Conviction or doubt about spiritual ideas?

conviction or doubtGeneral ideas about what is true about life come from all around us — family, the mass media, books. These concepts have often seeped through from current and past thinking for example from politics, philosophy and religion. We respond with either conviction or doubt or somewhere in between.

We absorb such ideas because we tend to be interested in making sense of our lives, why we are here, where we come from, and where we are going, not to mention fathoming the reality of suffering, misfortune, and chaos that we find all around us.

But life goes on and we are obliged to make the best fist of it using what values and principles we have learned about and accept.

The question arises: Is it better to have conviction or doubt about your ideas? Conviction helps you put ideas into practice with commitment. Having doubt about ideas other people believe in can be useful given the complexities of life.

Problems with conviction or doubt

One problem in forming set beliefs is that of believing something for reasons other than to do with the truth. This might be wanting to fit in with the attitudes of friends, unease in going against what your parents told you to think as a child, and even fear of expressing a religious doubt in case this is construed as blasphemy.

Some argue that rushing into belief about something also means your understanding cannot easily be broadened and what you hold to be true cannot be qualified in any way. So they say exposing yourself to opposing ideas obliges you to think and ponder over whether your ideas are indeed true, and to gather reasons in support of them.

Having doubts can be unsettling especially if they challenge previous life choices such as vocation or marriage. The trouble with seeing every side of an issue is you can get stuck. A humorist once commented on someone who belonged to a liberal religion which celebrated doubt. This person arrived at the pearly gates of heaven only to find a signpost pointing in one direction to God, and in the other direction towards a discussion of God. He took the latter path. In other words he preferred to talk the talk rather than walk the walk of his religion.

Conviction or doubt in relation to luck 

When something bad happens we might wonder why. One spiritual idea, is that good-fortune is a reward for acting rightly while bad luck is punishment for being bad. You tend to make this assumption when you find yourself asking ‘Why me, what have I done to deserve this?’

The idea that God punishes or rewards is an example of what I believe is an ‘appearance of truth’.

“Appearances of truth are given, to everyone according to (their) ability to grasp them; and these appearances are acknowledged as truths because they have the capacity to hold Divine things within them.” (Swedenborg, Heavenly Secrets section 3387)

England football manger Glenn Hoddle believed a person’s disability was a punishment for bad actions performed in a past life by that individual. And as a result of public outcry against this belief he was dismissed.

So what might a truer insight be? Clearly, we are all capable of bringing about our own suffering. Just keep drinking beer all day, or gambling away your savings. But often we suffer misfortune through no fault of our own. In the biblical book of Job we find someone who suffers great misfortune despite being innocent. He came to realize that good fortune and misfortune afflict the good and bad alike.

My suggestion is innocent suffering is permitted because it obliges us all to learn how to use our freedom of choice to respond to it e.g. with indifference or compassion. If this is true then it shows how a particular spiritual belief can be a temporary stepping stone to further insight.

Conviction or doubt about sacred myths

Is another example of an appearance of the truth found in sacred myth? I think so. Because they are myths, like parables, can’t they be seen on different levels depending on what people can grasp?

I offer this example. Doubting the idea of three persons of Father, Son and Holy Spirit in one God, opens up the mind to (what is to my way of thinking at least) a more rational understanding. A truer idea being these are three symbolic aspects of the one divine God – heart of creative love, head of human wisdom and hands of powerful activity.

Conviction or doubt in relation to enlightenment

For Swedenborg, the search for truth is crucial for deeper insight. Illumination of our ideas to develop conviction or doubt is seen by him as a spiritual gift which can only be received when the individual is in the genuine love of truth for the sake of truth and who humbly tries to live according to his or her lights. This is how we gain faith. In other words conviction is a feeling that can only come from inner enlightenment.

“Those with a genuine affection for truth, that is, those who desire to know truths to put them to good use and for the sake of the life they ought to lead, … when they receive (enlightenment) …their hearts rejoice.” (Swedenborg, Heavenly Secrets section 8993)

Copyright 2012 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on personal problems

Posted on9th June 2012CategoriesEnlightenment, Meaning of lifeTags, , , , , , , , , ,, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Criminal punishment – How might this work?

criminal punishmentNearly 75% of those aged over 18 and charged with offences committed during the 2011 English riots, had prior criminal convictions. In some urban neighbourhoods, there had been an intimidating atmosphere from a section of young people who can be aggressive in their demeanour and unafraid of social disapproval. We might wonder whether  the prospect of criminal punishment deters such individuals.

I’m not necessarily talking about all the looters during the recent riots some of whom to my mind were shallow thrill seekers joining in  because they thought they could get away with avoiding criminal punishment. But rather those engaged in  the mob violence, many armed with bricks, who didn’t care too much if they were  caught. Some of these  people were quite prepared to throw heavy slabs through police car windscreens and hurl petrol bombs at officers. This aggression towards the authority of law enforcement suggests a deeply held antagonism to mainstream society by a widespread if small criminal minority who are likely to end up receiving criminal punishment sooner or later.

The attitude of criminal punishment as a just desert

A few commentators have adopted a condemnatory attitude.

“These people are just scum and that’s the end of it. They deserve all the criminal punishment dished out to them.”

And there is a common view that trying to throw light on the riots in terms of social problems is tantamount to excusing individual actions. Social explanations do not erase responsibility of individuals but labelling these people as criminals does not help us understand why they became the way they are. Examining any relevant factors in society is not to justify behaviour but to try to throw some light on it. I would suggest a spiritual attitude is to condemn the behaviour but not the person: it is to look to enhance civil and moral order.

Criminal punishment that allows the drug habit

Is one of the possible social causes of the problem to do with the way society may have failed in its challenge to unacceptable behaviour? In other words, is disorder more likely on our streets because it has not been met with a sufficiently firm, fast and sustained response? It is well known a lot of crime is motivated by a desire to feed a drug habit. And so to the outsider like me it is a bit of a mystery why the problem of drug availability in many of our prisons has not been successfully addressed. According to this way of thinking as people get away with acting badly, social norms about law-abiding behaviour have been weakened.

A charitable attitude to criminal punishment

To my mind, a spiritual approach encourages the kind of punishment for wrong-doing that clarifies to everyone what is right, deters future crime and protects people from harm. I believe this element of social control is entirely in line with a charitable attitude. It is a very different approach to the one that sees punishment as there to make us feel better when criminals get their ‘just deserts’. Arguably, such an un-charitable attitude is counter-productive. Short-term imprisonment has been shown not to work in preventing re-offending. We need to be more creative in developing punishment that does work better. This is not to argue that punishment alone is enough but to suggest it is a crucial part of the mix of the ways disorderly behaviour can be more effectively challenged.

Community sentences as a form of criminal punishment

Offenders have not been obliged to face the consequences of their actions for example by paying back to the communities they have damaged. They need informing about what should happen locally to repair the harm they have caused. This is not a soft option. It is very popular amongst victims and can help those hurt by crime to feel a sense of closure. It is said to reduce the likelihood of re-offending.

Community sentencing as an alternative to imprisonment has not found public confidence. I suspect one reason is it has been seen as a less expensive alternative to locking people up and therefore insufficient resources have been allocated to give it a chance to have some impact.

Restorative justice as a community programme can be combined with various forms of punishment. It is a process requiring skilled facilitation – thus financial investment. Those who advocate it argue that it has the potential to help in the repair of fractured relationships and to foster a sense of responsibility in those who wronged others. I believe it is entirely in line with a psycho-spiritual response to wrong-doing whereby true charity of feeling cannot be divorced from good sense of the understanding in action – the heart, head and hands working together.

Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems

School discipline – how should it operate?

school disciplineOne view expressed in The Times newspaper in relation to the 2011 English riots is that “these disgraceful scenes were perpetuated by people who have not experienced any meaningful consequences for misbehaviour at school ” And so the spotlight is falling on school discipline.

Some teacher unions are saying that badly behaved pupils are running wild as staff feel  powerless to discipline them. In relation to school discipline, teachers complain that their authority is undermined both by government and by parents. Sometimes the latter have been known to aggressively come into the school to complain about teachers who dare criticise their children let alone try to discipline them.

Polarised attitudes to school discipline

Attitudes to responding to misbehaviour seem to have polarised between the hard conservative right and soft liberal left. Those on the right of politics bemoan about school discipline in what they see as a breakdown of authority. They would probably like to see a return to Victorian values such as shown in the phrases ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child.’ ‘The little savages need civilising.’ Harsh draconian remedies may chime with a mood of resentment and anger. This is an unashamedly punitive attitude, components of which can be seen in the tabloid press, who scream for a blaming, punishing, labelling approach to misbehaviour.

The opposite attitude and one that historically has been probably a reaction against it, is one of ‘hands-off’ often accompanied by feelings of guilt regarding punishment which is seen as a violation of human rights. It is characterised by an expectation that children will thrive and behave in socially acceptable ways if they are given support and trust because of an innate goodness in their makeup.

According to this view the emphasis should be on support involving being reasonable, finding excuses, and trying to rescue the person from their problematic pattern of behaviour.

Psychologists on school discipline

However, psychologists tell us that acceptable behaviour needs to be consistently rewarded and unacceptable behaviour consistently earn disapproval, if social learning is to take place. In other words children are not born socialized. They find out how to behave properly. They have to learn to co-operate with others. They need to be trained to respect other people’s rights.

But to achieve this, teachers need to combine control with support, firmness with kindness. Control, means boundary-setting, discipline, and firmness; and  support involves nurture, encouragement, and kindness. These two things, control and support, are not actually opposites but two different dimensions of social correction.

School discipline from a spiritual perspective

From a spiritual perspective, Swedenborg writes about support in terms of a charitable heart. However, for him a charitable heart is not one at all unless it is informed by good sense of the head. This is his philosophy of the ‘heavenly marriage of good and truth’. One without the other lacks spiritual life. In his book Doctrine of Charity (section 163) he writes about those administering rules fairly are behaving charitably even when inflicting penalties. He compares this with a parent who from love firmly corrects bad behaviour.

School discipline as supportive control

Showing supportive control is entirely possible. It means exhibiting kind firmness. When this ethos is present within the school culture, teachers do not noticeably yell at the children. This combination of control and support tends to result in students acting in an orderly rather than an unruly way both within the school and whilst leaving it at then end of the day.

Such a teacher will be authoritative rather than authoritarian, responsible rather than negligent, empowering rather than only caring, and will foster a cooperative environment.

It doesn’t mean telling pupils that things are wrong in a self-righteous or over-severe manner, for in this circumstance the youngster will probably treat what the teacher says with scepticism or hostility, and especially if the adult is not following the rules him or herself. Neither does it involve failing to notice what sanctions are available.

Pupils need to be obliged to face the consequences of their actions.  What kids take for granted might be viewed as privileges that can be withdrawn rather than rights to be respected regardless of conduct.

Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of  Heart, Head & Hands  Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems