But I've had so little to post about recently that I decided I might as well go ahead with this one, even though the first two were more than six months ago now. In the first post, I told you about all the new and different things that I tried when I was in my New Age phase, but I could never quite fully commit to any of it because there was always a core of skepticism on my part. At the time, I thought that had to be either a sign that there was something wrong with the ideas, or something wrong with me, because isn't complete and total faith, perfect faith, what we're after in the spiritual life?
That's what I believed when I was an Evangelical. If you have faith, you can move mountains, right? "All things you ask for in prayer, believing, you shall receive" (Matt 21.22). "Be ye therefore perfect, as your father in heaven in perfect" (Matt 5.48). Doesn't leave much room for questions or doubts or skepticism.
Of course, even when I was at the height of my Evangelical beliefs, I had prayers that weren't answered, and I had ways of explaining that to myself. But still I had this underlying, not-quite-conscious belief that doubt was bad, that if I believed something, I should believe it whole-heartedly, without question, without holding back.
But I've come to believe that the combination of skepticism and belief is actually exactly what is needed. Even an Evangelical needs enough skepticism that they don't just accept anything that has a Bible verse slapped on it. It takes some wisdom, some discernment, some skepticism, before you just jump in with both feet and hand your heart over to somebody. Except even I can argue with this. Sometimes you do have to jump in with both feet, trusting in yourself to come out of it OK, trusting in your spiritual mentors to get you through.
I listened to a recording of a lecture series by Pema Chodron a few years ago about the Buddhist practice of tonglen, which is the idea of returning good for evil. It's a meditation practice where you breathe in the badness/negativity/evil that you perceive or that is done to you, and breathe out goodness/positive focus/compassion. She said several times that tonglen is an intermediate level practice, not for beginners. Later, when asked, she explained that the reason it is an intermediate practice is because beginners don't have enough sense of themselves and the strength of their goodness/positivity/compassion, so they if they try to practice tonglen, they are easily overwhelmed and taken advantage of by those who wish them harm.
That was the most interesting part of the entire lecture series. Compassion and unconditional love aren't meant to make you into a doormat, they're meant to make you strong. But you can't do that unless you have a strong sense of yourself and your experience in the world, unless you have a healthy dose of skepticism to go with that goodness, mercy, and trust.
Maybe the point is that you need enough skepticism to keep you from being taken advantage of, but not so much that you edge over into cycnicism and lack of belief. It's just as important to be able to discern when to believe as it is to know when not to. You must be innocent as doves and shrewd as serpents, Jesus says to the disciples just before he sends them out "as sheep in the midst of wolves" (Matt 10:16).
So, there you go. I promised myself I would go ahead and publish this tonight even though I know it's not very coherent, because after six months of sitting on it, I'm pretty sure it's as coherent as it's going to get. Maybe you all can help me figure this out in the comments.
And btw, I've heard from several people over the last couple of months that they try to comment and Blogger eats their comments. If that happens to you, would you e-mail me? bnelson four seven seven at gmail dot com (insert actual numbers for the number words). I've made a few attempts to figure out why it happens, but the only thing I know is that it seems to help if you have a gmail account (I believe Blogger is owned by Google now, who also owns gmail). But according to what the settings page says, that shouldn't make a difference. At the moment, I allow all comments, even anonymous ones, so that shouldn't be happening.