Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Spirituality and / or Religion

I want to briefly address an issue that seems to be a real thorn in the side of society, and that is the idea of spirituality and religion and how people seem to confuse the two - and how many people seem to think the two must of necessity go together.

If someone of a Christian background bemoans the immorality of today's world (such as Katy Perry's mom), then people shoot her down  - simply because she's Christian. What people don't seem to realise is that often, despite its bad name and devotion to dogma, the Christian faith contains many moral viewpoints that are not only shared by other faiths but remain constant from age to age.

Today's consumerist society promotes the exact opposite of spiritual satisfaction - namely, the pursuit of personal, sensual gratification at all costs. Look prettier. Eat better. Have more. All this is what the Buddha - 500 years before the Master, Jesus - called "dukkha", which simply means, the state of dissatisfaction induced by constantly trying to satisfy material desires. It's a never-ending loop from which a person never escapes - until one day they awaken and say to themselves, you know what, this is a waste of my time and of my spiritual development. It's time I renounced this constant, shallow, self-satisfying behaviour and seek something deeper.

And there's those alarms bells again - I said "spiritual", so I must mean it has something to do with religion - right? Well, maybe - but it doesn't have to mean religion at all. The Buddha showed there are certain universal human truths that exist independently of any system of thought or belief. That the pursuit of false, external happiness causes dissatisfaction (dukkha) is one of those truths, and it is this very pursuit (which the United States once called "the pursuit of happiness", pfft) which is the cause of (spiritual) suffering.

Now most people would assume, therefore, that the alternative to their decadent lifestyles is religion. Again, I say, this is not necessarily so! I am very content to live my life not being a member of any religion. I feel a deeper level of personal satisfaction than ever before - and this has indeed been my biggest challenge in life. One doesn't necessarily need conventional religion to feel in tune with oneself, happy at a deep level. You just need to ask yourself what is truly right for you - and then pay attention as the universe shows you the answers.

Why not try it. If you feel dissatsfied, pose the question to yourself - what would it take for me to be happy? Often it's a change in your thinking that can help promote happiness! But whatever it is, take a chance that the universe - aka life - will show it to you, if only you ask.

And of course the Master, Jesus, said: ask, seek, and knock. The answer will come, and the door will be opened.

Friday, March 11, 2011

What is Generation X (part 1)

In some more of my musings, I’ve been wrestling lately with the notion of what exactly is "Generation X"? What do I, as a supposed member of this generational group, believe defines being a Gen X-er? What did/does Generation X stand for if anything, and where do those ideals stand today, in the face of the rise of Generation Y?

Let’s start with some (Australian pop-cultural) context. Generation X had 80's music: Duran Duran, Pseudo Echo, Howard Jones, Men At Work, the Police, Sting, The Bangles, and right at the end of the decade, we had the first rap and R&B artists emerging, such as MC Hammer and Salt N' Pepa.

We were the generation that grew up with such cartoons as Rainbow Brite, the Smurfs, Voltron, Battle of the Planets (aka G-Force), Astroboy, Kimba the White Lion – all pre-CGI
animations. All these cartoons had a strongly emotional core.

We had hand held Nintendo games – and we were the first generation in history to have access to such computerised personal entertainment. We witnessed firsthand the rise of the personal computer, of computer gaming - and thus Gen X became the first computer game addicts. On the drug front many of us were into pot, while others of us used speed and E. For this and other reasons we earned the title of the "slacker" generation.

But music was our true salvation. In our late teens and twenties (in the early 1990's) we would smoke pot, eat pizza and listen to Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Skid Row - any music that reflected how we felt inside. In a way we were like the "second wave" of hippies – we were highly emotionally driven, and we would rejoice in “deep and meaningfuls”; chance conversations with a kindred spirit that would give a feeling of euphoria (no drugs required) born from mutual understanding, inspiration and upliftment.

We then looked at the world so beloved by our baby-boomer parents - one with racism, prejudice against gays, distrust of the unfamiliar, supported war against foreign countries, and we decided it was wrong. As far as we were concerned, the system that had spectacularly provided unprecedented levels of material comfort for our parents, had now become oppressive, a relentless monster bent on destroying the environment and persecuting anyone who was a free thinker or who was somehow "different".

And so we shunned materialism and lived like the 60's hippies did – in bedsits, share houses and campervans. We were the first generation to really begin to travel en masse while we were young - both overseas and at home.

We also liked a lot of the music that hippies did, as thanks to another new marvel of technology - CDs - we were getting new, remastered versions of classic 60's and 70's albums from artists like Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and others.

Gen X read books about quantum physics – the idea that as is now postulated by science, it is your mind that shapes your reality. Several decades after Einsten’s initial discoveries, we were now realising that matter was energy, energy was matter, and that truly they were interchangeable. And thought, as a form of energy, had the power to affect the physical world.

To many of us this seemed exactly what the Star Wars movies were talking about when they referred to something called "the Force".

We realised that spirituality and science could coincide again, that science could finally find in spirituality the unified field theory it had searched for so long. We also saw that religion no longer served the deepest most urgent needs of the people. Neither for that matter did any of the institutions of society – government, finance, the armed forces. All had failed; all had betrayed the ideals on which society was supposedly based. And the most stark evidence that society had failed during the 80’s was the ever present threat of nuclear war.

In fact it was only when President Reagan made approaches to his Soviet counterpart, after having brought the entire world to the very brink of disaster, that we even actually saw what a Russian looked like. Until then I had never seen one on TV. This was the days before mobile phones, before digital cameras, before Twitter, before Facebook, before Google Earth, Google maps and Myspace. No one knew what the Russians were like, and the media had somehow brainwashed us into thinking they were hideous aliens. I certainly thought that Russians were evil monsters. No, really. To see they actually looked like us – human beings – was mind blowing.

Sting's 1985 song, "Russians", summed up this feeling exactly. Until then we didn't even know if the Russians had any emotions like us, any feelings of compassion, remorse, love, anxiety. Sting asked the question, do the Russians love their children, too? If so, then maybe, just maybe, nuclear war can be averted after all.

And so faced with such alterations to our perceptions of reality, Gen X were arguably the first generation truly to absorb the idea that society was shonky: that the media and government and the church were nothing but purveyors of lies. Society bashing became a pastime, a
chief topic of conversation – the very word “society” was spoken with distaste.

Perhaps one of the greatest examples of Gen X - and its ultimate failure - was the man whose life was portrayed in the film Into the Wild

In other words, Generation X hated society - but we had not figured out what to replace it with. Like the rock and rollers and the hippies of the 50's and 60's we tried using music, but the corporate machine had long taken over this arena. There was no hope to be found there, although for a brief time Jeff Buckley tried his damndest to capture that idealism. Jeff offered us all a brief glimmer of hope and glory – only to drown in a Mississippi river, along with our hopes. Another example of this is Kurt Cobain – again, a sensitive new man, too isolated in his head for his own good. In the end he decided his head was too small a place to live in.

The character of Neo in The Matrix (1999) is possibly the apotheosis of the Gen X-er. Here is a sensitive character, hooked on computers, who doesn’t feel he fits in to society, that society and even reality itself is illusory, who doesn’t conform at this conventional job, who is restlessly searching for something but doesn’t know exactly what it is. And not only does he
find what he is searching for but he learns the true nature of reality – AND he transcends it.

And that, in a nutshell, is probably the defining quest of Generation X.

It's interesting to note that again, this is what the hippies tried to do - and they also failed. Or maybe they just planted the seeds which we, Generation X, further nurtured in ourselves. It’s also instructive to note that Neo sacrifices himself to save society – with most Gen X-ers probably feeling they have had to sacrifice their identities in some way to get by in society.

Next in Part 2: September 11, the rise of Gen Y - and Generation Wow! (No, not World of Warcraft...)

Thursday, March 3, 2011


This evening I find myself musing over what it means to be a Christian.

As a bit of personal background, I was raised Roman Catholic, but I am no longer a church goer. This is a familiar story in this time period! I have my own personal reasons why I no longer attend a faith gathering, but suffice to say that although the road was initially rough, for the time being I am satisfied to be a lone seeker.

I think that being a Christian, or at least being someone who lives with Christianity within his or her being, is a wonderful thing. I believe that if one is truly in tune with what it means to be Christian, then that person is filled with an enthusiasm for living. This enthusiasm comes from knowing that there is a powerful force acting in our lives, and in creation itself, to move things in a certain direction. Knowing this helps alleviate the basic existential fear of being that all humans suffer at some point and at some level.

We are lucky as Christians to have our faith built not only on the words of the Master, but also on what came before, namely, the morality of Judaism. I respect Judaism very much for the depth of its discourse on its own beliefs. In fact unlike Church-based Christianity, which has often been loath even to examine itself, Judaism never rests, but is always reexamining itself which I believe is an admirable quality.

Islam has the virtue of not needing to rest on any kind of supernatural "wonder". (I will get to what I mean by this in relation to Christianity in a moment). Mohammed when asked to prove his words by a miracle simply said that this world is evidence enough of the Creator's power, and that these "things" were enough. I like the elegance and simplicity of such a statement, and Christianity could actually learn from this core tenet instead of needing to prop itself up with false beliefs.

Getting to what I mean by "wonder", I think Christianity suffers by its insistence on certain "wonders" such as the virgin birth, the turning of water into wine, and the feeding of the five thousand. None of these things are necessary to accept the core Christian message, which is: God is real, God is loving, and God is watching over and caring for humankind. Let me explain more what I mean.

At the Council of Nicea in 325, the early Church of Rome sought to strengthen the new religion of Christianity by codifying its beliefs. Namely, it sought to fix the date of Easter and more importantly, to decide on the exact nature of Jesus. Was he truly the Son of God, or was he simply a man, as the Arian heretics of the time believed. This decision was of course pivotal in setting the course that Christianity would take over the next 1,700 years.

The Church sough to emphasise that Jesus was a being of Light, of Spirit, that he had truly come from the Divine Father. Therefore, as the custodians of the truth of that Light, the Church was the organisation to whom all Christians should look for salvation. The problem today of course is that the Church is being seen publicly to fail on many counts. Protection of children, popular dismissal of its wonders in the face of secular materialism, and failing to provide comfort for its congregation are the most common charges.

The core problem I believe is this: that the Christian faith has accustomed itself to propping up its valid and vital message with unnecessary structures of belief. The Church Fathers of old naturally did this to protect the precious truths that they felt were in danger of being lost. They no doubt felt that to survive in a civilisation such as Rome, with its incredible diversity of beliefs, but also to compete with the existing state religion of sun worship, that wonders were needed. To give the Christian message any validity, it had to be seen to work, to have tangible effects on creation, and to demonstrate the power of the divine. Therfore, at the First Council and then later, beliefs such as the virgin birth and the divinity of Christ as Son of God were promulgated.

But herein lies the main issue - a great lie was perpetuated in order to protect a great truth. This is the decision the early church took and that it has had to defend ever since. That is why, in this modern era, that some feel that God is simply the "God of the gaps"; that is, the gaps left in reality after science has supposedly filled in all the blanks with so-called "facts" (and it has, of course, done no such thing).

So what is the great truth of Christianity? I believe every religion has a great truth; in Judaism, it is that God is moral. In Islam, that God is pure. In Christianity, it is that God is love - powerful love!

Cna you see how each religion offers one form of tribute to God? Each religion describes a particular aspect or quality of God; put 'em all side by side and you begin to build up a picture of what God is. There's no need to believe in silly magic tricks; we can see, as Mohammed did, just by looking around us, by listening to the air at sunrise, by watching the mighty ocean, by observing how animals operate with awareness and intelligence, that something must be behind all this. And indeed there is! We know him as God.

But too much simplicity can be a bad thing. There must be depth in our understanding of God, not just surface beliefs and mindless platitudes. We need depth both in time and in space; historical depth, to know where we have come from and how we got here; and present depth, depth in our understanding, our thinking, and in our feeling. We must engage intelligently, as in Judaism, with our faith, not just - God forbid! - accept without question what we have been told. Think for yourself! Read! Search. Look. The Master says that they who ask, seek and knock will be rewarded.

In the end I believe something which would shock many Christians but it again goes to the core problem we face today and it is this: was Jesus the Son of God? Yes. But are we also sons and daughters of God? Yes I say we are. That's why the early Church was right - but the Arians were also correct. Jesus truly is a great Master, but he is no more a son or child of God than me or than you. The being that is Jesus may be a greater adept than you or me, more advanced in spiritual development. But there are others. And truly God has created each one of us, has he not? Therefore, we do not need a Church to intervene for us. Does a child need to seek a third party to ask its parents for what she needs? Of course not.

In the real world naturally it helps that we have an institution that can minister to us, baptise our babies, marry us, bury our dead. All that is fine but I guess I've always been an inward looking seeker. If the Church that does all these things cannot even give a decent account of itself in terms of its beliefs then it becomes very hard for me to be a part of such a thing.

For this is the age where humanity is awakening. We are learning to use our own abilities, finally, after centuries of being mollycoddled by the Church. Like an overprotectivve, smothering parent, the Church's hold over our lives is finally broken. But again there is this dichotomy that some of what the Church says and does is plainly wrong, but the basic morality it espouses is sound. Today as we see people like Charlie Sheen seeing nothing amiss in having porn stars around his small children, morality is needed now just as much as ever. As a new parent myself I consider it a disgrace that this man even considers himself a proper father. So there remain elements of Christianity that we sorely need, but there are other things frankly that we could do without.

The "wonders" of the early Church were introduced to ensure the survival of the message. Perhaps now, to ensure its survival, these are the very things we need to jettison to preserve the truth?