Trigger warning: this essay includes religious ideas taken seriously in spite of—and in light of—my massive skepticism. Due to its personal nature, this was actually one of the most difficult pieces I’ve ever written. Please enjoy my flailings.
Jonathan Pageau practices Eastern Orthodox Christianity and carves icons and other traditional Christian images in wood and stone.
A lifelong student of religious symbols, Jonathan is spending quite a bit of his time on YouTube lately unpacking symbolism for a curiously engaged group of (mostly) non-believers. He has become an unlikely hero of mine, and his stories and talks have me rethinking my tarnished relationship with my native spiritual tradition. I recently interviewed Jonathan for The Food for Free Thought Podcast (click the link to listen), but before I release that episode, I wanted to provide some insight into why I found this to be one of the more meaningful conversations of my life.
Let me say this at the outset: I have always been spiritually inclined but doubtful of religious claims, and that remains the case. However, I am now of the opinion that appreciation for my spiritual inheritance and denial of the unscientific claims of religious literalists are not, in and of themselves, contradictory positions.
Allow me to explain how I got here.
Although my family called ourselves “Chreasters”—Christians who only attend religious services on Christmas and Easter—in tones of both relief and regret, my earliest memories of religious life are actually quite fond.
I remember Catholic Easter mass as an opportunity to celebrate the Spring’s pervasive sense of “beginning”, to share a meal with my extended family, and to take a breath of air after the long winter. Later in the cycle of the year, the Christmas Eve service, thick with reverence and reference to the darkening landscape outside, was an undeniably mystical experience.
In spite of a promising start and my obviously spiritual bent, when my religiously uncommitted parents gave me the choice to either complete confirmation as a member of our Catholic community or to move on, I chose to move on. But looking back, it seems that the choice had already been made.
By nature, I am a creative and adventurous person with little penchant for joining, conforming, or cooperating. (I score very high in trait “Openness” amongst common personality markers, which is linked to spiritual seeking; conversely, I score very low on “Agreeableness” which, amongst other things, is linked to church membership.1) My father, a biologist and technologist, raised me to be inquisitive and forward-thinking, while my second-wave feminist2 and art-historian mother fanned the flames on my creative and rebellious streak.
My teenage years and school career marched forward without much thought for religion outside of the occasional “History of Religion” class and the occasional abstruse religious references made by literary and artistic heroes. But a semester or two into my freshman year of college, I got news of a boycott conducted by a hometown evangelical Presbyterian church against my favorite local café. The concept of progress holds different connotations for different people, and the owner—my friend and mentor—had placed a pride sticker in the front window over the summer, which proved to be too much of a certain kind of progress for the small town church.
As a teenage employee, the shop had been a nexus of my personal development. I was exposed to many beautiful and mysterious things there: Billy Holiday, cappuccino, Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha and Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I started and finished On the Road3 and had my first psychedelic experience during my time there. At the café, I had even begun to imagine myself as an artist-philosopher-poet and member of an ancient band of warriors of consciousness, fearlessly peering through the cracks in Blake’s doors of perception4. All of which felt like progress against the backdrop of life in small-town Michigan.
Given the shop’s role in my life, and especially after the shop closed down later in the year, it was difficult for me to see the boycott as anything other than an attack on my concept of personal progress and the value of an expanded worldview. (While I now see that I was generalizing by inferring a broad description of the world from an isolated personal experience, my idea at the time was that conservatism, especially conservative church leadership, was always, and by nature, against progress in all its forms. Today, I think of this as roughly, but not specifically, true—and also, not a bad thing; the actuality of the situation appears to be more nuanced.5)
But if my religious development had been stymied, my spiritual quest had only just begun; and, throughout my 20s and early 30s, I read, traveled and sought widely for answers to life’s more existential questions. I spent time in traditional Native American sweat lodges, Buddhist silent meditation, and even completed two 4-day vision quests in the Apache tradition, alone in the woods, with no food or shelter. I pushed my physical edge through cold exposure, adventure sports, and primitive skills, and often went well beyond my creative edge with drugs, art, and music.
Beyond the simple thrill of hunting the unknowable, I experienced many practical benefits from all of this spiritual seeking. The more time I spent in extended meditative and flow8 states, the more lifelong symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) subsided. I was quieting my mind and learning to channel my sometimes seemingly uncontrollable creative energy into productive work.
But as my spiritual seeking progressed, I continuously—even compulsively—veered from my ancestral traditions, towards those that I considered “more enlightened” (but which were really “more novel”). In seeking a spiritual tradition to call home, I cared that whatever path I chose was: (1) visionary (rooted in the psychological reality of mystical experience9), (2) practical (imparting lessons for life), (3) communal, (4) mystical (as opposed to overtly religious) and (5) grounded in reference to something tangible and understandable (i.e., nature). To these ends, I became particularly fascinated by those nature-centric indigenous cultures that also seemed to retain some capacity for authentic visionary experience. Notably, these were the Lakota Native American tradition of the pipe and sweat lodge, the African Bushman dance ritual and the psychedelic (ayahuasca) ceremonies of the South American curanderos.
However, no matter how unlike my native Catholicism these traditions looked, I found that I could only go so far participating in a culture that wasn’t my own before I began to feel like a fraud. Maybe it was old-fashioned midwestern utilitarianism or outright cynicism, but the eventual realization of my fraud-status in each setting yielded to increasingly deeper unrest and skepticism. Still conflating dislike for groups of religious people with dislike of the traditions, and additionally heaping on a general sense of failure within the context of exotic and new-age forms of spirituality, I retreated into a now more calcified brand of agnosticism.
It’s fair to say that I have never created anything—poem, essay, song, drawing, design or business—that didn’t start off as a concept, only dimly graspable on the fringes of my known world. Experience has shown me that it is a creator’s role to tease out these vague notions through the use of finer creative and perceptual tools such as symbolic representation, conversation, humor or improvisation. Given time, they typically become something at least executable, and often their structure, utility and meaning are knowable only after their completion.
My first assertion here is that agnosticism/atheism and skepticism, reason and rationality (SR & R) do not, in and of themselves, have on offer any such cabalistic process. (Perhaps a case could be made that the scientific method itself represents such a process, but I have yet to follow a strictly scientific protocol in penning a poem.) There may be scientific elements present during creation—conception, hypothesis, testing come to mind—but there’s more than those at work for me.
And that’s exactly where things get sticky—it’s also where the old ache for a means to understand, integrate, and work more effectively with deeper levels of creative insight and personal visionary experience creeps back in.
I want to make this eminently clear: I have found SR & R to be invaluable tools. They are an acute and reliable kind of mental triage, and they are my primary allies for communicating lucidly and describing reality as it is. In the aftermath of my divorce, they were an ark when I found myself adrift on raging emotional seas. At the time, I pulled heavily on training in rationality—specifically, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (see my podcast episode with Dr. Ricks Warren for more)—and learned to ask questions like, “Is this thought true? What evidence do I have for it?”, “What do I really mean to say here and how can I make my meaning unequivocal?”, “What is important to me about this? Why am I reacting this way?” and “What am I most afraid of? What is the likelihood that it will happen, and what exactly will I plan to do if it does?” I will never put down questions like those.
Thinking in this way is intensely practical, and these questions and other more explicitly empirical questions like them—”What is my hypothesis here?”, “What evidence do I have that it is true?”, “How could I prove or disprove it definitively?”—do not stand in opposition to “softer” modes of perceiving such as through metaphor, symbolism, and narrative storytelling. Reason and rationality are, just as their creative and symbolic counterparts, nothing more than tools within a perceptual toolbox, useful for certain jobs and not for others. Taken on their own, it seems to me that SR & R have helped us describe and understand the workings of the known universe, but that they fall short in telling us how to be within that universe.
By way of example, SR & R can tell us what species of plants grow in a field, how they came to be in the field, and what ecological services they provide for the biological communities in and around the field. SR & R can even make help us make predictions about what will happen in the field over time. (One major benefit here is a sense of knowing and orienting within a community of life forms and natural laws, and this is no small feat!) However, SR & R has struggled to tell us how we should interact with that field, what it means to human communities through time, and why is it there in the first place.
Another example, taken from my experience in business development and design entrepreneurship, is that simply knowing what a business problem is, who the key players are, and what the desired outcome is—again, no small feat—doesn’t tell you how to get there. And, while there may be an obvious way solve a problem, it is by no means obvious how to solve most problems in a way that works simultaneously well for the individuals involved, for the business partners, for the client or customer, the business industry, for nature, the broader economy and for the world. In fact, many human business and cultural “solutions” have unintended consequences that inheritors will have to spend years cleaning up.
Because I am well-practiced in the discipline called design thinking10 I know that there is another way—a creative process of problem-finding, understanding, design, and innovation. But I also know better than most that it is uncommon for organizations and groups, in general, to entertain transformative problem-solving and design as an option, let alone to take the time to execute it faithfully. Most of them seem to be devoid of the creative competency required.
I am not about to make the claim that SR & R will never be able to answer such questions, describe such complex realities, or to connect us all back to the fabric of what gives our lives meaning—they just haven’t so far. But I have been thinking lately that symbolic thinking, creative thinking, and religious thinking as a subset of the two may provide a lever and a place to stand if applied with the right level of skill and an eye for some incredibly fine distinctions.
Along the arc of my personal spiritual saga, I have met guides from time to time—shepherds of wisdom, gatekeepers, journeymen themselves, and fellow travelers. Their appearance in the story often ushers in realizations of expanded horizons, they typically provide one or two tools or insights from their own travels and are off again (think Gandalf in Lord of the Rings or Professor Dumbledore in Harry Potter).
Two men I have recently become acquainted with are working hard to provide a bridge between the scientific world of description and function and the religio-mythical world of meaning and purpose. And, in their own ways, they have each played wizard to my own spiritual growth. One is Jonathan Pageau and the other is Dr. Jordan Peterson.
Dr. Peterson has been speaking about politics, psychology, and mythology online for a few years now and he has developed a large audience. In his recent series of lectures on the psychological significance of the biblical stories, he validates the religious worldview, but in an unexpected way. Dr. Peterson speaks of religious stories as a sort of evolved psychological map to making meaning out of life. Seen this way, he argues, they do not challenge a scientific, rational, or materialistic worldview. Science can describe reality while religious myths can, and have historically be used to, make meaning out of it and provide a sort of moral operating system for us to orient by.
If Dr. Peterson is describing the general topography of this new interpretation of the religious stories, it seems to me that French-Canadian Jonathan Pageau is living it as a practicing Eastern Orthodox Christian, and acting as a tour guide within that landscape with his own YouTube channel dedicated to discussion of symbolism for non-believers.
It will come as no surprise that Jonathan is an acquaintance of the good doctor. In fact, the pair created one of Dr. Peterson’s most-viewed videos of all time together entitled “The Metaphysics of Pepe”, which is a strange, almost psychedelic, conversation about the symbolic implications of Pepe the Frog, the ridiculous cartoon frog that somehow mutated into an internet symbol of everything alt-right and, perhaps more specifically, anti-progressive, during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The Pepe video is how I—and others in the online reason and rationality community—came to know of Jonathan’s work. Here was a carver of traditional religious icons having a conversation with a renegade college professor about the mystical significance of an Internet meme. At first glance, this was nothing more than a sign of the insane times we were living in and I clicked on Pepe’s goofy face in the video preview image out of sheer amusement.
But, five minutes in, it became clear to me that these two were actually doing the impossible: they were giving order and meaning to the chaos.
Which brings us to the present moment.
I wrote this post and conducted a podcast interview with Jonathan as part of my attempt to reclaim something that I’ve lost and struggled to find for years: a sense spiritual wholeness and direction that doesn’t require me to start over, leave home, uproot tradition or (most importantly) say, do, and profess anything that feels untrue or inauthentic. And I hoped that, by telling my story, I could make a contribution to this evolving conversation about scientific versus religious meaning. I would also like to extend a hand to other sincere seekers.
During our email conversations leading up to the podcast, Jonathan made a prediction that has impacted me deeply:
… mark my words, Christianity is coming back, there are seeds and signs everywhere that the next intellectual elite will be religiously minded. It’s already cool to say you’re a Buddhist, even Sam Harris flirts with that. It all depends how ahead of the curve you want to be. There is great advantage to being underrated.
Needless to say, I like being ahead of the curve.
So, is there anything related to meaning, wholeness, creativity, and purpose that I might reclaim from a more broad-minded look back at my Christian roots?
I am as convinced that no Old Man in the Sky is judging me from afar as I am waiting on the Flying Spaghetti Monster to deliver my eternal salvation. I am less interested than ever in religiously-sanctioned intolerance for progressive ideals, but could it be worth taking a look back, from a slightly more subtle perspective than I was prepared to take earlier in life?
It seems likely.
1. The Big Five personality traits system, also known as the Five Factor Model (FFM), identifies five universal personality types. These are Openness, Conscientiousness, Extroversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. There is a commonsense relationship between the presence or absence of these traits and performance and satisfaction within jobs and lifestyles. High or low scores in each of the traits determine to a statistically significant degree the kinds of experiences we will seek out, and what occupations, interests and lifestyles we will tend to excel in.
As spirituality and religiosity pan out amongst the big five, authors Löckenhoff, Ironson, O’Cleirigh and Costa showed in 2010 that:
The pattern of associations varies somewhat depending on the specific operationalizations of S/R [Spirituality/Religiosity] used in a given study – Saucier and Skrzypinska (2006), for example, found that in general, high Agreeableness appears to show somewhat stronger associations to religiousness than to spirituality, high Openness shows the opposite pattern…
Two additional studies (Saroglou & Fiasse, 2003; Saroglou & Munoz-Garcia, 2008) examined facet-level correlates of spirituality and concluded spirituality is positively associated with openness to fantasy, aesthetics, feelings, and values.
2. The second-wave feminists were the sex-positive champions of reproductive and family rights of the 1960s and -70s, whose individualistic philosophy, according to figureheads like writer Camille Paglia, opposes modern third-wave feminism which, according to Paglia, “demands the intrusion and protection of paternalistic authority figures to project a hypothetical utopia that will be magically free from offence and hurt. Its rampant policing of thought and speech is completely reactionary, a gross betrayal of the radical principles of 1960s counterculture…”
3. Jack Kerouac’s seminal roman à clef describing his travels with his friends across the United States. It is considered a defining work of the postwar Beat and Counterculture generations.
4. In his 1793 poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake wrote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.” English philosopher and writer Aldous Huxley took the phrase for his 1954 essay The Doors of Perception, in which he details his experiences with the psychedelic drug mescaline. Jim Morrison, lead singer-songwriter of the rock band The Doors, borrowed from both Huxley and Blake when he suggested the name to his band in 1965.
5. Psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham’s Moral Foundations Theory is a social psychological theory that builds on the work of cultural anthropologist Richard Shweder and intends to explain the origins of and variation in human moral reasoning on the basis of innate, modular foundations. Moral Foundations shows that “liberals try to create a morality relying primarily on the Care/Harm foundation, with additional support from the Fairness/Cheating and Liberty/Oppression foundations. Conservatives, especially religious conservatives, use [these three foundations plus an additional three:] Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation.” According to researchers Haidt and Graham, social conservatives are more morally sophisticated than their liberal counterparts.
6. “The philosophy or life stance of secular humanism embraces human reason, ethics, social justice, and philosophical naturalism while specifically rejecting religious dogma, supernaturalism, pseudoscience, and superstition as the bases of morality and decision making.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Secular_humanism)
7. I avoid the word “atheist” because I have never felt the need to outright reject the idea of a God or gods. For most of my life, I have had no evidence for God either way—neither positive nor negative. Hence, agnostic: “a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God.” (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/us/agnostic)
8. In positive psychology, flow, also known as the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology))
Using unusually rigorous scientific conditions and measures, Johns Hopkins researchers have shown that the active agent in “sacred mushrooms” can induce mystical/spiritual experiences descriptively identical to spontaneous ones people have reported for centuries.
The resulting experiences apparently prompt positive changes in behavior and attitude that last several months, at least.
10. From IDEO U’s website for design thinking education: “Design thinking utilizes elements from the designer’s toolkit like empathy and experimentation to arrive at innovative solutions. By using design thinking, you make decisions based on what future customers really want instead of relying only on historical data or making risky bets based on instinct instead of evidence.”