Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Niceness Test

If you read this blog (and, if you don't, then what are you doing here?) then you know that I've been talking recently about the value of “niceness.” I keep apologizing for the triteness of the message, but I keep writing and talking about it because, even if it is trite, I think it's important. “Just be nice” may not be the most profound statement in the world, but I actually think there is some profundity in there.

I've also been doing a lot of reading, thinking and (to a lesser degree) writing about mysticism, recently. I hope to write about this more, sometime soon, but I've started to take more of an interest in mysticism, of late. I'm not a mystic, myself, but I've read some things which make me much more open to the reality of mysticism, and its importance, as well. Like I said, more to come on this in the future, I expect.

Recently, I came across an article in which these two themes converged. Jay Michaelson, the author of Everything Is God, recently wrote an article about the reality of mystical experiences. It's interesting because Michelson is himself a mystic, and an avid practitioner of mysticism, but he's thoughtful about it, and willing to talk openly and honestly about mysticism, and respond to critics in an equally thoughtful way. He refuses to take either extreme: “it's real because I say it's real,” or “it's all bunk.” Instead, he tries to think through and explain exactly what “real” means, and how we can judge mysticism by reasonable standards.

In the article, among other things, he talks about the importance of kindness in judging mystical experiences:

This mind-state (whether devekut, samadhi, unio mystica) isn’t significant because of a story about what it represents; it’s significant because it engenders more compassion and more wisdom. Conversely, a mind-state that may have felt very “mystical” but that brings about cruelty or unskillful behavior is easily judged by its fruits, rather than by the supposedly mystical feeling that accompanied it. One finds in almost every contemplative tradition, theistic and non-theistic, precisely this metric for evaluating truth. The interpretations cannot be verified, but the effects can.

Of course, there's no reason to think that this standard applies only to mystical experiences, or mystical religions. It's a good criterion for any religion. It certainly isn't the only one, but it's an important one, and maybe the first one: does your religion make you kinder? Does religion make you a better person? If it doesn't, then it probably isn't the right religion. It probably isn't “real.”

I've often said that “goodness” and “kindness” aren't the same as religion. Being religious is not entirely about being a good person. I reject statements like, “I don't need to be religious; I'm a good person all by myself.” Statements like that imply a complete equality between the goodness and religion, when in fact, they aren't identical. But, it's important to be clear that even if religion isn't entirely about being good, nice or kind, it most certainly must be in part about that. In other words, religiously speaking, it's not enough to be nice, but it is necessary. You can be good without being religious; you can't be religious without being good.

Pirkei Avot (1:15) teaches: Shammai said, “make your Torah study a habit; say little, but do much; and greet each person cheerfully.”

If Shammai, who wasn't exactly known as a nice guy, can figure it out, why can't the rest of us in the religious world?

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