He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Other Side: Reactionary Religion

In the past, I had what could be accurately (though not pejoratively) described as a reactionary religion.  In this context, what I mean is not the typical jab at conservatives or traditionalists which is used to dismiss their views as opposed to any progress.  Typical reactionary thinking involves rationalizing one's visceral negative reaction to things or ideas outside of one's scope of experience or diametrically opposed to one's values.  Instead of taking a step back and evaluating the evidence for and against the other views, the reactionary tendency is to circle the wagons and fight the other, clinging tightly to their existing beliefs.  It's a response that makes perfect sense in light of evolutionary psychology, but I would suggest that it often becomes extremely unhealthy for us.

When people use the term reactionary, they are typically referring to the conservative, the traditionalist, or the fascist.  They tend to assume a definition of a reactionary as someone who values order and stability over permissiveness and diversity.  And I think that they are indeed often reactionaries, upset by the novelty of new social reforms and the disorder that comes from disassembling existing institutions so that grand reforms can be implemented and whatever is deemed progress that day can be achieved.

But these are not the only reactionaries in our midst.  Those who think of themselves as progressives, liberals, or socialists are often reactionary as well; they are frequently reacting with the same visceral negative reaction to the established order and the ancient practices that stand in the way of their utopian vision of what human societies ought to be.  Where the conservative, traditionalist, authoritarian, and fascist circle the wagons to exclude those who do not adhere to the established order, the progressive, the liberal, and the socialist circle the wagons to exclude those who do not seek to implement their favored programs and grand reforms.

After these wagons have been circled, it might seem that our reactionary tribalism might be complete, but these are still others who remain outside those circles.  The centrists, the libertarians, and the various others are frequently reactionaries as well.  The libertarians are often reactionary against authority, the centrists against what they see as the extremes of other committed individuals, and so on.  Because we all have visceral negative reactions to things that have wounded us, the problem of reactionary religion can easily become a problem for any of us.

And what is the problem with a religious perspective that is a reaction to the old, the new, the extremes, the authorities, et cetera?  Fundamentally, the difficulty with a religion that exists in reaction to something else is that in imposing our own insecurities and pathologies on a religion we should be embracing so as to grind away those insecurities and pathologies on the rock of loving kindness, we defeat the great benefit of having a religion, denying ourselves the fruits of the very thing we would like to think that we are cultivating.

A reactionary religion puts up a wall of our insecurities and pathologies around us, enshrining them in the cloak of the holiness we should be seeking to wear, a cloak we cannot wear until we have taken off those insecurities and pathologies so that we have room in our lives to act with the loving kindness we need to weave into the cloak of holiness.  In order to embrace a religion in such a way that it leads us to lives of holiness, we must make our religion an affirmation of the good rather than a negation of those things that have wounded us. 

Our practice of a religion must move away from a gut-wrenching "No!" to what has wounded us and move toward a serene "Yes!" to what will heal us of those wounds so that we can reach out to those who have wounded us and help them to heal as well.