So, Socrates Walks Into a Church…

The cool thing about true wisdom is that it transcends categorization. We all had that middle school mathematics teacher (Love you, Ms. Mitchell! Sorry I turned out to be a humanities major!) who swore up and down that learning basic trigonometry would totally, definitely help us solve Real Life Problems down the road and, although I’ve never had to find the sine and cosine of a triangle in my adult life, there is some truth in that. Logic skills that we typically associate with math can help us develop arguments in other areas. Skills that we learn in one area are often transferable to other areas. And sometimes a Greek philosopher who was executed for atheism teaches us valuable lessons about how to approach God.

My approach to religion and spirituality is based in mysticism, which seeks total unity with the Divine through inward contemplation. I think most mystics seek, on some level, to know God completely. You may think the key word in that sentence is the “know” — that every mystic’s end goal is to reach some ultimate knowledge. Personally, I think that’s the wrong way to go about it. The word that really deserves our focus is “seek.”

Mystic spirituality revolves around an ongoing personal religious journey. I would argue that the journey itself is ultimately more important than the destination. The point isn’t to reach a certain spiritual endgame — the point is to make progress, whatever that means for you.

One of my biggest issues with organized religion (and every religious person should have issues with organized religion — if they don’t, they probably haven’t put much thought into their faith) is that it tends to approach the Divine from a very specific angle, following a very specific path, which kind of goes against that mystic focus on personal spiritual growth. The journey to God becomes a scavenger hunt, with the journey laid out on a hand-me-down map and the destination marked in red. Organized religion approaches the Divine assuming that it knows what it is going to find.

If you’ve ever done research-based writing, whether for a writing assignment in school or on a professional level, you know that the first rule of research is that you should never approach your topic with a preconceived conclusion. If you already “know” what you expect to find, you’ll subconsciously look for confirmation of your own bias instead of approaching the topic with an open mind. In my college writing class, my professor encourages us not to pick topics we feel very strongly about because our research is much more likely to be biased in some way.

It’s pretty much impossible to be at all religious without having some pretty darn strong feelings about religion. And most organized religions essentially hand you a preconceived conclusion about God on a silver platter, which can make it difficult to keep an open mind as we embark on our spiritual journeys.

My favorite (extreme) example of this revolves around a figure my significant other and I have affectionately nicknamed “Republican Jesus.” If you live in the good ol’ US of A, you’re probably familiar with Republican Jesus. He’s the blond, blue-eyed white guy who directly rewards holy behavior and obedience to the church with blessings (often of the “health and wealth” variety), punishes sinful behavior (usually with physical or material burdens), speaks English, loves America, and hates gays. Never mind that, historically speaking, Jesus was a Palestinian Jew who openly criticized the rich and their dealings with the poor, spent most of his ministry surrounded by prostitutes, tax collectors, and other “sinners,” and performed a healing miracle for a gay couple (see Mathew 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10). People who believe in Republican Jesus almost entirely ignore the historical and cultural context of the New Testament, instead viewing it through a modern, America-centric lens. If something in the Bible doesn’t support their preconceived idea of Jesus (and, by extension, God), they either ignore it or go to great lengths to twist it to fit their vision. By doing this, they miss out on most of the meat of Jesus’s ministry and message and trap themselves in a very narrow spiritual path.

This isn’t exclusive to modern-day America, either. One of the early Gnostics’ main criticisms of orthodox Christianity was that it did not worship the true God, but instead worshiped human concepts of authority as personified by the dēmiourgos. I talked about this at length in my “Gnosticism in Silent Hill” post, but the main point of the demiurge doctrine is that, when we refuse to open our minds to the wholeness of God, we run the risk of creating a “God” in our own image — one that will ultimately lead us further and further from the ultimate Truth.

Socrates may not have been familiar with Republican Jesus or with Gnosticism (having died roughly four hundred years before the birth of Christ), but he was a man who was ultimately killed for his dedication to Truth. He lived in Athens, a city named after the goddess of wisdom and famously dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. According to Socrates (or at least Plato’s written account of his dialogues), most Athenians in his day thought that they knew everything. They had grown comfortable with the status quo, and were convinced that their way of thinking was the correct one. Socrates claimed to be the wisest man in Athens not because he knew everything but because, as he famously stated, “I know that I know nothing.”

At the heart of this teaching lies a willingness to approach every issue with a completely open mind, with a humility and a willingness to have all of your previous expectations turned on their heads. This is the ideal foundation for learning, in both secular and spiritual fields.

The last few months have been a sort of personal spiritual revolution for me. It’s been one part “dark night of the soul” and one part spiritual awakening, with a whole lot of confusion and chaos thrown in for good measure. And it’s completely toppled my previous ideas about God, the universe, and what it means to be spiritual. Through this crazy, incredible journey, I’ve reached the same conclusion Socrates did — all I can really know is that I know nothing.

And you know what? That’s okay.

God, or Deity, or whatever you choose to call it, is an immeasurable, eternal force that encompasses all that exists. The human mind is incapable of completely comprehending such a being. The best we can hope for is a fragmented knowledge, at least while we remain tied to our physical limitations. And yet mysticism seeks complete unity with Deity. How can such a contradiction be possible?

It begins with realizing that you can never and will never know the entirety of the Divine — with knowing that you know nothing. This means letting go of preconceived notions of God and being willing to be proved wrong. It is only once we reach this state of humility that we can truly begin to experience the Divine firsthand.

The journey of the soul begins with this state of utter humility, but it doesn’t end there. The acceptance of the unknowable is only the push that gets you out the front door. From there, the adventure really begins. If you ever feel like you’ve reached the end of your spiritual growth, you probably need to revisit this foundation. There is no endgame. There is no ultimate goal, at least not during our mortal lives. There is only an endless climb upward, closer and closer to the Divine.

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