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When Righteousness Is Wrong

Religions all promise some sort of salvation or nirvana. In one sense it’s their raison d’être, but at the same time it’s not necessarily why people believe. There are more far visceral reasons, that demand far more instant gratification. For a start, there’s the relief of having unanswerable questions answered for you by an incontrovertible source. Then there’s the sense of belonging and the gratifying consensus that binds it together.

The fact that everyone agrees with you doesn’t
mean you’re right, but it sure feels like it

The fact that everyone agrees with you doesn’t mean you’re right, but it sure feels like it. It makes you feel safe. Believers have a special need to feel something solid underfoot. Salvation may be the philosophical foundation, but community is the emotional one. It’s more tangible and it’s more urgent. After all, life comes without any assurance. We’d be lucky to get out of it alive, except that we won’t.

God is a powerful metaphor, and the Bible is one of my favorite books. Still, I’m an atheist. More importantly, I have deep reservations about religious community. I was raised in one. I rejected it in favor of another and subsequently rejected that too. To add to the confusion I’m now known as a sort of religious teacher, even though I wouldn’t put it that way.

So what’s my problem?

A community maintains itself by guarding its raison d’être. In practical terms, that means that members keep the faith by nudging one another towards consensus. It’s known as what’s right. In a religion you’re born into, this is usually a gentle, organic process starting in infancy. For converts, however, it tends to be more forceful.

Nothing can be allowed to shake the community’s solidity. Questioning its behavior or its leaders puts you out on a limb. Predatory Catholic priests are able to get away with their crimes for years because only someone with super-communal confidence dares point the finger. Such people are rare in spiritual congregations.

Believers juggle communal loyalty
with self-reliance at their peril

Even benign communities can obfuscate your own needs and perceptions. Religious traditions employ code to establish the communal bond, its sense of sharing and mutual support. Unlike mere jargon, religious code embodies sanctity and righteousness. My Catholic teachers entreated me to ‘be good,’ when they were really urging me to conform. To ‘Love God’ meant to not question Him. When I suggested that using my God-given brain was a way of honoring His creation, I was condemned as blasphemous, code for ‘watch out or you’ll be out.’

In Tibetan Buddhism, one’s teacher never gets angry or befuddled. Rather, he ‘manifests wrath,’ meaning that he puts on a show of anger because you need shock treatment, or silence because you’re unable to process the truth. You cannot be part of the community and question his motives. ‘The Path’ is itself code for steering clear of creative acts of discovery. When I eventually acted on the realization that I should find my own way or lose all self-respect, my connection to the community was severed. I was still there; I hadn’t yet even disrobed, but I was excluded from the circle of trust.

As awful as it sounds spelled out like this, the code smoothes it all over. As a fugitive from dogmatic Catholicism I was delighted by the Tibetan Gelugpas’ inclination to ‘debate’ every line of scripture. Once I understood the code, however, I saw that formal debate was a strict guide as to what could be questioned and what couldn’t. The ultimate argument is, ‘Because the Buddha said so,’ code for, ‘Don’t cross this line.’

Believers juggle communal loyalty with self-reliance at their peril. To break or even reconsider the code is to pull the rug from beneath your own feet. You stand to lose your teacher and friends, as well as the time and effort you’ve invested. You’re also cast adrift with awful, debilitating self-doubt, and no compass.

The losses are compounded when you challenge an adopted community as opposed to one you’re born into. Having made the daring leap from Catholicism to Tibetan Buddhism, I hung on tenaciously, studying the language and scriptures with a desperation I’d never brought to the Catechism. I had to prove myself, if only to myself. I squeezed myself into a stricter and more stressful lifestyle than ever before. I worked hard to integrate the code into my everyday thinking. I guess I knew it was my last chance at being a believer.

My goal was awakening, the permanent end of suffering. To quit that was to collapse into catastrophic banality, and that’s exactly what happened. My interest in the salvation of all living beings was overtaken by the need to pay rent. It took me years to catch my psychic breath.

Being righteous is different from being right. Sometimes
you have to turn your back on others to be true to yourself.

It was then that I recognized my motives as emotional, not philosophical. I revisited the lives of Jesus and Buddha. What mattered wasn’t whether they actually existed, but how they’d inspired me. Indeed, they continued to do so. My dream was to become as unflinching as them. They each turned their backs on the authorities, then forged their own. They aligned themselves not to the security of a community but to their own sense of integrity.

And yet both founded communities. They both expected ossification — not a theoretical danger but a social certainty. Jesus, said, “narrow is the way … few there be that find it.” (Matthew 7:xiv) The Buddha thought it hopeless to teach until he was convinced at great pains that there were a few ‘with little dust on their eyes.’ (Ayacana Sutta)

Unlike Catholicism, which was foisted on me, Buddhism was a crutch when I was psychically lame. The tools and the community healed me sufficiently that when the time came I was able to leap from my ivory tower and go on my way. Luckily, I landed on my feet. To ascribe it to destiny or karma is to retreat, pretending I have an explanation when all I have is a code word.

Being righteous is different from being right. Sometimes you have to turn your back on others to be true to yourself, to awaken to your own life.

 

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10 responses to “When Righteousness Is Wrong”

  1. Ralph Chidiac

    Great argument Stephen
    As much as I agree with you and with many great minds that have defied the status quo, we are still left with the nauseating quandary, …”what is it all about?”…..
    I was born Catholic, went to a Catholic school, graduated and became Born Again, then another change, Atheism, now Agnosticism, finally I came to the realization that NOTHING is answering that angst inside my psyche.
    Call it structural, biological, psychological, neuro-chemical, or spiritual, I have come to 2 very basic conclusions:
    Either 1, or 2 or both for that matter
    1- There are phenomena (and always will be) beyond our absolute understanding, I label as “Hyper-cognitive”. So maybe our chronicled Deities throughout the ages are a figment of our underlying need for comprehension of the frustrating reality of our demise.
    OR
    2- Our brain/mind is OUT of order with our a) environment (we are constantly reshaping it),
    b) our co-evolutionary species sharing the planet with us (they don’t feel the need for self doubt), and c) our natural requirement that does not need this level of cognition (as many, many simple minded creatures are doing quite well, and I believe even better than Homo-Sapien-sapien….go figure).
    Essentially the problem is that in this corner of the Cosmos at least, the primary rule is Cause and Effect. Simply put, we have one effect – understanding – that has a constant remodelling of causes …. Deities, Philosophies, Storylines, and all the “isms” you can confabulate.
    I find understanding life analogous to watching a split second of a 3 hour movie and trying to decipher what the story is about.
    Sorry for this Nihilistic outlook, but this is honestly how I feel when I am in deep introspection.
    Yes I am pessimistic and nihilistic with a pragmatic flair that keeps me functional.
    Regards.
    Ralph

  2. William B. Turner

    Hear, hear! A sentence, a sentence! (Why didn’t I think of that? Luckily, I was never Catholic.)

  3. Rebecca

    Truth and yet we need community. So there is the tenth ox herding picture where the individual just blends into marketplace, helping, living, unknown no longer searching for something more or different because they are it, their own center…….this is a pretty stripped down surrender to what is.

  4. Mark Knickelbine

    “They aligned themselves not to the security of a community but to their own sense of integrity.”

    . . . and yet, as you point out, they both did found communities and told their followers that these communities were central to the survival of their teaching. We are primates, social animals; everything from the language that structures our thoughts to the architecture of our bodies is socially determined. We can turn our backs on a community, but to turn our backs on community in general is to lose the context that enables our lives to have meaning. It seems to me that the question is how we negotiate the tension between individual moral, intellectual and spiritual imperatives and our unavoidable complicity with community so that we can fulfill our responsibility to nurture healthy communities. The challenge is also to accept that anything we come up with will be characterized by impermanence, instability and unreliability, just like all other phenomena, and that this is not a reason in and of itself to reject community.

  5. Josh

    Beautiful post, Stephen. We might be tempted to say it is “ironic” that the founders of today’s staunchest traditions indeed resisted ossification, as you say. But perhaps irony, too, has become a code word, or at least a word devoid of real substance. Perhaps, as other commentors point to, this very social certainty of ossification (a feature of community), is what forces the very precarious balance of human life – and differentiates it from nirvana. i sense that the “union of the two truths” as is described in Buddhist scripture has something to do with this tightrope walk, but I do not have the realization to articulate it any more coherently. Would love to read your thoughts on that.

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