Carl Jung once famously said,
One of the main functions of organized religion is to protect people against a direct experience of God.-Carl Jung
Protect them? Yes. We tend to think that having a direct experience of God would be a great thing, totally positive, wonderful, joyous. But there is a significant downside…
The ego has to die.
It is a horror to the ego, the finite subjective self. One sees one’s self dissolve into nothingness, and this is terrifying, hence whenever there is a theophany the first words out of the angel’s mouth is often “Fear not!”
We can also find examples of this as in the Moses story, the Israelites, and Mount Sinai. If the Israelites came close to the mount, they would die, or be destroyed, and so Moses was instructed to keep them away, telling them to stay away from Sinai. I think it is referring to this kind of ego death. And, of course, Jesus only ascends to his Father after he has been crucified.
So being “protected” against a direct experience of God might actually save our life, at least our ego’s life, the self we think we are. So is ignorance bliss? Is it better to “protect” ourselves from an experience of God so that we can keep living as we are, believing we are the self we think we are, and not know God? Should we be kept from that Presence by religion, as Moses kept the Israelites away from Sinai?
I’m reminded about this again this morning, in an interview with cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman. His theory of the nature of reality is that we don’t see reality as it is, we see a kind of “user interface” which has evolved to help us survive and reproduce. This is pretty similar to many other classic philosophies, such as Plato’s seeing the shadows on the cave wall, or Kant’s seeing the phenomenon and not the noumenon (thing-in-itself). But Hoffman goes further to say that he has run simulations and the organisms that see Reality as it is, that see the real Truth, are actually far less fit than those who only see that which is designed for their fitness or survival. Those that see the Truth actually become extinct. They die!
If God is Truth, then we have to ask, is seeing God or knowing the Truth, or Reality as it really is, a good thing for us? Or is it better for us to be tricked into a way of living that allows life to thrive, and to stay in the dark all the while. Is ignorance bliss? When we know, is the bliss gone? Do we die?
The irony is that we do die when we see the Truth, as I already talked about above. The finite self that we think we are, that psychological self, the ego-self, the “natural man,” it falls away from consciousness, and one perceives beyond the subjective self. We leave Plato’s cave and see the sun. We see Kant’s thing-in-itself. And remarkably, we are the sun, we are the thing-in-itself. There is no separation, no duality. We are redeemed from our Fall into separation, and enter the Presence of God everywhere in everything.
But is this good for life, for existence, for human thriving, for the progression and perpetuation of our species on Earth? Hoffman himself says in this interview that he wants to know the Truth, no matter what, no matter if it is devastating, etc., and I think many would agree with him. We want to know the Truth. We don’t want to be kept in the dark, playing with the shadows on the cave wall, in ignorance. Much of our lives, and scientific culture, our religion, our economic activities are supposedly geared towards uncovering the Truth about reality, unveiling the Ultimate or Base Reality as it really is, knowing who we really are.
But is that good for us? Is knowing the Truth beneficial to us? Is knowing our Self a positive thing, something we should seek? I think most spiritual teachers would say emphatically, yes. Even if we have to “die” to know it? Yes. They seem to say that this is the whole point. To die. It is perhaps only when we die to our constructed sense of self that we are able to live as our true authentic Self. Perhaps this is true living. And this Self is not any confined, sheltered, protected, isolated Self, but the Self of the entire world and cosmos. It is every self, every being, as One. It is the totality, the Whole.
Jesus taught that we had to be “born again” or reborn of Spirit in his famous conversation with Nicodemus in John 3. But the record doesn’t have Jesus mention how this rebirth always seems to follow a death of some kind, a death of one’s conceptual self. If that death doesn’t happen, it is unlikely that one can be reborn/resurrected.
Submit to sacred space. If you cannot submit, you cannot die. And if you cannot die, you cannot be reborn.-Robert Moore
For something to be reborn, it seems it must first die. As Richard Rohr recently said, “we die to live.” And as Eckhart Tolle explained, this does not mean that we must physically die, it means we let go of our attachment to the conceptual thoughts of who we are, we surrender them, we sacrifice this egoic “self” on the altar, as it seems every mystical tradition attests. The finite subjective “self” dies, and in that death a new being is “born” from the ashes, or is revealed/unveiled—the true Self.
But we still have to ask, is this good for us? Is it good for humanity? Is it good for the Self? Or will knowing the Truth lead to our extinction, as Hoffman describes.
I think there is good reason to believe that not knowing the Truth of who we are will lead to our extinction first. As Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has written, we are on the verge of a collapse of human society by our lack of self-awareness:
All civilisations are impermanent and must come to an end one day. But if we continue on our current course, there’s no doubt that our civilisation will be destroyed sooner than we think. The Earth may need millions of years to heal, to retrieve her balance and restore her beauty. She will be able to recover, but we humans and many other species will disappear, until the Earth can generate conditions to bring us forth again in new forms.-Thich Nhat Hanh
By not knowing ourself, we are destroying ourselves and our environment. We are already dying, and we do not know it.
We may think that ignorance is bliss, but only true ignorance is true bliss. We think we know so much, and yet we are destroying ourselves. Is that knowledge? Our knowledge is nothing. We do not know our Self, for if we did we would not be destroying our environment, we would not be caught up in self aggrandizing consumerism, selfish neoliberal politics, an economy that exploits and destroys life in exchange for property/profit, etc. We think we can see, but we are ignorant, we are blind. Only when we are truly ignorant will we be able to see (John 9:39-41). Only when we realize we do not know anything for certain, will we come to know our Self. Only when we enter that thick dark cloud of unknowing, as the mystics say and as Moses experienced, do we come to see the Light of God.
As long as we want to shelter and “protect” our little individual egos, we will not know God. We can’t have our cake and eat it too. Something’s got to give if we are to know God, and that is the ego, or “natural man.” We cannot remain who we are and expect to be transformed, transfigured in that Presence. That is an oxymoron. Only by sacrificing that self, realizing no-self, letting who we are be crucified, will we be reborn, resurrected, and know the Christ, the Buddha, as our true Self in God, and it will be all of us in God.
We will no longer be a separate subjective self apart from everyone and everything else, seeking our own individual selfish ends, but we will be at-one with each and all. And it is in that kind of society that regards the “other” as one’s Self, being of One heart and One mind, that we might realize eternal life. We must come to know our Self, the Truth, Reality as it really is, even if it means dying. That is, it seems, the point. Only by so dying will we live.