Like so many things it is easy to go along and look past or forget the assumptions upon which we operate. Most of the time we remain unaware of the deep soil of assumptions in which our life-styles and choices are rooted, until something happens to cause one of them to be questioned.
Sometimes we swim in the same lane along with everyone else, assuming with all those around us that life and the universe are as we have been told.
Sometimes though, we find ourselves swimming in the outside lane while everyone else stares at us.
What draws people into a spiritual community?
I keep stuttering over this idea that it is because we share common assumptions. Underneath the customs of every society is a set of assumptions about the way the world works or should work. Out of those assumptions come the customs we keep.
That is how culture makes meaning, whether it is a super-culture like that of American civil law or public education; or a subculture such as a religious denomination, national club, or sorority. Then there are micro-cultures, like families or particular congregations.
Those who live within these super-cultures and micro-cultures get fitted with lenses through which to perceive and make meaning. They are cultural lenses. So for example, just to pick on an easy one, there is a paradigm we have shared in this country that says anyone can become rich and anyone can become president. We make movies and write novels and broadcast television shows all based upon the cultural assumptions that go along with the idea that anyone could climb the ladder to the top.
It does not matter that it is statistically more unlikely that an individual will become rich (if they are not already rich) as it is he or she will win the lottery, we still keep marketing the idea and keep believing – perceiving – reality as if it is true. Lately that assumption has started to be undermined and is unraveling, and that process also demonstrates the power of a culturally fitted lens.
You and I, under normal circumstances, take for granted that our world and the way we experience life, is the way that it has always been experienced. When we read a sacred text from the Bible or Koran, or watch a movie about another time in history, we climb into our imagination and take all our modern assumptions with us. We don’t even think about it.
We read about Mohammad, Moses, Buddha, and Jesus with the eyes of modernists. We read American history from the frame of reference of the 21st century, and often neglect to realize we can never really see or understand the world of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, or their slaves because we come to it with our own eyes, our own assumptions, and our own ideas – most of which did not exist in those times.
For example, you and I have been taught that only the material world is real; and we have been taught to act as if human beings belong to an entirely scientific existence. It seems too obvious even to say out loud. But this idea, the one we have been nursed on, would have seemed like a mental illness to all of the civilizations prior to the Modern Era. Think about that.
One of the primary paradigms of our world, a lens with which each one of us has been fitted, insists that divine revelation and religious experience are not based in reality. In other words, in our time we do not look for truth in so-called ‘messages from God’ or in the accumulated ideas held by people in the past.
In our world, reason and the scientific method replace faith as the starting point when we want to discover truth. When we seek understanding we begin with reason and science not philosophy or religion.
If someone were to enter most any mainstream church on a Sunday morning declaring he or she had been given a message from God, the person would likely be seen as nuts. Even many, if not most, religious people in the United States and Europe believe that anyone who hears voices from God is crazy.
What is crazy when we think about it though, is to assume that God does not speak when the assumption of 98% of all previous human history is that God does speak. Divine revelation has always been considered ‘real’ and even ‘factual’ in all but maybe the last 150 years of human history.
As natural as it seems for us to assume that truth is only discovered through reason and science, and that only that which is measurable and verifiable in a laboratory is real, we are the ones swimming in the outside lane when it comes to most of human history.
I am not trying to make the case for a particular assumption – for or against God speaking to us or an exclusively science-based wisdom. The point is that each of them is an assumption; each of them is a lens on reality and not reality itself.
There are assumptions that Tibetans make about the Dali Lama, and Roman Catholics make about the Pope, and practitioners of Yoga make about the 8-Limb Path, and all of those assumptions shape the actual contours of their reality; and those assumptions shape the substance of known truth in ways that might seem unreal to us.
We know from scientific research on human perception, that we see what we expect to see and often do not see what is unexpected even when it is right in front of our eyes.
Digging in the dirt of our assumptions, getting the shovel in deep to turn over what we think and believe and perceive, is integral spiritual work. It is especially important to unearth assumptions we are not even aware that we make – ones we take for granted and remain unconscious of but still truly influence our choices.
The kind of spiritual community that energizes me is one in which digging is going on, where it feels safe to dig in the dirt of our assumptions and we help one another do it.