Saturday, September 12, 2015

Spiritual imperialism

Blue heron, grooming 
Sparkill Pond, Sparkill, NY
Photograph by Lee van Laer

I mentioned this idea of spiritual imperialism in my last post, on the iron maiden — the forms we create inside ourselves that tend to do us in.

Chogyam Trungpa’s “Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism”— a classic in its own right — comes to grip with one aspect of our spirituality, the tendency to turn it into an object. But he never, as far as I can recall, mentions spiritual imperialism, which is the tendency both people and cultures have to turn spirituality into an invading force. It gets militarized and weaponized, both figuratively and  (disastrously) literally.

The idea of holy wars, crusades, mayhem and the death visited upon peoples for supposedly spiritual reasons, isn't a new one. But perhaps the idea that it is a form of imperialism — the effort to create empires which dominate other, lesser peoples — is perhaps less familiar. All of these actions begin with a narcissistic hubris — the idea that those in one particular spiritual discipline know better than others how they ought to behave — and, even more insidiously, what they ought to believe. In an empire, when diplomacy fails, the use of force is a default.

Spiritual imperialism is closely tied to the force of ego in an individual. Now, it may seem difficult to draw a parallel between an individual person and a country, or an empire — yet in classic works of philosophy such as Plato's Republic or Ibn Arabi’s Divine Governance of the Human Kingdom, human beings are seen in exactly this way. Each of us rules a peculiar, tiny, self-inflected and (in its own closeted way) supremely ignorant empire of Being— populated by a rowdy, undisciplined crowd of impulses, desires, beliefs, and attitudes whose most prominently shared feature is arrogance. No wonder that we try to export our inner kingdom and rule others with it; as with all militaristic adventurism, it distracts the population from its own problems and points it towards an imaginary common enemy — in this case, other people, and the outside world.

Spiritual imperialism is, in other words, a natural outgrowth of the fact that we would much rather rule other kingdoms than bring our own kingdom into order. It has ever been this way with outer governments and empires; why should the inner world function differently?

It seems to be left to the philosophers such as Plato and al Arabi to think and write wisely about this situation; but the matter is much more immediate. Every human being inhabits exactly such a kingdom, here, and now; and yet no one ever thinks of it, or comes to a question about what their own responsibility ought to be. It is an accepted thing that one ought to inflict one's inner attitudes and life on others; that's how the world works.

Yet, as I think everyone, regardless of race, creed, nationality, sexual preference, or political leaning agrees, the world doesn't work well at all. We can't agree on anything else; but we can agree on this. Yet the will to turn inward and seek a better order within ourselves first is weak at best; and we continue to behave without shame.

The problem begins here, and begins now; I need to see how I am within much better than I do now. Each human being who makes this effort contributes in some very small way to the painfully incremental progress, if any, which the human race is making in this area. One could argue that we have only had a few tens of thousands of years to see this problem and correct it; so perhaps we are doing pretty well, all things considered. Parabola Magazine serves, for those who care about such things, as a lens through which we can try to better focus the collective light we need to see our way towards the good.

Yet I doubt, looking at the world the way it is, whether we have much longer to get this right. The optimist in me — who has always had a reasonable margin over the pessimist, despite my desperately aging cynicism — believes we can get it right; but it seems evident this will not happen in my own generation, or that of my children. Each one of us can't be anything more than a single foot soldier in this long march. It is an inner march, not an outer one; and the opposing force that we march towards for the final confrontation is an inner one as well.  

As Pogo said, "We have met the enemy — and he is us."


Lee van Laer is a senior editor at Parabola Magazine.

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