This experience of imprisonment at the hands of modern philosophers has been even more intense when reading twentieth-century derivatives from modern philosophy, and especially the writings of social scientists. It is not only professors such as the Harvard psychologist, B. F. Skinner, who openly seek to close off the human mind—to destroy the “soul of man,” as Skinner wishes, but so many so-called “political scientists” and “social scientists” who engage in mental games that make the attentive reader feel divorced from reality as he or she reads them. For years as an undergraduate and graduate student, I studied political science at universities; for years I read the works assigned to the extent that I could bear doing so; and for years these writings made me long for far richer pastures of the mind, far more open territory for exploration. Is it surprising that so many young persons become restless and seek to break out of the mental prisons being imposed on them? The mental disorders being inculcated in the young show up in waves of anxiety and depression; in escapes into fantasy worlds of alcohol and drug abuse, and mindless video games; in various political and social activisms; in pornography and promiscuity; in open rebellion and violence; in rape, murder, suicide. Campus life in America often has the distinct and disturbing smell of a cesspool. The American educational establishment, aided by mindless mass media, as well as by diseased and very low quality mass-produced music, has been wounding or killing the minds of youth for decades, and the resulting diseases show up to anyone with eyes to see.
I detest mental prisons. How I survived in social science, earning a doctorate along the way, took considerable perseverance. Often I felt like throwing down the books to flee their restrictive horizons—their nonsense, foolishness, blindness, spiritual sickness. I endured the mental and spiritual agony in part to earn a doctorate for employment, but also to try to understand something about reality. Against the restrictive mental tortures of social science and modern philosophy, I was forced to question, to challenge, to seek out far better guides for the life of the mind than these shrunken souls could provide. Never will I forget the joy of liberation I felt when I first read Plato’s Republic in its entirety in a graduate course in the history of political theory. This joy was intellectual and spiritual, a sense of being liberated from the bindings of mere opinions, and being guided by a first-rate intellect into far more open pastures. Socrates-Plato led, and I willingly and joyfully followed, engaged in a quest which seems to have no end, but grows clearer and more joyful along the way. Plato introduced me, not to mere opinions and mental prisons, but to the joyful quest for the truth about reality, moved by openness to the vision of the Good, and inspired by the example of Socrates.
In tasting spiritual-intellectual freedom, one does not want to be re-bound in the prison-caves of human verbiage. Human beings desire to know the truth about the reality in which we find ourselves. In Aristotle’s famous words opening up his study of “first philosophy,” “All human beings by nature desire to know.” We want “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” to use courtly language. If that is true, why then are so many of our contemporaries content to stay within constricting “world-views,” or simply give up the search altogether? Mental drugs have their appeal, and evidence of refusal to search for the truth is all around. In my twenties, I noted how so many fellow students seemed not to care about seeking truth, but “having fun” now, and making money later; and the way to find employment was to accept without challenging whatever the professors spoon-fed down their throats. American academia breeds mental midgets who are cut off from the open fields of reality. But the students themselves all-too-willingly play the game, because they want the goodies: better grades; good recommendations; making connections; getting along with their peers; employment at more prestigious colleges, or in better-paying jobs. Little by little, a fairly inquiring mind can let itself become tied up, bound by the chains of received opinions and highly restrictive mental horizons.
Recalling what I experienced during many years in the American educational establishment, elementary and secondary education do not feel as restricting or as destructive as was the so-called “education” delivered up at universities as an undergraduate and graduate student. Indeed, as a youth I had some excellent teachers in elementary school, and some good ones in high school. Although I had the privilege to study with a few professors of high quality, most of the professors I encountered in “higher education” seemed oblivious to reality as a whole, boxed in by ideological world views and by habits of refusal to open up to divine Presence. The ultimate truth of reality, the truth of the divine working in and through everything that exists, was never mentioned, never acknowledged. Most of the professors gave the impression of living in their own egos and thoughts, in their own more or less self-imprisoned worlds. If they engaged in openness to divine Presence, they kept this essential part of reality to themselves, and hence gave the students one loud lesson: God is irrelevant for human life. Although campus life was often very noisy, the silence on God was deadening. The one taboo was to admit that one was open to the truth about God—not as a “true believer” might be, but as a human being desiring to know reality.
In short, the years spent at universities were experienced as more mentally deadening than was high school. On the other hand, my questioning of what I was being taught became more developed, more acute, during my late teens and twenties. A crucial turning point for my own mental life occurred during my first term at the University of Washington. The watch-word on campus in the late ’60’s was “everything is relative,” and this slogan was used to disparage anything and everything to aid in so-called “human liberation.” During my first quarter, in the summer of 1969, fresh out of high school in Montana, I took an anthropology course in which the professor inculcated in her students the truth that there is no truth, that everyone’s opinions are as true as everyone else’s, and therefore we must tolerate others and different “ways of life.” One day, as she had us sit in class and peel an orange for “the experience,” the professor spoke excitedly of her experiments with hallucinogenic drugs, with LSD. And of course, she assured students that “everything is relevant,” that there is no right or wrong in themselves, but only what one thinks is right or wrong. And students repeated her words outside of class in a chorus of approval, because it meant that they were autonomous—free from all rules, all laws, from all authorities, from parents, from any so-called “god.” With gratitude I recall the afternoon when I sat in my dormitory room, in what I recall as a darkened room, and kept pondering in my mind the assertion, “Everything is relative.” Into my thoughts came a question: “Relative to what?” I did not dismiss the question, but let it stand. Then suddenly, at once, my mind glimpsed something that I cannot truly put into words, but to which I can refer: I saw with the intellect, in a single moment, that everything is indeed relative. Everything is relative to the One, to what is called “the Absolute,” or God. Suddenly I saw and understood in a flash that everything that exists is dependent on, caused by, that which is called God. This single insight was the beginning of my intellectual conversion, and for it I am truly thankful. It did not come from what I was taught, but from searching for the truth about a relatively mindless slogan: “Everything is relative.” After this flash of insight, I have seen everything as relative to God, and I understand clearly that there is no other absolute and unconditioned reality in this world: not self, ego, law, government, church, clergy, professor, bible, dogma. Everything is relative to what simply is.
Once I experienced some mental liberation, then I realized how imprisoning and deadening mass education is. For those who do not question the fundamentals of what they are being taught, education feels acceptable and reasonably beneficial. But if one begins to experience inner liberation, and undergoes what Plato called the “turning around of the soul,” the perigoge, then one knows how truly bound he or she is and has been. Before the turning around, I may have considered my education fairly mediocre (although I fortunately had some very good teachers), but I did not realize how utterly restricting these mental worlds were. Tasting freedom in the spirit, one experiences bindings and mental drugs for what they really are.
What can or should be said about my years in Christian churches? After all, it is not only the American educational establishment that binds up students and makes them mental midgets. The churches have surely played a role in restricting spiritual and mental horizons. Fortunately I was not raised in a fundamentalistic church, nor in an authoritarian church, so the dead weight of “the Bible” or “the Church says” was not dumped onto my little shoulders. I was spared such deadening weights. In time, however, I entered a highly restrictive Lutheran church, with its “sola scriptura” and with Luther’s attitude towards “that whore, reason,” and with the damaging creed recited every week, “Man is by nature sinful and unclean.” Fortunately I sensed real spiritual and intellectual problems in such nonsense and got out of the box before my spirit was killed. I entered the Catholic Church in part because I considered it far broader and more liberating in its teachings. And generally, it is, or can be. But in time I also learned at close quarters how authoritarian an institution the Church can be and often is, and how Catholics in relatively higher places often squelch the Spirit lest the boat be uncomfortably rocked. As I recently wrote, Catholicism (that is, “Roman Catholicism”) is largely a static religion, and many Catholics—at least in the hierarchy—do not encourage genuine questioning, and restrict “the faithful” to the confines deemed fitting and comfortable to an aging clergy. And yet, within the churches—Orthodox, Catholic, some of the Protestant communities—one finds men and women who long for truth about God and reality, and who develop lives of prayer, loving service, and genuine meditation. So all in all, the churches are “mixed bags.”
No institution can liberate a human mind. Each person must ultimately learn to question, to seek, to think for himself or herself. Either one keeps tuning into the Spirit, to the divine Presence ever flowing in, at work in all that exists, or one is self-enclosed. In openness to the divine, one lives; in self-enclosure, one dies. This principle applies both to individual human beings, to groups, and to institutions.