Personalized spirituality

A loose collection of thoughts.

1 Religion:Spirituality::School:Education

I think that religion and education are very similar in many respects, in particular in the flaws of the established system of religion and education. It isn’t an inherent problem but rather often-found flaws in the established systems that exist today.

One important flaw is that of personalization. One’s relationship with a subject is a deeply personal one. In many subjects I find that there is a dividing line when I figured out why it was interesting to me; before I was just learning because I had to or thought I should, and so just stick to an official thread (ex. books, lectures) and don’t stray to explore; after I’m taking in things from a lot more sources. Personalization is MUCH MORE THAN “going at your own pace,” it’s about finding your own personal circle of reasons that you’re pursuing a subject, and the parts of it that are most important to you (developing personal taste, because taste is the same thing that determines what you like and don’t like, as well as propels your own work in the area). It’s about defining your own personal taste. It takes time to find. It’s not independent of following an official thread–often it has to be done concurrently. So what can be done is more EMPHASIS on personalization.

No one else can find this for you, which means that as instructors we should expose students to these reasons and perspectives, in an organized and curated fashion. (I love sites where people give a bunch of links to different things they found interesting and worth looking at, perhaps with short explanations.) In religion there is also a thread to follow, a holy text. Compare a holy text with an authoritative textbook. (Just because someone says something is “holy” doesn’t mean we can’t make comparisons with it.) Both are useful, but in learning it’s more than just the book but the web that is woven around it. When the teacher is the source of all knowledge, when the priest is the source of all knowledge, is where problems begin.

What teachers have is taste and judgment. If I were a math teacher I would give students more freedom in pursuing math they find interesting, but if I find them say, just making up long division problems and doing them for 100 steps, that’s like someone just making mac&cheese all the time in a cooking class: I’d give them a nudge forward. Taste is hard to trust because it’s notoriously hard to pin down. The trust that you know a subject well enough so that you can guide a discussion in it rather than just give a lecture on it. The first seems to require more knowledge, but sometimes you can do it with less.

2 What is philosophy to me?

I’ve never taken an official class in it. I feel like I “do philosophy” but I don’t try to say any absolute truths about God, life, death, existence, meaning, and so forth, or try and reduce such statements to logic. Philosophy is to me, a way of organizing the information I have about the world in my brain, by drawing out general principles that apply cross-domains and trying to find analogies (and then understanding where they fall short). So for me, finding truth in life, rather than in a domain like mathematics where there is an absolute notion of correctness (see Eugenia Cheng’s article) is a process of finding these kinds of principles and analogies, and the more things from different domains that corroborate it, the closer it comes to a personal truth. I’m hesitant of “absolute truth” when we’re away from the realms of science; too often people assume that when something feels very true to them it must be universal. What an atheist calls nature a Christian may call God. The different may be more intensional than extensional. (“The Possibilites of the Stars” from State of the Re:Union)

So a lot of life is about expanding and contracting: taking in more information and experiences, then organizing that chaos into ourselves so we can keep on living. This is why maybe this post feels like going in circles, while I say a lot of stuff in the end it all comes down to a few things we all “knew already” (but did we really?) that everyone is different and we should appreciate that, etc. (In Stranger in a Strange Land, guns are “wrongness.”)

Are you claiming that you have more “taste” in religion? So (1) I’m not implying a correlation between “taste” and “superiority,” (2) this is an imperfect analogy that breaks down here (“related to” is not transitive [Write $x \sim y$ if $d(x,y)<1$. Then $\sim$ is not transitive.]). No, something that isn’t mass-produced isn’t bad. For example, if I don’t have time to do shopping every week for fresh food I just buy frozen/canned stuff, and it’s wonderful that we have modern refrigeration and food preservation, and frankly I’m glad for it because this means that I can focus more time on other things. But other people have a more fulfilling life in going to the farmer’s market every week and cooking with fresh vegetables.

3 Personalization

Bad school systems are characterized by control, sometimes by necessity. I contend that when organized religion is done badly it is because it becomes about control. Schools are notoriously bad at instilling motivation in students (individual teachers can, but NOT THE SYSTEM) it seems that often you have it already or not. Maybe the same is true of churches. They can guide you but you need already some germ of wanting to develop spiritually and morally.

So why can’t religion be more personalized? We all have ways which we look at different subjects, that have different meanings to us. In fact Christians say it: everyone has their own personal relationship with God. An official thread is useful, but it should never be viewed as a dictator. The Constitution tells us about the laws of the United States, but it doesn’t tell us how to decide every trial: there is much interpretation, there have to be many more laws, etc. to bridge the gap.

But what I mean is that religion can be MUCH MUCH more personalized, just like education can be MUCH MUCH more personalized. (Imagine a teacher sitting down with each student, what do you want to get out of the class, what is your interest in this subject? And then during class the teacher remembers all this, hey John you might be interested in this connection, Jill you might be interested in finding out more about that.) More personalization is the antithesis of “control,” which is why there is no systematic tendency towards it (Systems want to hold together, and control helps things hold together). It’s that we can take a hodgepodge of different philosophies, religious and scientific teachings, and make our own story out of it. This is why I’m an agnostic, or humanist, because I don’t find one thread that should be followed to the exclusion of others. (You need pure people, and you need people with feet on different islands.) But people who develop their own stories from a combination – there isn’t an automatic community for them to share those stories. What I think would benefit us is if we are able to talk about our base assumptions about the world, if there was an established entity that could help us share these thoughts. It’s an expanding circle: what’s closest to the traditional realm of religion are beliefs about life, death, God, afterlife, karma, etc., but imagine an expanding circle, you’ll eventually include everything else: what your family and friends mean to you, etc. Boundaries are artificial, only approximations, convenient packages for ideas, because everything is connected to everything else.

4 Personal philosophy

If you think you don’t have a personal philosophy, I want to convince you otherwise. It doesn’t have to be complicated, it doesn’t have to feel organized. Think of the quotes that inspire you, that when you saw read you stopped and had to repeat it because it just expressed perfectly something that was hazy in your mind. Think of the things you believe that few other people believe. Think of the theme songs you like. Think of the characters in stories that you identify with the most, the stories that you remember from when you were a kid, the trivial habits you have that others feel are silly but that are important to you. A friend of mine says, “we all have our personal mythologies.” I like that word, because one can think of mythology as philosophy connected to our individual feelings through story. And while myths that do exist may feel arbitrarily, if we create and pick our personal ones they won’t suffer from the same flaws. (We all have things that centralize us–story, rationality, perfection, etc.) For example, here is a story for me, which I read somewhere and has always stuck in my head.

Some guy was asked a question at a conference, and he looked up at the ceiling for ten seconds, causing significant discomfort in the audience. Then he looked back and delivered a perfect paragraph response.

This is important to me for many reasons that are quite personal. I often have trouble figuring out what to say around other people. I believe in taking time to figure things out. When I’m around other people I feel like I have to conform. But this story says: even when you’re around other people, you can in a sense block them out, think as you would think (which means taking 10 seconds if you need it), and the result would be better than if you tried to conform (try to give an answer right away, as everyone expects).

The Bible is full of parables, as is every other religious text. Parables are powerful. I contend that even people who don’t follow an established religion fill their minds with these kinds of things, which are the same elements that exist in religion, except in the first case the parables and quotes and habits are much more personalized. And might not we all benefit if we say, these really aren’t different? (There are parables for rationality.) Wouldn’t we all benefit if we shared these ways we thought about these things, these “hacks,” rather than put people in boxes by religion? (Deconstruct religion: it’s made of legos. Deconstruct education: it’s made of legos.)

(I say “wouldn’t it be better if…”, and you ask, “Where am I putting the blame on?” It’s just that culture isn’t like this. I’m personally sensitive to culture of interaction even though I don’t really understand culture. Some people are strong enough individuals that they bring their own reality distortion field into whatever culture they come into. So the first step is not to support the culture (for example, laughing may be a way to write things off as not serious, i.e., as a censor), and gravitate towards those who are closer.)

5 Let’s talk about what God is

On defining “God”: rationalists attack the contradictory definitions of God and offer it as proof that religious people don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s like this so that people can attach their own meanings to it. But let’s not stop at this counterattack. We ask: if it is so, then why do they not talk more about what these definitions are? Might not we gain more, rather than using the same word for different notions that are in other people’s heads, try to communicate what these different notions are, translate them into our personal languages? As humans we have an amazing ability of self-reflection: people tend to assume when they can’t explain something that it’s just something that can’t be communicated by language. But self-reflection is a skill to be developed. There’s a difference between someone who lectures and someone like Polya who sheds light on the problem-solving process. But we can’t develop such skills if we don’t attempt to engage in this discussions. (In fact, one reason the US education system is worse than the Japanese system is that there is no established culture for teachers to learn from each other through constructive criticism. So what’s lacking in spiritual development may be that there is simply no culture for us to talk about our beliefs in a way that we don’t take as personally offensive, rather than as contributing to growth. The possibility or non-possibility of debate is something that I feel very engrained in culture: you have subcultures where people take argument as constructive, vs. subcultures where people take argument as personal offense.)) (Working in subcultures vs. cultures. You can focus on aiming for a personal ideal rather than fighting the thoughts of those around you.)

6 Definitions of words

So people who are anti-religion have this argument against any kind of reasoning similar to mine. That is, religion is x and you’re trying to say we should tolerate it because religion is y. The problem is, $x \ne y$. The boundaries as accepted by society today are this, and you want to redefine the boundaries as that. So maybe what you say is right, but it’s not about religion. In fact, you are even admitting religion is bad, by this kind of double-speak.

The same kind of thing can be said of other words. This is the problem with suitcase words, they can mean very different things, and they mean different things to each one of us! Similar arguments have been made for “feminism” and “communism” for example: that it’s a good thing but what it has been twisted to mean has strayed from the ideal.

Now one person cannot decide the meaning of a word; we can only change its meaning in our personal dictionary. A word acquires its meaning in a society. Perhaps the best thing is that whenever we have such a word in any serious discussion, we attempt to define it, if not directly (because it may be hard), by whatever method is useful. And we shouldn’t be put off by different definitions, but take each argument and discussion given the definition. But “the cure to bad science is good science, the cure to bad religion is good religion.”

“I’m not smart because I don’t do well in school,” is similar to the statement, “I’m not spiritual because I don’t believe in religion.”

7 Summary

We all want to learn things, but school isn’t as helpful as it could be, and it doesn’t help everyone. We all want to make sense of our lives and be better people, but religion isn’t as helpful as it could be, and it doesn’t help everyone. People do things outside of school that are “learning” even though they don’t resemble what’s done in school. People do things outside of church to make sense of their lives and be better people, even though these activities seem far removed from a church service. There is a tension between an established system and individual aspirations–perhaps because no system can be utopic. But (1) can we first acknowledge the parallels between these different activities? and (2) create a culture where we can learn together, and make sense of our lives and be better people, that isn’t constrained by a rigid structure? (by making explicit things we don’t usually talk about)

(from 8-30-14)

In the hands of a skilled priest religion transcends religion. It’s not about religion, it’s about reflective storytelling. The book of Jonah: it’s really about doing something right because of the surface things, the perceived rewards, taking things for granted, rather than doing something just because it is right, even when you aren’t recognized for it. Being something on the surface, versus really being it. How you can appear to be something on the surface for years and years, and others go from not being to being truly instantly. The bible makes you think and draw connections. Literally it’s all about God but metaphorically it tells us about life. Maybe this is how every subject is. We learn something about life from learning, being the subject, and there is a standard we have to meet, but the masters of the subject really make the subject seem not about the facts, but having a metaphorical correspondence with life.

More random bits

Assuming for the moment that this is a good viewpoint, why is it so hard to get these kinds of viewpoints into the general populace?

  1. Can you imagine someone teaching this in school without backlash? It would be viewed as ideological. Many would disagree with this way to define “religion”. The power to define is powerful. It’s not important to redefine the word (in fact, we should probably invent a new word!), but it’s important to have word to refer to the personalized philosophy I’m talking about.
  2. Trying to teach anything that mediates between different viewpoints is hard. It’s easier (throughout history) that to spread an idea, rather than spread all the circle of arguments that led to it (for people to think through), you just take the conclusion you want and change it to mythos, and/or to write something that seems logical but is stripped off all the qualifications, all the strong counterarguments. It’s very rare in grade school to learn synthesis (university is much better), to take very different viewpoints that may each seem to declare an absolute truth (e.g. Ayn Rand, Karl Marx), suspend your disbelief for them, and then craft your own story around them. To some extent people in society don’t have the time to be so well-educated about the different perspectives on everything: can someone just give them something to believe? So one tries to write a book that mediates between perspectives, to get people to simulate each perspective, but reading something can only get you so far; thinking through and dialoguing is a “religious” activity in Armstrong‘s sense, that you get its benefits by force of habit, rather than by trying to just absorb the results (e.g. reading arguments that have already been written down).
  3. Do ordinary people have the time to think? Yes they do, but how can you convince them? [And of course, this statement is itself offensive, “what, you say that I don’t think?”]
  4. There are few places where people can dialogue in the Socratic sense of the term.
  5. In the General question: how can you trust mythos? Once you get to some level of openness and tolerance, you’re much better off in learning, but how do you get there in the first place?

(This unknowing is very good but it’s also a way of withdrawing from the conversation. “It’s fine to be religious, it’s fine to not be, as long as you’re compassionate!” But you have to dialogue about the reality: about how certain religions have strayed, what we can do about it, do some thoughtful judging because not all beliefs are equal… You don’t unknow for the sake of unknowing but for the sake of knowing.)

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