Monday, June 6, 2016

“Punished By God?” - Why Spiritism Today Deserves a Different Choice of Wording

I don’t know about you, but I’ve personally reached a point in my Spiritist studies where I just think that references to being “punished by God”, and the like, do not represent the best choice of wording to use in our present-day dissemination of the Spiritist message. I kind of cringe a bit when I occasionally see or hear such wording being used still today. Please know that I mention this only because of my love of Spiritism and my appreciation for the invaluable perspectives it affords. For over 150 years now, the spiritual realm has been working hard to help us understand the Spiritist teachings and employ them for our own betterment, and the spirits’ message deserves terminology that will convey it as effectively as possible. While Spiritism leads us to understand the compassionate nature of God and the beneficial aspects of our experiences as evolving, spiritual beings, the connotation that is typically associated with the word punishment can take away from a more enlightened understanding of our spiritual evolution. 

Spiritism helps us to comprehend our gradual development of intelligence and moral capacity, and it shows us how all our experiences contribute to this education and growth. As such, we know that along our journey, we make choices and, consequently, the results of those choices become part of our learning process. We learn how reincarnation facilitates our progress by allowing us opportunity after opportunity to learn at our own, self-directed pace. And from countless communications from spirits at all different degrees of advancement, we have testimonies that help us to learn from both the mistakes of some and the motivational examples and wisdom of others. 

Through literature that has helped us to envision the interactive nature of the spiritual and material realms, we’ve learned, among many important teachings, about so many ways in which discarnate beings help and support us in the struggles of material life. Most importantly, suffering takes on new meaning under the light of Spiritist principles. Though we may still struggle to embrace our challenges, disappointments, and pains, from Spiritism we understand their role in helping direct us toward the true happiness we are all destined to achieve. 

Having stated the above, when one thinks about being “punished by God” or “paying for something one has done”, what comes to mind (or what could, in isolation, come to mind) may be something totally different from an understanding of learning, accountability, the compassionate justice of our creator, and the natural laws that govern life.  That wording may tend to make us envision an act of revenge or retaliation of some sort, as if an “angry” God were still settling scores. If Jesus came to teach us about God’s love and eradicate this kind characterization of God, then the spirits have explained Jesus’ message with information that deepens our understanding of God’s perfect nature.

Granted, within the greater context of Spiritist teachings, the word punishment can be understood in a way that is in better agreement with the Spiritist principles; in fact, this exercise is of particular importance when reading the foundational texts of Spiritism, and those who understand Spiritism can make the proper association when doing so. But isn’t it preferable for our present-day dialogue to go “straight to the point” with language that resonates best with that which has enlightened and inspired us?  And shouldn’t we also consider how we may best serve those who come new to Spiritism and, at minimum, do not yet have the context with which to make the proper interpretation?

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As I’ve hinted to just above, I am very aware that the works of the codification, for example, include many instances of the words punishment and its variations.  The latter are found in statements made both by Allan Kardec, himself, and the communicating spirits. Perhaps invariably, then, some may question whether I am contradicting Kardec or pointing out what I’d consider a flaw in those texts. I assure you that this is not at all the case.

To begin, we need to allow for the timing and historical context of those works. From its inception, Spiritism offered a shining light to liberate its students from the hopeless belief in eternal damnation, while also empowering individuals with awareness of their spiritual existence and progress. Considering that grand contribution, any potential issue with the mere use of the word punishment, in reference to the unpleasant consequences of certain choices was much less significant than the benefits afforded by those relatively progressive teachings that were introduced. The way I see it, the terminology at that time perhaps represented a bridge between old and new concepts. By the way, for those who’ve read my previous post entitled “Dear ‘The Spirits’ Book’, You had me at ‘What is God?’”, this is not unlike the analogy I used there of crossing monkey bars.    

It’s also important to keep in mind that the word punishment doesn’t have to conjure up thoughts of vindication. For example, a parent may punish a child and do so out of love - to establish authority, teach a lesson, or deter a harmful behavior. In this case, it is the parent who is generating the circumstances that the child will experience as an unwanted consequence of his or her actions. The punishment, therefore, is unpleasant but temporary, and as the child matures, he or she will one day understand both its beneficial purpose and the love with which it was instilled. This meaning is rather acceptable, and perhaps this interpretation is the bridge that would help take us to a more involved understanding.  It also helps us to read through the earlier Spiritist texts.

Now, while the child in the above example is not electing nor generating his or her own punishment, in the reality of our spiritual life, we do in fact influence how we experience the outcomes of our choices and the kinds of experiences by which we will learn. This happens, for instance, through the workings of our conscience (see The Spirits’ Book, Q&A 621) and even through certain situations that, while in the discarnate state, we may request for an upcoming incarnation.  Furthermore, unlike the parent who typically creates a punishment designed primarily for calling the child’s attention, in a general way, the kinds of consequences we experience, via divine law and our own conscience, are very specific to what we need to learn and/or correct as a result of our less than ideal choices and behaviors.

For further exploration, let’s consider the fact that we do not always correlate unpleasant consequences to punishment. This depends upon the source of the circumstances. To illustrate, suppose you run too quickly down a flight of stairs and you end up falling and getting hurt.  You may recognize your error in taking the stairs too fast, but would you put the rest of the blame on punishment?  No, because you understand the natural law of gravity. And who can blame “science”?  Well, although the example is extremely simplistic, the point can be made that the circumstances we may deem as “God’s punishment” are really, in a similar way, only the materialization of laws just as natural as the law of gravity. They are, however, still not yet understood in that way.

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When we come across punishment in Spiritism, let us be conscious of the intended meaning of the word. Fortunately, once one has taken the time to read through Kardec’s texts, this meaning does become clear within the rich philosophical framework of Spiritist principles. We cannot take punishment in this context to indicate an “eye-for-an-eye” type of retribution. It simply refers to the fact that we must be shown where we have gone wrong and then correct our mistakes, restore what we have damaged, or re-harmonize what we have left in imbalance. We may be in moral debt for having caused a loss, but we’re not “made to pay”; as painful as the process may be, we’re instead given the opportunity to re-establish our good standing.

My point in all of this is to say that while the word punishment, per se, is not necessarily inaccurate, I believe that the negative connotation it carries, for many, does not do the greatest justice to the truly inspirational education that Spiritism has brought to us. Under such circumstances, it may unintentionally lend itself to the viewpoint of the child who fails to see the greater purpose and screams “unfair!” at a (perceived-to-be) external imposition of consequences, even more so if we read into it an attribution to God of imperfect human tendencies and behaviors.

While we can understand the wording in texts from Kardec and other earlier writers, I humbly suggest that in our modern-day communications, we take care to select words and expressions that really introduce others to kind of inspiring clarification that Spiritism is capable of. So let’s make it clear that we are not truly punished, but rather we are educated. We do not pay; we restore. We are not condemned; we are redeemed. We are not sinners; we are students. We are not belittled; we are beloved. 

I believe that in taking this approach, we will not only help those who are new to Spiritism; we will also grow in our own exploration and practical application of the Spiritist philosophy.