Exorcising the demons from my religion – My spiritual odyssey from endarkenment to enlightenment

Over the past month, much has happened in my life and the life of my community that has caused me to pause and reflect on my health and also the health of my community. What has been fermenting and now is bubbling up to the surface is my discontent with the happenings around me as it pertains to the physical, mental, social and spiritual wellbeing of our country.

First of all, many of our youth are having the vitality, to live and to be at peace with themselves and with each other, undermined on a daily basis by the lack of guidance and leadership by our leaders be they parents, teachers, guardians, spiritual ministers and above all our politicians. Secondly, we have abject disunity in our families, schools, churches and our political parties. These are the same institutions of our society that are supposed to mold the bodies, minds, hearts, souls and spirits of our youth and prepare them with the skills to become loving, caring, sharing, responsible and productive citizens of this country. And last but not least, when I in private give vent to my frustration and try to seek a better understanding from the elders of my community who should know better, of what the root causes of my discontents are, I invariably find the divisiveness of our political tribalism rearing its ugly head over and over again.

It appears that politics, is becoming our new religion, and is fostering the development of a narrative that is redefining who we are as individuals; but of more concern to me, is threatening to destroy who we are as a community. The demarcation between politics and religion is getting blurred by the day as we begin to pay homage and worship our political leaders more and more, as we treat them as demi-gods and absolve them of the principles of accountability, transparency and good governance as our politicians appear to be omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent and hence have no need for the checks and balances to rein in their negative human tendencies; moreover, our politicians feel they are entitled to the trust of the people, expecting that trust is something that should be granted and not earned.

How did we get here and where did we go wrong? Is this also another example of an unintended consequence of sincerely misguided spiritual leaders with their sincerely misguided narratives preached to their sincerely misguided congregation? What gives me the authority to even make this suggestion and even more so to suggest that “I know better” and “we should know better”? How can anyone or even myself trust what I am about to say? What I will attempt to do now is open my heart and earn your trust, by being as transparent in my motives and agenda as possible, being totally accountable to you by laying out for all to see the milestones of my spiritual development, and finally enunciating the principles that have governed my thoughts and actions, and I will then leave it up to you to determine the trustworthiness of my thoughts and my words and by extension my actions.

As many of you may or may not know, I was baptised and grew up in the Catholic church, performed my duties as an acolyte and Sunday School teacher, and I never questioned my beliefs at that time. I believed wholeheartedly in the creeds of my church, and the unquestioned authority of it leaders, and my thoughts were consumed with my fallen nature due to “original sin,” the battle between the angels and the demons for my soul, and my yearning to spend eternity in the afterlife in heaven and to do what I needed to do to avoid hell at all costs. I was for all intents and purposes living up to the high standards I set for myself, and I ascribed my gifts to the fruits of my labour, being totally oblivious to the sheltered protective environments of my home, school, churches and the communities within which I was raised.

All of that was to change when I started my undergraduate training overseas and was introduced to the ideas of evolution and moreover the writings of philosophy which dealt with deep existential issues. The Creation story was called into question and I discovered that we humans who have been given dominion over the animals and plants appear to have evolved from lower animals themselves. Although these new ideas were troubling, nothing could have prepared me for what I learnt next from my readings in philosophy. There, the philosophers posed the very hard questions, that made me think. They asked, “Did God create man, or was it man who created “God”? Did God create us in his own image, or did we create “God” in our own image and ascribed “Him” with our own selfish human feelings and emotions.” And I was only eighteen years old at the time!!!

As you can imagine, my world was turned upside down, as the foundations of my faith was yanked from under me. As expected, I became angry and more so even depressed, as I lost all my bearings and became rudderless and the absolute sense of unshakeable certainty and purpose I had before leaving home, were now crumbling before my eyes. I felt that I was brainwashed as a child by my parents, teachers and above all the nuns and priests, and the light that had guided me as a youth was extinguished, and I found myself in total darkness. I rejected my faith and overnight became an atheist, and at that time, vowed to always question authority who ever they may be, and never to take any teachings for granted, no matter the area of expertise in question. It was a very scary time for me, so I began to read, and tried to prove the existence or lack thereof of God. And no matter how hard I tried, I always failed. I then threw myself wholeheartedly in my studies of the sciences to distract myself from dealing with these core existential issues, but when the vacation breaks came, I would become depressed as I lost hope, and on several occasions I questioned the utility of life and that of living itself. This sentiment waxed and waned for about 2 years, and caused much anxiety in my life and that of my mother.

One day back home during a vacation break, my mom told me to go and speak to the priest. As you can imagine, I had some preconceived notions of what his reaction would have been, and I prepared myself mentally for him to say that I would go to hell if I did not accept Jesus as my Lord and Saviour and if I did not believe in God and the afterlife, I would rot in hell for all eternity. But I was wrong and pleasantly surprised, as the priest was, in retrospect, an angel in disguise, as he comforted me and told me that what I was going through was healthy, and he encouraged me to continue with my readings and search for understanding. This is what he told me which I now want to share with you. He said, ” Bichara, if you are honest and genuine and sincere in your search for the TRUTH, no matter how off-course you are right now, if you persist and persevere, you will eventually find IT.”

That was 22 years ago, and my search has uncovered many pearls and gems along the way, which I hope to now share as I pulled myself up by the bootstraps of a refreshing worldview and gradually emerged out of this period of endarkenment. The more and more I searched for proofs of GOD’s existence, I realized that this was insoluble, not because He did not exist, but because I had the wrong mindset and was asking the wrong questions. I realized that GOD could not be defined as an intellectual reality, be it via philosophy or via the Scriptures, but that HE was an EXPERIENTIAL REALITY. It was via the interactions with my wife-to-be during my undergraduate days, and with my family, Jamaican friends and patients during my medical training, that I realized that it was via these meaningful relationships that we experience God’s presence in our lives. The GOD of my childhood was put in a box and was only understood through the limits of my imagination then; now my faith in GOD is very strong, and has continued to grow and mature, and looking back, I see that the foundations of my faith is as strong as it ever could be, not in spite of my questionings, but exactly because of it as I was encouraged to question everything and to do so wholeheartedly.

So now I question all authority, be it medical, spiritual, economical, social and even political, and I do not take anything on faith, or should I say on blind faith. And I encourage my students to do likewise, as they in turn must always question the authority of my teachings be it in medicine or life in general. But that is only the beginning, for I soon realized, that a lifetime is not enough for one person to arrive at reasonable answers to these deep questions, and that we have to at some point accept the wisdom of our leaders with some faith. And that is where TRUST in our leaders comes in and as mentioned above is something that has to be earned and should only be given after due diligence.

If I can summarize in one sentence where I stand right now, I would have to say that my faith in God is very strong, but my faith in the church is very weak. I have great difficulties in many of the creeds, teachings, rituals and traditions of the church. I see the Bible as one of many of great works of literature ever written by men and women who were inspired by GOD in their search for understanding and meaning, just as much as Darwin was inspired to write his theories of evolution and Einstein was inspired to write his theories of space and time. As a matter of fact, I think there is lots of room for improvement in all of our scriptures and the narratives that underlie them. Let me give you several examples.

We can see the evolution of thought as it pertains to justice from the old testament to modern times. We can see the progress from its inception in the old testament, when we heed the advice of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”, to Jesus’ advice “on turning the other cheek”, to Mahatma Gandhi’s “an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind” to Archbishops Desmond Tutu’s insight that “an enemy is a friend waiting to be made.”

Also the founding dogma that we are born with “original sin,” does an injustice to our Creator, as we misrepresent who He is and what He is all about. First, why would He as the Architect have designed imperfect beings and then demand that we be perfect?” We should have a better narrative in which we believe in the heart of our hearts that we are born with “original grace” and are perfect. So instead of starting the class of life with a grade F, we start with A+, and with the guidance of our “teachers”, they help us to maintain that grade. Secondly, as our church system is set up, I have to ask, why are we forced to stay back and repeat the same class over and over again for the rest of our lives? When asked why I don’t go to church, I tell those who ask, that it is because I have graduated and have been filled with the fruits and the degrees of the spirit, and am implementing my skills in real life with my family, friends and patients, and not in some artificial classroom environment.

Moreover, I reject the existence of evil spirits and the devil and the belief in hell and the afterlife. I see life like the ultimate party of celebration with good food and conversations and scenery, and I am grateful to the Host for inviting me in the first place. After, let’s say midnight, the party has to come to an end, I will look back and thank the Host on leaving for his gracious invitation to this party of life, and having been given the opportunity to organize with him and share in the party, before the lights are turned off. It is in the transience and fragility of life we appreciate more this precious gift, and we are called to be more responsible for our actions and inactions, and not abdicate that responsibility to fictitious dark forces, and worse yet not to become more self-righteous and less compassionate by selfishly focusing on an afterlife in heaven. Most of the harm we do to ourselves and others is not from evil forces but because of simple ignorance, be it at the individual or collective level. It is when we walk in the dark that we trip, stumble and fall, and we have to appreciate that darkness in not a substance but simply the absence of light; hence there is no need for evil in our narratives.

Even I have accepted that evolution and Creation are compatible, as via the theory of evolution via the big bang and by natural selection we are discovering the technical details of the creation processes. We are also in the sciences discovering the wisdom of Eastern religions as it pertains to the connectivity of all there is from the beginnings of time and space to the galaxies, this planet and all there is in the living biosphere of spaceship earth. We discover that all of us are of African-descent and that each one of us today are related and are at best cousins with each other, at most 2000th removed, and are also related in some way to other living beings past and present, and even to inanimate objects such as fossil fuels which are actually the remains of ancient living communities of phytoplankton and forests. My epiphany is that Evolution does not dehumanize us at all but dignifies all of creation. We are thus called to be environmentally responsible stewards of the earth and not to have “dominion” over it as we once were taught.

So what am I? Although I cannot accurate say I am Christian, I will readily say that I am a Jesusist/Buddhist, as I model my life according to the works and teachings of Jesus Christ and Buddha.

So what I have endeavored to do over the past 20 years of my life is to exorcise the demons of misrepresentation and misunderstanding in my religion, and not put GOD in a box, constrained by my limited experiences and feeble imaginations, but allow the relationship with Him to grow and mature and develop as I do likewise. As Jesus was intoxicated with GOD and for his vision of a heaven here on earth, as best enunciated in the Lord’s prayer, and Buddha was intoxicated in Nirvana and his fixation on suffering and its alleviation, likewise I am also intoxicated in the Ground of All Being and fixated on bridging the gap between the sciences and the humanities including religion and trying to throw some light on what it takes to create wholesome vibrant flourishing individuals and communities.

I have had many guides along the way from religious scholars like Karen Armstrong, Marcus Borg, and Huston Smith, to economic scholars like Jeffery Sachs and Jeremy Rifkins, and countless others, and I currently engage in self-directed CSEs (Continuous Spiritual Education). I put those principles learnt into practice in real life with my friends, family and my patients, and I hope to share now the rewards with my community.

We need now to bring these insights to the fore in our social, economical and political spheres, and diagnose and deal with the root causes of the dis-eases that surround us. As leaders we should be humble, acknowledge our limitations and ask for help when needed, and admit that we are humans and do make mistakes and need to have the checks and balances in place to guide us, and we need to understand that we need to do all that we can to earn the trust of the people we lead.

Having made this realization, how can we move forward? Just like we have a Sugar Industry Diversification Foundation (SIDF 1.0) to assist in the economic growth and development of our country via foreign investments, I feel we need a balancing counterforce to deal with the social, spiritual and political growth and development of our people via domestic investments, where our people at home and in the diaspora abroad can readily contribute of their time and resources. This can be a Spiritual Investment and Development Foundation (SIDF 2.0) which can contribute to raising awareness of the needs and concerns of the community among civil society via local projects, be they social, environmental, spiritual and even legal, and which would be charged with the mandate to educate, discuss and share information and other resources that can help bring back that sense of community and connectedness that we so now more than ever need. Unfortunately, I have to acknowledge my limitations as I lack the technical expertise or legal background to take this kernel of an idea forward, and make it become a reality. It is hoped that one of my readers will be moved to help plant, water and nourish this seed, and create the fertile environment that would allow it to gain roots to grow and to flourish and above all to be fruitful.

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