Live and Die Our Lives

One of the negative perceptions people often have of religion is the so-called denominational or sectarian conflicts. Even within Christianity alone, its long history seems to be riddled with a series of such disputes. In the early days of ancient churches, we can already observe these contentions in Paul’s letters:

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.

1 Corinthians 1:10

Paul made a tremendous effort to establish churches throughout his missions. Soon after, however, people began criticizing and fighting one another, insisting that their church was more authentic than others and worshipping their leaders rather than Christ.

My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?

1 Corinthians 1:11-13

Despite Paul’s advice, however, throughout the long history of Christianity, we have never truly learned this lesson. Reading a history book, we can comprehend the countless wars caused by denominational and sectarian conflicts. People killed one another not only because of differences in religious faith but also due to differences in churches and traditions.

Such contentions among people aren’t limited to Christianity but occur in all religions; moreover, they are not only religious but also ideological, and I can say universal due to our sinful, selfish nature. As long as we form our own groups, these groups inevitably face a series of conflicts in one way or another.

Just like our human consciousness and maturity, perhaps we must go through a developmental path even at the collective level of each group. As a model for such development, let me use Spiral Dynamics, which defines the color-coded value meme in the given life conditions at the moment when the people in a society, community, or group face them.

Beige: At this level, the life condition is driven by survival instinct. Seeking out a partner solely due to sexual desire or engaging in battle to kill enemies could be part of the drive for forming groups at this level.

Purple: Family kinship and a tribal mindset characterize the life condition of this level. The primary focus is on maintaining the safety of the small-scale group. Often, this group size is represented by Dunbar’s number of around 150, which is the cognitive limit for the average person to maintain intimate relationships based on the brain’s capacity.

Red: Beyond the tribal scale of around 150 people, a group can expand much larger due to the presence of a charismatic leader. In a tribal community, the chieftain can still remember all their people. However, a charismatic leader may not have to or be able to remember all their followers personally, creating an asymmetry as members idealize and worship the leader. This can be an effective strategy for maintaining and growing the group.

Blue: Relying solely on a charismatic leader is insufficient, and even vulnerable, for maintaining and improving a larger organization. If the leader falls for reasons such as tyranny, death, or assassination, the Red-based group may divide or revert to the Purple kinship scale. Alternatively, if the group becomes institutionalized with established orders, systems, and transcendent authority, it can maintain itself more effectively.

Orange: Economic rationalism is one of the key drivers for maintaining this level of organization. Members follow and remain loyal to their group as long as they can earn money through their membership. People gather and work together, sharing the same profit-driven goals and objectives. In the Spiral Dynamics model, previous levels are transcended and included. In this regard, we can also observe the occasional emergence of life conditions such as survival instinct, tribalism, charisma (or tyranny), and systemic (or transcendental) authority.

Green: Perhaps one of the principal motives for grouping at this level of the life condition is the efforts of overcoming all previous levels and value memes. People in Green dislike Beige primitivism, Purple tribalism, Red tyranny, Blue bureaucracy, and Orange materialism. However, their efforts to cleanse all these negative aspects of previous levels can seem idealistic to the extent that they believe they are absolutely right in criticizing all other “lower” groups as harmful. At the same time, they strive to be as diverse and inclusive as possible, facing the dilemma of being exclusive against other memes.

These are all the first-tier color-coded value meme levels based on the life condition and consciousness maturity level of the people in the group. There could be second-tier memes, such as Yellow (the second-tier Beige), Turquoise (the second-tier Purple), Coral (the second-tier Red), Teal (the second-tier Blue), and more. The second tier is inevitably speculative and esoteric, as the possible life conditions are beyond our experiential comprehension. On the other hand, in the first tier, we can easily imagine and recall all the situations we encounter in our everyday lives.

We tend to consider all religious organizations as falling under the life condition of the Blue meme, while corporate entities are in the Orange, NGOs and NPOs are in the Green, and so on. While this categorization can somewhat make sense, it may be somewhat superficial. In today’s modern and postmodern world of the twenty-first century, it is easy for people like us to imagine and recall examples of first-tier memes. However, it is unrealistic to view all religious individuals as being in the Blue, all non-religious individuals in the Orange, and those in the Green describing themselves as “not religious but spiritual,” and so on.

We all contain all first-tier memes (or even potentially second-tier ones to be awakened beyond our bodily life and death boundaries). While the memes can structurally represent the “level” of maturity, they also signify the “state” of the condition at a particular moment, depending on who you are interacting with or where you are facing a specific situation.

It’s not uncommon to observe a tyrannical Red leader in an Orange corporation. Soldiers trained in Blue institutions may revert to Beige brutality on the battlefield. The so-called family-oriented businesses and politics are often driven by the desire for Purple tribalism.

Similarly, Christian churches also encompass the full spectrum of first-tier memes. Amongst numerous traditions and denominations, some people often get confused with these divisions and contentions among themselves. 

Some are fundamentalist, others are conservative or liberal. There are diverse theological views that each group tends to rely on. The style of organizational governance also varies from one group to another. The Catholic tradition maintains a long history of church tradition with a large-scale hierarchical structure. While the Orthodox tradition has a lengthy history, it has become regionalized, with Greek, Russian, Serbian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Georgian, Antiochian, and other regional autonomies. Although the historical context differs, the Anglican tradition can also be considered a form of regional autonomy.

Regarding Protestantism, the scale of diversity seems to increase significantly. Firstly, we can enumerate the mainline traditions like Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican/Episcopal (which could also be included in this Protestant category), Methodist, Baptist, Anabaptist, Pentecostal, and more. Some call themselves non-denominational but exhibit similarities with existing traditions.

Aside from the mainline traditions, there are hundreds of thousands of independent churches, ranging from small Bible study groups to prosperous mega-churches and more. It’s almost impossible to tell each group whether they are right or wrong, as they all claim authenticity.

Some groups exist on the “border” of Christianity, as they deviate from the traditional theological framework, sometimes even embracing other religious beliefs. Can we consider Unitarian beliefs as Christianity? How about the Church of Latter-day Saints? There are countless groups in these categories. Of course, from their perspective, they are not on the border at all but believe they are in the “mainstream.”

As such differences are inevitably intersubjective, it is impossible to determine which perspectives are right or wrong. All we can say is that all of them are valid within their own living conditions. Nobody can fault Unitarian church members for not believing in the Trinity, just as we cannot blame a Protestant church for not emphasizing the divinity of Mary.

To put it plainly, without fear of being misunderstood, denominational differences can be viewed more as cultural identities in this twenty-first century of modern and postmodern days. If you are born a Protestant, the freedom of your faith should be part of your human rights. And if you choose to convert to another faith, that is also part of your freedom of choice. Nobody can force your existential choice and commitment. You decide based on the life conditions you are facing and living in, as well as both the “level” and “state” of your maturity, consciousness, and meme.

We can see the full spectrum of first-tier memes in each religious tradition. Some charismatic leaders act as figures whom people admire and respect. Some liberal churches try to avoid such trends by making leadership more anonymous to maintain the leadership of Christ. Similarly, but from a different perspective, the Amish avoid any pastoral roles to emphasize that nobody should be privileged to act in such roles as an occupation. The acceptance of liberalism is also diverse depending on the context. Some fundamentalists completely disagree with it, while others feel the need to update their doctrines to embrace it. Again, we cannot determine which perspective is right or wrong, as their living conditions and memes drive them to believe as they do.

However, I am not suggesting that we succumb to relativism’s tyranny and become nihilistic or narcissistic, accepting that anything goes. Asserting that life is meaningless can be a meaningful sentiment in the context of diversity and inclusion. But if this sentiment renders you and your life utterly meaningless and despairing, let me tell you that this is no longer a value you can maintain as your faith.

We can accept traditions and beliefs as they provide meaning to life. As Kierkegaard said, the truth should be subjective, with which you can live fully and die with dignity. In this regard, even the Emptiness of the Heart Sutra does not signify meaninglessness. The realization of non-duality and non-boundaries is similar to that of God; you can never objectify.

These contentions will never end if we remain within a dualistic view. We cannot escape the conflict by claiming that our God is truthful while others are false, that our truth is rightful while others are wrong, that our ideology is correct while others are deceptive, and so on. With countless diverse choices and perspectives displayed and juxtaposed before us, we often divide ourselves over these differences. Our history shows that we even killed one another as a result. Consequently, many people and groups expend tremendous energy criticizing and attacking others, labeling them enemies. Should we not strive to love our enemies as we love ourselves?

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

Matthew 5:43-45

Let’s embrace different perspectives while avoiding harmful actions contributing to our bloody human history. Everyone has their own unique story, including you and me. What is your life? What is the meaning of life? If Jesus told you he is the way and the truth, let’s live and die by that belief.

At the same time, we can humbly map out the state and level of maturity, consciousness, life conditions, and memes to better understand these diverse perspectives. However, this model should not be used to judge others or feel under or over-confident about ourselves. Instead, it serves as a reminder that we are all truthful in our own ways as we live and die our lives.

Image by Ralph

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