The Power of Belief – Some thoughts for the New Year
By Dennis Klocek
That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping we are becoming. ~Emerson
Human beings have a fundamental need to believe in something. Beliefs are generally divided into two categories, immanent and transcendent. These categories are linked to the two types of religious experience found in the ancient world. In immanent belief, the believer sees that god is perceptible in the things of the world, in space and time. The Pythagorean belief that the forms of the world are manifestations of god through the immanent qualities of numbers is an example of this kind of belief. Such a belief is the basis for the principles of sacred geometry, temple architecture, sacred music, ritual and dance that permeated the ancient world. In these forms God was made immanent on the earth through the phenomena of number. However that meant that a human experience of God could include opposites since opposites are the chief characteristic of the manifest world.
That was a problem for Plato. He was a Pythagorean by training and also believed in the idea that god exists in the ordering principle of the cosmos. But for him, the manifest or immanent world was just an imitation of transcendent reality. Transcendent reality contained no oppositions or revisions. As a philosopher he believed that the divine is only accessible through the purified intellects of humans. For him, access to the divine was accomplished through intellectual engagement with abstract laws. Adherents of this belief find meaning only in the inner striving to harmonize their minds intellectually with the ideals of transcendent laws. For Plato, the intellectual perception of the cosmos as a system of abstract imperishable laws was a fundamental principle of human life. He felt that in order for reality on earth to conform to these ideals, humans are required go into the ideal realm intellectually to intuit the beliefs by which they could best live their lives.
However, each type of belief system has a shadow side. The shadow of immanent belief is that wisdom originates in the cosmos and is then promulgated towards humans who then unconsciously live it out in their lives without understanding the causes for events. This leads to social hierarchies where believers can find refuge in the system of beliefs without actually having to understand the source of their beliefs. In Greek times this pole of belief manifested in society in what was known as oikos. Our word ecology comes from oikos. It means the family you come from or household in which you live your life. In oikos the structure of the family was considered to be an immanent manifestation of the harmony of the gods on Olympus. Through oikos the gods manifested in the lives of humans as the ordering force of the family. The family structure was considered to be an image of the gods. If a person belonged to a family they were part of its belief structure. Most humans experienced the divine unconsciously in the family order that they were born into. The shadow is that there is no chance to become independent of the oikos. This belief system is the basis for traditional culture and many fundamentalist doctrines and regimes.
By contrast, the transcendent philosophy manifested among humans as the concept of the polis that can be translated as city in the early Greek usage but eventually came to describe the state or more technically the governing body of laws of the state. The Greek polis or state can be seen as a counterpoint to the concept of oikos. The spiritual beings that inspired the state were thought to live in an ideal realm that was the source of life. However, those beings were considered to be transcendent to the manifestations in the sense world. God was out there and not in things. God was a transcendent ideal. Transcendent ideals manifest in human society as the laws of the state. Human beings gained access the laws of the state through intellectual systems of thought. This is the basis for Plato's Republic.
The shadow side of transcendent qualities of the polis can be seen in the belief that any opinions that mirror the state automatically aligned the individual with the transcendent power of the divine. As an example of why this is a shadow can be seen in the Republic. In that work, Plato advocated taking very young children from their parents so that they could be raised properly by the state to be good citizens of the polis. Transcendent shadows emerge when, by extension, whatever an individual does in the name of the state is identified with the influence of the divine or transcendent power that inspires and sustains the polis. The power of the polis comes from the power of belief of those who say that they are in intellectual contact with the divine or transcendent laws of ideal reality. This works well if the leaders of the polis actually exercise intellectual effort meditatively to align themselves with the transcendent realm of thought. Shadows arise when those leaders who represent the intellectually perceived reality prove to be less than ideal in their actions on earth. This disconnect creates inner conflict in the members of the state. Further, if the leaders of the state resort to lies and personal attacks on others as a way of executing the laws, those acts sow the seeds of social pathology in the members. Rudolf Steiner calls the forces that arise from a leader telling a public lie, mass psychosis.
Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character give him power. ~Abraham Lincoln
At the present time the polis model is seen as the great source of power for forming the aspirations of the public mind. However, when lying with impunity and ad hominem (against the man) arguments become the status quo of the leaders of a state, and by extension any society or institution, then those practices lead to general states of psychosis among the members. The psychosis manifests primarily as the acceptance of the public lie. The will forces in a society or organization that tolerate the public lie, tend to value the impact of an opinion delivered forcefully as a way of influencing the members of the group, rather than reasoned argument as a path towards truth. Seeking for the impact of an opinion over the presentation of facts is the shadow of speaking truth to power. It has dire social consequences.
The instinctive need to be a member of a closely knit group fighting for common ideals may grow so strong that it becomes inessential what these ideals are. ~Konrad Lorenz- zoologist who studied instinct in animals and in society
The technique of using the impact of an opinion as a way of modeling public consciousness is founded on what is known as the circular statement. That is a statement that cannot be proven wrong, such as this gem from Donald Rumsfeld regarding the lack of evidence for WMD in Iraq. ” The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence” Other statements like, “we will succeed because we are focused on success” are also circular statements that are actually ambivalent since they can't be proven. When these kinds of vague un-provable statements are given as rationale for public policy they reverberate negatively in people's souls creating a general sense of unease. People who are looking for a real meaning that would allow them to align with an institution or system of laws do not find in such statements any evidence that could support belief. This creates inner conflict. When circular statements are followed up by ad hominem attacks in public forums such as presidential debates, the power of the leaders of the state to impact and regulate public opinion through obscure or circular statements becomes maximized. The constituents are kept in perennial states of imbalance. Creating constant imbalance in others is the prime source of power for those who wish to control the activities of others.
At the core of all well- founded belief, lies belief that is unfounded. ~Wittgenstein
Thankfully, in between oikos and polis there can be discovered the concept of apotheosis. Apotheosis in Greek literally means the god out there. Apotheosis is the belief structure that is fostered in what is known as the mystery school tradition. In the mystery schools a qualifier is added to god being out there. The addition states that as a pupil in the mystery school I, personally, have decided to walk on a path that is going back to god. That goal implies that eventually I can know god directly. That concept is darkly dangerous for both transcendent and immanent believers. That is why mystery schools often operate underground in general society.
For Plato the divine ideas belonged to the eternal nature of God and there was a gap between that eternal nature of God and the transient world. In this belief god existed in the world only as an imitation or shadow. The philosopher Whitehead found that the early Christian theologians belief of a multiplicity in God constitutes a momentous discovery to heal the split between transcendent belief and the immanent belief. In the Trinity the early church fathers found a concept for the mutual immanence of each person in the Trinity. They understood the direct immanence of God in the one person of Christ. They also found direct immanence of God in the world generally in the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. Contrary to Plato's solution of the world as shadow, in their discovery of the Trinity they gave humans a rational account of the presence of God in the world. This mystery union opened the door for the emergence of the mystery schools.
The path of belief of apotheosis requires that each person strive for the ideal and form his or her own judgments of how that plays out in the world. Through inner meditative practices the students of the mystery schools seek to have direct experience of the transcendent and bring these transcendent experiences into their lives on earth. We could say along with Rudolf Steiner, ” I am in God: In me is God”. In this union the mystery tradition seeks to bring both the beliefs of the polis and the beliefs of the oikos into harmony. This allows mystery pupils to have an experience of the active participation of the divine in the actual world. To accomplish this union, mystery school students must go on an inner journey to personally speak to their own fears and doubts. To speak to their own fears and doubts they must understand that any opinion that they hold is only half correct at any given time. This realization is at the very heart of mystery wisdom. The task of mystery school pupils is to establish a practice in which checking their own beliefs is a daily experience. When a person turns towards apotheosis they voluntarily experience the pain of realizing that their own inner life is primarily a collection of judgmental opinions that they have received from somewhere or someone else.
To heal the pain of this realization it is useful for an esoteric student to awaken to the difference between forming a judgment and being judgmental. This requires becoming discriminating regarding actions in the world, but at the same timer avoiding becoming discriminatory towards other people. Being judgmental or discriminatory of other people are shadows of what could be a wholesome inner life. When persons are in balance, they form judgments of the acts of others without resorting to attacks on the person. They can discriminate between truth and error without having their discrimination unconsciously become an entrenched opinion. This practice enables the mystery student to live a life that can be a firm foundation for the formation of healthy community, a community of free souls.
As a mystery school student, there are three simple things that I can do to help myself to awaken to these differences.
The first is to strive to realize that all my knowing is only half knowing. This requires that I develop a practice where I can ask my self how an opinion I hold in my thinking can be considered an error by someone else. I don't have to adopt the other opinion, I just need to bring it to mind. That helps tremendously with the anxiety of being seen as incorrect.
It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. ~Aristotle
The second task is to awaken to the line between an ad hominem argument and the presentation of facts. To do that a simple exercise of writing a letter to someone you are angry with and then put your name where you would put their name. Then put it in a self addressed stamped envelope. Then send that in another envelope to a friend with the instructions to send it to you at some later date. When you receive the letter with the angry thoughts addressed to you see if you can take out the ad hominem elements and simply state the facts as you know them. This exercise is aimed at transforming the feelings that arise in difficult social circumstances into forces of understanding.
To judge between good or bad, between successful and unsuccessful would take the eye of a God. ~Anton Chekhov
The third thing that can be done is to try to realize that in order to learn effectively, mistakes are necessary. A simple but powerful exercise for that is to review the contents of your day backwards through inner picturing. When you get to a place where you made a mistake or discovered that you misunderstood something, instead of casting blame on your self ask your self what possible good could come from that mistake or misunderstanding? In other words what can I learn from a negative experience? How would I do that again? To do that instead of experiencing self blame allows the soul to move towards being conscientious or ethical in life rather than blaming the world or ones self for confused circumstances. Initiating a practice of the daily backward review is tremendously healing for the corrosive emotions linked to self blame. This kind of self education is the hallmark of the mystery schools.
I believe, indeed, that overemphasis on the purely intellectual attitude, often directed solely to the practical and factual, in our education, has led directly to the impairment of ethical values. I am not thinking so much of the dangers with which technical progress has directly confronted mankind, as of the stifling of mutual human considerations by a 'matter-of-fact' habit of thought that has come to lie like a killing frost upon human relations. Without 'ethical culture' there is no salvation for humanity. ~Albert Einstein
In conclusion, belief is not something negative until it becomes unconscious. The mystery schools teach that the greatest mystery is the ability of the human heart to cultivate a conscious belief in the goodness of existence by enhancing compassion, imagination and enthusiasm in the soul through active self education.
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps gradually, without noticing it, you will live along some distant day into the answer. ~Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
A good article illustrating these themes in the economic sphere can be found at the New Your Times: How Did Economists Get It So Wrong?.
Dennis Klocek, MFA, is co-founder of the Coros Institute and a faculty member at Rudolf Steiner College. He is the author of nine books, including the newly released Colors of the Soul; Esoteric Physiology and also Sacred Agriculture: The Alchemy of Biodynamics. Dennis is also an international lecturer.