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Error, Reality, and Religion.

“To follow It, you must be cleaned –

With mistakes that you do mean.”

Not long ago, I was speaking with a group of people about serious things, and the word “reality” was used.  The woman who used it, who had sampled the waters of the various religions, corrected herself: “What am I saying,” she said.  “There’s no such thing as reality.”

I did not object at the time, but I certainly observed the moment and thought about what her saying this meant.  I thought about the fact that in my own life, nothing seems so obvious as reality – an external that is indifferent to our command and invulnerable to our will – and similarly nothing so obvious as the fact that all my attempts to create my own reality end in suffering – at times, terrible suffering.  Perhaps this was not true for her – perhaps she did not feel the universe’s punishment for having her own version of things.  But I suspected her experience was more like mine than she might have admitted.

Let me start with something of a definition of terms.  I would call “reality” that external phenomenon, the object of our senses, which is either in accord or at variance with our perception.  Of course we can have variant perceptions, and of course at times these variances cannot be adjudicated to ascertain which is the more accurate.  But that there is something of which our perceptions are but a measure I think is repeatedly demonstrated to us, not always immediately, but certainly over the course of time.  The best demonstration of this is the simple fact that our measurements of reality are at times horribly inaccurate, and the results we achieve far from what we had expected.  In small and physical matters – such as measurements when building something of wood – the result of the error may be additional labor, wastage of materials, or maculate workmanship.  In emotional, personal, and business matters the results may be failure, pain, betrayal, divorce, estrangement, and other forms of suffering.  Error of either type is a constant companion to me; and each time it comes unexpectedly, when I am quite confident I am correct.  Time reveals the mistake; I am each time incapable of preempting it.  But now I do not let errors go without interrogating them: “Why did I misjudge that person so badly?”  “How could I have felt I could get this done?”  “Why did I think this was going to make me happy?”  “Am I the only one who believed this would be enough for me?”  “Why didn’t I see this coming?”  “What does it mean that I see these things that are not there?”  “Why did I hold on so long?”  “Why did I think she would laugh when I said that?”  At times even the slightest misperceptions can be baffling and significant: “Why did I think she had black hair?”  “Why did I buy a whole keg of beer for this party?”  “Why did I think his name was Ajax?”  (Perhaps the last one has happened only to me.)

At times of course the universe is terrifying in its harsh punishment of error.  Death is the result of seemingly minor lapses – a rock climber who believes that his rock will hold, or a driver who thinks the alcohol has not impaired him that much.  Adults are generally good at detecting danger and avoiding it, but the world is especially dangerous to children precisely because their judgement is so barely developed.  There is something horrible about the finality of these punishments – particularly with children, who have every excuse for poor judgement.

But there is room for hope.  To me the existence of an external standard against which we can measure our judgements – and I cannot see why such a thing cannot be fairly given the name “reality,” even to the most hardened Academic – is one of the real reasons for optimism in life.  At times the pain of life can be diminished by the mere thought, “Now I know.  Never again.”  (Similarly one of the greatest sorrows is knowing that in the moment when your wisdom was called upon, when all the things you had learned were measured in the balance, the sum of it was insufficient, and your failure irrevocable and permanent.)  And it appears that the accuracy of our perceptions can indeed improve, which is heartening.  Indeed nothing is sadder or more frustrating than to see the opposite – a person who makes the same mistakes over and over again, and suffers the same things over and over again, without learning.  It indicates some resistance to reality, some failure of the permeability of the person’s membrane with the universe, which in the end is the height of impiety.  Jesus called his followers mathetai – “learners,” disciples (itself from the Latin discere, to learn).

I will linger just a bit longer on the objections of the relativists.  They like to fasten on more subjective judgements which vary widely – such as beauty – and then they pronounce, “You see!  Everyone makes their own reality.”  But even these highly subjective judgements make a good subject for scrutiny.  “Wow.  She’s beautiful.”  “You think so?  Really?”  For two articulate, self-aware people, these variances in judgement can be the portals of discovery.  Perceptions, thrown against a more objective standard, reveal the shape of the perceiver’s eye.

The steady pursuit of questions such as the ones above – the true “examination of conscience” which is the prequel to confession (I will note that the Latin conscientia from which the phrase is transliterated is far richer than the word “conscience” in English, meaning all forms of interior awareness, and not merely moral scruple) – results in the conviction that there is a reality indeed, and further, that you habitually distort it in specific ways.  These patterns of distortion are discernible and can be taken into account, if not cured.  Just as when you are shooting at a target across a field, you may find that your aim has some bias; but you may correct for it.  When I place the crosshairs on my target, my bullets fall short; so I put the crosshairs slightly above, and hit it.  In Greek, the language of the Gospels, the word hamartia means “missing the target”: it is translated in every Bible as “sin.”  (Don’t get me started on whether or not you can really understand Christianity without knowing Greek, or at least being taught by someone who really knows what the Gospels say in Greek.)

I do not say this to make light of sin.  These patterns of distortion are in the fullest and truest sense vices or sins, and a great portion of the sadness of the world originates from them.  But I do want to say this: the most common cause of bad behavior – “sins,” the outcome of sin – is distortion of perception.  This becomes obvious when you investigate someone’s motives – “What were you trying to accomplish?  What do you want?” – you see always that the person desires not the result achieved, but something utterly different, something that could never be achieved by the means employed.  But a host of things stand in the way of accomplishment, each inclining the person’s actions away from their goal: sloth, acquisitiveness, deceit, lust, anger, fear, pride, envy, gluttony.  And their punishment is to watch themselves fail, over and over again, unless they correct it.

I will connect the dots here, to be obvious.  It is easy to see how pride can distort one’s perception of reality: a proud person will believe they can accomplish more than they can, in less time, and will often need to praise it more than it deserves; this leads to deceit.  We all know people who have to present their lives as happy, as they are unable to confront it in its true dimensions – also a typical distortion.  Similarly we know people whose fears corrupt the moment, or whose laziness robs them of what they could be, or whose anger alienates the allies they most need to help the causes they feel passionately about.  And there are people who hold on to things so long they cannot grasp reality anymore.  When people have photos up on their walls of loved ones, I am always curious to know how old the photos are – so often the photo is an image of a period held up as idyllic, but no longer corresponding to the way things are (and perhaps not to the way they were either).  For each of these distortions you are likely to pay a price.  I know an old woman who carries a photo of her young self in her wallet at all times.  “This is what I looked like when I was young,” she says, showing it to anyone who will look.  Who doubts that this is a kind of hell to be in?  She is not that anymore, it is gone.  And what suffering there will be, every day, until she accepts reality – it is painful to think on.

Indeed we see this often with old people, who often feel the punishment in the most elementary way possible: they attempt to do the things they once could, and find that they are not as nimble, not as strong, not as resilient as they once were.  You hope that the only consequences are bruises or broken bones.

And the thing you really hope for is some kind of breakthrough, some realization of how far you have gone astray, which Jesus called metanoia, another one of the endlessly fascinating Gospel words, meaning literally “alteration of mind” but having all kinds of other shades of meaning.  It is universally translated into English as “repentance,” and the command metanoiete, the one-word slogan of Jesus’s ministry, as “repent.”  There is reason for this: when you change your mind about something, you “repent.”  But in the end nothing can change the fact that these are terrible translations, and they managed to make it through the entire 20th century untouched, despite literally dozens of new Bible translations being done into English.  But the original word metanoia is a good term for the breakthrough of which I speak: a vision of your old way of thinking, and all the suffering it has caused, which alters you.  It is a conversion.  I have found that the most common sign of this breakthrough is tears – tears of contrition.  The symbolic coincidence is so unusual it seems even contrived – “the cleansing of the doors of perception” – but so it is when you ascend to the next terrace of self-understanding.  The saints speak of “the gift of tears.”  When you see how what you thought was your grief was your pride, when you see how you set yourself up for every failure, when you see how you yourself threw away the blessings you had – how can you not weep?  But as the tears dry you can feel the new level of awareness you have and the new clarity of sight, and you know that somehow your life is not over, but an opportunity for some new beginning has been given, one armed with new understanding.  “Blessed are those who weep.”

This is the contemplative life; its goal is ever refined power of perception.  The great mystics and teachers have often been credited with clairvoyance – habits of perception so sharp that it appears mystical.  Of course they pursue this: because “through him all things were made, and nothing was made without him”: what lover of the Maker would permit in himself ignorance of the things made?  We should beware of any teacher without this – for the spiritual life is meant to be not an escape, but precisely a closer intimacy with reality.  If this is not achieved, then why take upon oneself the burden of a religion?  If you take violin lessons and in the end cannot play violin, what good is that?  The stubborn memorizing and clinging to a system of doctrines is superfluous, if it cannot unlock God’s reality.  There is a problem if you have to salt your salt.  You know that you are on the path, when the things read are revealed in your life; when you have seen and lived parables; when the things you hear in your religion are not reverend and distant, but so near to your heart you feel they were written about you because your life itself has taught them to you.

But this also indicates another idea: that the errors of perception you have seen in your own life may exist in your religion as well.  The correction of these errors has been the work of the Prophets; and woe to the religion which admits of no prophecy and no correction.  They bequeath all their accumulated errors to individuals to correct.  But the statements of the religions may be tested by individuals for their truthfulness; many things will be found to be true, though in ways other than the obvious; and what old wineskins can take no new wine, have reached the end of their usefulness.  But this testing to find the true, needful as it may be, may itself lead to error: the things you tossed aside as useless at the beginning of your journey, may be by the end the one thing needful, and you may need to go back to get it; for God does not keep us from errors.

Harmony with reality is the goal; and the path to this place leads through many errors and corrections, like a circle being approximated by a polygon of many straight lines.  We are drawn off into tangents.  Eternal vigilance is required; but a rhythm develops. You begin to fear long straight paths without corrections.  But what bliss – as the poet says –

But already I could feel my being turned –

Instinct and intellect balanced equally,

As in a wheel whose motion nothing jars,

By the love that moves the sun and the other stars.