even like the Samaritans, a sister religion with the same roots in the Hebrew Bible. He talked to women - not done - talked to those of other religions, and even had lunch with prostitutes and tax collectors. Yikes! He provoked those in authority by saying that the Laws had some flexibility in them - they could heal and find food on the Sabbath. After all, the Sadducee leaders and the Romans had a cozy working relationship that maintained the status quo. The suggestion of change was not welcome, and those who threatened the establishment would be hunted, trapped, and killed.
Change in life is not only essential to growth, it is essential to survival. Scientists have seen that species that don't have new variations in their DNA through interbreeding, tend to decline in numbers, while those which do have new variations introduced tend to flourish. Even growth in intelligence in the human brain is facilitated by the ability of the brain to split off into new categorizations (more or less: eigenvalues).
I believe that the closed system in religion simply maintains the status quo and has nothing to do with religion and spirituality except to keep them from growing. For an interesting perspective on change, see this YouTube video from the .
I began at this age re-aligning my philosophical orientation. Inherent in Christ's message is a philosophical orientation. Love is paramount, and everything else is secondary. This follows from the Amos/Amaziah controversy mentioned in the first article in this series. This controversy established that justice takes precedence over the Law. As Christ put it when asked which Commandment was most important: Love is most important. All of the Law and the prophets come from this. What we began to understand is that God, religion, and spirituality are about something much bigger than behavioral rules or guidelines. These things are "relative."
"Relative" is a much maligned word. It is often used to describe a no-man's land without a clear moral framework. But in the end it means that things like justice and love take precedence over and re-align our priorities. We're not in kindergarten anymore.
Understanding the role of experience in meaning, intelligence, and communications, was very helpful to me in understanding meaning paradigms, and in changing the meaning paradigms that give our lives meaning. This was also very helpful in negotiating the morass of relativism implicit in Postmodern thought. Postmodern thought is difficult if you accept the turn of the Twentieth Century philosophy that all moral standards are completely relative and dependent on culture. If you have no belief in the love of God, and you have no experience with which to judge things, then everything has no inherent value for comparison. This makes changing a meaning paradigm very difficult or impossible.
If your religion changes to the breaking point, you will probably leave your religion. Religions are in a state of slow but continuous change. Every time a new pastor comes in, the beliefs change slightly. For example, in recent history attitudes about divorce have changed radically. Attitudes are changing about the role of women in the church. Attitudes are changing about homosexuality. From history, we no longer believe slavery is valid. We don't think it is appropriate to stone people to death (well... most of us). We would be livid and homicidal if someone stoned their misbehaving child to death (Old Testament Law), or observed any of the Deuteronomic laws and punishments. We have to be able to cope with change.
My trek through Postmodernism was very helpful. (I consider myself a Post-Postmodernist.) Postmodernism isn't a philosophy (it is a perspective that views claims of objective certainty with skepticism, particularly cultural meta-narratives). It allows you to recognize the relativity of relationships between things. As the antithesis of Modernism, which emphasizes making everything known, even if it's just an adamantly endorsed theory, Postmodernism emphasizes "not knowing." In this it is more like faith. In stripping us of a false sense of knowing, it allows us the freedom to ponder what actually has meaning and relevance in our lives.
First I had a very serious look at philosophy - particularly that part about logic and rational thought promoted by such philosophers as Plato, Aristotle, my favorite, Socrates, and many 16th. through 20th. Century philosophers. The role of philosophical logic is to flirt with extremes. The Socratic Method questions everything to death. Can we rationally hold on to any belief? Can anything actually have meaning in our lives? Philosophy can't actually prove anything, but it is a good tool for questioning, if we have the wisdom to know how to question. Pushing things to their logical end points out of context is not wise.
Philosophical arguments are often only intellectual exercises which lead to epistemological (nature of knowledge) dead ends. The logical extremes force logical exceptions with useless conclusions - philosophy can prove nothing in and of itself so it easily goes off on a tangent as an intellectual exercise. Exceptions don't disprove the whole. The Scientific Method doesn't work that way. Exceptions populate scientific theories like witch brooms on trees - far from disproving rules, they enable us to explore further while the theory gives us a framework to work within. All philosophy must be local, meaning that it must be grounded in experience or it is meaningless.
For example, if you say that "God is all powerful," then you could logically say that God controls all natural processes and evil, so since God doesn't stop earthquakes that kill thousands, nor stop evil people from hurting one to millions of other people, then this logically doesn't fit, therefore there is no God. And since everything is "pre-ordained," then there is no room for free will, so whatever we do is irrelevant. These questions have been well addressed elsewhere, so I won't go into them, but this same thinking is typical of Modernism, religious fundamentalism, and religious extremists. It doesn't look at things within the context of a wider picture, just a narrow view and the extremes.
There is much about life that we don't know. I explored this in great depth over a couple of years with a world-wide group of psychologists who were taking this same journey. An example of what we don't know comes from science. We don't know what 2/3 of the universe is made of. Two-thirds is a huge unknown. I don't mean that we haven't sampled it and tested it - we simply can't sense it at all. Scientists have learned to be comfortable with and ignore that huge unknown. Scientists simply assign a constant to the unknown in formulas. Scientists conjecture that this 2/3 unknown is "dark matter" - see, naming it and assigning a constant to it gives us power over it. They make a hypothesis about it and try to find examples. So far (July 2010) "WIMP" detectors have found nothing verifiable. Many scientists doubt that dark matter exists at all, and try to find other explanations for gravitational puzzles. The fact that we can put spacecraft into orbit around the earth, moon, and other planets indicates that scientists are successful in dealing with this unknown.
It will be interesting to see if physicists find the "God Particle," using the new Large Hadron Collector. The so far undiscovered Higgs boson is thought to "endow" all other particles with mass. I enjoy nuclear physics, but I suspect physicists often have more faith than I do.
Science and the scientific method are well established drivers in our world, as they should be. Science and the resulting technology alleviate tremendous suffering and improve our lives in many ways. But the very solid fact about life is, despite all of our miraculous discoveries about life, we probably don't know the half of it. Despite our science, and our methods, and our wish to know, and our inflated egos that say man is supreme, we simply don't know.
"Not knowing" is something we have to live with to function and to move forward in life. The lack of knowledge about Dark Matter doesn't stop science from moving forward, nor should it. Lack of knowledge should not bring the rest of life to a halt. We have to embrace not knowing and move forward on our voyage of discovery. That includes our journey of faith. The main tenets of spirituality and religion - faith, hope, and love - all have evidence that is concrete. We see their power in life every day. They are enough to go forward on.
"Not knowing" describes our journey of faith. Kindergarten children can't yet understand literary interpretation, calculus, the scientific method, and the width and depth of justice and love. But the fact that kindergartners can't comprehend these things, or even know of their existence, doesn't mean that they should stop investigating life and learning. As in science, we learn by trial and error. We don't understand all things, but we have to move forward.
So my preoccupation with "knowing and not being misled" culminated with comfort in knowing that we can't know everything, but knowing that God is love, and justice and love are paramount in God's mind can help us keep from being misled. Negative experiences, usually caused by our own illusions, are part of the journey of faith, so then any wrong turns we take are worthwhile learning experiences. Experience is essential to understand the width and breadth of justice and love - none of us fully understand, nor is it likely in our lifetimes.
From the vantage point of justice and love, it is much easier to spot the incorrect religious teachings and speakers, and other leaders, who teach hate, guilt, injustice, isolation, and separation. It is much more difficult to live in error when you have such a strong positive guide.
During the last few years I worked with a church "transformation" project in a mainstream denomination. I used many of the skills I had learned in messaging and human behavior. The goal of a transformation project is to get people more transformed so that they are closer to God, and then to use this group to get the church to do the same, and then to define the mission of the church so that it is consistent with the makeup of the church. In doing this I did considerable research about the early church, and today's church, to determine what is missing that impacts church growth. It was a very worthwhile experience, and allowed me to reflect and integrate a lot of my experience over the previous 40 or so years.
All in all, I would encourage people to be "seekers of truth." Examining and evaluating our faith is a very necessary step in arriving at the stage of faith that Wayne Fowler calls "Adult Faith." But just like a scientist, being able to cope with "not knowing" is essential to developing faith. As theologian Paul Tillich said about doubt, "Doubt is not the antithesis of faith. Doubt is an essential element of faith. Without doubt there is no faith, there is only dogma." Doubt is the no-man's land where faith is forged.
Post Middle age - Applying what you know
When people tell the stories of their lives, we always like to talk like we had some plan and everything that happened to us was part of that plan. We can interpret all events within that master plan. In studying narrative and the interpretation of meaning, I have found it difficult to fit most events into some master plan. Events in life are like the strings and knots on the back of a quilt. They make no sense until we turn the quilt over and look at the picture. I really had no idea where the different things I got into in life were taking me. They were my God given interests, and I pursued them. Sometimes they seemed to fit, sometimes not.
I can say about wisdom that experience is key. Knowledge doesn't make you any smarter than a bookcase full of books. But without knowledge, we have no way of evaluating experience. I don't know if I'm wise or not - I do know more about what I don't know - but the wisest thing I can say is that love (concern for and care of others) is most important. Life is clearly not about how much you earn, how much power you have over others, how much you know, your job - while these things can be important, if they are over-emphasized or misused, then they are against God and love.
I can also say, don't wait until you know everything about religion to try it. Knowing comes from experience, so you can never know until you experience. Then you have something to evaluate. If you want to avoid religion, I can do you a disservice by giving you all the information you need. Read about the Crusades, the Inquisitions, the destruction of native populations in the name of Christianity, the wars in the name of Christianity, the religious hoaxes, the endless cults, and you will never enter these gates. But these are the experiential mistakes of religion. Religion also helped stop slavery, changed the world, and stops oppression every day. Religion works in the hearts and minds of individual people to transform them into people who treat others better. Religion, like any capability man has, can be used for good or for evil.
You never stop learning. When you stop learning, that's a sure sign you are dead. You never stop seeking truth. When you think you know everything and have gotten it all right, that's a sure sign you have gotten it all wrong. Faith is a voyage of discovery. My work in the last few years is to more fully embrace partnership with God. To these ends, I work in a local church, and try in my publishing ministry to communicate the human condition, our relationship with God, and subvert some of the misinformation about spiritual and religious things so we all don't have to travel all the wrong paths.
Early in my 60s I had a vivid dream in which I was in some difficult situation and was passionately telling someone that God is the God of all people, not just the God of some elect few. I awoke with the realization that this is important in my life and in God's message. I usually don't pay any attention to dreams, if I remember them at all. But this one expressed an understanding that I had since young adulthood.
Religions are paths to the truth, not exclusive clubs with a proprietary corner on truth. I believe strongly in bringing Christianity into the new age so that it exists comfortably in pluralism with other religious beliefs, understands its moral message - both the timeless and situational aspects which are confused by scientific advances and changing situations - while maintaining its core identity, form, and transformational power of Christ. I believe strongly that Christianity is an open system that can adapt and change to meet the challenges of the new age. My work with a transformation project was one step in that direction. I like to help people find and attain their full potential in God's creation, governance, liberation/redemption, and fully live the communion and love of God. I still don't know what I'll be when I grow up - it's a moving target - but I know I'm "wiser" for the experience of the journey.
I don't worry so much about doctrine anymore. I know that God is love, and at the top of God's mind is how we treat others (love, justice). Law is a minimum standard and varies widely with cultures and situations (except the Ten Commandments), but love, acceptance, forgiveness, mercy, and justice are paramount in God's mind. God's message and work in this world that I'm aware of is 1) to bring each of us to a close relationship with Him, 2) to help each of us get past the obstacles and illusions that stand in our way, 3) to help each of us reach our unique full potential, in partnership in improving and creating this world, and 4) to use us in ways that encourage others to become closer to Him. I worry about doctrine and religious differences when it gets in the way of God's message and work.
In our spiritual journey, we learn more and more about the scope of love, and our horizons extend further into the distance. When we are young, we understand that god loves us. Then we learn about loving our neighbor. And then we get to, "For God so loved the world..."
Conclusion - the spiritual journey
My spiritual life story has not concluded, but it's interesting to look back and see the connections. Early in my life I was introduced to religion, so it didn't seem like a foreign concept to me as an adult. I found myself drawn to being in the ministry, but not strongly enough to make a decision. I liked the idea of being "wise" like Solomon. In our culture we respect those who know a lot. I don't know that those inclinations were anything more than a youthful desire to be a fireman.
My encounter with new age thinking did two things for me. 1) It expanded my mind from the little circle of religion I was acquainted with, particularly expanding the part about a loving God who is available to everyone. 2) It brought me contrast to religious ideas that made me a seeker of truth.
Being a seeker of truth was my way of dealing with the modernist fear of "being superstitious," and having to prove everything concretely before endorsing it. I certainly was not superstitious. Nor did I want to be led on a wild goose chase and look like an idiot.
My return to Christianity was not because it is an intellectual belief or because it makes a lot of sense. I struggled with believing some of Christianity. It was a spiritual return based on a foreign but strong feeling that Christianity is my spiritual and religious home. My return brought me into fundamentalism, which I respect, but also see difficulties in for long term spiritual growth. But fundamentalism got me learning about God and religious history in depth, in a more mature way, listening to very well qualified speakers.
I was in a technical career, doing very well, and was very unfulfilled. I realized one day that I should be in the ministry, which wasn't something I could comfortably accept, but I finally went with it. It was another spiritual experience. But the "seeker of truth" part of me remained. There were parts of Christianity, as many interpreted it, that I still did not feel comfortable with. I was still a rational and logical person, and a person with a strong belief that knowledge helps prevent people from being misled - a pastor should be well educated and avoid misleading others, and faith was something to be proven through experience.
I asked God how we would know what He wanted from us. I quickly found Bible passages that told me very succinctly that we should keep our mind filled with good thoughts, not on our selfish desires and feelings of jealousy or power. We should do good things - this helps us understand the feeling and power of doing them. Understand that God shapes what we consider to be our purpose and our will to do things. I found the example of the Apostle Paul and how he conducted his day to day mission and walk. He described his coming events in very indefinite words - he didn't know exactly what was going to happen - but he knew his overall mission and looked to God to open doors for him. For me, coming to that understanding was a spiritual experience. I was very pleased with what I had found.
I studied psychology over many years. I spent a lot of years learning how to work effectively with other people. I wasn't willing to mislead, manipulate, or misinform others. For many years I worked in the ministry and business with attitude change. Attitude change helps people understand their obstacles and helps them overcome them. I began to think about meaning and purpose in our lives. This brought me to life stories, which tries to put life in narrative format, and examines the meaning that we make of events in our life. While we try to make sense of our lives, most of it doesn't make much sense until much later, but we still struggle to interpret its meaning anyway. This brought me to narrative psychology, which helps people reinterpret events in their life so they can get past obstacles and live with others.
This all brought me to learning about meaning paradigms in our lives. We are usually handed a meaning paradigm by our culture and parents, and we modify it as we grow. Sometimes we come to an impasse - nothing seems to make sense or mean anything and we grind to a halt - and this is part of the subject of my next book on transitioning. Ultimately I learned that we can have all of this grand knowledge about others, but it doesn't mean that we can magically help others by using it. It is standing by others through their lives and events (loving them with our concern, care, and help) that is important. Coming to that understanding was a spiritual experience. It said in a loud voice that "learning" was not the way.
I realized that people need both support and guidance. Both are important. But we all have to live our lives and make some mistakes - it is through experience that we learn. Experience forms the backbone of our wisdom. Coming to that understanding was also a spiritual experience. It helped me realize that both are important in our lives. But if we have to lack one, then it is love that is most important.
We get to know God through experience, just like we get to know other people in our lives. We don't sit down and read a book about them to get to know our parents or our friends or our spouse and children. Those things can help us understand them, or get through difficulties with them, but we get to know them through experience. In writing books about God, and doing the intensive research required to do that, I realized that God is love. This is God's message. God accepts everyone who turns to Him. He isn't looking for perfect people or powerful people. He isn't looking for just Christians or any exclusive group. He is looking for all people. Coming to that confirmation was a spiritual experience that spoke loudly to me.
Finally I came face to face with this idea that knowing is not paramount in life. Love is. Through working through Postmodernism, I realized that there is a major deficit in what we can know. But that absolutely cannot stop us from experiencing life and learning all we can through experience. We prove our faith through experience. It was a spiritual experience to learn that we simply can't know all we think we need to know, and that faith and the scientific method are closely related - both are trial and error methods - both learn through experience.
I began to drop the insistence on doctrine. If doctrine stands in the way of God's message and work, then it is useless. What matters is a close relation with God, asking God's help in overcoming the obstacles that prevent us from becoming more, becoming all we can be in our vocation (life endeavors) in partnership with God, and getting this message to others and helping them. It generally takes a combination of spirituality and religion to accomplish this.
I'm not a mystic or a religious zealot. I'm far from perfect. I have much to experience when it comes to love. There is a considerable amount that I don't know.
Religious people don't always seem very religious - they often seem like everyday people. I'm reasonably certain that becoming too preoccupied with God and faith is not healthy - we were put into this world to live life, not escape it. But we do have to seek guidance and try to improve. We should live lives that are as balanced as possible - God gave us many needs that are met through each other and this planet, including rest and recreation.
I'm more contemplative than most people. But seeking mystical experiences is probably detrimental - like faith, they come when God gives them to you, not when you go seeking them. I have never had a mystical experience, except maybe those sudden spiritual realizations.
We should embrace life and live, and not be afraid to make mistakes. If we're too afraid to make mistakes, then the boat of life leaves without us and we learn absolutely nothing. Have fun! Be creative!
Everyone is a unique creation in god, and everyone has a unique spiritual journey, a unique life endeavor, and a unique creative role. That is not a destination, but a journey that we invest ourselves in, reaching several stations that bring opportunities for loving others. Sometimes love's horizons get expanded in larger opportunities.My opportunity: My wife says I'm turning into a warped, frustrated old man. : ) But we love each other. It's our 41st. wedding anniversary.
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