Thanks to my friend, Steve Schrader, for striking the spark that ignited this post.
In a recent blog post at Psychology Today, Carl Routlidge Ph.D., spoke of religion as a response to existential threats. Angst – our deep, pervasive, and often shadowy feeling of dread, doubt, fear, despair, and anxiety in the face of life – is undoubtedly one of the driving factors behind religion. Christian existentialists have reflected on this truth in great depth, as in Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be, to which I must pay homage. While this post certainly reflects my own experiences and ideas, there is little here that isn’t more fully examined in Tillich’s work.
We have lots of unhealthy ways of responding to angst, and there are examples of such dis-ease in the imbalances of two extreme expressions of our religion. Look closely and you can find it is the dank and musty secret in the closet behind the veil of a way that seems to be all about doves, rainbows, flowers, and honey. On the other hand, it is also the searing smokey furnace in the basement underneath the way of hellfire and brimstone, world hating, and self-loathing. In both cases, the energy of angst is not accepted for what it actually is, and this lack of acceptance amounts to a denial of our fear in the broadest sense. Some of us even mistakenly speak of fear as the opposite of love, as if it is the very worst evil there is. Its energy is therefore rerouted into attitudes that not only feel safer to us and others, but also seem to facilitate actually doing something in response to the supposed causes of our more specific fears. For some of us, it is the barely bridled anger of a militant moralism obsessed with the dichotomy of sin and purity, and for others it is the sticky, saccharine sweet, whitewash of escapist optimism. Some of us even jump back and forth from one of these extremes to the other. To some extent, we must fall back on such defensive patterns in order to survive; it is the fight-or-flight response at the level of being itself. Without it, we would too often be paralyzed in our angst. We wouldn’t really live at all.
But is this all there is to religion? Not according to those who have knowingly walked on the stormy waters of their own angst. Accepting angst as something other than an evil to be vanquished is a vital part of an authentic faith. This may be one of the deeper meanings in our language about fearing God. According to Proverbs, that fear is intimately linked with wisdom, and in Psalms with humility and the desire for forgiveness and renewal. As with existential philosophers and therapists, our great prophets, preachers and saints consistently tell us that there is something psychologically and spiritually healthy about standing naked before all the dark frightening aspects and possibilities of our existence – aloneness, uncertainty, impermanence, and pain.
Any genuine path of mysticism must include a deeper awareness, acceptance, and integration of these aspects of our being. We may be drawn to mysticism as a way that seems to offer the ultimate escape from them but, if we are genuinely devoted to the fullest possible communion with Truth and Love, we cannot avoid them. This inevitability is profoundly explored in the writings of St. John of the Cross, Mother Theresa, Soren Kierkegaard, and Paul Tillich among many others. It can even be heard when Jesus describes the Way of the Cross:
He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again. He spoke plainly about this, and Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.But when Jesus turned and looked at his disciples, he rebuked Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? Mark 8:31-37
His own personal angst is more dramatically recorded in his experience in the garden of Gethsemane:
Then Jesus went with them to the olive grove called Gethsemane, and he said, “Sit here while I go over there to pray.”He took Peter and Zebedee’s two sons, James and John, and he became anguished and distressed. He told them, “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
He went on a little farther and bowed with his face to the ground, praying, “My Father! If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.”
Then he returned to the disciples and found them asleep. He said to Peter, “Couldn’t you watch with me even one hour? Keep watch and pray, so that you will not give in to temptation. For the spirit is willing, but the body is weak!” Matthew 26:36-41
Part of the Good News is that it’s possible to discover something wonderful on the other side of all that darkness. There is indeed a resurrection after the psychological crucifixion of accepting and learning to live with our anguish, distress, and crushing grief. That resurrection isn’t the end of suffering; even after Jesus’ resurrection his body was still wounded and still knew hunger. Rather, we awaken to a clearer realization of the context of that suffering and the meaning we can give to it; in short, we can have life more abundantly, just as Jesus wished for us. Accepting existence in its wholeness, and thus living life in our own wholeness, means no longer having to be constantly either at war with or trying to run away from ourselves, others, the world, or reality itself. It bestows a peace that transcends the conflicts of our black-and-white either/or thinking without merely hiding them behind angelic fantasies. With that peace comes awareness of our freedom to simply be; to live authentically; to try and to fail; to fall and get back up; to do something other than punish ourselves in pursuit of illusory perfection; to be co-creators of the richest kinds of beauty; and to know love in all its colors, flavors, scents, sounds, and textures, even when it is unrequited, and even where we once might have found nothing but indifference, fear, or hate.
Some of us also come to see this dynamic of psychological crucifixion and rebirth as only one example of a truly cosmic principle and pattern. Our mystical experience gives us greater hope, if not genuine certainty, that there is much more to our existence than accidental interactions of energy occasionally coalescing in the form of a human brain destined for cellular decay. By the same token, however, it can make the possibility of such annihilation fade to near insignificance compared to the awesome fact that there is indeed, right here and now, a virtually infinite amount of something rather than nothing, and that we are free to do with this miracle as we will!
Oh God, thank you just for this much! Help us embrace our freedom in wholeness. Amen.