Authority: Deconstruct, Then Garden – Part 3

If you’re starting this series here that’s awesome! You can catch up here if you’d like. This post is an example of a major concept that I’ve had to deconstruct and I hope to suggest an alternative way of understanding authority that doesn’t require a lot of structure building to interact with.


 

There was a prophet named Samuel, as the story goes, well known among the people of ancient Israel, having great influence and providing critical leadership, vision, and direction for the tribes. In fact, his leadership was so established that the tribes came to him when they wanted to appoint their first king and asked him to give them a king, which he did in appointing king Saul. So you have this prophet who routinely provides the people and the king with a word from god. In fact, he supposedly successfully foretold the future on multiple occasions.

One day he approaches the king and tells him that god is ready to avenge the Israelites from multiple generations past when the Amalekites attacked the Israelites, starting with the weakest stragglers. The Israelites won that original battle. But now, it was time for vengeance. Samuel’s instructions were for Saul to destroy them completely. Men, women, children, babies, animals, everything. If you were to read this story, you would discover that Saul more or less carries out the command but not completely and he is cursed for it by Samuel. However, I tell this story not to confront the obvious moral questions this story presents but to explore the relationships of authority that seem to exist between the characters.

To give the story the benefit of the doubt, God gave the command to Samuel. Samuel gave the command to king Saul, and Saul gave the command to his soldiers. It’s an obvious chain of command. But for most Christians, it doesn’t stop there. Someone wrote all this down and so the traditional assumption is that they were eyewitnesses and gave an accurate account, or they were given the story later by God, either through direct revelation or the passing of the story in tradition. So the original chain of command was in place to ensure the event takes place, and a secondary chain of command exists to ensure we know of the event and believe it. There is traditionally no room given for us to disbelieve this story but a lot of room given for us to question it’s meaning or applicability for us today. These two chains exist throughout the bible in the mind of the believer though the secondary chain is clearly implied and must be drawn from other key portions of the text.

But may we ask what might have happened if things were different? We who have begun deconstruction find ourselves constantly asking, what are the stones in my wall that give these stories their power? In other words, what are my assumptions that I bring to stories like this? Perhaps if Samuel was a modern day man he would have questioned whether such an extreme command from god might be a hallucination or some other mental disorder. It doesn’t help that being insane and being prophetic were closely linked in the time this was written. See 1 Samuel 19:24. There was really no context for Samuel to believe anything different but that he was hearing from the god of his fathers. I’d prefer to not assume he had some motive of personal vengeance against the Amalekites, though that might have been the case. But what if he had heard the word and refused? What if Saul had refused to obey Samuel? What if the soldiers had refused to obey Saul? Their society and culture were not necessarily to the place where they would have felt there were good reasons to refuse but what would have happened if they did refuse?

The result is very clear to us who have been drinking from the well of the bible for a long time. The result of such refusal is destruction. If the chain of command is compromised the one who breaks that chain must be removed, and usually killed. This idea is reinforced multiple times in the stories throughout the old testament, it is reinforced in the garden of Eden, Noah’s flood, Abraham’s sacrifice, Moses and his detractors, the israelites and the law, Samuel and Saul, etc… I call this the principle of Absolute Threat. Most structures of authority presented in the bible are based on this principle and the narratives of the culture reinvigorate the principle. “If you refuse, you will join the condemned.” Saul breaks this chain of command in the story, killing all but the king of the Amalekites and keeping the best of the animals. His punishment is the loss of his line as a dynasty and a nasty death following a long descent into madness. This principle finds its terrible finality in the medieval idea of hell. Perhaps I’m putting the cart before the horse in sharing my deconstruction of authority before sharing my deconstruction of the Ultimate Threat (hell) but they are quite intertwined so I had to choose one.

Now, we should ask ourselves if these authority structures can be found in the church as well. Of course they are. In the “early church” there was a great amount of emphasis on the idea that there was some kind of authority transfer from Christ to the twelve (eleven?) apostles. I’m not going to go into great detail here but that concept translated to bishops inheriting some kind of authority from the apostles, and from that cauldron emerged the structure of the Magisterium with the pope at the head, understood to exercise the authority of Christ/God on earth. Most of the splits and schisms before the reformation concerned the question of who exactly held that authority? Who was the “true pope” or the “true church”? But with the Reformation came a new model of authority. Perhaps they would have called it a recovered authority. For them, that was the authority of the scriptures.

Since my religious background and worldview were essentially protestant in nature in understanding authority, that is where my deconstruction had to begin. The protestant view of scripture from the beginning till now seems to be founded on a lofty hope, that the God who inspired the scripture is capable of illuminating the meaning to those who are faithful to listen. This causes a real dilemma. What if my understanding of scripture differs from yours? Than we must either assume God is responsible for the lack of illumination, or we are. If it is God, there is nothing to do but wait until God brings us all in line. In which case, there is no need to worry or argue because God is the only one who can reveal that truth to us anyway. However, if we play a part, we must discover what that part is and how to play it so that we can reach the true understanding of scripture. The second option seems to be the primary way of resolving this dilemma for most of the protestant world from its earliest schisms to today.

To put this all in other words, until we all miraculously reach a point where everyone agrees on what the bible means, we are left with the realization that the authority of scripture, as understood by most protestants, is actually a manifestation of the authority of the individual mind. We in the Protestant movement are asked, nay commanded to go to the bible ourselves to test the preacher and test the church authority. We are not “really” searching after God until we have done this. But the protestant movement is really a mixture of individual authority and church leadership authority. Because when someone does really search and finds some major point of disagreement, the leaders insist that they are interpreting it incorrectly and must fall in line with the orthodox teaching, which is a manifestation of the authority of church structures. So we see that the so called “authority of scripture” is really a mixed manifestation of the already established “authority of the church” and the newly discovered “authority of the individual” thrust into the whole culture by the philosophy of the Renaissance. With the whole mixture using the bible as a kind of language datum rather than a real useful litmus test of right belief.

As you can see from the above paragraph. For me, deconstruction doesn’t involve ignoring a topic because it makes me uncomfortable, but rather to study, scrutinize and understand a topic to see my own faulty assumptions. What I discovered was that the authority which scripture was supposed to hold, lost its illusory power almost from the very beginning of the protestant movement, when it failed to hold together those most concerned with upholding its place as the standard of belief. If it was able to hold together those people who trusted it completely, it might have made a much stronger candidate for a governing authority. But it does no such thing.

So what now, are we to return to the authority of the church as the highest earthly authority for us to know the truth? Many protestants, when they have removed the foundation stone of ultimate biblical authority, desperate for something to go in its place, lest the building tumble, quickly return to one of the older structures of authority (catholicism, orthodox, anglican). I’m not saying that’s the only reason people return to these forms of the faith but I know it happens since the apologists and evangalists of these structures have learned the usefulness of helping their potential converts to deconstruct their view of the bible before welcoming them back to The Church, as they put it. But many are unable to return to “The Church”. That stone simply will not fit. And the building is shaking.

The church also continues the narrative tradition of the scripture in their usage of the Ultimate Threat principle to enforce their authority. Think about excommunication, threat of torture and death (at times), threat of loss of family relationships, threat of loss of marriage, threat of loss of possessions or health, and finally, threat of everlasting torment in fiery hell. We are constantly reminded that to step outside or refuse to follow the chain of command, will result in the authority that once “protected” us, reigning down in vengeful wrath to consume us along with the enemies of God. So both the narratives of scripture, and the actions of the church have sought to enforce a chain of command structure of authority that only works by using the principle of ultimate threat.

At this point I will contend that this is the only way for a “structure” of authority to work. Without the ultimate threat principle, the dissident is always seen as a threat to the structure by their questioning of foundation stones. In order to preserve their concept structure, the dissident must first be intellectually dismissed, then authoritatively condemned. That is, the act of removing the dissident from the community must be seen as sanctioned by God, which is not difficult to achieve given our dedication to the biblical narrative.

It might seem at this point that I am totally against the very idea of authority. But I am not. I do want to suggest an alternative style of authority. One that can only reach one level and still lets us jump to the ground. One that can produce food from the ground in the different seasons of our lives and that can nourish us and bring us from moment to moment without the need for a complicated and fear based chain of command. Let me give you an example. I have separated myself from an arguably “biblical” understanding of authority in marriage. I don’t think I need to rehash the details of that view with the chain of command moving from God to the Husband and then down further to the wife and kids. Yuck! Ok, but what then? That does not mean the idea of authority does not exist in my relationship with my wife and also my kids. If we have any kind of relationship at all, as opposed to two individuals living in proximity, we have authority in one another’s lives. It’s not an authority I can seize and enforce. If I did that, the relationship, as we know it, would be over. Neither can I build this authority using the principle of ultimate threat. I must build it from a different principle. That of the Ground of All Being. That of God. That of Ultimate Love. That is where my relationship must find its own ground. That kind of authority gives us influence over one another in a way that makes us realize our oneness. This authority is a paradox. We don’t have it until we let go. In a way that’s love. Letting go. And it is entirely possible and even natural to “let go” and still fully participate. Don’t mistake my meaning. I’m not saying that we should somehow be indifferent or hands-off in our relationships. I’m saying do not assume that you can somehow control or hold on to the experience of joy you have right now or at some point in the past in your relationship. You may kill it by your desire to hold it too tightly. And there’s no need to hold on to some structure of hierarchy in our relationships. It doesn’t really exist and the relationship won’t fall apart without it.

You might argue that raising kids is primarily about enforcing your will upon them even if it’s in their best interest. However, even then the goal is not to enforce submission long term but rather to teach them how to think for themselves and in fact leave our “authority”. So the result of this authority is still to let go.

What about government? Well, in so far as government is all about governing, we will simply end up with more and more rules that we are less and less sure how to follow. Government also is at its best when it’s not under the illusion that it actually controls people. When it learns to “let go” and work with the people instead of pretending to be over them. Of course it’s not an illusion that many governments, spouses, and parents use the ultimate threat principle to enforce a structure of authority. It’s not an illusion that people are abused or killed or threatened in these structures. It is an illusion that this top down, ultimate threat based view of authority is the only view.

So you have to start somewhere. Maybe personal relationships are a bit complicated for a starting place. If you’re a religious person, observe your religious authority first. Does god really operate from the top down? Has he really communicated his will to some who then accurately wrote it down? Is this how our relationships, the ones we want to last, really work? Seeing authority from a gardening perspective means seeing that authority cannot be taken, it can only be given. And we only give authority to that which we either desire to, or feel obligated to. Next time you read your scripture which has held authority over you, or you speak with your religious authority who may be a person, ask yourself if you feel obligated to take them at their word. If you feel obligated to obey. Now ask yourself if your most valued friendship requires the same sense of obligation for you to experience that depth of spiritual connection. Now imagine this. God is your friend. Does that change anything?

Ground: Deconstruct, Then Garden Part 2

As I explained in my last post, as our consciousness develops, we construct a worldview which essentially helps us understand the world we experience. For whatever reason, we start asking, from a very early age, Why. And our caretakers are at the ready with an explanation. Ancient and tribal cultures began to explore the idea of cause and effect with what we call magic today. Magic was a way of understanding that there must be reasons that things happen, and perhaps we can even influence those events and causes. For a fascinating read on examples of this understanding in ancient cultures, check out this excerpt from a book entitled “The Golden Bough” written by Sir James George Frazer. Religion was a replacement for this early understanding in many cultures though most did not completely let go of a magical understanding, especially among the uneducated. Of course the enlightenment and the scientific revolution changed everything a few centuries ago. Through this process, we have come to understand that there are methods by which we can analyze objects and events to discover the causes. Those causes can then be analyzed in turn to discover further and deeper causes.

There is a fundamental weakness in this approach. While it is useful for many things, the process of analyzing anything forces us to define the boundary of the thing in question. As I discovered in engineering school and especially thermodynamics, this is necessary and effective to manipulate systems. A boundary must be defined at the very outset. From that definition of separation comes all our ability to apply laws and equations to determine desired inputs and outputs into and out of that system.

When we step back though, when we are no longer concerned with manipulating reality but rather understanding reality, the boundaries become a hindrance. They are actually nothing but illusions! This can be a very difficult thing to grasp so bear with me. I once heard Alan Watts ask an audience if they thought they could point to or place their finger on the separation between his fingers. Of course this is impossible. While each can move independently, it is only because they are attached to each other and the hand. In fact if we really want to analyze the finger as totally independent, we must cut it off. In which case it is hardly effective or able to function in any way like we would expect a finger to function. And so, if we want to understand why we build these structures of understanding with levels of cause and effect, we must first understand that our entire worldview, our sense of self-understanding and self-awareness, our way of seeing the world, is built upon the principle that boundaries between things are real, that things have an existence of their own apart from other things, especially human things. And this is just fine. We can go on living perfectly extraordinary lives while believing this. But it is not true. It is an illusion. So what are you?

Let’s return to the stones. The three-year old who asks why until you’ve reached the end of your patience is similar to the three year old that loves to climb up on the couch, only to jump back to the ground again. If you can, remember when you were very young. What made the world such an extraordinary, breathtaking place. For me, in those moments of remembrance, it is the total acceptance of the experience before me. The total, unquestioning openness to reality and my full engagement with it. I didn’t need to understand any meaning behind the wind blowing through the trees and the smells of the air. They were their own meaning in that moment. Truly they were gloriously without meaning. As we get older, we get curious about things like the wind. Why do the trees move, where does the wind come from? Etc. But while we began to set those foundation stones in place, we also loved to jump off of them and roll around in the dirt for a while. Please understand I’m not saying it would be better not to grow up. As Jesus once said, “unless you become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom.” Wisely leaving out exactly in what way we were to become like lowly children. The key to experiencing true reality is not to cease growing, but to remember and engage again with your waking moments as a child. For the idea that there are boundaries between things gives us a context for making use of those things but they also are only real in the sleep of illusion. Since everything must have a meaning/cause/boundary, we lose our ability to re-engage with the meaningless. That’s not to say we don’t enjoy the things we did as a child, but the worries and cares of this world and the thoughts in our heads keeps us from seeing them for what they are.  I won’t say that our culture is entirely to blame, but it certainly is oriented toward giving us the “right” answers to our questions and elevating us higher and higher above the ground. At some point, we cease jumping off the wall and spend the rest of our lives building it higher for the wall’s own sake, perhaps occasionally remembering the feeling, at which point we may find ourselves with a deep longing in our hearts, and the sting of tears as we experience the pain again of losing our access to that childlike acceptance of being on the ground.

Part of what makes the journey of deconstructing this wall so difficult is that we are terrified of the ground. Even though any line of questioning will always lead us back to “just because” we have good reasons for avoiding this and creating illusions, even ones we all share. Our openness as children made us open to pain and suffering as well. We have to handle that somehow. That’s why I don’t say that these illusions are bad or evil. In fact I explain their usefulness and utility repeatedly. I am an engineer by trade after all and my living depends on understanding these boundaries and manipulating them. So we want these illusions and in a certain sense we need them for our current form of existence to continue. But I think we also want the ground, especially those of us who find ourselves in the place of deconstructing our beliefs. Without the ground, we feel only terror that there is nothing left, the void. The paradox is that finding the ground IS to awake, and to awake is to enter the void of meaning and separation. The ground of “just because” is also ultimate reality, which is God. “I am”. Which is also love, or complete giving of oneself to the other, as to Oneself.

This is all very esoteric without any context so my next post will explore an area of deconstruction, and introduce a way of interacting with reality that will hopefully allow us once again to continue engaging with the illusions of our experience while returning to the spirit which allows us to jump off the structure of illusion and live on the ground. This is a practice I will call Gardening.

By the way I’m not some kind of expert in this area. I’m just sharing my thoughts and explorations of these topics, most of which I am learning about myself while I write. However, I’m really not sure you can be an expert in what we are talking about, as we might call it “living”. And who can be an expert at living?

Till next time.

Deconstruct, Then Garden

garden

As we grow up, and begin to ask questions, we find ourselves constantly building ideas. From the 3 year old who repetitively asks her parents why to the 17 year old who no longer believes his parents have the answers. We start with foundations. What am I? Who am I? Why am I here? How did I get here? How does this or that work? Once we feel we’ve found a satisfactory foundation stone, we set it in place, conveniently girded up by the stones to the right and left. Then we begin to build on those. We begin to believe things about ourselves and about other people based on those critical foundation stones. You can know this is true by repeating the exercise of the 3 year old. For every belief that arises in your mind, ask yourself why, then do it again. Every reason is a lower stone. Eventually you reach The Ground, where the only explanation left is “just because”.

Here is a classic example from the perspective of a very patient, modernly educated christian parent. I’ll use simplistic language as if speaking to a 3 year old.

Why is it so hot?

Because it’s summer and we get more sun?

Why is it summer?

Because the earth goes around the sun in a big “circle”.

Why does the earth go in a big circle?

Because the sun has gravitational pull and is constantly pulling on the earth but the earth wants to keep moving away even though the sun is pulling on it so it keeps spinning in circles for ever. (At this point the parent picks up the child and swings him around by the arms to demonstrate and to evoke laughter, which we all love.)

Why?

That is how God made the universe, so that all things pull on each other with gravity.

Why did God do that?

Because he loves us and we couldn’t exist without gravity.

Why does He love us?

And there…we’ve reached The Ground. The only answer left for the christian is “just because” or “He just does” or “it just did”. Any number or level of different religions, philosophies, or scientific beliefs could have drastically varied this process and made it either shorter or longer but in the end, it all ends up at The Ground.

Maybe there is a good scientific explanation for why young children do this. Something developmental, or maybe they just like our reaction. I like to think that they have an intuitive delight in arriving at the ground.

But we adults do not. Why??

For one thing, every time we work our way back down the walls, we have to see again the stones we placed at one point. The catch is, things may look a bit different to us now than in previous years. Maybe the stone doesn’t fit quite as well as we thought it did. Maybe there is a crack in one that we didn’t notice before. Most frighteningly, maybe we find a gaping hole where we thought we had placed a stone but now realize we only imagined it was a stone in the heady days of our youth and really it was a block of ice, long melted away.

We’ve spent a long time building our structure, whether that structure is a castle, a temple, or a high rise. To see the weaknesses in our walls is to realize the risk of damage and collapse. We would much rather stay on top. This is why only the rich can afford the penthouses on top of the high rise. We love to be above the weaknesses and this lofty position is in high demand and is given high value. Those who know the most and who have the strongest walls are given authority. We all want their advice on what stones we should use and how they should be installed. So we stay on top and continue applying layer after layer of new stones. Preferring to ignore the weaknesses below, and remain ignorant if possible.

Something happens though doesn’t it? Something that shakes it all up, something that pulls us deep into our own structure and pushes our face into the weakest stones. For folks who grow up with and maintain a belief in god, especially the monotheistic god of christianity, this process of getting shaken up and seeing our foundation stones in a new light for the first time could be called deconstruction. If you haven’t reached this point, I’m not here to rush you. It’s not fun. But it can be freeing. See it’s very unsettling to live three stories up and to feel your bed shaking underneath you from an unsettled ground below. Those who have experienced an earthquake know what I’m talking about. So it can relieve that unsettled feeling to find that cracked stone and remove it. However, that leaves the unsettled feeling of void, of not knowing what to put back in the place of the stone removed. Not only that, but once one stone is removed, you begin to see more cracks in the stones around it and those must be removed as well if they haven’t fallen out already.

Our first inclination is to rebuild, find better stones, frantically build a whole new wall if that is what is required to keep our building project going. Why??

Let’s go back to the 3 year old game again. The constant question of why could be framed a different way. If someone were to ask you, do you want your life to have meaning, most of us I suspect would answer right away…Yes! But what do we intend by this idea of life having meaning? Words have meaning, a word stands for a concept. In many ways, the concept is seen as the reality and the word is only a symbol of that reality. For instance, you could explain the meaning of the word rock. You could give me a definition of the word and perhaps a picture or an actual rock. But suppose I pointed to your example and said, “OK, but what’s the meaning of the rock?” You would probably say, it doesn’t have a meaning. It’s meaningless. It is what it is. It’s a rock. This is the same as the “just because” answer I’ve already mentioned. That’s perfectly acceptable to us when referring to a rock. But when we are asking about our life it seems to fall flat. To explore why it falls flat, and why we feel the need to get up so high, in the next post, I want to move my focus from the building to The Ground.