Monday, 10 July 2017

How should a spiritual person behave in this world?

Aaron, an occasional commenter on this blog, asked a question in response to the post on the persecution of the innocents. As it's both an interesting question and one that requires quite a long answer I thought I might include it here in the form of a new post.

Basically the question is this. How should a spiritual person behave in the context of the unthinking opposition of this world? When the world regards serious and dedicated spirituality as foolish at best and sometimes a lot more than that how can we, who reject the world's goals and values, deal with that without getting crushed? I give some extracts from Aaron's remarks here, but they are at the end of the earlier post if you wish to read them in full.

He asks: "I am tentatively testing the idea that spiritual people must wear a disguise in the modern world - that failing to do so simply causes too much strife. When one is in a "enemy territory, one would be foolish not to wear a disguise!

Is it really helpful to me spiritually to generate enormous amounts of strife in my personal life? How can I practice serenity, detachment? Does this really help those who cling to material things to generate rage in them and a desire to attack me, or does this just make them even more attached to physical things, and more immoral?

The thing is to use disguise as and when necessary - if the temper of the times change, then one can be more open, but in certain periods higher levels of disguise are called for.

This is a serious spiritual problem that has never been resolved  - if you reject the World the world will reject you to the point where your very survival is imperilled. 

In the past if you "gave up the world", you were seen as no longer a threat to Power, and indeed Power was glad if people surrendered the earth to them. It was detente.

Today, somehow, if you give up the world, you appear as a threat to those who cling to it. Power needs you to cling to the world like they do, both politically and in personal life."

The first thing that occurs to me when I consider this matter of disguise is Jesus’ instruction to "Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven".  Here we are plainly told not to hide our light under a bushel (that's a bowl in case you were wondering), but to let it shine. So Jesus told us to manifest our faith and proclaim it. However he also told us elsewhere, as you point out, not to cast pearls before swine, and, even more pertinently perhaps to the case in point, to be as wise as serpents which means judge each situation prudently and not rush into things without thought as to possible consequences.

So the advice in the Gospels could be said to be somewhat contradictory. It's not really because these words apply to slightly different situations but at first sight it might appear to be.

Looking at the matter without reference to scripture I would make the following points.

You're not going to be killed nowadays if you express unorthodox points of view. So the risk of announcing one's spiritual beliefs is not going to be fatal as it once might have been, especially if they were unorthodox.

On the other hand, you may well be mocked and ridiculed. That in itself is not something a spiritual person should worry too much about. Yes, it can be exhausting trying to defend yourself but, at the same time, you can learn from that. You can learn to articulate properly what may initially just be quite unsubstantial intuitions, and you can also learn detachment from worldly opinion. We must all learn this detachment from the world and from our own ego which might be embarrassed or feel humiliated in a particular situation. This can be an effective way to do that. To learn not to care about your image and how you are perceived. Remember that serenity and detachment are only real when they hold up under fire.

Then there is the question of disguise.  I do agree that sometimes it is necessary to protect oneself especially in the early stages of our spiritual journey when we are trying to put down roots. If we are attacked then it can be hard to develop in the way we could or should. However I don’t like the idea of pretending to be something you are not for the site of expediency, and as you grow in spiritual maturity you should be able to deal with unbelievers.  If you pretend too much there is a danger of building a kind of falseness into your character and then starting to become that. If spirituality is not entirely honest then it has the potential soon to degrade.

Nevertheless there remains the problem of living spiritually in a materialistic world especially if one is not a monk or hermit both of which it is hard to be in the modern world; the former because you pretty much have to subscribe to orthodox beliefs, the latter because our world is not set up to support it, and also because of the spiritual dangers of solitariness, principally pride and illusion.

So what is one to do? Maybe the best approach is not to speak unless you deem it necessary or beneficial to someone. Or if the situation clearly demands someone to stand up for truth. It may be you. I think we should rely on God to put us where he wants us to be, both for our sake and for any good we might do there.  Which means we must be flexible and not expect hard and fast rules to apply. 

Remember that truth is always preferable to dissimulation. How will the world change if spiritual people don't stand up and be counted? How will potential converts to truth be given the opportunity to convert if there is no one on hand to guide them when they need it? But then I agree it is foolish to expose oneself to ridicule and abuse unnecessarily. Perhaps the answer is to ask oneself this. Can good be done by speaking truth or harm? Not personal harm so much as needless conflict which gets no one anywhere. And sometimes it's the way one speaks. We can speak in a way that is perceived as arrogant and intolerant or we can speak in a way that is firm and assured but does not make the person we are speaking to feel belittled or that his views are rubbish. We must speak to benefit the person we are speaking to not seemingly promote ourself.

Online I use my real name and put a photo on this blog so as not to disguise myself but be completely open. However in my everyday life I don’t go around saying what I say here. If I am asked I will say that I believe in God and in Christ though in a slightly unorthodox fashion, and then wait to see where that goes. 

So what's the conclusion? As I see it the conclusion is that it all depends. If we really risk aggression then it makes sense to hide behind a mask. For the time being, at least. The question is how far do we go with that? When asked to go along with worldly views which we know to be spiritually false do we go along with them or do we refuse? There's the risk. That we become complicit in falsehood to avoid unpleasantness. That's a slippery slope to hypocrisy and self-deception. And then how will anyone whom we contact respect us if they know we have been playing a part? I mean by that how will they respect our spiritual integrity, and by extension the integrity of any spiritual person, if they see we have dissembled? You mention enemy territory and this world can often seem like that. But I don't think God needs spies behind enemy lines so much as foot soldiers in the field. He needs people to bear witness to the truth and that might be you.

Finally we should remember the most important thing and that is love. If we act from love, principally of God and then of our fellow men and women as images of God, then whatever happens we have done the right thing. You might say that our fellow men and women are very far from being true images of God which is quite correct but then so are we for the most part. The best way for them to become true images is for us to be a true image ourself. 

And so my final conclusion is that disguises are not right except in extreme circumstances when they may be. Unless there is real risk involved which, let's face it, is usually not the case nowadays, then we have a responsibility to stand up and be counted. Only thus will others, who may be searching, even unbeknownst to themselves, be given the opportunity to hear about the kingdom of God which is, when all is said and done, everyone's real heart's desire.


David Balfour said...

I find myself it possible for the spiritually minded person to be too compassionate and empathic? We are told to turn the other cheek but as ever striking a balance is very challenging especially in a world where such qualities as loving-kindness are often percieved as weakness and the world will try and ride rough-shod over the love that one allows to shine through ones heart. I can certainly attest through personal experience that living with ones heart on ones sleeve can result in some quite punishing lessons. For example, as a younger man I encountered several people who gained my trust to deliberately hurt me and show me how "naive" my heart on sleeve approach to life is. They genuinely seemed to think they were doing me a big favour by teaching me this life lesson. I can certainly see why Aaron is tempted to his mask of self-defence against the world. On the other hand the opposite pitfall of the spiritual or reliously motivated person is patriarchal militancy which I also reject as a harmful path. To be as wise as a serpent and gentle as a dove is by no means an easy balance to strike!

William Wildblood said...

It's a very difficult balance to strike as each of us tends to lean in one or the other direction but we do have to find this perfect harmony between truth and love. It's an ongoing struggle but I suppose the effort to find the perfect balance moves us to a higher level of understanding in a way that focusing on one alone would never do.