This post has taken me longer than most to write, perhaps because it delves into the personal a bit more than the instructive. It seems important to evaluate our perspective of people as we consider how to live in such a way that we are satisfied with our influence in the world, and how we can get what we most deeply want by creating less suffering and greater wholeness. How we see people matters, because how we treat other human beings flows from how we are willing to see them.
I've asserted a guiding principle here that every person has inherent worth and dignity. That means it's part of being human to have worth and dignity. It's this assertion that I want to dig into for a few moments. When I first started this commentary several years ago, I asserted something else -- something complementary to this claim of inherent worth and dignity. I suggested that whatever we call "divine" is really a set of human characteristics -- that the ultimate source of divinity is within human beings. This means that divine character -- the capacity for truth, beauty, and creativity in every person -- is actually human character at its very best. So, an inner sense of divinity is in some ways synonymous with inherent worth and dignity.
And those two ideas are synonymous with having a deepest, most noble self: a part of one's being that authentically expresses one's inherent worth and dignity -- one's divine character -- without fear or anxiety. Who we are when we are at our best. This source of strength, creativity, peace, beauty, wisdom, and love is within every person. It's within you. It's within me. It's part of being human. It isn't supernatural. It isn't an outside entity dwelling within us; it's us. It's who we are at our core. It's our deepest selves once all the fear and anxiety and defense mechanisms are brushed aside. It's the closest thing to a god that will ever exist -- our authentic, loving, laughing, creating selves.
When I was younger, immersed in a Christian perspective, I was taught to express adoration and devotion to something that doesn't exist. I prayed without doubt, and I expressed genuine emotions toward an imaginary being. My emotions and my devotion were real. These were sincere expressions of my deeply held beliefs. The object of those emotions and that devotion, however, was only imagined. It was in my head, but also in my culture -- a shared web of beliefs superimposed on reality. As I gradually dismantled those false beliefs and became more reasoned, there became less of a reason for that devotion and adoration. If there is no god to worship or adore, then there is no purpose for that adoration.
Some people replace a supernatural with natural wonder. There are those who revere nature with the same intensity that others revere an imaginary god. Nature is real and wondrous and awesome and full of surprises. And we can learn so much from observing natural processes. Nature is also relatively unresponsive. Mountains don't respond to praise or adoration any more than an imaginary deity does. Wild animals are just that -- wild. However majestic or awe-inspiring we may find them, animals most often react to human presence through instinct, which is to say they either run away or they defend themselves from a perceived threat. People who forget nature's wildness often suffer brutal consequences.
I count myself among those who are awed by nature, and I love learning things through observing how nature works. Nature doesn't evoke the same sense of adoration and devotion that I once felt toward an imagined god, though. To be fair, I collaborated with others to co-create the god I worshiped, and although we had many similar ideas about this god's character, it's clear that every person who believes in a god believes in a slightly different god than every other believer. There is no objective reality against which a person can test beliefs about a god. The "authoritative" texts that hold ancient ideas about gods don't even have internal agreement, and human beings interpret those texts through a variety of human ideas about gods. So, everyone's god is personal -- a personal creation that agrees in some respects with other people's gods, but a personal creation nonetheless.
Which is to say that what I was feeling deep emotion for and expressing deep devotion to was a product of my own imagination, based on other people's ideas and a collection of ancient writings. My own imagination is part of my own creative nature -- part of my own deepest, most noble self. The problem was that I convinced myself of the reality of something that was not real, and I focused emotional energy on that unreal entity. My creativity convinced me that I could expect something back from that unreal entity, too. Guidance, forgiveness, love, acceptance, peace. If there was any real source of those blessings, it was within myself. I was the one imagining a god, after all. So anything that god provided was coming from within me somehow. Even "nature" cannot legitimately be said to intelligently guide, love, forgive, or accept beings who are a part of natural systems.
Now, this is not to say that human beings are not sources of guidance, forgiveness, love, acceptance, peace, and a whole array of other gifts we extend to one another. People are real and actual sources of blessing to one another. My point is that whatever we perceive as coming to us from a divine source -- particularly from an external supernatual -- must be coming from within ourselves. If the supernatural doesn't exist, and we still gain a sense of forgiveness, for example, that forgiveness has to originate from within us -- the same creative source as the imagined supernatural. Just as my emotions and devotion were real, even though the supernatural object was not real, the forgiveness and love and guidance I experienced were also real. I had the source wrong, but the experience was genuine. I genuinely felt loved, forgiven, acceptable. My own self is the only possible source for those genuine experiences that don't come from other human beings.
This presents a problem, because we also heap judgment, shame, and anxiety on ourselves from within. We believe lies about how worthless, unlovable, or unacceptable we are, and yet we would also seem to be the source of "divine" love and acceptance. No wonder it's so much easier to separate that loving, wise, creative part of ourselves out into an imagined external source. We can receive that guidance and acceptance so much more easily if it seems to come from outside of ourselves. But that's just an illusion. A helpful illusion, but an illusion nonetheless.
Some of the most meaningful time I spend in any given week is working with people in workshops or small groups on connecting with their deepest, most noble selves -- the part of them that can be called "divine" if anything can bear that label. Living with integrity to our deepest values and guiding principles requires of us that we confront old lies about who we are and embrace a sense of love and acceptance for ourselves. This is hard work. Seeing ourselves as having inherent worth and dignity is often harder than seeing that inherent worth and dignity in others.
And this is where my own recent spiritual work has led me to connect the inherent worth and dignity of every person with the idea of a deepest, most noble self -- and the concept of inner divinity (not in any supernatural sense, but just in the sense that human beings are the creators of the idea of divinity and the embodiment of all those qualities that we consider to be divine characteristics). If that sense of overwhelming love and acceptance felt by the religious is actually something that comes from within us, then I have to admit that human beings are capable of divine love, forgiveness, guidance, and all the rest. Whatever "divine" means in this context, human beings are the source. My own self was the source each time I felt loved by God, each time I felt a sense of direction from God, each time I felt a sense of awe and wonder at the unknown, each time I knew a deep forgiveness when I had acted out of alignment with my deepest values. I was the source -- something within me and part of who I am as a human being.
So, if an unreal supernatural was worthy of my adoration and devotion, why would a real human being be any less worthy? Why would the real source of "divine" love, forgiveness, and guidance be less worthy of worship than an imagined source of those same gifts? And if these are human qualities that rise from the deepest, most noble self -- the seat of inherent worth and dignity in every person -- why would that essence within people be less worthy of adoration and devotion than an imagined supernatural external to human beings? If human creativity, beauty, and truth is the source of love, forgiveness, and acceptance, why would I not stand in awe and adoration of such wonder?
This is not to say that human beings are entirely divine, of course. We foster anxiety and fear, we protect ourselves with layers of false selves in order to be safe from perceived threats. We rarely show up as our authentic selves, fully embodying our deepest, most noble selves. Most of what we see of each other most of the time is quite different from that inner divinity, and we taint that inner divinity with our fears and anxieties, too. So we wind up inventing gods that hate and oppress, and we give ourselves permission to hate and oppress as emissaries of those hateful and oppressive gods. This is not a true reflection of our inherent worth and dignity. It's a betrayal of ourselves.
We hold within us this capacity to express what passes for divine love and acceptance, to adore and cherish ourselves and others. Yet we betray that human capacity by paying more attention to fear, and that fear shows itself in myriad behaviors and attitudes. This betrayal doesn't change the fact that the only explanation for feelings of divine love and acceptance and guidance is that they come from within -- that human beings naturally have this potential. That seems worthy of adoration. That potential, that seed, that inner divinity, that deepest most noble self -- that is what inherent worth and dignity references. And for me, at least for now, that seems worthy of awe and adoration.
I see the betrayals of self, of course. I see them more clearly now that I have at other times in my life, both in my own behavior and in the words and actions of others. Yet, I want to reclaim that sense of adoration and love I once focused on the unreal. I want to refocus that same sense of wonder and delight in the only place that it can legitimately be directed -- the inner self of human beings. Not on something beyond nature, but on the very best of what is naturally human. If the actual source of everything I once called divine is within myself and every other person, why would I not worship that human source as fervently as I once worshiped some imagined external source?
Perhaps this is not meaningful to you, especially if you haven't had experience with a religious context. For those who are in recovery from religion, however, perhaps it is of some benefit to acknowledge that it was not all a lie. Maybe we just weren't giving ourselves enough credit.