Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Stunted Vocations

I've been thinking lately about how our society totally fails to understand and support people with spiritual vocations. I know that in my case I went for years and years of my life feeling that I had a strong, personal need to get really involved in some sort of religious organization. But every time I tried to reach out to connect I was pretty much told to bugger off.

One time I reached out to the pastor of my parents church and asked him what his ministry consisted of, and he said "Drinking tea with little old ladies and working with the cub scouts." At the time I was appalled, but I think he was just trying to say "don't even think about the Christian church, because it isn't for you."

Another time I answered an advertisement in a magazine for the Claretians. I wrote a few letters back and forth to the fellow in the advert, but when I pointed out that the only religious experience I'd ever had was with Buddhism, he wrote that I should probably stick with them. (Just as well, the Claretians suffered horribly in what Noam Chomsky calls "the CIA's war against the Catholic Church"---I don't think I would have wanted to end up in a dead in a ditch somewhere in Central America.)

It even occurred to me once to "swallow my intellectual pride" and make an honest attempt to join the local Roman Catholic community. I went to a few classes of an adult catechism class, but was so horrified by the gobble-dee-gook that the priest was spouting that I gave up. (I had read far too much Biblical scholarship by people like Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg to be able swallow all the nonsense.) I also found that no matter how I tried, I simply could not walk through the doors of a church---it was like some force was keeping me out. (Maybe I'm a vampire?)

All through this period of searching, I was also spending ten years studying philosophy at university. This was somewhat intellectually satisfying, but also deeply frustrating. "Philosophy" literally means "love of wisdom", but I couldn't see very much wisdom being manifested by the people who were teaching me. Indeed, I once asked a professor about what a student should do who was really seeking wisdom and he got quite uncomfortable and said he didn't have any idea what "wisdom" was or why I would ask a philosophy professor about it.

His reaction and philosophy professors in general puzzled me for years, but I eventually I was able to figure out the disconnect. (Actually, it would be more accurate to say that I required a great deal of education to understand the issues at play.) Academic philosophers are not selected on the basis of their wisdom as philosophers, but on the basis of their abilities as academics. This really came home to me when I attended the memorial service of the professor I've just mentioned. Lots of colleagues talked about him, but not one said he was a "wise man". Instead, over and over again they talked about what a great scholar and academic he had been.

I might aspire to someday being a wise philospher, but I know I will always be a lousy academic---and I couldn't care less.

As readers of this blog will know, I eventually ended up getting initiated into a Daoist lineage---which is sort of like being ordained as a Daoist "priest" and have become at least a little comfortable as a "hermit". But for the vast majority of "seekers", I don't think that just hoping for something similar to happen to them is a viable option.

I don't think that I was alone in trying to find some sort of answer to the "vague itch" of an unfulfilled vocation. At one time I did some disciplined research into religous cults and I came across an article by a sociologist of religion (Eileen Barker) who had done surveys of people who had joined the Unification Church (or "Moonies".) She found out that the highest correlation between joining or not joining the Moonies she could find was how one answered question about whether or not one had had some sort of relgious experience (I forget her specific wording.) She said it was remarkable---the Moonies had not only checked it off as being highly relevent, they'd written notes in the margins saying thing like "YES!!!", whereas the control group had checked it as being irrelevent and wrote notes like "What a bloody stupid question!". Barker's comment on this finding remains stuck in my memory "It is perfectly acceptable to tell your college room mate who you slept with the night before, but there is no possibility that you would tell him or her that you'd seen a vision of the Virgin Mary."

In other words, what was attracting people to the Moonies was some sort of spiritual calling that our society seems incapable of fulfilling in a better way.

This is a key problem for our society. It simply doesn't know what to do with people who have religious vocations. The mainstream religions have "dumbed themselves down" to the point where it is almost impossible for someone with any sort of intelligence and self-respect to get involved. Not only does this keep people on the outside looking in, it tells every other segment of society that the whole enterprise of religion is a total waste of time---which is only indulged in by the stupid and venal. (I think that this is why so many folks who describe themselves as "Daoist" go to great lengths to point out that they aren't religious Daoists.)

The problem with this is that many people who have religious vocations are people who really do experience the world in a very different way than others do. They can be "tender hearted" in a way that makes life in a totally secular world very painful to live in with its coarseness and needless brutality. They can also be people who have religious experiences and who need help from experienced others integrating these into their way of looking at the world. And part of this can be a deep need to "give" to the world in a way that it is very difficult to do on your own because secular society refuses to assign any value to this sort of activity. Just leaving these people to flounder on their own strikes me as evidence of a society that simply doesn't know how to honour all of its citizens.

Every other society that I have ever heard of has made an place for people with religious vocations. Primitive societies had their shamans and "medicine men". The ancients had their philosophers like Plato and Diogenes. The Chinese had Daoist and Buddhists clerics. The Muslims have Sufis. The medievals had the Benedictines, Fransciscans and many other orders. But I'm not sure that modern society really has a place for anything like that anymore, and I think that it not only creates a vacuum in the lives of people like myself, but I also think that it leaves a hole in our entire culture.

I've personally been able to carve out my own niche, but it has come at a real price. I have wasted many years of my life because I was rarely able to find any source of help to deal with the spiritual issues that confronted me. Moreover, my ability to use what gifts I have and insights I have gained, are profoundly limited because I exist as an isolated individual instead of being a member of a like-minded group. Far, far worse, I have met others who have lacked my opportunities and who have floundered most of their lives without being able to meet with the direction that could have really helped them on in the world. How many others have simply quietly slipped beneathe the waves never to be seen again?

What a waste---.

1 comment:

The Rambling Taoist said...

A prophet (sage, wise person) rarely is recognized in their own time. If we look back through history, this sentiment holds true time and time again.

People have trouble seeing wisdom right in front of their noses. It's only when they can step far away and reflect that they come to understand the wisdom in their midst that has now passed on.