There comes a point at which living in reality is the spiritual prerogative.
Actually, this has been the gradual process of human progress in general. The “Enlightenment” era or Age of Reason in the 18th century was a radical shift away from monarchy, religious tyranny, and their roots in irrational superstition.
No, God did not decree that your rich royal family should rule over the peasants in perpetuity.
No, you do not get to legislate from the pulpit and rule your country based on the authority of wild and wooly scriptures written two thousand years ago by hallucinating desert nomads who thought they were chosen by God.
Nor do you get to torture people in the most inventive and grotesque ways for the sin of not professing belief in your doctrine or for making evidence-based claims that contradict it.
What most Americans fail to appreciate —because it is not sufficiently emphasized in the education system, is that the seeds of American democracy, the constitution and bill of rights were sown in this radical step away from religious power and toward a system of rule based in a philosophy of equality and reason. Sure —there was still slavery and colonialism and inequality for women, but the spirit of the enlightenment kept moving us in the direction of these freedoms emerging as it continued unfolding.
Problem is we have had a massive backlash: the religious right has revised history to make it seem as if the founding fathers desperately wanted the United States to be a “Christian nation,” in which everyone is armed to the teeth, the poor have to fend for themselves and the invisible hand of the free market belongs to a prosperity-gospel Jesus.
For our part, the liberal spiritual community has bought into its own revision of history, in which enlightenment values ushered in the tragic loss of magical reality. The story is basically that before we got all white-man-sciencey people lived in harmony with the Earth and one-another and had access to psychic powers, visits from angels and a connection to our true nature —which of course is pure light and love.
The only problem is that this time never existed.
Pre-Enlightenment Europe was a religious chess board upon which the power players moved the pawns of scientists, philosophers and ordinary people from one torture chamber to another while ordering holy wars and bathing in wildly disproportionate wealth. These same figures were busily colonizing the rest of the world in the name of Christianity, slavery and empire.
Similarly, the situation for indigenous cultures pre—Enlightenment (and even pre-15th century colonialization) was hardly Utopian. Tribal life ruled by superstitious beliefs is, as it turns out, a brutal affair. Rigid gender roles, authoritarian hierarchy, sacrificial ritual, harsh initiation rites, wars with other tribes and a social system based in violent enforcement.
Any doubts about this, check out Steven Pinker’s analysis of the steady decline of violence in human history leading to what is in fact the most peaceful era in our existence:
Of course the Enlightenment brought with it a fresh round of violence, exemplified most bloodily by the French Revolution —but the key difference between the Western democracies and say, the Middle East lies in this powerful transition that forever changed the West and has yet to happen elsewhere.
Islamic jihad is an explicit rejection of Enlightenment era values. We will rule our land (and would like to rule the whole world) based on our stone-age religious text. We will have governments controlled by religious clerics. Life is about a supernatural order and how God decrees we should live. The West is completely lacking in morality because it does not follow the fundamentalist letter of our scriptures. The West is in allegiance with Satan because of its liberal attitudes toward women, sexuality, education, science and art.
The Enlightenment never happened in the Middle East.
Theocracy, burkas, public hanging of gays, stoning of adulterers and holy war over who gets to control the sites where the anticipated arrival of the next messiah is prophesied bear witness to the stunted growth of these societies. Of course, American imperialism in the oil-rich region has done great harm and this should not be overlooked. Rapture-ready Christian groups pushing hawkish agendas to bring on the second coming by unleashing Revelation via WWIII have added fuel to the burning oil fields as well.
But, dear liberal spiritual friends—don’t forget why there is this huge cultural divide.
Don’t forget the values and freedoms that we take for granted and are woven into the fabric of Western history.
Don’t forget that separation of church and state, equal rights, freedom of speech, artistic freedom, respect for science even when it is at odds with scriptural revelation, democracy and sexual liberation are all massively positive steps forward.
Above all, don’t buy into the fallacy that to have a meaningful spiritual life you have to regress into superstitious mythic literalism or magical thinking and reject science, reason and the very Western freedoms that allow you to dabble in Eastern spirituality and idealize ancient cultures.
There comes a point at which living in reality is the spiritual prerogative. This is where psychology is a step forward from religion, where reasoned philosophy is a step forward from superstitious metaphysics and where scientific method is a step forward from supernatural beliefs.
It is a post-Enlightenment spiritual principle to value inquiry into what is actually true over wishful thinking. It is a post-Enlightenment spiritual principle to value reasoned critical thinking over buying into superstition. It is a still relatively new spiritual idea that the human being is sacred, that biology and physics are sources of awe and wonder and that the natural world is divine in-and-of-itself.
Let’s celebrate reality—it is far more rewarding than outdated fantasy and regressive romanticism. Let’s meditate on being more grounded, more integrated and more existentially honest, because the jewel of reality starts to shine with precious and poignant meaning the more we give up the plastic baubles that we think we can’t live without.
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