Returning to the Woods
I’ve been reading a fascinating book called The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions. Author Karen Armstrong details the religious histories of the world during the Axial Age, approximately 900 – 200 BCE. One underlying theme I observe is the similarities between the struggle of ancient and modern humanity. It seems humanity’s quest for a transcendent living is always outside of our grasp.
The text explores how ancient cults became religions, many of which we still follow (to various degrees) today. New prophets often develop new interpretations of ancient texts, changing history to meet the needs of the times. Maintaining legitimacy was necessary. On more than one occasion, these cultists would claim they found the texts—ancient knowledge hiding in plain sight. One of my key takeaways from the book is that history provides plenty of examples of spirituality transforming itself in times of need.
Ancient rituals long defined what did and did not appease the god(s) of the believer. Sacrifices were made in exchange for various manifestations of prosperity for the near and now as well as after death. As time progressed, people began to realize that the rituals were not creating the desired outcomes. War devastated even the most devout, and wealth flowed to those focusing on creative problem-solving. It became apparent that the gods were providing no more or less favor to those entrenching themselves in traditional worship.
History teaches us that crisis frequently becomes the catalyst for a fundamental shift in human beliefs—new philosophies emerging to provide frameworks that deal with present circumstances. Looking back, we can see how these past spiritual evolutions still express limits to moments in time, failing to live up to their potential. Still, that doesn’t discount the underlying efforts to radically reshape their belief systems—to remake a god is no small effort.
So why are we so afraid to embark on the same quest today?
All religions are political. Much like the state and federal government, they are systems of self-organization. The primary difference is that they attempt to address our more abstract needs, such as the experience of death and divinity. Today, we observe our traditional institutions breaking down, or even worse, causing decay in society’s fabric.
Recently someone within my network received a letter from Catholicvote.org, a far-right political organization masquerading as a religious voice. The message, disguised to look like a ballot, solicited donations to support ultra-right-wing candidates and their quest for passing “pro-life” and “pro-family” legal agendas. They ask catholic voters for financial support for candidates looking to establish the legal dominion of women’s bodies and discrimination against the LGBTQ community.
Now it would be hypocritical of me to judge someone fighting to sway others’ minds to vote for a set of beliefs. I do the same thing. However, invoking spiritual unity to suppress people showcases modern religious organizations in their rawest form—dominion hierarchies, uncompromising faith structures losing their grasp on an increasingly complicated world.
Maybe that’s because we’ve lost something in translation. Religions of the past served to organize people, much like the grassroots politics of today. Surrounded by common belief, people came together to develop lifestyles that they believed to be especially impactful. Ways of thinking and acting that would craft a stable reality in an otherwise chaotic universe. Today many religious groups still serve as community centers, networking people over shared beliefs. A practice that history is demonstrating will not be enough to stem faith loss.
Spiritual stagnation is both evident and invisible. You can test which is true in your universe by your reaction to this letter, and others like it. Is it appalling to use faith to discriminate or acceptable? Should we legalize discrimination of agency over others’ bodies and birth lotteries because of individual religious subscriptions? The more you oppose these concepts, the higher degree of spiritual stagnation exists. American true believers will claim this is God’s will, and there can be no stagnation of his glory.
We won’t debate whether or not the letters are effective, as we can imagine that those sending them had faith that they’ll work. Instead, we focus on the growing number of people who find these behaviors unacceptable. Today, the second largest religious choice around the world is “unaffiliated” , a trend that will likely continue to increase as technological advancement continues. The world’s dominant religions find themselves struggling for relevance, and those trending towards violence tend to have nationalist political parties like those here in the United States .
Nowhere is this truer than the United States, where grifter turned president, Donald Trump, continues to draw the majority of his power from fanatical religious groups and white supremacists. Evangelical Christians are perplexingly worshiping an idol acting in direct opposition to the ideals outlined in their holy scripture. Fanaticism is inseparable from all monotheistic religions because all of the historical texts are mandates for war. We simply cannot escape this aspect of religious worship under the current frameworks.
Religions shape our core values but are themselves static, ancient rules for past minds. The result is that we cannot evolve because they cannot change. Tying divinity to the solutions and beliefs of a world long gone is a recipe for failure. Now we struggle to support our need for transcendent living with an unstable foundation, cracking under the pressure of total system collapse. As we continue to interconnect as a global society and people, the weaker the grasp of these systems.
We can blame the printed word for what it’s worth. It’s so permanent—restricting changing values and beliefs to a past far gone. The printed religious book carries with it a gravity, instilling significant meaning and purpose within believers. Then again, even the most staunch practitioners of historical religions pick and choose beliefs to follow. Who can blame them? Strict religious practices from thousands of years ago were never meant to be guides for the present.
Spiritual stagnation is inevitable, humanity exists in a state of perpetual change, and no static set of beliefs can ever fully encompass our desire to be more. Easily accessible information and mass communication have been the most significant factors driving the rapid acceleration of religious decay today—but in the past, it was war and famine. There is also what seems to be a noticeable shift towards alternative views of spirituality outside of rigid hierarchies. Inspired by study, meditation, philosophy, and hallucinogens, more and more people consider the human experience in new and cohesive ways.
Embracing any theological belief system today means inadvertently embracing the past belief baggage that comes along with it. It is an inescapable reality because change is not part of the ancient religious institution. Our birth into these systems, and our parental imprinting of the narratives, only serves to reinforce their immobility further. Past humanity struggled with the same question: how do we develop new beliefs of divinity under the weight of existing systems?
An initial obstacle is overcoming the risk associated with changing a spiritual belief. For many, renouncing the divine figure(s) of one religion in favor of another would be paramount to Hell’s eternal sentence. Whether we recognize it or not, we all commit our existence to attitudes and beliefs. We develop intentionally through our actions and unintentionally through social imposition. There can never be a genuine justification for the choice to move in a new direction; our reasoning will always fail to capture the totality of the transcendence we desire.
Human vulnerability betrays us, as it always has. For the majority, fearing the bad often triumphs over whatever possible good can come from committing ourselves to new directions. It’s about being vulnerable, both to one another and to the uncertain futures that lay ahead—deep fears expanding through illegal and legal misinformation efforts. In moments where we need sincere cooperation, we seem to be more divided than ever, rigid realities conflicting with alternatives that do not agree with present understandings.
Reflecting on the present moment to construct new pathways for divinity helps us recognize that our connectivity gives us the power of the universe. Everything that is and ever was in our society is due to event chains revolving around human communication. Any engagement with another person or organization leaves us vulnerable to various degrees, none of which feel comfortable. Diversifying divinity requires us to commit to radical vulnerability, both for ourselves and our guiding beliefs—no small task for the western world of individuals.
Consider the Vanaprastha, a stage of life in early Vedic religions (now Hinduism) where the individual renounces the material life to return to ways of the forest dwellers. Here we see a religious practice that centers around relinquishing the individual to reconnect with the divine. Their central argument was that we reach transcendence by renouncing possessions and focusing on internal meditation and breathing exercises, allowing us to experience divine connection, although momentary and fleeting.
Vanaprasthas were highly respected. Their quest to transcend the suffering embedded into our lifecycles seen as a service to humanity. My experience with meditation shows that they were correct, with transcendent states being achievable through discipline and practice. While their methods of abandoning all worldly possessions are unlikely to be compatible with Americans today, breaking bondage to enhance spirituality can teach us much.
Returning to the Woods
The concept of returning to the woods seems prophetic when viewed through the present-day human struggle. Material life and the conquest of enhancing it holds a place of primacy amongst many living in high powered economies. It mainly defines the quality of education, medical care, and economic opportunity we receive throughout our lives. An ethos guiding society that rewards birth lottery first and foremost, placing merit and effort in a distant second.
Materialistic culture spawned many of the technological advancements of the present era and brought economic and environmental crises that devastate human lives around the globe. Leadership around the world is bought and sold by those with the material means, leaving little to no hope of addressing our most pressing issues within the ideal timeframes. The very beliefs that have led us to this moment offer no hope of rising above the challenges, instead they serve only to distract and distance us from the dramatic action needed.
What is especially fascinating about the task at hand is that we already have all of the answers. Detailed political agendas that would transform the United States and other democracies already exist. Technology now allows for levels of communication and coordination beyond the wildest imaginations of our ancestors, and advancements in energy provide direct pathways to lay the foundation for abundance societies. Despite all of our progress, it’s painfully obvious that our shared trajectory is one of death and destruction. What should be a time of global integration and cooperation is quickly turning into one of isolation and the coming desolation.
There is an inherent conflict about the progress that humanity has understood for centuries. It is easy to default to violence and call it progress. History is full of it, drawing the banner of gods and men alike to subjugate others through force, economics, education, and more. Spiritual transformation is much more difficult: the infusing of purpose and action into a divided collective. While we have past examples of this happening, centuries of intertwining religious organizations with capital and politics have created a monster.
Today belligerent dogma is the opiate of the masses. Perverted political agendas that harm supporters are swallowed whole by followers as long they pay homage to trivial social preferences. We witness spiritual decay in real time. The most glaring present-day example being that protecting ourselves and those around us from a pandemic is now just another battle of lost political identities. There is no higher self or higher calling, no compassion for the other. Around the globe, we have become cults of the machine, doing only what the state or corporate sponsored media instructs us to do.
Here lays a paradox old as civilization, one that I’ve spent much of my time pondering over the past few years. To obtain a spiritual transformation, we need structural innovation that will allow for higher forms of living. But reorganizing society cannot come without a transcendent consciousness, one that realizes that our most direct path to individual freedoms is through collective action. The irony in our situation is that we already have both. Still, something is keeping us from the global action necessary to progress.
The idea of returning to the woods seems especially relevant in a world at war with itself. Our systems create the externalities that mold our perceptions. Still, these same institutions do everything in their power to resist change. They increasingly calcify the human mind and spirit but have no hope of containing it forever. Renouncing everything is out of the question for most people, but bridging the gap may require that we remove ourselves from the noise in more ways than one.
If we cannot find ways to remove ourselves from our circumstances, we are unlikely to see beyond them. Pulling ourselves away from the manufactured consent and dissent may be our only hope of avoiding deepening the crisis if it’s not already too late. We have all of the puzzle pieces in front of us. Now we need to discover how they fit into the bigger picture. While I can only share one perspective on the topic, I intend to take it on with the full effort.
 What is each country’s second-largest religious group? By Conrad Hackett and Timmy Huynh Pew Research Center 6/22/15 https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/06/22/what-is-each-countrys-second-largest-religious-group/
 Key findings on the global rise in religious restrictions By Katayoun Kishi Pew Research June 21, 2018 https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/06/21/key-findings-on-the-global-rise-in-religious-restrictions/