Will Religion Own Its Shadow?

There is an ancient Tibetan myth. Like all great myths, it is full of truth. When we die, our soul confronts its shadow, its unresolved work, its denial and projection, in the form of a wrathful deity, hideous and angry, terrifying and lethal. The soul wants to flee back into this world again.

But if the soul is brave, then instead of repeating lifetimes pretending the demon is an "other," the soul finally confronts its shadow and owns it. Kissing the monster on the lips, the soul hugs the wrathful deity and welcomes its energy into her heart. At that instant, the demon turns into an angel, liberating the energy that had been bound up in denial, repression, and shadow-making. The soul is free. Light and darkness merge in their original unity, which is limitless bliss. For what is light but darkness unbound? What is darkness but the ground where living seeds of light are buried?

Like the individual soul, each world religion holds a dark, violent, Medieval shadow, a lethal bruise on its most vital organ. Every religion must do the inner work of soul-retrieval, to heal and become human. Otherwise, religion will destroy the earth.

It does no good to pretend the shadow isn't there; to project it onto a rival sect; to blame "the West," or "Zionism," or "American foreign policy," or "corporations," or "modernism." Our sudden acts of violence don't erupt from the scape goat: they erupt from the shadow within us. And it does no good to pretend the criminals who perform such inhuman acts in the name of religion aren't really practicing it. That is sheer hypocrisy. We must stop defining religion merely by its luminous ideals, and start defining it by the deeds actually done in its name.

It does no good for Hindus to embrace the joy of Krishna, if they don't confess ownership of the caste system and the culture of rape. It does no good for Buddhists to cultivate the compassion of Buddha, if they don't own up to their patriarchy and sexual repression. It does no good for goddess worshipers to hug trees and embrace forest spirits, if they don't acknowledge the shaman's ego, the bigotry of tribalism, the toxicity of ancient taboo.

It does no good for Jews to quote the humble kindly verses of their Bible, if they don't own the chapters that call for stoning homosexuals, for genocide and enslavement of the Canaanites, and for holy war (read Deuteronomy 20: 10-20). It does no good for Christians to whisper sweetly about the forgiveness of the Lord Jesus, if we don't own the Crusades, the Inquisition, the witch-burning of over three million women.

And it does no good for Muslims to claim a religion of peace, if they refuse to own the shadow-voice in their hearts, the voice that demands the beheading of "blasphemers" (which is practiced not only by terrorists but by the government of Saudi Arabia), the voice that demonizes Israel, the voice that rejects our civilization simply because the West is too ambiguous, egalitarian, and complex. Groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda are simply the projections of a shadow that Islam has carried in its heart for centuries.

In every age, of course, simplistic atheists and "progressives" try to kill religion. But it always returns, either as shadow or light. At this moment, religion has a choice: to radiate beauty on the earth, or to lurk in the half-light of the past, infecting the world with viral bigotry and hate. The question is not whether we will have any religion at all, but whether religion will grow up.

If we swallow our religion just as we received it from our parents, in a silver cup of shadows, we inherit half-conscious lives. Religion needs to ferment, to transform, to grow from the larva under the rock into the adult with rainbow wings. As each person does the work of soul-retrieval in order to mature, so I pray that our religions will heal, and humanize, and be re-birth themselves.

1 comment:

doug said...

I wonder what they meant when they said, "Repent, Repent!" (cohen) And thank you for this wonderful statement. "If religion doesnt make us a whole lot better, its very likely to make us a whole lot worse" (CS Lewis)