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The End of Suffering

By Zach Van Houten

Suffering is one of the constants of life. It may be more acute for some than it is for others, but fundamentally it is shared by all beings.

What should our attitude be towards suffering? Should we despise it? Work with it? Deny it? Medicate it? Blame others for it?

Buddhism teaches that there is a path one can take (the Eightfold Path) that leads to the end of suffering. It is a very prescriptive concept of how we can take practical steps to overcome this ever-present aspect of our existence.

Christianity, especially Catholicism emphasizes the redemptive nature of suffering.; and how trials of many kinds can produce perseverance (James 1:2-4). The example of Christ’s passion is given to show what compassion and bravery looks like in the face of intense suffering.

Theodicy refers to the conundrum theologians face when they try to explain the reason God allows suffering. It is no easy matter to explain away, for example: rape, mutilation, torture, genocide, etc. It is especially difficult to hold that there is an all-powerful, loving being who is watching it all unfold and refusing to intervene to prevent the worst of events from occurring.

I personally find the idea of a all-powerful, all-loving being controlling and governing the world to be a relic of ancient thought, and a needlessly anthropomorphic way to view reality. It doesn’t stand up to scrutiny when considering the volume and severity of suffering on this planet. Something is obviously missing from the equation.

There are much more sophisticated philosophies regarding the true nature of existence, which can account for suffering in a more rational way. Once we remove the idea of a cosmic being actively controlling it all, we find that it is much easier to see that suffering is simply built into reality itself, not programmed into it by an outside agent.

We may not like that suffering exists, but it is much easier to accept that it is just a brute fact of life, much like physics is a facet of nature. Now the question remains, what is it’s purpose?

The idea of purpose is a tricky one. Because it implies intentionality. Rather than asking what the purpose of suffering is, I prefer to ask ‘how can we work with suffering?’ This gives us agency, and pushes us to form our own conclusions about what it means to us personally.

My life has involved a lot of suffering. I have struggled with depression for almost a decade, and even before that I was never what I would describe as happy. I had enough outlets when I was young to distract me from getting fully depressed, but at some point those distractions stopped working. Then I was faced with suffering in it’s raw form. Not just in myself, but in the world. It was like a car crash you can’t look away from.

I am doing much better now than I was in the first few years of depression. At the time it felt like the world was shaded gray, and I don’t remember any feelings of happiness. Just numb and dull, with a perpetual heavy, sinking feeling in my chest. It was truly hell for a while.

I learned to manage this, and over time worked up the energy to make life changes and grow. Life got a lot better. I still had a lot of emotional and psychological issues, but I was channeling my energy into productive things more than before.

I had decided when I first got depressed that I didn’t want to medicate myself. I wanted to beat depression. I wanted to understand it; to learn the mechanisms of this thing so that I could not only heal myself, but also help others. This journey has honestly made me a much better person than I was before I got sick. I believe that it has refined me. And though I am far from perfect, I feel extremely proud of the growth it has produced in me.

I feel that when the Buddhists talk about the end of suffering, it isn’t merely about suffering being bad. It is more about the completion of suffering; when it exhausts itself.

The truth is, most of the people I deeply respect have experienced a lot of suffering. There seems to be an initiation into the depths of pain and despair, which produces powerful and compassionate human beings.

In Buddhism the enlightened mind is likened to a diamond. Diamonds are formed by intense pressure in the heart of the earth. In the same way, we cannot be made beautiful unless we undergo testing and trials and traumas. The late Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh referred to this truth when he said “No mud, no lotus.” And having been a peace activist in his home country during the Vietnam War, he had seen a lot of suffering firsthand.

I would never tell another person what suffering should mean to them. Their suffering may be too great for me to comprehend, and too tragic for me to properly empathize with. The way we choose to handle suffering is personal. But there is one thing that is obvious: by choosing to accept and work with our suffering, we increase our ability to grow as human beings and to develop our souls. This, I believe, we carry with us, beyond this lifetime.

Thank you for reading.

Photo by THÁI NHÀN from Pexels

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The Sunny Side of Nihilism

By Zach Van Houten

Merriam-Webster defines nihilism as:

a: a viewpoint that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded and that existence is senseless and useless
\\ Nihilism is a condition in which all ultimate values lose their value.
— Ronald H. Nash

b: a doctrine that denies any objective ground of truth and especially of moral truths

https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nihilism

Now could there be any value to a viewpoint such as this? Does it not seem a little bit… bleak?

I would argue that, despite the reputation it has garnered, nihilism is more or less the pessimistic Western version of an Eastern spiritual tradition known as zen. What is seen as tragic to us, with a slight shift in perspective and emphasis, is actually great freedom and liberation.

Nihilism is considered to be the implication of Friedrich Nietzsche‘s declaration that “God is dead“, and the aftermath of the destruction of belief in traditional religion in the West. The picture painted was very tragic. Contrary to popular opinion, Nietzsche was not himself a proponent of nihilism, but rather a prophet predicting it’s arrival. He predicted the horrors of the 20th century quite accurately, as in his own view, a natural consequence of the collapse of religious ideals.

Nihilism extends beyond simple rejection of religion to a deeper mistrust of all societal values and concepts. The nihilist gazes at the horrors of life and doesn’t provide an excuse for it. He or she does not see hope or deeper meaning, just the brute facts of the situation. This outlook is deeply related with the depressive tendency.

So, if this philosophy is so depressing, what good could there be in it? Well, I would argue that nihilism is in some ways the dark before the dawn for the spiritual/philosophical seeker. The end of the line for all buffers against the cold reality which faces us.

Society is built around a sort of repression of the hard truth that everyone will suffer and die. Life is a constant uphill battle, offering no clear answers to why we are here or what we are doing. Some people happen to have a sunny disposition and are able to repress these aspects of life and enjoy their time. But for many, if not most, the actual experience of living is not easy at all.

Before we can find true freedom we must first take complete responsibility for our beliefs and ideas about life. Nihilism involves a ruthless deconstruction of false ideas and fake positivity. It sees through the futility of human concepts in the face of mortality. In the end everyone suffers and dies. What point is there to it all?

Buddhism shares a similar focus on suffering and death. Buddhists believe that life is full of suffering, and that the only way out is the attainment of enlightenment, or liberation. Everything changes, and grasping onto anything will only end in suffering. So the Buddha taught his followers to learn nonattachment: the art of dying before you die.

Society wants you to follow its rules and play its games. It convinces you by appealing to your sense of morality and reason. Yet the values of society are often superficial, and not well thought-out. Nihilism, in it’s rejection of societal values, has a degree of wisdom, as ultimately, all external values have to be dropped in order for a person to become completely free. A liberated being does not base their morality off of society, but rather their own inner sense of compassion and internal moral compass, which can’t be put into rigid doctrines.

Zen buddhism is an attempt to throw off all conceptual knowledge and return to the simplicity of the human heart. It involves a deep trust in the compassion and wisdom of our true nature, rather than the distrust of nature that society has instilled in us.

Zen is a means of transcending the idea of meaning in life, instead preferring direct experience. In this way it is similar to nihilism, except that nihilism is more of a response to loss of meaning, whereas zen is focused on transcending meaning. Seeing things as they are is the goal of both approaches. The main difference is in the actual experience of this meaninglessness. For zen buddhists it is an ecstatic experience to reconnect with their true nature apart from mental concepts. Nihilism does not seem to offer such consolation.

Zen Buddhism is practice-based. It is rooted in the practice of meditation, and the contemplative lifestyle. And in this way it is a fully formed way of life rather than a philosophy. It is based in a worldview which is fundamentally optimistic about life after death, even though a zen buddhist would be very reluctant to speculate on such topics. Nihilists on the other hand tend to be pessimistic about the possibility of life after death and spirituality in general.

So in conclusion, nihilism is for many a symptom of a deep spiritual need. A yearning for the transcendent, which cannot be filled by external ideas and moral injunctions. Zen buddhism on the other hand shares a lot of the same deconstructive tendencies with nihilism, but offers a fundamentally positive, practical, and optimistic path forward. I am not a zen buddhist per se, but it has been a fundamental part of my spiritual path, and may offer something of value to anyone with nihilistic or depressive tendencies.

Thank you for reading.

Zach Van Houten

Decolonizing Our Spiritual Life

By Zach Van Houten

Society gives us ideas to believe in before we are old enough to question them. All of us are to a large extent brainwashed from birth; although not necessarily in a malicious sense. We are taught how to behave as a child, and how to act responsibly as an adult. By the time our brains are fully formed we have already ingested an incredible amount of information telling us who we are and what we should be doing with our lives.

As we become adults we may believe we are acting rationally and that our ideas are solid. Yet society has really only given us a point of reference; a set of presuppositions to adhere to. A catalogue of rules of thumb that help us navigate life.

Sometimes a person runs into a situation which requires them to question the ideas they were taught, and to form deeper, more nuanced understanding of the problem. This is a way many of us gain our own wisdom and knowledge. Not by sticking with the old ideas, but by voyaging into the unknown. When the old stops working, the new must be born.

In spirituality and philosophy we are experiencing such a crossroad. Christian religion for the West is struggling to maintain its dominance. And materialist philosophy is found to be unable to explain the very physics it is supposed to be grounded on.

Our minds have been shaped by colonialism. The belief that our way of life is superior to the rest of the world is still embedded in our society. We are starting to see that while we have wonderful contributions to make globally, we also need to sit at the feet of global wisdomkeepers in order to learn lessons a young nation such as ours is clearly missing.

One such lesson is the universality of Spirit. God is in all things; that is a message that echoes through world religions and philosophies older than ours. The wisdom of Oneness is ancient, and there are many teachers today who have been reaching a hand out to the West in hope that we would sit and listen.

Will we listen? Hard to say. Some will. Some already have. And others will never give up the narrowness of what they were taught. For them, it is our way versus the world. A battle that must be won, rather than a riddle which must be solved. The great sages and yogis see existence more as a riddle to solve than a war to be won. Once you have solved the riddle everything else falls into place. That is the magic of deep spirituality.

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Photo: Magnifier and white puzzle on hundred dollars banknotes by Marco Verch under Creative Commons 2.0

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The Universal Body of Christ: Diversity Reconciled in Unity

By Zach Van Houten

Within the Bible there are many passages which speak of a reconciliation of humanity to God. This is often understood in a concrete, and historical sense, based on a literal interpretation of Scripture. I am not interested in diving into all the reasons I do not read the Bible literally, as those discussions get tedious. If you consider all or even most of the Bible to be literally and historically accurate, that is your prerogative. It is not my job or my intent to persuade you that is not the case.

I believe approaching religious texts subjectively is really key when it come to receiving insights from them. I have rarely found inspiration in factual, historical details. Truths seem to hit home emotionally when we relate with a story or a passage personally. When we can see in it a pattern which goes beyond the particular story, it causes us to reflect on our own lives. It helps us connect our spirituality with the particular circumstances we find ourselves in today.

The Body of Christ was a metaphor used by the Apostle Paul to help Christians understand their essential unity as the universal Church.

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work…Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ…Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

1 Corinthians 12:4-6,12,27

This theology of unity expressed through diversity is a principal that extends beyond the limited conception of Christianity as a sectarian religion, and hints at the broader unity of all existence. For if God is understood to be all-pervading, then we can start to understand that while Christianity was meant for the church, it’s revelations are a part of a much bigger story which is now being understood not merely through the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, but also through the inspiration received by many different religions and world philosophies.

To see this larger story we need a wider viewpoint. Our goal is not to make any statement of absolute truth, it is more to point to our human interconnectedness. To our longing for hope, and our faith in power and intelligence beyond ourselves. This is a timeless story and can be seen everywhere if you have the eyes to see and ears to hear.

How is this unity revealed? Well, first we have to look beyond the appearance of the world, and get in touch with heart of life itself. The word we use for this heart of life is Love. It binds us to one another, and fills us with such energy that we write about it, sing about it, live for it and die for it.

Love is experienced when we sense this unity deeply. And to sense the unity demands that we see through our individual differences, to perceive clearly. I will use the word ego here to represent our unhealthy preoccupation with individual differences, in comparison to other people and the world at large.

When we are able to let our guard down and open up to another person, to a group, or to life itself, we experience a love which over the centuries has been associated with concepts such as God. To be in deep relationship with reality, with existence, is to be in the most Divine relationship possible. Nothing could be closer to our own being.

The way we live out this experience of loving connection varies according to how deeply and broadly one has established relationship with existence, and how the circumstances of life and our psychology have formed us. One tool we can use to understand this expression of personhood is called the Enneagram.

The Enneagram has become quite popular among Christians, which makes me super excited that we will finally be able to understand the Body of Christ in a more true way. To see that every person expresses attributes of God, although for some this love is locked away and not always visible to the naked eye.

Ultimately I believe all people are held together by love at the core of their being. It just may be that for some, we may never see that part of them, and they may never be conscious of it themselves. The Enneagram gives us a tool to look more deeply at ourselves and separate out what is sinful from what is holy. That is, what reflects selfless love and service versus what manifests as dysfunction and disharmony.

For example, my Enneagram type, Five, is known for expressing cerebral, perceptive and innovative aspects of God. While at our most dysfunctional we can indulge in extreme isolation and arrogance. We can manifest schizoid tendencies and delusional thinking. Yet we also can be visionary and insightful when in healthy relationship.

I would encourage you all to look into the Enneagram, and consider if you relate to a particular type. Ask your friends and family what type they think you are. And most importantly, pray or meditate on the topic and see whether or not the Enneagram or another personality type system can help you see through the smallness of your ego. Because the point is not to worship your individuality, but rather to learn how to see your own limitations and then surrender them. The more we see through our own PR, the easier it is for us to serve humbly. All our gifts belong to the universal Body of Christ, and we can find peace by getting in right relationship with the Whole.


For more on the Enneagram, check out this article: https://religionnews.com/2017/09/05/what-is-the-enneagram-and-why-are-christians-suddenly-so-enamored-by-it/

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Zach Van Houten

The Tao of Christ

By Zach Van Houten

This year I stumbled upon a Christian version of the ancient Chinese contemplative work the Tao Te Ching. What made me excited about this is that it does what I feel is often missing in our dialogues with other faith traditions: translate religious texts from one spiritual language into another.

Many westerners struggle to relate with foreign concepts such as the Tao, since the word is entirely new to us. To add new words to the Christian vocabulary may not be very helpful. But if we look closely we can easily see that Tao is simply a Chinese word that can be translated as God or Spirit, or even Christ. And this is done here by baptist minister Marshall Davis in The Tao of Christ: A Christian Version of the Tao Te Ching.

The Tao Te Ching tackles many topics in a very subtle and paradoxical way. It isn’t an easy read if you approach it with a analytical mind, but if you let the words hit you, and allow space for the paradoxical style, it reveals wonderfully beautiful nuances of contemplative life that can barely be put into words. Thankfully Marshall simplifies it even further here for readers who may find the original Taoist text daunting.

There are many great passages, and I will share one here that hit me this morning. It speaks to the way Christ lived in the gospels, and how He works in Creation:

Associate with the righteous and the unrighteous.

Accept people as they are without judging them.

If you love the world unconditionally, it will be like returning to Eden before the knowledge of good and evil.

The world is formed from nothing,

like a bowl formed from a block of wood.

The bowl is made of wood, yet it is the empty space that makes it useful.

So does God make and use all things.

If you try to fix the world, you will fail miserably.

The world is God’s to fix.

Can you do better than God?

In trying to make things better,

You will only mess things up.

That doesn’t mean you should do nothing.

You should act according to your nature.

Some are meant to lead, others to follow.

Some struggle, others take things easy.

Some are strong, and others weak.

Some play it safe, others take risks.

Christ sees everything as it is.

He sees God at work in all events, and does not usurp control.

Keeping in the center of the Divine will, he accomplishes all things.

The Tao of Christ, verses 28-29

I encourage everyone to order the book/buy the ebook, since it is a wonderful addition to anyone interested in, or familiar with Christianity who also wants a fresh perspective on the spiritual world. Paperback version can be purchased here. Marshall also has a wonderful podcast by the same name which can be found here.

For those who want to experience the full force of the original Tao Te Ching translated into English, I would recommend this audio version on YouTube since it is such a beautiful reading and translation. For those interested in a more introductory version using Christian terminology, I recommend The Tao of Christ.

Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed this, subscribe to my feed or bookmark this site for more posts like this.

Zach Van Houten

Grace Here and Now

By Zach Van Houten

I have been absent for a while now on social media. I deactivated my Facebook account and cut ties with a few different groups due to a growing feeling of claustrophobia and self-consciousness. Election cycles tend to do that to me. I feel more hesitant than ever to share my thoughts and feelings when I know tensions are high.

During this hiatus, I have spent time digging into my inner world, and uncovering wounds and neuroses that are difficult to see when actively engaging in social life. The smaller my world, the better, at times. That is at least one way I find solace.

I can’t say I am at peace, but I do have more clarity than I have had in a while. It has been easier to see patterns of self-deception and self-aggrandizement when offline. These two tend to occur when I want purpose and meaning in life, and feel I have to create it. Christianity in particular has left a void in my life that is hard to explain.

I didn’t just grow up in the church. It was my social life, and my home life. My experience of being homeschooled in a evangelical family meant that I ate, slept and breathed my religion. I wanted to be a pastor, and/or worship leader. I wanted to save souls. I studied the Bible and prayed daily. It wasn’t just a part of my life, it was central to it.

So when I broke ties with the church I tried to act as if I had moved on to something better. It is true that I had moved on to something more authentic for where I was at, but not necessarily more grounding or comforting.

The comfort of the church had begun to wear off before I left. It wasn’t all roses. I had been privately suffering from intense loneliness, insecurity, and depression. This made it hard for me to ever sink fully into grace. Although when I had, it had been a wonderful and liberating experience.

The parable of the prodigal son is a story that represents the heart of God for me. In the story the obedient son, while never leaving the Father’s side, did not experience the love of the Father in the same way the wayward one did. The reason being that the prodigal son knew his imperfection, while the obedient son who never left the Father was full of pride and was unforgiving to the son who had left.

Grace can grow in us as we experience our shadow selves, and find that we are more imperfect than we had imagined ourselves to be. In fact, being an individual is to be vastly imperfect, since we are by definition considering our small sense of self as if we were separate from the entire universe.

Being human carries a sense of constant inferiority and urge towards growth. While life teaches us to evolve, the desire to transcend ourselves cannot ever be accomplished by improving the separate self. It is only when we are liberated from this small egocentric view that we can have peace.

Christ teaches me to humble myself, and relate to the mystery in a way that allows me to be me, rather than feeling I have to carry myself up some mountain of purity. I can allow myself the space for failing and know that God can still use me anyway. In fact, opening to grace helps me to be more patient with the faults of others. We are all works-in-progress.

While the idea of God is not something everyone is comfortable with, I have found great solace in making peace with my old faith through prayer and seeking the true heart of the gospel.

Prayer for me is an act of humble opening to the mystery, and to the intelligence beyond myself. I can ask and trust, and in this simple gesture I feel more connected and attuned.

I don’t feel it needs to be much more complicated than that. Christ is an example of this simple trust and active spirituality. He inspires me to see that my life here is not in vain, and that I am meant to follow this path. I am still as much a Christ follower now as I ever was. All the twists and turns only deepen my relationship with Him, and help me to see the great mystery in new ways.

I think we need more authentic disciples of Christ in the world now than ever before. Not Bible thumping or tribal exclusivism, but real deep communion with the heart of the gospel. If we get in touch with that, what a difference it would make.

Thanks for reading.

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