Saturday, October 8, 2011

Do Churches Teach You Not to Think?

The journey that makes the snowflake makes it unique among its brethren for no two journeys are the same.

Up front let me self-identify. I'm a Sevenfth Day Adventist - member in good standing and all that. I know I should leave them alone, but when someone posts a question like this or makes the claim that churches force you to close your mind and accept a kind of forced ignorance, I just can't let the basic assumption behind that claim stand.

A church is, after all, a place where people study and share ideas. Very few congregations have such a rigid structure that there is no exchange of ideas. The sermon alone is a flow of ideas from the speaker to those who hear him. Ministers constantly challenge the comfortable assumptions of their parishioners and invite them to contemplate that which is infinitely beyond themselves. What could be more mind-expanding than that?  What the recipient receives and how it gets interpreted, is entirely up to the listener, but as the Germans say, "Sie gedanken sind frei."  You're thoughts are free.

Holocaust survivor, famed author and psychoanalyst Victor Frankl realized this in a very powerful way when, his family murdered and himself stripped naked and tortured, he discovered that no guard, no SS torturer could reach inside to control who he was in his inner soul.  He discovered that if one has a reason why he should live, if one truly holds love in his heart, he can survive any horror, any trial intact.

Some basic truths I have found:

1. Before a man can clearly look at any set of data, think about it and decide for himself (or herself) what the data means, he must have a mental construct or frame from which to analyze the data and come to a decision as to what to do about it. For some, formal religion or a specific philosophy serves this purpose. Even if you think you don't have a religion or philosophy, you will pick an underlying belief system up from friends or from TV or family -- somewhere, whether you like it or not.  Everyone has a mental framework or belief system. The construction of this framework is the entire work of childhood. Were we not to create a coherent belief system, all the data we absorb would be meaningless. You would be trapped in a kind of perpetual befuddled infancy, unable to decide what was important and meaningful and what was not. There would literally be thoughts you could not think.
2. When that belief system or paradigm is challenged, it causes some level of anxiety.  You experience much greater anxiety if your belief system is fragile or not working very well for you.  You experience far less anxiety or maybe none at all, if you are secure in your intellectual paradigm and can assign meaning to what is happening to you be it good or bad.

3. Shakespeare said, "Methinks thou doth protest too much." When our beliefs are challenged and we are not truly secure in them it disturbs us.  When a challenge to your beliefs is clearly articulated, and you have no ready answer to the challenge it presents, you may experience a fight or flight reaction. Panic may ensue and you resort to fighting, accusation, intimidation or threats against the person who disrupts your comfortable belief system. You do this in order to protect your core beliefs. On the other hand, you may simply flee from it and refuse to look at anything which challenges your beliefs.

4. In truth we all are conservative in our thinking in that we naturally resist changes that threaten the mental structures we rely on to process information. That's why a sudden conversion to a new paradigm can be mentally disorienting and frightening, even if it's a conversion to a better, more stable belief system. 

5.  Ultimately, the strength of our belief system depends heavily upon how much thoughtful work you put into constructing that belief system. If you never examine what you believe; if you never purposefully consider what you believe; if you do not consciously accept ideas that make sense to you and reject ideas that you find through study and research are without value, then you never really develop the ability to resist the instincts of the herd. It's how the Germans both knew about the holocaust, but could claim, honestly that they didn't. Their unconscious belief system accepted the idea that something should be done about the Jews - everyone believed it, didn't they?  At the same time they simply avoided thinking about what that meant in terms of actually doing something about the Jewish problem.

Conclusion: We each begin our search for God or for some kind of enlightenment from exactly where we stand. There is no other way. If God is up there (and I believe firmly that He is), then He is quite capable of locating us where we are and bringing us to Himself along a straight and narrow path. Remember, though that the world is a three dimensional place. We all, if searching sincerely for God, will find Him and meet at His feet. But because we all start in different places, it is conceivable that our paths might never cross except at the end. It's pretty certain, in fact, that no two of us will ever experience the journey in quite the same way. That is why, like snowflakes, no two of us are ever exactly alike.

And that, my friends, is, I believe exactly how God intended for things to work. Our work is to search for truth, to examine our beliefs and to choose whether we wish to love outward or to do the opposite which according to Elie Weisel is indifference. Indifference is what happens when you turn love completely inward and no longer care about anything or anyone outside yourself.
Me, I choose love; the powerful reaching out beyond yourself toward infinite love that transforms the soul and leads you home. I choose love every day of my life. In the meantime, may you find for yourself that path that leaves you strong, self-aware, and truly possessed of free will as God intended.
Till then, I'll see you at the journey's end.
(c) 2011

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