“Religiously observant Americans are better neighbours”
Posted on 12 March 2013, 13:53
I’m impressed with a new book called The Righteous Mind: why good people are divided by politics and religion, by Jonathan Haidt, and published in January.
He has many helpful and stimulating thoughts about the differing conservative and liberal ideas about right and wrong, and there is a link to a Guardian Review below. I recommend the whole book for careful study. In this essay, however, I focus on the latter part of the book when he comes to discuss the role of religion in human society. He quotes Putnam and Campbell:
“By many different measures religiously observant Americans are better neighbours and better citizens than secular Americans – they are more generous with their time and money; especially in helping the needy, and they are more active in community life.” Haidt continues, “Whether you believe in hell, whether you pray daily, whether you are a Catholic, Protestant, Jew or Morman,... None of these things are related with generosity. The only thing that was reliably and powerfully associated with the moral benefits of religion was how enmeshed people were in relationships with their co-religionists. It’s the friendships and group activities, carried out within the moral matrix that emphasises selflessness. That’s what brings out the best in people.” (p.311) Haidt remarks that in addition to self-centred behaviour, humans seem to have a “hive” instinct, a desire to transcend oneself within a group, or even more to feel oneself part of a greater whole, and even of the universe itself. Love and self transcendence is something that can indeed be fostered in religious activity. Problems of course arise, when self transcendence is limited to narrow groups, to tribalism: then there can be warfare between conflicting loyalties.
In what follows I shall be thinking in terms of Christianity. (I would be very interested to hear comments from people of other faiths.)
The first parts of the New Testament to be written were St Paul’s letters, written between the years 50-60. It is interesting to note how little he refers to the historical physical Jesus. Paul does mention how he spent a fortnight with Peter in Jerusalem, met James the brother of Jesus, talked about the twelve disciples, Paul tells the story of the Last Supper, the crucifixion and resurrection appearances of Jesus, but mentions little of Jesus’ teaching except that relating to love. One could say that Paul focused on how Jesus died on the cross, and rose and transcended his physical self into the spirit of God. When Paul uses the word “Christ” he means “anointed - with God’s spirit”.
Christians are to see themselves transcended into part of the Body of Christ. In this body we have our many and varied functions, to act as the eyes and ears and hands of Christ. The Risen Christ is seen as an aspect of the creative activities of God, and the “anointedness” of Christ was there at the beginning of all things.
Perhaps fifty years later when the Gospel of John came to be written, John uses the term “Word” instead of “Christ” with much the same meaning. (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” John 1)
Transcendence is very much a theme of this gospel, expressed clearly in Jesus’ prayer, “I pray that they may all be one. Father! May they be in us, just as you are in me and I am in you.”
Similarly St Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” Galatians 3:28
In its doctrinal sections, Colossians says that “Christ is the firstborn of all creation and is supreme over all that has been created. All things were created through him and for him, and the universe is sustained by him.”
By contrast, the Gospels Matthew, Mark and Luke relate what Jesus said and did, what he taught, the healings that he performed. We are in the world of see and touch, the sensory-physical world. Jesus does have much to say about the Kingdom of Heaven, or the Kingdom of God, which is this oneness that St Paul and then St John describe.
I have referred before to Lawrence LeShan’s Alternate Realities, in which he describes seemingly incompatible ways of seeing reality. He describes the sensory-physical mode of seeing things. This is the world that we see with our bodily senses. While we are focusing on things in this way, any other way of seeing things is hard to imagine. We go from here to there, go to the supermarket, get our groceries. What state of oneness can we imagine when we do this? When we consider Matthew, Mark and Luke we find ourselves to some degree at least in the sensory-physical world. We can see in our minds the events that are described – events of great interest and meaning, from which much can be learned.
But then we have this reality where we transcend ourselves (at least in our thinking) into the One. We feel lifted up into another plane, we have perhaps a mountain top experience, feeling one with the universe, or one with a large group of people, bonded common worship of the Source of all things. LeShan calls this the clairvoyant or holistic mode of seeing reality. Such is the oneness, that telepathic and clairvoyant phenomena occur, dreams for the future, we access knowledge that belongs to a wider mind, healings of body and mind occur, and true communion can take place. This is the mode in which “miracles” can happen. It is viewing reality in this mode, that we find the (transcending) Kingdom of Heaven so often spoken about by Jesus in his teaching, and it was in this mode of viewing reality that Jesus worked his wonders. In the first three gospels we hear about the Kingdom. But we are still in the sensory reality as we hear about it.
In the Gospel according to St John, although we hear stories about apparently historical events, and therefore in the sensory-physical mode, there is strong emphasis on the transcendent, on the “Word”, “The Bread of Life”, The Vine and its branches”, and in Chapter 17.22 where Jesus prays, “I pray that they may all be one. Father! May they be in us, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they be one..” [TEV] Strangely, since John is usually regarded as the last of the Gospels to be written, its teaching has a lot in common with that of St Paul.
It is of course the same universe, whether we view it from the sensory-physical mode or from the clairvoyant/holistic. But how different are the views!
If you have been reading from Afterlife teaching from Stephen the Martyr, you may perhaps have noticed how much he is describing things from the point of view of the clairvoyant/holistic.
Stephen sums up his teaching in a short prayer: “Lord, let me forget that I am me, Let me know that I am with thee, Let me not separate myself from thee, Because I am me.”
This prayer is a prayer for transcendence of the sensory-physical self into the spirit of the Whole.
It is one of the ways that Stephen describes a “Christian”. But lest New Agers, Buddhists, Moslems, and Hindus should take offence at Stephen being so sectarian, we should be clear that Stephen means that any human beings who seek to transcend themselves and feel their unity with each other and the Whole can be called “Christian” whatever religious grouping they may belong to.
On page 73 we read, “ ‘Christian’ is the name that defines the pursuit of what is Christ. The example of the successful pursuit was in our Lord who indeed was Christ… For to be Christian is to be conscious not of separateness but to be conscious as part of the Whole.”
The terminology doesn’t matter, call it “Christian”, “yellow” or “rain”.. it is of no consequence. The name of the game is self transcendence, being conscious as part of the whole.
I feel that LeShan’s distinction between the sensory-physical and the clairvoyant/holistic modes therefore, is crucial for understanding the essence of spirituality.
Read this excellent review of The Righteous Mind:
I like this hymn:
Teach me, my God and King,
in all things thee to see,
and what I do in anything
to do it as for thee.
A man that looks on glass,
on it may stay his eye;
or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
and then the heaven espy.
All may of thee partake;
nothing can be so mean,
which with this tincture, “for thy sake,”
will not grow bright and clean.
A servant with this clause
makes drudgery divine:
who sweeps a room, as for thy laws,
makes that and the action fine.
This is the famous stone
that turneth all to gold;
for that which God doth touch and own
cannot for less be told.
Words: George Herbert, 1633
Michael Cocks edits the journal, Ground of Faith.
Afterlife Teaching From Stephen the Martyr by Michael Cocks is published by White Crow Books and available from Amazon and other bookstores.