Monday, November 26, 2012

Peck and Religion

The Road Less Travelled, M. Scott Peck @musedbooks.comThis is going to be my last post on M. Scott Pecks's book The Road Less Travelled. I started blogging through the book a full year ago. It's been quite a journey! Here's the history:

Part 1: On the book and Peck
Part II: On Discipline
Part III: On "Falling in Love"
Part IV: On Co-Dependency

Now, finally, Peck's last section, which is on God. It was ground-breaking at the time, because psychology in the 60's was rather anti-religion, with the ideas of sin and guilt being seen as psychological problems in and of themselves. Peck is strikingly different.
Sooner or later in psychotherapy most therapists will come to recognize how a patient views the world... And it is essential that therapists arrive at this knowledge, for the world view of patients is always an essential part of their problems, and a correction in their world view is necessary for their cure. So I say to those I supervise: "Find out your patients' religions even if they say they don't have any."

Among the members of the human race there exists an extraordinary variability in the breadth and sophistication of our understanding of what life is all about. This understanding is our religion. Since everyone has some understanding - some world view, no matter how limited or primitive or inaccurate - everyone has a religion. This fact, not widely recognized, is of the utmost importance: everyone has a religion.
It's so interesting that I've met people who left their faith after reading this book, and others who came to faith through reading the same book. I think it's because Peck challenges presuppositions, whether they are religious or atheistic. He also links our presuppositions to our family of origin. I know that our experience of God is not fully dependent on our upbringing, but it is striking how much we learn from the experience of our families.

The most significant aspect of the [family] culture is not what our parents tell us about God and the nature of things but rather what they do - how they behave toward each other, toward our siblings and, above all, toward us....Our first notion of God's nature is a simple extrapolation of our parents' natures.... If we have loving, forgiving parents, we are likely to believe in a loving and forgiving God.... If our parents were harsh and punitive, we are likely to mature with a concept of a harsh and punitive monster-god. And if they failed to care for us, we will likely envision the universe as similarly uncaring.

There is no such thing as a good hand-me-down religion. To be vital, to be the best of which we are capable, our religion must be wholly a personal one, forged entirely through the fire of our questioning and doubting in the crucible of our own experience of reality.

Peck challenges his readers and his patients to analyze their own experiences and presuppositions and to come to intelligent conclusions about God and the world. For the most part I agree with him, but he has a very high view of our own human capacity. Are we ever able to be truly unbiased? Is our own intellectual ability truly able to be relied on to the extent that Peck encourages? I may be able to forge a new, personal religion, but is my own attempt to do this necessarily going to be better than the one I gave up that was handed down to me? I'd say not necessarily, but then I believe in an intrinsically broken humanity.

What is fascinating to me, though, is Peck's analysis of a scientific (materialistic) worldview.

While I believe that the skeptical world view of the scientific-minded is a distinct improvement over a world view based upon blind faith, local superstition and unquestioned assumptions, I also believe that most of the scientific-minded have only barely begun the journey of spiritual growth. Specifically, I believe that the outlook of most scientific-minded people toward the reality of God is almost as parochial as the outlook of simple peasants who blindly follow the faith of their fathers. Scientists have grave difficulty dealing with the reality of God. When we look from our vantage of sophisticated skepticism at the phenomenon of belief in God we are not impressed. We see dogmatism, and proceeding from dogmatism, we see wars and inquisitions and persecutions. We see hypocrisy.

It is indeed tempting for psychiatrists to view themselves as knights of modern science locked in noble combat with the destructive forces of ancient religious superstition and irrational but authoritarian dogma.

Despite his deep criticism of unquestioned religion, Peck, at the time of writing the book, has come around to being open to the idea of God. I know from reading more about him that he's in the middle of his own spiritual journey.

Is all of this what God has done to humans or what humans have done to God? Is the problem then, that humans tend to believe in God, or is the problem that humans tend to be dogmatic?... The notions of science themselves often become cultural idols, and it is necessary that we become skeptical of these as well. It is indeed possible for us to mature out of a belief in God. What I would now like to suggest is that it is also possible to mature into a belief in God..... There is reason to believe that behind spurious notions and false concepts of God there lies a reality that is God.

In psychology, naturalism and materialism moved away from allowing any possibility for the supernatural. Peck was ground-breaking in cracking the door again, and his writing is intensely interesting to me because he believes in the supernatural partly because of his own work with people in which he sees change and growth that he simply cannot explain.

In thinking of miracles, I believe that our frame of reference has been too dramatic. We have been looking for the burning bush, the parting of the sea, the bellowing voice from heaven. Instead we should be looking at the ordinary day-to-day events in our lives for evidence of the miraculous, maintaining at the same time a scientific orientation.

Peck goes on to describe how psychiatry is perhaps more confused by health than psychological sickness. It's fairly easy to understand our neuroses and where they come from. The greater mystery is why so many of us are not more neurotic, and how some people manage to be remarkably healthy despite coming from incredibly dysfunctional settings. Grace.

To explain the miracles of grace and evolution we hypothesize the existence of a God who wants us to grow - a God who loves us.... And if we take it seriously, we are going to find that this simple notion of a loving God does not make for an easy philosophy. If we postulate that our capacity to love, this urge to grow and evolve, is somehow "breathed into" us by God, then we must ask to what end. Why does God want us to grow? What are we growing toward? Where is the end point, the goal of evolution? What is it that God wants of us?

Ah, and here I sit in wonder and think - yes. And that is the crucial question, isn't it? Peck and I don't agree on everything, but we agree on that question and even some of Peck's answer - that we should grow to be like God.

No idea ever came to the mind of man which places upon us such a burden. It is the single most demanding idea in the history of mankind.... Because if we believe it, it then demands from us all that we can possibly give, all that we have. It is one thing to believe in a nice old God who will take good care of us from a lofty position of power.... It is quite another to believe in a God who has it in mind for us precisely that we should [be like Him].
Fascinating, isn't he? If only he'd modified is own life to follow his philosophical ponderings.

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