April 07

Getting Serious About a Religion of Love

Jay Michaelson

1. That's the Way I Like It

Over the last two months in these pages, I have described how the Jewish religious path has become, for me, a path of the heart rather than the mind. Intellectually, I no longer hold many of the core beliefs of Jewish faith, up to and including its traditional God concept, as that concept has been explicated for centuries in mainstream, non-mystical Jewish theology. I do acknowledge and embrace the theistic alternatives to that concept that the Jewish tradition has developed over the centuries, in particular the philosophical One of Maimonides or the nondual/panentheistic All of the Hasidim and neo-Hasidim, ideologies echoed in the secular thought of philosophers including Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Fichte, Hegel, Husserl, and Heidegger, among others, not to mention non-Western thinkers including Ramana Maharshi, Nishitani, Nisargadatta, and the entirety of the Advaita Vedanta and Dzogchen Buddhist traditions. These are all fertile soil for reflection and inspiration, and are well reasoned. But, as I attempted to describe last month, Jewish efforts to construct a suitable, somehow internally consistent theology are often exercises in what Sartre called "bad faith," or false consciousness. It's not that these theologies are incoherent. Rather, I have found that the enterprise of theologizing, when one has at much at stake in the game as a religionist does, is inevitably corrupted by one's own fervent desires to have it all come out alright.

Thus, as I described in my previous two essays, I have, for myself, begun to work with a certain degree of cognitive dissonance, not for the banal reasons that religion is "paradoxical" or intellectual reflection is not important, but because when I am honest with myself, I see that my religious practice stems from love – not thought. This was the point of last month's column: that to do justice both to the yearnings of the heart and to the motions of the mind, it's best to be clear about their domains. There's little dignity in making philosophical argument the handmaiden of emotional needs; that degrades both thought and feeling.

But the major question left open, after theology and religious sentiment make room for one another, is the nature of religious practice – and, if the category remains, religious obligation. Just as with theology, the answer to this question will not come from the argumentative techniques of philosophy, because any theory can still be constructed, with a clever enough mind, to justify whatever religious practice one wishes to maintain. For example, suppose I wish to maintain a rigorously Orthodox religious practice while denying the divinity of the Torah, the existence of the personal God, and any system of reward or punishment. No problem! "The point is not the origin of these texts, but the need to have a sense of obligation; a sense of covenant. Of course we remain uncertain; the uncertainty is part of a true religious path. But within that uncertainty, indeed because of it, we take on, for purely pragmatic reasons, a trans-subjective structure of meaning and value that keeps front-and-center our deepest commitments, while at the same time honoring our deepest doubts. In our civilization, that structure is halacha, as built for centuries by the precedential rabbinic tradition. It enables us to live as a community, with shared norms and values, even as we make no theological or ontological claims whatsoever. Halacha is pure pragmatism; it is a vehicle for living responsibly, ethically, and, if you wish, even spiritually, while leaving questions of theology for essentially private reflection."

Presto. And of course, one can construct more liberal theories to justify more liberal religious practices. But I don't need to spell that out, do I? The point is that one can easily mix and match: pantheistic atheology and traditional halacha, traditional theology and egalitarianism, agnostic theology and purely cultural Judaism, agnostic theology and fundamentalist halacha – whatever you like. So, if one is, as I clearly am, skeptical of this whole crypto-jurisprudential exercise of self-justification, what then? Is there any alternative to "this is what I want to do, and so I do it"?

Perhaps surprisingly, the answer I am going to offer is No* – but that is No with an asterisk after it. Because if we are serious about a religion of love, then "this is what I want to do" must be the product not of whim but of serious discernment and reflection. It is easy to be flippant about religion. But flippancy that was never the point of these essays; quite the contrary. For those few of us who remain god-intoxicated but clear-eyed as well, cultivating authentic, reflective love must become a serious religious priority.

The other alternatives? Thoughtlessness, rationale, or egotism.

Thoughtlessness is the most common: "This system works, it's not perfect, but I've got other things to worry about." Despite my calling it "thoughtlessness," I recognize that not only is it the path for the vast majority of religious and non-religious people, but good for them that it is. There are many higher priorities in the world than reflecting on one's religious journey. It just so happens that it's how I personally move through the world. I'm put to mind of Alan Watts's comment at the beginning of "The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are":

Why not sit back and let things take their course? Simply that it is part of 'things taking their course' that I write. As a human being it is just my nature to enjoy and share philosophy. I do this in the same way that some birds are eagles and some doves, some flowers lilies and some roses.

Rationale is the path of theology, amateur religious philosophy, or any claim to have "reasons" for religious practice, from "my family does it" to "God commanded it" –all of them actually secondary to the real reason, namely, why one wants to do what one's family does, or what God commands, or what seems to make sense. Since it is the path in which I've been schooled for over a decade, I've spent the last two months of this column carefully taking it apart.

And, finally, egotism, the primary path of much New Age spirituality: "I do it because it makes me feel good," or holy, or special; or "it connects me to something greater" (and I want to feel connected); or some other reason about the self. To be honest I'm getting a little tired of people beating up on the New Age. It's really not as bad as people say; a lot of New Age people are sincerely trying to be better, and better rounded, human beings, on all levels, including ethical ones. And if I had my choice between a nation of fuzzy-thinking New Agers and a nation of "clear"-thinking Evangelicals, I know which I'd choose in a heartbeat. Especially because, as I've tried to show, the path of rationale is really the path of egotism in drag. At least the New Agers are honest about it. But, still, self-oriented spirituality is the collapse of trans-personal and trans-egoic ideas into servants of the ego. It leaves one vulnerable to the charge that all one is doing is making oneself feel good, with blithe disregard of the contradictions, irresponsibility, nonsense, or, as in the case of "right-wing hippies" in the Jewish world, injustices blended in with the yummy stuff.

But if none of those alternatives are satisfying, then what? Is it possible to craft a religious way of life that is indeed based upon "what I want" but is not thoughtless, not based on rationale, and not based on egotism, narcissism, or whim?

I think so.

2. You Better Work

The difference between surface and seriousness is contemplative practice. If you ask me "what I want" when I'm in the middle of my absurdly hectic and stressful workday, I'll give you an ill-considered answer. Likewise if you ask me when I'm blissed out having a fun weekend. What's necessary for a clear answer – and this is hardly esoteric information – is a process of refinement and reflection that clears the mind and opens the heart. For simple decisions, this may mean no more than taking a minute to calm down before sending that nasty email. For life decisions, it takes work.

In the Jewish tradition, the two poles of religious emotion are ahavah and yirah, love and fear. (Yirah is usually translated as "awe" in politically correct circles, but for reasons I'll explain, I think "fear" might be better.) In the classical structure, love of God, Rudolf Otto's fascinans, is the pull toward the holy, the beautiful, and the good. As one feels love for another person, one wants to be with that person, to hold them, and, yes, to serve them and make them happy; likewise with love of God. Fear of God, what Otto called the mysterium tremendum, also responds to the holy, beautiful, and good – but with a sense of humility, awe, and trembling. The awesome, infinite power of the universe – and the fleeting, puny nature of human life. The responsibility to alleviate suffering and act justly – and the selfishness and cruelty of the ego. Yirah also leads to service, but out of a sense of obligation and noble servitude, not desire.

In traditional Jewish life, both ahavah and yirah are deeply connected to theology – particularly yirah which stems from beliefs about reward and punishment, or morality, or creation. However, yirah does not require theology. When I learn of the genocide in Tibet, I feel a sense of outrage, and an obligation to do more than I do. When I ponder the images from the Hubble telescope, I remember that I really have no idea what the universe is like, and have no business making propositions about it. When I reflect upon my own privilege as a (relatively) wealthy white male, I remember that I have been given a leg up in the world that comes at the expense of others. And when I visit a place of natural sublimity (which, as per Kant, is to be contrasted with the beautiful), it takes my breath away, and I lack the words to describe the wonder. This is all yirah, sacred awe, or fear, and it arises just fine without any theologies of reward or punishment.

Likewise ahavah, which arises whenever my mind is quiet enough to appreciate the silence that grounds all sound, the miracle of a single string bean, the beauty of the humblest of houseplants, precedes theology. Indeed, theology might well be defined as the attempt to give intellectual form to these twin emotional movements.

But neither ahavah nor yirah arises on its own. In extreme circumstances, like the birth or death of a close relative, they do. But most of the time, it's easy to change the channel from the Tibet documentary, blow off the space pictures, ignore one's own privilege, and just take a snapshot of the pretty view of nature instead of taking a moment to fall in love with it. Thus, serious contemplative practice is necessary, if one's own subjectivity, rather than myth, theology, or communal norms, is to be the basis of a serious, rather than a flippant, religious practice.

In other words, a religion of love requires as its foundation the cultivation of love.
It's not a matter of talent or genetic makeup; it's environment. As Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi says, the mind is like tofu – it takes the flavor of what it marinates in. Marinate in front of Bloomberg machines all day, and it's hard to experience much awe or love – unless you make a special point of doing something for your heart, every day, as a religious obligation. The natural human mind may indeed be full of love, but it takes work to sift away of the dirt that covers it, and work to open the heart, and work to learn to take the risks of banality or emotional nakedness that come with it. Work in Hebrew is avodah, service of God, or spirit, however that is conceived. As I'm using the term, it means spiritual practice – something we do to enable the heart to make the kind of serious religious decisions that arise in the absence of theology or dogma. If I'm going to be so audacious as to determine for myself, on a case-by-case basis, what religious practices are working for me, I'd better be sure that my discernment is as clear as it can be. Otherwise I really am deluding myself. I need to see what I want, what I feel, what I love, what I need. And I need to be able to see honestly what is wanted and needed of me, without my selfish ego immediately inventing rationalizations for why I can keep on being lazy. If deciding not to keep shabbat is to be anything more than preferring to go to the mall, avodah is required first.

As longtime readers of this column know, my primary avodah is meditation, the process of coming to see clearly. Meditation lets my sophisticated, intelligent, trying-to-be-cool mind get the hell out of the way so that my unsophisticated, loving, shamelessly uncool heart can breathe. And so I take meditation seriously, as a religious obligation.

Naturally, there are many other love practices as well. Just spending time with children is one of them, if it's done with intention and presence of mind. Working with myth, ritual, and symbol can activate the imaginal faculties, and illuminate one's own narratives in the light of timeless, powerful archetypes which bring insight, love, and wisdom. What Thomas Moore calls "Care of the Soul," which may include viewing or participating in art, theater, food, music, dance, or other forms of culture. Conscious sexuality, body practices like yoga or exercise, special diets and nutrition – all of these can wake up the body, which in turn wakes up the heart. There's no shortage of practices, and no one practice that will be right for everyone. The point is that it's the practice and the diligence that separates "I do what works for me" said in a serious tone from "I do what works for me" in a dismissive, casual, or just plain lazy tone.

There's a tendency to see these kinds of heart-practices as indulgent fads that bourgeois boomers do to make themselves feel good. I've tried to suggest that, when done with serious intention, the opposite is the case. I do spiritual practice not to feel good, but to feel, period. I can safely say that, without meditation, it would be very hard for me to know what I really feel about many things; I'm just too busy thinking, and being buffeted by the feelings I have, to know what I actually feel and think on my own. This is easy to observe. Aren't you thinking of something other than these words right now? Maybe clicking away from this page, or reading on to the final couple of paragraphs? Or maybe not – but if I remind you of that work that you have to do today, your mind will go off and running onto that. On to the to-do list! Reflect later!

Who can really say, honestly, that they're making decisions based on a clear-eyed view of what their deepest feelings are, when we've all got 100 emails in the inbox and are too busy to think about them? No wonder "doing what we want" has led to Wal-Marts and strip malls. (For the record, I live out in the boonies and Wal-Mart is often the only place where I can get what I need quickly – so no judgment there.) Without quiet and reflection, "what we want" is just selfish appetite, whether coated with religion or consumerism or both. Without a serious practice to cultivate and reflect on one's own deepest desires and deepest obligations, the "religion of love" is the religion of delusion.

A serious religion of love takes love-practices as seriously as the religion of fear takes its. If, like me, you're someone who thinks that living richly is important, if you're attracted by religion and spirituality but no longer able to seriously entertain their more outlandish factual assertions – then you need to get serious about actually cultivating the clarity and love (wisdom and compassion, if you prefer) that are prerequisites for making serious, non-id decisions about spiritual practice. Now, it's not necessary to be neurotic about it (as in "OMIGOD! THE FLEISHIK SERVING SPOON!") but it is necessary to be serious.

Personally, when I am finally able to dodge my 400 daily emails (that is not an exaggeration), slow down the mental to-do list, and take a breath in this moment, only then I can presume to say something about what religious moments bring me closer to what matters most, and what do not. I see that I prefer to keep kosher, purely out of love, with no intellectual justification at all, but that I can be a little flexidox about it too. I see that I really do think I'm not doing enough political activism, and that I still have a long way to go in how I work with anger. I hear my own inner prophetic call, coming from my heart, to love and to serve and to be honest and to stop worrying about what Heeb or the New Yorker might think of a spiritual fool like me – and how it still saddens me that the choice must be made. Like the children of Israel said, na'aseh v'nishmah – when I do the work, I hear the voice. But only then.


Images: Blue Plant, Blue Daisies, and details from The Moth Wall by Kimowan McLain.


Jay Michaelson is the chief editor of Zeek. He is the author of God in Your Body: Kabbalah, Mindfulness and Embodied Spiritual Practice.