It might be thought that, in our technology-driven age, the concept of belief has become less important. If we go back fifty years, belief was still central to most people’s lives; so what has happened to change that?
(1000 words, a ten-minute read)
A friend of mine suggests, slightly tongue in cheek, that the biggest factor in religion’s decline is shopping… We might substitute football for shopping, to even up the gender sheet. The principle is the same: occupation of the mind and emotions by identifications with things of a tangible nature. If we’re fortunate, these may be luxuries. If less so, they are the passions generated by, say, our favourite team, of whom we are a loyal and devoted follower.
Passions for the less tangible things of life seem to be fewer, in this more advanced age…
Life is a struggle towards maturity and the personal crown of independence, which may be achieved in various degrees. Being self-supporting would be a key stage. Having a good job and ‘a place of our own’ would be important milestones.
At the end of decades of life we might find ourselves truly independent and able to choose how we dedicate our energies. This freedom from the influence of others can prove an arid place, however, when we realise that sea of experience in which we now swim reflects only our personal likes… and not the rich tapestry of challenge that it used to contain. ‘Beware what you wish for’ can be appropriate words, here.
Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs showed us that we only get to develop a depth of understanding of ‘higher things’ when our basic survival and comfort needs have been met. Yet religion usually features in the lives of the poorest people.
Is this a sign that the ‘undistracted’ are closer in their simplicity to where the spiritual originates? It may be that the closer-knit societies of the poor – outside of the developed West – have tightly woven communities where worship and neighbourly care go hand in hand. In this sense, religion is not chosen, it is a given, perhaps reflecting life in the West from a previous era, but with different religions at its heart.
Our societies have lost coherence and become a hotch-potch of identifications, desires and fears. The solid, if imposed, set of values that religion used to provide as life-basis has been replaced by a gradient of thoughts ranging from life purely as consumer, to the deepest explorations of a variety of philosophies, some linked to disciplined exercise regimes, as with Yoga. Seldom in our history have more people been seeking…
Science generally mocks religion. I once watched a whole programme by one of my favourite scientists: the astronomer professor Brian Cox, who filmed religious worship around the world – particularly funerary rites – just to say, at the end of programme, that God, and associated life after death, had no basis in demonstrable fact. I remember feeling sad that so much energy had been spent negating the basic and genuine needs of so many subsistence-level people.
Not all scientists feel this way, as individuals. Psychologists work at the known frontiers of the mind, stabilising the all-important sense of ‘self’ that arises when the individual works successfully towards maturity and individuality. We might say that all the gains and many of the ills of the modern world have resulted from the cult of the self, allied to consumerism.
How is the young, thinking person to approach this, if they decide there is more to life than comfort and the personal prestige of accomplishment? We might say they will be met with three concepts: to believe; to have faith; and to know…
The tree of wisdom has, throughout the ages, and within all the world’s systems for studying a ‘supreme being’, begun with belief; asking the aspirant to adopt a deeper, more values-based approach to their lives. We are urged to do this as a trial, setting aside our established thinking, to consider that there might be states of mind and heart that are truly ‘higher’.
Some systems of development, such as Buddhism, advocate no such supreme being, rather focussing on the potential of the individual human, instead.
Belief traditionally provides no proof, except for reference to ‘good people’, but offers a path of focus on an ideal that may have the power to change the aspirant. The majority of people satisfied with belief, alone, are ‘woven’ together in a community centred on some kind of church or other centre of worship. A belief system with associated values may cause us to examine whether our lives are ego-centric. It’s a useful truism that a good way to lessen your troubles is to take on the troubles of others. It is sufficient for many people to remain in this state of belief, helping and serving their communities and enriching all our lives with their kindness.
Those who want to go beyond this and access the often referenced higher states of consciousness are first faced with the question of whether these actually exist. Fortunately, life provides each of us with moments of extreme and unusual lucidity, called ‘peak experiences’. These are so different in terms of ‘quality of consciousness’ that they point to something very real in the human potential. In simple terms, the memory of these states is vivid and we want to be back there…
Sufficient work on the self, at this level, reveals there to be a related family of such states of the higher Self, all ready to host our active consciousness, if we can find the way to them. Once ‘tasted’, these states of what are commonly called ‘Essence’, entice us back, because they contain something that can only be describes as a certainly of rightness.
We simply know, beyond question, that we are in a mental and emotional place that has an extraordinary level of clear thought and feeling; indeed, that the word thought is no longer sufficient to describe how we ‘see’ the world.
This new state of consciousness, albeit it temporary, takes us beyond belief and faith and into a place where the words, essence and spirit are seen for what they have always been, ready for our own interpretation into the language of our age, thereby perpetuating a tradition of teaching and learning whose only goal is the service of our fellow human beings – because we all share this potential, which only needs awakening.
We have travelled from belief, with its fine community spirt, through faith that there is a higher consciousness available to us, and worth the work, to the place of knowing, or gnosis, as the ancients rightly called it.
And all of this is the birthright of mankind, and always has been. It is available to every man and woman, regardless of race or creed. The language used to describe it is different in each culture, yet the experience is the same. In the place where there are no words, the language of experienced certainty is universal… and startling in the new world it unveils.
©Stephen Tanham, 2021.
Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a modern journey through the forest of personality to the sunrise of Being