“Just sit there right now
Don’t do a thing
For your separation from God,
Is the hardest work
Let me bring you trays of food
That you like to
You can use my soft words
As a cushion
–Shams-ud-din Muhammad Hafiz, translated by Daniel Ladinsky
Note: this is a continuation of the introductory essay “Avant-God: the Crafters of New Wineskins.”
It is my heartfelt belief that the primary purpose of essays and non-fiction writing on spirituality is not so much to provide answers, but to point us toward better questions. If I pose a question and answer it in the same space, without giving you pause for reflection, I’m not really doing my job. That would make me little more than a talking head with a very quiet voice. (Ever hear the expression,”He has a perfect face for radio?” Maybe bloggers are people who also have the perfect voice for online journalism.)
Therefore it is both my hope and intent that the New Wineskins essay that introduces the Avant-God concept left you with fewer answers than questions.
If I may be so bold as to anticipate some: “So why do we need new wineskins anyway? What causes the solid, unchanging and absolute principles of our religions to become brittle and porous? What historical conditions have created this need, and are we experiencing that now? What do the Avant-God teach us that is so different?”
These are important considerations, for I hope a truth that has gone unspoken thus far is still quite clear: not all innovations are desirable. Being new or avant-garde does not equate to being better in any field, and certainly not one such as religion where the ability to carry time-tested wisdom is one of the most valued attributes. The theological equivalent of a dress made of black snakes may have some initial shock value, but little if any staying power.
WHAT WOULD FEMA DO?
Maybe it is because the seed for this piece was an essay I started writing just after Hurricane Sandy plowed into the northeast coast of the United States. In any case, I have found this image inescapable:
The Avant-God are like the first responders on the scene at a natural disaster. This kind of disaster, however, is a metaphysical one, which is the exact opposite of a natural disaster. The Avant-God appear when life is so “normal” and non-chaotic that it is becoming stagnant, when no one’s inner world has been turned upside down for a long, long time. Most people are content just to be themselves, no matter how uninspired they feel about those selves, and those who feel perpetually cranky and unfulfilled accept this as the norm and have not the slightest idea how to change it. In every facet of life, an established order chokes off innovation and dynamism, and the people are too addicted to their comfort to bother wondering why.
When life is too tame, in other words, the wild ones arrive. It is their natural purpose to stir up whatever is becoming stale locally –the gene pool, the culture, the belief systems, the dominant paradigm in any field.
Now we have established already that religions do not necessarily want to be progressive institutions, and there has been sound reasoning for this throughout most of our history. In pre-literate societies, religions play a central role in preserving cultural knowledge and continuity between generations. They are, after all, merely a formal apparatus for storytelling, the means by which a culture or subculture’s mythos is transmitted. It is well and good that those who safeguard this wisdom are not inclined to chase every novel idea.
The problem is that when religion becomes too conservative, too ingrained in the power structure of the culture that it serves, it creates and perpetuates factors that will cause it to neglect or even abandon altogether its other primary function, which is to orient us toward metaphysical experience –that is, to open our temporal-spatial individual minds to the experience of the Eternal and Infinite. Without this metaphysical opening, religion will point toward eternity, but project it as a limitless future of linear time; it will introduce the individual to an explanatory concept of her sense of a supreme identity in the Absolute, but project it as an indefinite extension of the cultural power structure and hierarchy into the limitless future. This is what C.G. Jung meant when he said, “Religion is a defense against the experience of God.”
This need not be a nefarious defense. God is a mind-blowing concept, and “the psychotic drowns in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight.” (Joseph Campbell) Ideally, what religion provides to steer us toward delight is a specific framework of symbols that brings the experience of Eternity to our selective attention, broadens or narrows it as appropriate to the individual, and makes the whole experience intelligible and unique. For instance, a Roman Catholic praying before a crucifix will experience the sensation of Eternity in a very specific way, and in a way that she would not have without the framework of the church’s teachings. The same sensation would be framed differently, and therefore received differently, if she were bowing to Mecca, or doing Vipassana meditation etc.
In highly literate societies, it makes perfect sense for religion to de-emphasize its role as a preserver of cultural truth —we no longer need a spokesperson god to tell us what to eat, or to wash our hands, or to not put our genitals anywhere we please without thinking of consequences etc— and focus more on orienting us to the Eternal and Universal. By doing the opposite, by clenching down on tangible forms and relative cultural truths that appear solid, unchanging and absolute in the face of competition from more fluid forms of cultural knowledge like science, religions make themselves into something that looks and feels and acts like just another political unit, and that is essentially what they become.
No matter what their rhetoric regarding timeless truths, caring for orphans and widows and whatnot, religions in these times spin their Official Facts into a patchwork quilt of nationalism, classism and xenophobia that covers the virtue of the wealthy, well-connected, and obedient, and this makes them virtually indistinguishable from the mundane identity politics they are supposed to help us transcend.
It is the official position of Not Two that mainstream American culture needs an influx of Avant-God voices in the worst way. In fact, the urgency may be more relevant now than at any time in human history. America in the 21st century is a metaphysical disaster area of epic scope, and the rest of the world is falling all over itself to follow suit. The function of the Avant-God in the field of storytelling is almost completely unknown to us. Our collective imagination is corporate-owned and franchised. Everything is a commodity, designed for quick consumption. Films are increasingly limited to spectacles of sensory titillation devoid of depth. A book is considered good if it is a “page-turner,” and published poetry is either academic calisthenics for bored English majors or greeting card fodder. People of a natural metaphysical bent cluster together in small choirs and preach to each other. What passes for inspirational writing beyond that is a metaphysically bland melange of self-help, gurus-for-hire, and chicken soup for every persuasion, designed to stir the soul enough to get through the day but always leave us needing more. Nothing that threatens our status quo as consumers of the next installment of the Don’t Worry Be Happy franchise. 
Our religious institutions are powerless to raise our awareness of metaphysical Reality, in fact they are even less capable of helping because they believe their scriptures have all the answers. They can talk morality from here to Gomorrah, but there is little notion of conscience, so morality is no more than what church leadership tells us is right and wrong, based on their interpretation of scripture. The fact that these leaders ceded to secular humanists and “Occupy” activists the ethical high ground on matters like opposition to militarism. social justice and ecology is not even debatable, and it is fair to wonder who is better prepared to love thy neighbor as thy self, or cultivate the empathy and sense of Oneness that it takes to constructively address poverty, racism and, most urgently, climate change. People of my generation and younger have never lived in a time when our churches led the charge in these efforts (with the notable exception of Quakers and small, scattered pockets of activist congregations) and few would have reason to think that they could again.
Having lost most of their spiritual potency, the mainstream churches of America turn to political power to stay relevant, thus completing their transformation into one of the most divisive forces in our culture –exactly the opposite of the function they are supposed to serve.
Into this kind of spiritual disaster area walks an avant-Godist like the Sufi poet Hafiz (thanks to the creative effort of contemporary poet Daniel Ladinsky; see their entry in the Poetry section of Recommended Reading). He tells us our separation from God is the hardest work in this world. He spins tales of a lost Reality of connection and inner peace, and hands them out to whoever will accept them, as if they were trays of food or something pleasant to drink for hurricane victims. People look at him funny; they don’t even remember well enough to know what he is talking about. “Of course we are separate from God,” some say, “it says so in the Bible/Torah/Qu’ran/Vedas.” Others who are more philosophical but steeped in binary logic say, “If this God of which you speak is true, the separation is inevitable, for the knower must be separate from what is known.” Yet others, with increasing frequency, will say, “There is no God from which to be separate!”
All three of these, it should be noted, are sound, reasonable responses in a world lacking metaphysical insight. These factions may fight each other for supremacy, but the Avant-God are wise not to engage in these skirmishes. There is nothing to be gained from engaging them on their own limited grounds. The trick for the Avant-God is to slowly and steadily chip away at the positivist and reductionist barriers that keep the grounds limited, and expand the context of discussion until what they have to tell us makes sense. All enemies become friends when context expands sufficiently, and with the right kind of mental aikido, all three of these assertions become useful tools of the Avant-God. Reason killed the polytheistic gods of antiquity, and it trapped Yahweh/Allah in an ill-fitting box, but when context grows to the point that words like “infinite” and “eternal” and “universe” are properly understood, reason becomes an ally of the universalist.
Some are more successful at this than others, but it is safe to say that the avant-God rarely make the bestseller list in any era.  But that suits them fine. The goal is deep appeal to a few, not a broad but shallow readership. They know that just as they were awakened by someone before them, most of their avid readers will be moved to continue spreading the Even Better News in their own form. And so the movement spreads by evolution, one reinvigorated soul at a time.
SRUTI AND SMRITI
“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.”
If poets seem disproportionately represented among the Avant-God, this is no coincidence. The language of religion —and, according to Avant-God scholar and educator Joseph Campbell, the concurrent but broader realm of mythology— is poetic, not scientific nor historical. This does not denote any adherence to particular classes of form and aesthetics in the more familiar sense of poetry, but rather a conscious awareness on the part of both author and reader of the symbolic nature of the knowledge imparted —metaphor presented and accepted as metaphor.
“Mythology is not a lie,” wrote Campbell, “mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth–penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words. Beyond images, beyond that bounding rim of the Buddhist Wheel of Becoming. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known but not told.”
This is a crucial point that is so easily lost in translation but mustn’t be if we are aiming for true understanding of the work of the Avant-God: They are not merely trying to give us something new to believe. They are looking to shape the way we think, not just what we think.
Religious metaphor is like a lever leading into the deepest parts of the reader’s psyche. If properly deployed, a small amount of external effort will lead to a major internal shift. The fulcrum of the lever is the rational understanding of what the metaphor implies. If the poet-author operates at a long distance from the fulcrum –as I find to be the case with most cryptic poetry and other hallmarks of the avant-garde– the lever is easy to move, but doesn’t go as deep into the reader and has a shorter internal range of motion. By moving closer to the reader’s rational understanding –think of the clarity found in many of the sayings of Jesus and Buddha, to cite two of the best known examples– the lever takes more exertion by the author but has a greater and wider effect on the reader.
Get too close to the fulcrum, however, and the lever ceases to function as such –or, in the words of Campbell, “Wherever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed.” 
This is essentially what Emily Dickinson was saying (albeit more poetically) in the passage quoted here. She knew that a poet had done his/her job when she felt physically affected by the words as they penetrated her frontal lobe. Poetry that finds the right balance on the lever, whether religious or secular in nature, has that amazing way of taking us by the hand and leading us right into the heart of the matter. When poetry does this, it is usually fleeting. We read and admire, maybe feel that rush of intuition coming from our heart, the super-rational understanding that these words represent a piece of the puzzle we were born to put together and it fits just so…then we put the book down and gradually or abruptly we are reabsorbed back into our separate selves. The words go back to being thought objects that convey subjective units of meaning, or better, if our reading instruments are properly tuned, they may strike a chord so melodious that we will play them again and again like a favorite album –or best yet, they give us a Dickinsonian labotomy. In the words of J.D. Salinger, a superlative poem may take us within an inch of our lives. We may be forever changed by the words, but we will live to tell the tale.
The Avant-God are aiming for another class of poetry that attempts to do the same, and then go the final inch. The aim is to snap the reader’s mind out of its finite, temporal confines and straight into awareness of the Infinite and Eternal. It aims for a sweet spot on the lever by which it can permanently dismantle any notion that we are separate from anyone or anything in the universe.
At the risk of making this too esoteric, but with the reward of saving it from all tainted connotations of its Western contexts, I will borrow a term from Hinduism and call this class of writing “Sruti” (pronounced like “SHREW-tee,” just as the first word in Sri Lanka is “shree”). According to Wikipedia, Sruti “is considered solely of divine origin. Because of the divine origin, it is preserved as a whole, instead of verse by verse.” The corresponding meaning that I give the term in our context is that Sruti represents an author’s effort to tap directly into the main vein of poetry flowing straight from the heart –a vein that varies little from person to person because the truths it conveys are universal. As such, they should be considered not as an isolated pocket of meaning to be analyzed and/or believed unto itself, but as an expression of the Wholeness that they conjure.
The goal of Sruti is to acquaint you so thoroughly with the eternal Reality underpinning our finite world that, rather than being transitory, the acquaintance will last your lifetime and beyond. So powerful should the recognition of this Reality be, that any thought of a separation between you and this Reality should eventually (or in some cases, suddenly) cease. If poetry lops off the top of Ms. Dickinson’s head, Sruti aims to come for the rest of her.
Though often religious or spiritual in nature, and there is a great deal of overlap with the world’s sacred scriptures, Sruti is not synonymous with these scriptures. What qualifies a piece of writing to be considered “scripture” is an entirely different process and mindset that we’ll address later. For now, it is safe to assume that all of the world’s sacred texts contain elements of Sruti, but are not Sruti in and of themselves because they carry the burden of institutional authority.
I cannot stress this point enough: Sruti, as I am employing the term, is not synonymous with the words that convey it, and it does not draw upon any external authority or historical verifiability to identify and canonize it. These are truths held to be self-evident, because ultimately what defines Sruti in its written form is an experience in the interaction between the words themselves and the reader. So Sruti straddles the line between objective and subjective reality, and it does this specifically in order to obliterate the line. It is a deliberate duality-smasher.
Its success at this endeavor is entirely dependent upon the cumulative personality factors of the reader. Sruti reaches us right where we live, yanks us out of the rut of that “I” experience, and drops us into where it needs us to be to understand it –the realm where “I” and “not I” are irrelevant distinctions. To borrow from Ms. Dickinson again: if you feel as though the top of your head were taken off and you were pulled through this portal into Eternal Life, you know it is Sruti.
The first time I tried to write about Sruti, I was content to call it “the Word of God.” This is one of those connotations I want to avoid because it implies a specious celestial authorship, an attachment to which we should have outgrown around the time the printing press was invented. This is where we part ways with the original Hindu meaning of the term, in which Sruti is held to be the direct revelation of the denizens of a separate divine realm, just as many Christians hold the bible as “God’s Word.” (And make no mistake here: the confusion between the image of Jesus as the Word of God —from the original Greek concept of “Logos”— and the literal belief in the bible as words authored by God is not unintended, nor without serious consequences to the practice of Christianity.)
I emphatically repeat: in this adopted use of the term, real human beings are the authors of words that engender the experience of Sruti. Many of the best Sruti writings, in my experience, are anonymous, but this does not change the fact that someone(s) endeavored to create and/or record them for posterity. And this is part of their magic: an ordinary person was moved to write extraordinary things because someone else did the same for her, and her Sruti experience stoked the fires of compassion and gave her a burning need to pass it along.
In the Hindu canon, there is another class of poetry-mythology that carries the bulk of tradition specific to Hindu culture. This class, called smriti (“remembered text,” in contrast to the “heard text” of Sruti), you could say, is closer to the fulcrum of the Hindu lever because it includes reasoned commentary on the divine revelations found in Sruti. Here is how Wiki describes the difference:
“Śruti is considered solely of divine origin. Because of the divine origin, it is preserved as a whole, instead of verse by verse. Smriti on the other hand may include all the knowledge that has been derived and inculcated ‘after’ Śruti had already been received by the great seers or Rishis. In other words it is not ‘divine’ in origin, but was ‘remembered’ by later Rishis by transcendental means, and passed down though their followers. In some of the Smriti text itself, we are reminded of the divine nature of the Śruti texts, and are ever advised that in case of any conflict between the two, the Śruti will always overrule Smriti.”
The relationship between the two, therefore, is not binary. One does not exclude the other, in fact you could make a case that they are mutually interdependent: smriti without Sruti (or in which the Sruti is neglected) is the definition of an old, dried-out wineskin, but Sruti in isolation, without the vehicle of a cultural context, has no chance of being transmitted. (This is not really an apples-to-apples comparison, but think of journal full of one’s innermost truths and deepest thoughts, maybe even written in a private language, that no one else will ever read; an enriching project for the individual, but it cannot inspire others so the insight dies with the individual).
Therefore, in summary: Sruti is kind of an amorphous experience-thing that confounds our notions of subjective and objective, noun and verb and adjective etc; smriti makes of this same insight something more objective and tangible, more capable of being shared by intellectual beings across time and space. Sruti represents the jumping off point from our subjective self to the seamless unity of Eternity. It doesn’t change from person to person or era to era because it is a universal experience. It is the wine on which we all long to get drunk and lose ourselves. Smriti is the wineskin; it is the vehicle that carries Sruti to us –in a sense, although it is we who are changing and moving, so in a sharper metaphorical sense, it is smriti that carries us to the jumping off point and prepares us for the launch.
It is important to note that smriti, being a more fully developed intellectual construct –a shorter lever, to get back to our metaphor about metaphors– is a more accurate depiction of what Campbell means by “mythology.” Therefore, smriti is not a lie; it is the penultimate truth of Sruti in a more tangible form. Being one step further removed from Reality means that the truth of smriti is relative —that is, it can stand together and coexist with other relative truths, the same way that the vocabulary for one language coexists with all others as means to describe reality. The poetry of smriti, understood as such, is therefore a living, active document, so much more than the sum of the meaning of its words, enticing us to taste the sweet nectar of Sruti that it contains —which, let us not forget, can be found everywhere, yet is so easily overlooked by us intellectual creatures, sometimes for our whole lives, until someone is kind enough to lift the wineskin to our lips and let us sip.
The poetry is killed when the harmonious interdependence of Sruti and smriti is disrupted –generally, when the distinction between them is forgotten, or deliberately confused. To put it in Christian terms: when the Word of God (Sruti) and the words of the bible (smriti) are functionally identical in the eyes of believers.
GOSPEL AND SCRIPTURE
“He gazed up at the enormous face. Forty years it had taken him to learn what kind of smile was hidden beneath the dark moustache. O cruel, needless misunderstanding! O stubborn, self-willed exile from the loving breast! Two gin-scented tears trickled down the sides of his nose. But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother.”
–George Orwell, “1984”
When Sruti and smriti function co-operatively in a specific way, the verbal portion is called a “gospel.”
The etymology of gospel suggests its origin as a special kind of mythology, as a story repeated to perform a particular purpose: it literally means “good story,” or as it is more commonly known, “good news.” What a gospel affirmatively proclaims is based on cultural constructs and assumptions and therefore is an aspect of its relative truth. For example, cultures where Christianity predominates produce a very different mindset than Buddhist cultures, so it is no surprise that heaven and nirvana would look quite different on paper, whereas the afterlife spoken of in Judaism and Islam, though having different parameters, is easier for the Christian to recognize –they are like three Romance languages in contrast to the Sanskrit of nirvana.
What they all have in common is an undercurrent to be found in their shared root experience of Sruti: each is the realization of a supreme Good without the contrast of a Bad. Heaven and nirvana, though they differ in the details, are metaphors for a state of release from duality and binary logic.
The root of duality is the experience of the subjective self (the ego) that begins when the unborn infant, in the process of developing rudimentary motor skills, starts to differentiate from his environment. But the ego doesn’t fully solidify until the young child begins acquiring semantic language and the patchwork of social roles by which he identifies that organism using motor skills for specific, more sophisticated purposes.
The “good news” is our translation into words of the knowledge that comes from the metaphysical experience of Sruti: The subjective self (which we have reason to believe will die at some point in time) is not who we really are, and there is a means to release oneself from the grip of this self, while still experiencing it, through practices that engender humility and self-abnegation. Each gospel lays down its own path to this common core experience of liberation from ego.
The wisdom of gospel as metaphor is that not only does it make interfaith community possible, but it also eases intrafaith tensions that often lead to splintering. Some devotees will seek the sweet spot on the lever and aim for complete liberation while still living, or total self-annihilation and immersion in the experience of Sruti. Most, for a variety of reasons, will chose to stay closer to the fulcrum of their rational understanding and follow their specific smriti/gospel, letting liberation come to them when it may –maybe before they leave this place, maybe after.
For the latter, the gospel still offers disciplines that promote humility, and its followers subject themselves to varying degrees, with faith that they are better prepared to love and live in unity than they were before. Faith here is based closer to reason and therefore more relative and conjectural than for those who took the plunge into Sruti, but the trade off may be that this makes the faith more vigorous, that the shade of doubt may brighten the light of acceptance and sharpen perception within it scope. Thus the gospel follower may find himself encouraged by degrees, and find liberation from self by degrees as well, escaping the slavery of addictions or conformity to behavior that binds her to ego. As long as the promise of the gospel remains rooted in the Truth of Sruti —that liberation from the prison of duality and subjective self is possible and coming to those who desire it— the faith in that gospel can stay vibrant, and the faithful can trust that, thanks to the remarkable diversity of human beings, there are even different ways to walk the same path. The trick is not to get lost in the details (which, according to the expression, is where the devil is) and trust that, no matter how errant another’s practice may seem from my own perspective, to judge from my perspective reattaches me to the subjective self, so I am merely damming (or damning) my own path. At very least, metaphor allows us the perception that we are all faithful toward something that is durable, and that is a vast improvement over doubt and the hopelessness of thinking that “no one here gets out alive.”
I hope it is clear that, no matter where one falls on the continuum of devotion to a particular gospel, where that main current of poetry is still perceived and metaphorical understanding is given the space to find fellowship with other belief systems, there is life that springs Eternal. Such a believer has no greater need to fear the presence of other thriving gospels than a native English speaker’s reality is threatened by other languages spoken in his midst.
Of course, there is still a small, bizarre subculture in this country who believe everyone should be forced to speak English in order to exist here…..and we also know that every faith has an element who believe that their gospel is the only valid one. Entire belief systems have been built upon this premise, and fought for with a fervor as great as any nationalism. Just as an “English only” ideal is a complete abomination to the very concept of liberty, there is no greater contrast to the fundamental purpose of religion than the belief that one’s own clique within a subgroup of a denomination of a particular religious tradition has it right, to the exclusion of everyone else. This is essentially the indefinite preservation of the subjective self rather than its diminishment. Literate people with any shred of worldliness in their outlook should be able to see through this facade, and they do now in droves –but not to the betterment of religion. The poster child for atheism and secularism is not an atheist nor a secularist; it is the fundamentalist who is so sure of the exclusive correctness of his own gospel that he would commit or authorize acts of violence against non-believers (or sit at home and pray for their god to come do the job for them). Yet this bastardization of religion not only persists in our time, but has become the standard caricature of religion among the kind of progressive thinkers it should be attracting. (See any treatment of religion by Bill Maher, for example. I can’t argue with him on any of it, and yet, I need to.)
Campbell’s insight on the matter bears repeating:
“Wherever the poetry of myth is interpreted as biography, history, or science, it is killed.”
When the lever of metaphor is removed from a gospel entirely, the gospel has the same access point to human understanding as any external information: via the filter of the rational mind (which, as it were, is often not an effective filter anyway, tattered and tainted as it is by prejudices and poor thinking skills). A gospel thus stripped of its metaphorical power and left to depend on a persuasive argument to reason is what I call “scripture.”
This may seem odd to the modern thinker, accustomed to seeing the literal interpretations of scripture as the opposite of rational. But that is exactly the point: acceptance of a gospel as literal, absolute, exclusive truth requires such a strong persuasive verbal argument (usually fueled by the emotion of fear) that one’s rationality and binary logic, which is needed to sustain exclusivity, remains intact but is literally inverted so that black is white and up is down (this is parodied brilliantly by Orwell’s “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength” in 1984). When a belief is irrational, chances are it has been deeply rationalized –slow-cooked in a stew with ingredients like those prejudices and emotions that we find blocking the actual rational process. Thus the crown of scriptural belief is bejeweled with many ill-reasoned gems, such as the notorious 2nd century heretic-slayer Tertullian’s “I believe because it is absurd.”
What makes scripture so potent and enticing as an object of devotion is the fact that, even when stripped of metaphor, it still contains the symbolic elements of Sruti in verbal form, so its words still carry much weight. The “death” of poetry in them is entirely subjective; Truth suffers not one bit of loss when we misconstrue it in our minds. But with no functional distinction between Sruti and smriti –between substance and symbol, universal Truth and cultural truth– the power of Sruti appears to come from the vehicle that brought it to us.
Frankly it puzzles me why we are so susceptible to this mistake –I have tasted wine, and I have tried to eat wineskins, and I know them to be dramatically different experiences. But I think the rub of it is the ease with which it address our deepest insecurities for a minimal cost. Big Brother’s doublespeak worked in 1984 because the citizens desired security in life; scripture works because we desire to know that we continue in some recognizable form after death. The experience of Sruti does this, thoroughly and unmistakably, but to maintain the experience, the cost is high: we surrender our subjective self, the ego, the sense of being existentially distinct and separate from all else; to experience Sruti fully, we must let go of both pride and prejudice, and endeavor to embody some variation of “love thy neighbor as thyself.”
Scripture-based faiths offer the same existential security, but they narrow the definition of one’s neighbors to an in-group of people who read the same smriti, recognize the same Manichean symbols and observe the same customs. No challenge to the duality of Good and Bad. Imagine: all the benefits of Eternity, without the pesky fact that, by definition, it includes everyone! Sure, it adds another layer of political conflict to your lives, one that will never cease because all sides believe the Almighty is on their side, but don’t worry: war is peace.
THE EVEN BETTER NEWS
“And a certain scribe came, and said unto him, Master, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest. And Jesus saith unto him, The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.”
–Matthew 8:19-20, KJV
As a countermeasure to the pretzel logic of scriptural idolatry, I offer this one litmus test that can be applied across the board to any idea competing for spiritual truth: If this gospel is good news to you, but bad news to others, it isn’t good enough. Don’t confuse it for scripture. It has taken you as far as it can go; this is the jumping-off point for a truth that is bigger.
The Truth of Eternity swallows all scriptures whole; there is more of it to be found in a grain of sand, inseparable from the whole, than any literal reading of any gospel. A faith that claims exclusive universal truth only serves to trap itself, like a tuna in a goldfish bowl, when it could have shared the whole ocean and swam free. When its spiritual power becomes as impotent as a djinni in a bottle, it forms a PAC and fights against the civil rights of people it doesn’t like.
Abandoning formal religion does not seem to be the answer. Secular government is wonderful, and for many reasons it is healthy and good for religious institutions to be protected from the allure of political power. But a completely secular life? I’m not sure that is desirable or even fully possible. Like it or not, the religious impulse appears to be hardwired in our brains, and for good reason (see the listing in Recommended Reading for “Why God Won’t Go Away”). If we don’t consciously exercise this impulse, I have reason to believe it finds other things to attach itself to, other means of expanding our notions of self that may be constructive uses for our lives, but may also be a lot less nourishing and wholesome.
I am 100 percent all in favor of DIY spirituality, don’t get me wrong —wouldn’t have a site devoted to it otherwise. My purpose here, in fact, is to celebrate and invigorate the existent trend of an independent, home-grown tableau of autodidactic “pathwalks” that draw upon the whole gamut of religious experiences and traditions, but without any intermediaries —self-styled dances with the Divine, infused with a natural sense of pantheism that seems to reach out from the core rather than require a journey inward as I experienced it. It is indeed encouraging to see the children of the hippie generation –nieces and nephews of the New Age, you could say?– reclaiming their inherent holiness and taking religious matters into their own hands. (The words for this just came to me, as I think the term was coined last week, but it is now clear that the strongest emergent trend that I’ve witnessed among an age group ranging from my fellow late Gen-X’ers to the early Millenials falls under an umbrella term called Religious Naturalism.)
So yes, if our religious institutions can’t or won’t meet us where we need to be met, as freethinkers who can access the world with the click of a mouse or find it in a blade of grass, we must assume that leadership ourselves. My one caveat to this –and it comes from painful experience– is do not try to practice this independence in isolation. One, it’s a lot less fun, and two, without checks and balances for the ego, self-styled religion can easily remain as egocentric as any unchallenged selfhood. There is some wisdom in the Christian idea that God is present wherever two or more come together in His name —misleading as that is when taken literally, what it is telling us is that something special happens in fellowship, in that space where we share ideas and prayers and words of encouragement, or sometimes just silent presence. Find ways to keep that path plugged in —not because you need to keep it orthodox, but so that an “orthodoxy of one” doesn’t form around you. Social networking, sweat lodge ceremonies, solstice/equinox celebrations, women’s gatherings to cultivate the long-neglected feminine aspects of the Divine, etc etc —the opportunities to connect are as diverse as we are.
If I had to pinpoint the mission of the Avant-God in this era, it is to spread the Even Better News: that the Divine presence we seek is here now —there is nowhere else it could be!— and our whole Self is exactly that, not a divvied-up portion. Your means of honoring this Truth, assuming you are honest with yourself and know that you are consciously doing so, is as valid as anything that any religious institution would have you do. The only trick is that you have to do it! There is no room for slacking in the conscious life. “Do what thou wilt,” as they say –and “thou” is NOT your subjective self….try that on for size— and do it with all your might, and all your love.  The reward will be self-evident; the goal is already assured. Eternal Life is here now.
To the objective of spreading the Even Better News, the Avant-God are charged with the task of creating new wineskins, but also of finding new materials that will not so easily dry and crack. Scripture makes a very poor wineskin because it makes an idol of smriti –it limits our understanding to verbal expressions and cultural truths. The mission of the Avant-God in modern times must be to give us smriti that cannot be mistaken for scripture. (5) The more it engages the imagination of the reader, as opposed to the parts of the mind looking to cling to observable facts, the better it will serve this purpose.
I see plenty of evidence that this is happening, yet I also see most of these efforts either being commodified as the spiritual fad du jour, or trivialized with the same condescending tone with which adults acknowledge Santa Claus. I reckon, then, that part of Not Two’s mission is to promote the understanding that there is real Truth in these stories both old and new, that this is the same creative process undergone by the prophets of the past 6,000 years, with different mediums and without the dubious claims of authority.
The Even Better News can be recognized by its universal beneficence. It is definitively not a list of instructions on how to join a chosen few. This does not mean individual effort is not required to cultivate the Even Better News and experience it in this lifetime. Again, a life of conscious spirituality does not demand specific beliefs because that is not its language. But if it isn’t inspiring some very specific actions, it is being short-circuited somewhere –perhaps (and this too, I’m afraid, comes from personal experience) an egocentric desire to be relieved of the task of being human.
But I hasten to clarify at the risk of redundancy: The cost of resting on one’s laurels and taking smriti for scripture, or even ignoring it all together, is not banishment from Eternity, as if that were even possible. It is a life of maladjustment to the impermanence of forms and the implications of unchecked duality on what could have been a serene mind. It is living like a tuna in a goldfish bowl when you could have been the Ocean. It is the eventual realization that you will never know how powerful you could have been as an agent of peace, had you known who you truly are.
At best, without the poetry of Sruti as your guide, you will spend your life building a prize-winning sand castle, the Ocean but a menacing threat that seems far away, then closer, then farther again….and now, here comes the storm surge from a hurricane blowing ashore. Guess who is going to win in the end.
But here is the Best News Ever: your victory is assured. Believe it or not, you are the Ocean as well.
I hope you will rest for a moment as you take that in, accept this small tray of nourishing food, and this empty glass of the finest Wine. You can use my words as a cushion for your head. But just for a moment; there is work to do. Your work will be much easier now, but it never ceases. The Ocean goes nowhere, but it never stops moving; it hath not where to lay its head.
(1) Every time I see a blurb from the writings of Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra, I get excited by what they’ve said, yet I’ve never sought to read these writings in their entirety. I’m guilty of judging books by their covers for too long and building a mistrust in the way they are marketed. Tolle seems especially adept at transmitting authentic Advaita Vedanta for a modern audience. But, “The Power of Now:” what an awful title to feed to this power-mad culture….or maybe that is part of the brilliance? Luring the self-help crowd into reading a modern interpretation of the Upanishads….I should find out before passing judgment, that’s all I know. In any case, it seems time to make peace with the need for marketability of new wineskins, if we ever hope to elevate the Avant-God movement past the realm of a small subculture. I would love to hear about other great contemporary writers I am missing, if you have any suggestions.
(2) The 13th century Sufi luminary-poet Jallaludin Rumi has an exceptionally large worldwide audience now, and one of his most prolific interpreters, Coleman Barks, had this amusing response to that: “I have sold too many books. Rumi translations have no business cresting in a wave of over half a million. It’s like selling picnic tickets to an unmarked minefield…This love poetry is meant to obliterate you lovers. Rumi wants us to surrender. This is not Norman Vincent Peale urging cheerfulness, conventional morality, and soft-focus, white-light feel-good, nor is this New Age tantric energy exchange. This is giving your life to the one within that you know as Lord…I once told a greeting card company that wanted to put Rumi verses on a card, ‘Rumi’s poetry wants to dissolve the lovers. Annhiliation is the point.’ There was a long silence on the other end. ‘Is there a holiday?’”
(3) Another way to illustrate this: let’s take two students with equal IQs and professional ambitions in the same college biology class. Student A is passionately involved in her lectures and lab work, absorbing every nuance of thought and mannerism of her professor, learning to think like a biologist in every possible way. Student B does all the reading, takes diligent notes in class, and studies feverishly for a week before the final exam to lodge all the relevant information in her brain. Student B might get the same grade as Student A or even outperform her on the exam….but who is likely to be a better biologist down the road? The task of the Avant-God is to find the B’s in our religious traditions and turn them into A’s.
(4) Joseph Campbell was famous for expressing this as “Follow your bliss.” Another person I admire immensely, the religious scholar and activist Andrew Harvey, openly scoffed at this once in a speech at a Network of Spiritual a Progressives conference, basically saying –and I’m paraphrasing but not drastically– that this advice created a generation of bliss-ninnies with no backbone. His advice: “Follow your heartbreak.” Use the gifts given to you to repair what seems most damaged, what breaks your heart the most. My guess is this: if your bliss and your heartache are not one and the same, you probably haven’t discovered it yet. I think this singular innermost Guidepost is not far from the Buddhist concept of “dharma.”
(5) For example, I like to include some element of time-bending to confound any effort to put the story in historical context. In “The Continuing Story of Ananias and Sapphira,” the sad sack couple from 1st century CE Jerusalem go to Purgatory and find themselves in offices of case workers that sound like modern corporate America. In “The Peasant and the King,” the metaphorical heaven receives a medieval pilgrim and a 21st century computer programmer from Connecticut at the same time.