The Holy, Another Grand Illusion
“Abandon holiness,” says Lao Tsu. and “See with original purity.”
Although these lines are just fragments of Lao Tsu’s Tao Te Ching, they are typical of the ancient thinker’s radical take on reality.
Who, for example, would “abandon holiness”? After all, Western culture prides itself on Christian values, especially those values gleaned from the Old and New Testament, saintly teachings, and church pronouncements. And, for those who believe in an afterlife, heaven, the “holiest” of places, is the ultimate goal of those on a Christian journey of virtue and sinlessness.
Lao Tsu challenges us, however, to give up the pursuit of the holy, for it is a goal fraught with other people’s notion of what holiness is. It is also a journey that can be riddled with self-righteousness and arrogance. And it can be a path that will often distract us from paying attention to what is in front of us.
We can try so hard to be virtuous that the determined will to pursue that path can get out of control. We can begin to mentally flagellate ourselves or become neurotically attached to our signature psychological flaws. We can become so overly-scrupulous in our attempts to “root out” our imperfections, that the pursuit itself becomes an obsession.
And, my friends, in the pursuit of holiness, we can manufacture enemies. We can start to judge others for their failure to “measure up.” We can end up calling them infidels, pagans, non-believers, heretics.
We can start wars to defend our theologies. We can force conversions. We can punish non-believers. We can ostracize the heretics. We can imprison the violators of church laws. We can elevate leaders to the realms of infallibility.
Ahem. Not, of course, that any of this has ever happened.
If Lao Tsu were alive today and showed up on the Charlie Rose show, he would undoubtedly tell the world that it has bought into the myth that holiness is some kind of universal state that all human beings ought to pursue.
I can hear him now, “The pursuit of holiness is an evil that needs to be eradicated from our consciousness.” He will go on: “It is the pursuit of holiness, after all, that led to the Inquisition; it is the pursuit of holiness that has been responsible for the stoning of women.” And, he will continue: “it is the pursuit of holiness that has created witches to be burned, blacks to be lynched, homosexuals to be hanged.”
Holiness, after all, is a social construct. It has been, and will continue to be, the great divider between the anointed and the morally disenfranchised. It is the moat that separates the chosen from the condemned, the saints from the sinners, the elect from the damned.
Holiness is the great social divider. “We are saved; you are damned.” “We are the pilgrims; you are the wayfarers.” “We are God’s children; you are Satan’s emissaries.”
Sectarianism, of course, has always been with us. Jonathan Swift reminded us of that in Gulliver’s Travels when the Big Endians separated themselves from the Little Endians over which end of the hard-boiled egg to crack.
In the realm of Roman Catholic theology, for example, sectarian/heretical conflicts arose over whether God was one substance or three persons; whether a perfect God could create an imperfect world; whether Protestants were all doomed to Hell; whether Christ’s body and blood literally lived inside a communion host; whether you could have a direct contact with God without the mediation of the clergy; whether one person is the rightful heir to the leadership of Catholic Church
If you were to be a member in good standing within the Roman Catholic church, your holiness was suspect, if not tainted, for viewing any of these pressing theological issues as irrelevant to your own spiritual journey.
Membership within this community was, and is, a matter of high seriousness; if you choose to violate any of its core principles, you, of course, run the risk of being removed from the realm of the holy by being excommunicated.
The Roman Catholic church is not unique. Protestants, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists have all had their sects. And each sect claims to be the most original, the most authentic. Some have argued over theology. Others have argued over which sect has the most legitimate mandate from its founders. Some claim exclusive rights. Others will not abide any deviations from accepted tradition.
Theological territoriality appears to remain a constant among most religions.
“See with original purity,” Lao Tsu tells us. And how difficult that is. So many of us have been schooled in certain theological traditions. We feel safe in a religious community. We want to know that the person next to us in a church pew is on the same page. We take comfort in being among the like-minded.
And yet, a child does not argue over theology. A child sees the world as it is. It is not interested in theological debates. If it is schooled in certain traditions, however, it starts to make distinctions. It begins to notice that “others” are different. It begins to place morality into categories. It hears phrases from a religious texts and just assumes those texts are true.
It is then that the child’s initial expansiveness begins to shut down, for the child hears no other voices of the holy other than the ones that are presented to her. And the child, of course, grows up to believe that spirituality can only be mediated through a text, a teacher, a church, the clergy.
Children, as we all know, are mesmerized by stories. The living holy are often masters at telling stories from ancient texts–stories of miracles, stories of forgiveness, stories of strange births and mysterious happenings, stories of a master’s anger, a saint’s persecution, stories of wisdom and great courage.
Reverence, of course, increases in intensity with these stories. Religious narratives are meant to elevate the ordinary into the transcendent. They always have a draw. And, unless you are from some Muslim tradition where images of the holy (Allah) are prohibited,” narrative images, in many other religious traditions, are used to enhance the reverence for the holy. One only has to pick up a newspaper to see, for example, a town council in the United States fight for the right to place a Nativity crèche in a town hall during the Christmas season.
A.H. Almaas, the founder of the Diamond Tradition, often talks about the “core” of human nature, the essence that has been lost, diluted, if you will, by society. We camouflage that core, according to Almaas, by creating social personas, living in illusory, manufactured worlds, worlds that are always mediating reality for us, hiding our essence.
Religion and the search for the holy can often have that same kind of dangerous mediating draw that pushes to the background of our consciousness the openness to the world we once had as children before we were trained into specific modes of thinking and believing.
Almaas believes that, as adults, it is possible to return to our cores. We must, however, start to strip ourselves from our traditional allegiances, our social roles, our manufactured personas,our religious rules, before we can experience that core, that original essence that connects us to reality as it is, not as it is manufactured for us.
It is that core, I believe, that is the natural holy that is within all of us. And it is that core, that original innocence, that will enable us to “See with original purity.”