I just started the book The Spiritual Tourist by Mick Brown. My thoughtful wife Terri, who understands I am going through a metaphysical phase, picked it up recently for me. The book is about a guy flitting like a butterfly from one out of the mainstream religious/spiritual experience to the next. He’s kind of like me, curious about these things but not willing to put his conscious mind on the back burner in the process. In the process he learns a lot from his journey. It will be interesting to see how it turns out. With a recommendation from Sting it should be a good read, right?
One observation of his right at the front of the book really struck me: what drives the desire for spirituality is angst: a feeling of anxiety or apprehension often accompanied by depression. While some may not like my Machiavellian analysis I do think it is anxiety that fills a lot of church pews. I am candid enough to suggest that is probably true in my situation too. The extent to which a religion succeeds may depend on how well it responds to the angst problem inherent our troubled souls.
A meme is a unit of cultural information, such as a cultural practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another. When considering religions I am often struck that most successful religions often have what seems to be the best meme. Christianity is a case in point. Although Jesus did not invent many of his key ideas, like doing unto others, his meme was planted into a fertile region at just the right time for it to take hold. The Jews were, of course, occupied at the time by the Romans (and curiously the Jews are now occupying the Palestinians, but that’s another windmill to tilt) and life wasn’t much fun under occupation and oppression. It didn’t help that Jews were considered weird in that part of the world anyhow. Then here comes Jesus peddling these new memes: all men are brothers, do unto others as others would do unto you, give no more thought to tomorrow than the birds do: live in the present, etc. Quite clearly billions of people believe in the theology of Christianity. But what I suspect lures them to it like bees to a flower is not the trinity, nor Jesus rising from the dead, but the memes that Jesus propagated. These are very infectious memes. They are like music. You listen to the meme and they are hard to resist. It’s a near perfect meme. Not only does Christianity offer hope for a spectacular life beyond this life, which is often full of suffering, but it gives us practices that inspire hope within us and help us to move forward during troubled lives.
And of course the same is true of other religions and spiritual practices. To some extent we can all deal with our angst by finding the religion that best matches our particular angst driven needs. In my case that’s why I’m a Unitarian Universalist.
Almost always the angst has the same underlying cause: mortality. We live knowing our physical life is finite and what comes after is the hard part. Some are comfortable with the notion that after death there is only nothingness and they are usually atheists. For most of us though that thought generates more angst. We must believe that there is something more past death, and that we are more than the sum of whatever good deeds we can produce in this lifetime. In my case I feel I am immortal. I’ve seen enough dead people to know that I am not immortal, but I feel like I am. Therefore my angst is balmed to some extent by well-documented cases of reincarnation where the doubt is beyond much dispute. If some people can be reincarnated, why can’t I? Maybe I have lived many lives before and will so again. Don’t I deserve it? Aren’t I special enough to reincarnate?
So today I am thinking of the Velveteen Rabbit story that I read many times to my daughter when she was growing up. You know the story; it is as infectious as any meme. It’s about a stuffed rabbit that belonged to a boy and was basically loved to death until its stuffing came out. Eventually the boy caught scarlet fever and worried that the stuffed animal might be carrying the disease, it was thrown out with the rubbish. The Velveteen Rabbit, of course, although it was not alive, very much felt like it was alive. It found meaning in giving comfort to the boy, loving that boy, and as it grew more and more ragged it grew in love. Once discarded though it was found by a real rabbit and presto change-o the Velveteen Rabbit became a real rabbit.
And that is I think what most of us hope for. And we must hope; it is not possible to get through life without hope for very long. Through life we find meaning and fulfillment in many ways, but hopefully through service to others and through giving and receiving of love. Even the most hardened atheists I know believe that love is real enough. We can’t see love but we feel its effects. So maybe, just maybe if we love hard enough, and well enough then presto change-o we change like a Velveteen Rabbit too. Like the phoenix we hope against hope that we have acquired in our lives enough of this spiritual stuff (call it love or whatever) to allow us to reincarnate again, or at least move on, alive in some sense and intact, into the a grander sort of future experience.
Let us pray we are right, for our sakes.