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Dialogue in the Age of

Criticism

 

Introduction

     Our society seems to be in love with criticism and controversy. The public eats it up. Everyone seems to enjoy seeing reputations smeared and ideals shattered, unless, of course, it is our own lives being put up for display. In fact, a good negative rumor is lapped up and swallowed much more readily than a real story showing character, heroism and selflessness.

     No one minds too much finding out that their criticisms of others have been wrong, but people become truly embarrassed if they discover their cherished beliefs have become publicly ridiculed. Therefore, criticism is safe and often developed as a skill these days, while trust and belief are considered signs of naiveté.

     Of course, most of us realize that the opposite is really the truth. Those who hide behind sharp tongues of criticism show their weakness, while those who are willing to trust and believe in others show an inner strength and courage. Then why is publicly attacking someone, which was once widely considered weak and shameful, now treated as a great art and worthy of respect?

     I believe that there are forces at work in our world today that have brought about this change. Subtle influences are threatening us, causing many to unconsciously develop criticism as a defense. Unfortunately, being unaware of the real pressures manipulating us, we have, out of fear, chosen the wrong weapons and are creating a culture of destruction, attacking the very leaders, heroes and worthy causes that are improving our lives.

     The primary element at work here is that most people do not know how to deal with the power of the broadcast media, and do not see the real impact that these energy flows have upon us. The media has become a central influence in most people's lives, but since the inflow from radio, TV, magazines, recorded music and news services is based upon a one-way form of communication, most people feel unable to answer back, unable to respond to the messages they receive. And this is not a natural condition.

     If someone tells you something you believe is wrong, it is natural to want to answer back. It can be of help to them as well as yourself, because through an exchange, through dialogue, we learn and grow in our understanding. But how do you answer the radio or TV? How do you respond to a book or magazine? What happens when we listen to thousands of such messages but can never answer them back? What happens when our voice is never be heard?

     In fact, through the last two generations, I believe our society has forgotten how to have real dialogue. The force of broadcast messages are so powerful that many feel the only real response is to gain their rightful share of the airwaves to answer back. And when they finally do find this chance, their message is critical, like one who is striking back at something unfairly powerful that has taken advantage of them for too long.

     The strange part of this whole reaction is that most people know it is wrong to hurt others through public criticism, but these same people do not seem to recognize the power of their own words when they broadcast their feelings. And they do not understand why others then react with criticism against them.

     We, as a people, are still learning that publicly broadcasted dialogue requires different rules than private discussions. We must expect today that our words will be heard by the world, and this means a whole new sensibility towards what offends others, even towards those who live on the other side of planet Earth.

     Therefore, we are learning to speak with the world, you might say. Most people don't recognize the power and responsibility that goes with this change because they think very simply about what language is. We believe that communication is merely speaking what is on our minds. We don't realize the true impact of our words, their real force of creation, and we don't realize the vital necessity of responding to the inflow that pours in upon us.

     This is why we see the current surge in "political correctness," and the endless criticisms of our recognized leaders. It is our society's attempt to learn this new language, where millions can hear everything we say. Our words affect the world deeply, and today for the first time in human history we are in a dialogue with the world, whether we realize it or not. And the world can answer back, sometimes very harshly, and in surprising ways.

     This brings me to the work at hand. I am writing here about a book by David C. Lane, called "The Making of a Spiritual Movement: The Untold Story of Paul Twitchell and ECKANKAR."

     David's book is written as an exposé, accusing Paul Twitchell, the founder of ECKANKAR, of intentionally covering up his past, lying about his age and childhood to mislead people, copying and plagiarizing his teachings of ECKANKAR from other religions while trying to make ECKANKAR sound like the original source, and making up fictional spiritual masters, to name a few. David then goes on to also accuse Paul Twitchell's successors of perpetuating a continuing cover-up and intentionally trying to suppress David's own research.

     Exposés like this are quite popular these days, since they meet the public's love for criticism. Unfortunately, they can also hide the real story. In fact, I think you will find when you are done reading this book that the picture David tries to paint of Paul Twitchell and ECKANKAR is off base, with a few elements of truth mixed in.

     However, if my only accomplishment in this book were to argue David's points, I would consider the whole thing waste of time. I believe in any true dialogue that the differences of opinion simply set the stage for something much greater. With dialogue, it is not important whether we come to agree with each other or not. It is what we learn along the way that matters. Even when we are at complete odds, we can still learn the most amazing things if we are willing to be open to the viewpoints of others.

     For example, it is interesting to see the reaction that many readers have once they hear that a spiritual teacher has been accused of unethical practice. The change in their perceptions is almost instantaneous. They wait for an answer back, to clear the teacher's name. But you soon find out that even though hundreds may step forward to vouch for the true value of the teacher, this does not stick like the accusations from some critic, even if the accuser has never known the man. In other words, it requires going through each and every accusation, point by point, before there is a general feeling that perhaps the picture painted by the exposé is wrong.

     Think of what this means for public discourse. It is so easy to damage the reputation of another person without even the slightest evidence. Mere innuendo is often good enough to get things rolling. Then, even if the person's name is cleared of wrongdoing, the image still sticks and the reader continues to wonder if it might still be true after all.

     This shows that we are dealing with something much deeper than arguments. In fact there are significant lessons to be learned here, and unless they can be learned we will find ourselves blown far from the truth by the winds of hearsay and rumor.

     I have responded to David's book through a format of open dialogue, via the Internet, so that all of his research data and interpretations can be studied, point by point, from many sides, and by many people, because I believe that real dialogue is the antidote to public criticism.

     It is too easy to slant a story in the one-way media. It is too easy to paint a picture that doesn't even resemble reality, based on imagined motivations and supposedly sinister intentions. Open dialogue can cut right through propaganda by showing other sides, raising new facts and questioning the foundation of the claims.

     For this reason, once the public learns how to regain the art of open dialogue once again, I believe a great healing can take place in our society. Trust can be restored with our society's leaders, who are often men and women of courage and perseverance, but who can be portrayed as selfish and dishonest by the media. This book tells just such a story. Yet, it was the dialogue arising from this book that uncovered many of the new facts not previously known, and revealed the underlying misconceptions that led to such distortions.

     This points out a significant truth: We are easily misled by the one-way media of books, TV and newspapers, because we accept the images and perspectives that we hear and see, even when we are not sure of the facts. It is for this reason that David Lane's book has been accepted as fact by many academics throughout the country. This shows the vital importance of personal experience and self-discovery as the foundation for determining what is true. Once we have engaged in first hand experience and open dialogue, the illusory images fall away and become replaced with what we really know. Public opinion will not stand before our own personal knowledge.

     Interestingly, it is this very philosophy that is the basis for Paul Twitchell's teaching of ECKANKAR. Not faith and belief, but personal spiritual experience and self-discovery. This is exactly why I say that an exploration of the issues here can lead us to something far greater than a mere debate. We can gain some real understanding and a more complete perspective of the principles of the spiritual path itself.

     Let's take another example. There are many books that approach the subject of modern religious movements from an academic, sociological viewpoint. Studying the field of religious development through the eyes of sociology can show us many things about the ways in which our culture changes and grows. In fact, these academic texts often reveal our society's way of coming to terms with new religious ideas and practices.

     Yet, strangely, these studies are generally of little value to the spiritual seekers who are involved in these new movements. In fact, these sociological reports have a way of unintentionally coloring the very subjects they are studying.

     While religious and spiritual groups certainly do function as social units, this describes very little about the spiritual teachings themselves, or the crux of the spiritual search, which is universal to the human race. Many of the sociological discussions I have read fall into the trap of reducing the substance of these spiritual teachings down to mere social activities or psychological politics. These researchers often sincerely focus on the social aspects, even trying to avoid the spiritual teachings themselves to stay objective, but the result is still the same: The picture painted is that the spiritual search is basically a social phenomenon.

     Thankfully there are some enlightened studies as well that point to the significance of mankind's desire for truth and understanding, and show the modern scientific bias to debunk religious belief. This story becomes quite clear through the dialogue recorded in Chapter Eleven.

     What is odd about this is how rarely sociologists point out the extent of this impact. In some cases they seem truly oblivious to the problem altogether. This is ironic, since these researchers are trying to write from a higher sense of objectivity. It is as if their own scientific study from the outside is treated as fundamentally more accurate than the perspectives of someone who is directly involved. In other words, personal experience is not trustworthy, and the academic perspective is better.

     Even more important, however, is that this whole area of religion, especially new religious groups, seems to have been left out of the normal open dialogue of our public forums. This was not at all the case in the United States 200 years ago, or even 100 years ago, but it is most definitely true today. It was not uncommon for the typical American, in the early 19th Century, to sit for lectures and debates lasting four to eight hours in length, sometimes even breaking for dinner and coming back to hear more in the evening. Most often these were over political matters, but open religious discussion was also common.

     With the advent of electronic media, however, it seems as if people have become less and less able to openly talk with those they disagree with, especially on spiritual matters. The rich dialogue that was once valued has now been replaced with broadcasted monologues that attempt to socially embarrass the other side, or to turn the discussion into some sort of football game where arguments are counted as points, and there are winners and losers at the end of the debate. This has led to the trend for which Allan Bloom named his book, "The Closing of the American Mind."

     In other words, my reason for writing about David's book is because I think there are deeper understandings to be gained from exploring the challenges that face a spiritual teaching. An exposé such as David's represents a major public criticism to any religious group, but whatever the public opinion might be, we should be able to learn valuable lessons about how we adopt beliefs and confront challenges to our faith.

     There will always be times when any teaching, whether religious or not, becomes unpopular or rejected by public opinion. At the same time there are still people whose lives are woven into the fabric of those teachings. If we are interested in Truth, and not just a list of facts that can be slanted any which way, then we must look beneath the surface of public opinion that shifts like the sands.

     These are personal spiritual lessons I'm talking about here, not sociological ones. The spiritual path we adopt is first and foremost a personal relationship with deeply intimate lessons. Therefore challenges presented to our religious beliefs or religious organizations must be dealt with mainly on a personal basis. Open dialogue can be of great benefit, but we must remember that in the end the case is not decided publicly. While the patterns and developments may be universally discussed, this does not change the fact that it is still mostly a private matter.

     Therefore, this book represents my own personal thoughts, along with the dialogue and ideas of others. I hope it sparks deeper reflections, opens up a richer view of the spiritual paths we walk, and encourages more open exchanges over religious issues.

     With that explanation of my intentions, let us proceed to the discussion.

- Doug Marman     

 

 

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Copyright © 2000 by Doug Marman

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