Martin LeFevre: Invited to Russia on business as the Soviet Union was collapsing at the beginning of 1990, I was surprised, in the avowedly atheistic USSR, by a question that Russians asked me everywhere I went: “Are you religious?” I gave a terse, truthful response: Religious without a religion.
Not speaking the language, my interpreter remarked, “That sounds good even in Russian.” So I learned it in Russian – religioznyy bez religii.
As a person prone to so-called mystical experience since I left the Catholic Church at 17, it’s a starting point for examining what is now being called, “the emergence of a new form of religion, though not a new religion.”
Around business meetings with my joint venture partner, my Russian hosts, in what I soon realized was a large network with ties to the top, took me to every church they could. These ranged from basically a museum of the former (and now ruling again) Russian Orthodox Church, to the most concentrated assemblage of devout believers I’d ever seen. (And I grew up attending compulsory Mass six days a week in a Latinate Catholic Church.) The experience of Gregorian chanting, with incense filling the church and women weeping in the aisles, is imprinted on my mind and heart.
Finally, in what was still Leningrad, the cultural leaders of the city took me to Russia’s most important and impressive church, St. Isaacs. I had never been to a European cathedral, and was overwhelmed by the scale and beauty of the cavernous structure, which was covered in the high Russian style with gold and jewel inlay. The church was completely empty as we entered, a huge domed space without so much as a pew.
We were all chatting as we walked in, and I immediately motioned for the group of half dozen to be quiet. I had long wondered why, given the poverty in the Middle Ages, people built cathedrals, often taking generations to complete. As I stood under the dome alone looking up, the insight came with force: Such places convey the same feeling of mystery and awe that standing on a peak in the High Sierra gives one. Thus they replicate the beauty of nature.
When I returned to the group, the Russians, seeing that I was clearly moved, remained silent. After some seconds the cultural leaders of the city that would be again called St. Petersburg by the end of the year asked: “What do we do with it?”
I laughed. You’re asking an American, your sworn enemy for decades, what to do with the most important spiritual site in your vast country?
Yes, they said. Ok, I replied, just don’t give it back to the Russian Orthodox Church. Make it a spiritual site for all Russians of whatever faith and ethnicity.
They did just that, until Putin returned it to the Orthodox Church some years ago in his unholy alliance between State and Church.
There was a narrow window of opportunity to forge with Russians what my partners and I called “an ecologically and ethically sound partnership with our former superpower enemy.” ‘Former’ lasted about a decade, as American hubris and Russian pride carried the day and slammed the door on a true, post-Cold War order.
During President Xi’s visit to San Francisco this week, I read a quote that sums up where things went wrong in relations between China and America. It’s from a Chinese-American economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management: “Essentially, these two countries, China and America, got married without knowing one another’s religions.” How sadly ironic that rings to my ears.
It’s no use lamenting where things are versus where things could have been if the tremendous goodwill that Russians had toward Americans and the spiritual and intellectual riches of the Russian people had not been squandered. We are, as human beings in what is now a global society, in the hellish place we are, and have to find, as one commentator on the horrendous conflict in Israel put it, “the road out of hell.”
An inner life is essential to human beings. Indeed, without one, we cannot grow as human beings. So what does this “emerging new form of religion without a new religion” look like, if it can actually come into being? Clearly, it isn’t the juvenile idea, as one conservative Catholic pundit put it, that “the U.F.O. phenomenon may be revealing some of the raw material of religion.”
There’s an old joke about organized religion. Someone spends decades searching for the truth, and when she finally discovers it, the devil comes along and says, “Here, let me help you organize it.”
Therefore without respect to belief systems, is this new form of religion synonymous with a new form of consciousness in the human being?
I feel so, since we’re talking about the enormous difference between religion and the religious mind. In actuality however, the new form of religion and consciousness isn’t a form at all, since space and silence have no form.
So what characterizes the religious mind? The religious mind is simply one that has a basic insight into symbolic thought, and practices, without a method or system, the art of gathering unwilled attention sufficient to quiet the mind every day.
Self-knowing is the wellspring of insight for the serious human being, which encompasses the totality of one’s conscious and subconscious mind, as well as the emotions. As such, self-knowing includes the entirety of human consciousness, which is enfolded in microcosm like a hologram within all of us.
Self-knowing, which is of the moment, non-accumulative and ever changing, enables one to go beyond the prison of thought-based consciousness (which includes all beliefs, opinions and ideas). And in the silence of Mind that ensues during methodless meditation, there is communion with the immanent and the eternal.
From this infinite wellspring of insight the human beings will, if man doesn’t destroy everything first, create a new society and civilization.
Martin LeFevre is a contemplative, and non-academic religious and political philosopher. He welcomes dialogue. firstname.lastname@example.org
Published with permission of the author. All copyright remains with the author.