I have a hunch that this show is going to raise a few eyebrows and, sadly, it could deepen a rift that already exists between me and most of my family. It's an outcome I loathe to consider but a risk I am prepared to take. As I begin telling this story, you might say, "Oh dear, there goes Tom again, bashing the poor Jehovah's Witnesses," and you'll be right, I shall, but not without good reason and certainly with a very constructive spiritual outcome in mind. Without a positive end, this show would be nothing more than a fat whinge. Having grown up as a Witness, I know first-hand what it is like to be inside and outside this organisation. On the one side of the coin, there is the happy family of spiritual brothers and sisters standing by each other with encouragement and enthusiasm but there is also the flip side, the devastating consequences of some of their organisational policies and the collateral damages that occur when they apply them to anyone stepping out of line. So, while this show may use the Witnesses as reference and while it may also highlight the pitfalls inherent in cults and sects, this show is really about your self-actualisation and your personal spiritual realisation. The Witnesses' prescriptive policies that govern their members are mild when compared to some of the worst cases of cult abuse the world has experienced. The one that stands out the most was the 1978 Jonestown Massacre, when Jim Jones, the leader of the Peoples Temple movement, thought that he was about to be exposed as a fraud, instructed all resident members at his remote, forest compound in Guyana to drink poisoned punch. They did, and they gave it to their children too. This resulted in the death of 918 people on that day, nearly a third of whom were children. Another awful cultish happening occurred in a 1993 standoff between cult members and USA government officials during the siege of the Branch Davidian headquarters near Waco, Texas. The sect's leader, Vernon Howell, better known by his self-bestowed spiritual name, David Koresh, convincingly established himself as the sect's messiah. His wives were all teenagers which raised eyebrows over allegations of child abuse which triggered a government investigation. The first warrant to search the premises failed and the inspectors returned to raid the premises on a second occasion. David Koresh and his followers defended their compound in military style. The government admitted having made mistakes too, insofar as federal agents had indeed fired flammable material into the compound which set fire to the buildings. This resulted in the deaths of many people. The casualties were on both sides. However, not all maniacal preachers' actions end in members' death. Some of the stuff done in the name of God are plainly ludicrous, based upon mistaken beliefs and interpretations of scripture. Recently, a South African court impose a ban on Mount Zion General Assembly's 24-year old preacher who claimed that spraying an insecticide called Doom on his followers would cure them of cancer, HIV, and other ailments. There's little wonder why courts had to intervene before these church members fell ill or died. These cultish practices quickly come into the public eye but there are a whole lot more that are much more insidious. I have dear friends who for many years belonged to the Philosophy Society. It had an innocuous start for them but after some thirty years of attendance, they say that they started to notice the manipulation. They were criticised for not doing as much as they could and that their dress code was not in line with what the society expected of them. They weren't fully playing the game and the leadership was unhappy. Another friend of mine still finds himself caught up in the Scientology movement and he says he cannot easily extradite himself from that organisation without incurring huge emotional loss.
Being a Jehovah's Witness wasn't my religion of choice but it happened upon me as a child growing up in a family who were Witnesses. It's an active religion, demanding a lot of time from its followers. The constant flurry of scriptural activity, shaped our household routine. Whenever there were 'worldly' goings-on, like school, playing with friends and social events with outsiders, they were always kerbed by a set of strict rules governing acceptable Witness behaviour. Rules governed our clothing styles, how we groomed ourselves, whether men could wear a beard and what antics married couples could or couldn't get up to during intimacy. There were many things we couldn't do as children, like having or attending birthday parties, celebrating Christmas and Easter or being competitive. The organisation's rules did not allow us to sing the national anthem at school or stand up during morning prayers and because of our defiant attitude, teachers ridiculed and kids bullied us. We learned from young that we were different. Nevertheless, those things didn't really deter me because the organisation had taught us to be resilient from young. After all, what else should we expect from Satan's wicked world. Ostracization never came as a surprise.
The organisation's interpretation of the Bible is very literal and they have a strong conviction that theirs it is the only scriptural truth. Self-imposed segregation from the world and other religions sets the Witnesses apart. They are unabashed in declaring that they are the only true and faithful servants of God. To them, the rest of the world is the Devil's offspring. Congregants are highly disciplined and there is little scope for independent thinking and personal lifestyle choices. A leadership committee of about a half a dozen men, meticulously interpret every minute aspect of Biblical verse. This is the only version of beliefs Witnesses may have. The organisation shapes one's thinking and behaviour through a very busy weekly schedule of Bible studies. Members are kept so busy with organised activities, almost to the point of overload, which doesn't leave much time to explore other interests in life. One must stay faithful at all costs. The organisation's mission is to preach their message to the world to can gather as many lost souls as they can and lead them into the fold before it is too late. It's a funnel-and-gate system, like the ones used when capturing game to move them to another wilderness area. Witnesses stand with warm open arms, sincerely and heart-warmingly funnelling in anyone who shows remote interest. Once committed through baptism, the gate closes and there is no way out. The only exit from this society is by expulsion.
Any member transgressing Witness dogma, must appear before a tribunal of elders who alone consider the evidence and pass judgement. If the offender shows neither repentance nor willingness to change, these elders have a mandate from the organisation's leadership to excommunicate (or in Witness jargon, disfellowship) an errant person. Once removed from the congregation, the expelled person may not associate those inside the faith (including close family members). It's a practise called shunning which, at a cursory level, may well seem like a prudent thing to do to preserve the sanctity of the congregation. It is argued that it is akin throwing a rotten apple away before it spoils other apples in the basket. However, when dogma leans ludicrously towards cultish fanaticism, it leaves a trail of devested families and broken relationships in its wake. It splits families, breaks hearts and sometimes, older children become bereft of parents and parents of their children. Many excommunicated members have found it so hard to endure shunning and so try to or do commit suicide. You need only perform an online search, looking for ex-witness support groups to read the sad, first-hand accounts of shunning's consequences.
I have spent my life encouraging everyone to seek something more spiritual. Not that I expect you to believe in God or even feel obliged to join a church or organisation. Doing so might be helpful for some but it isn't the only way to find spiritual oneness. My Jehovah's Witness upbringing kickstarted a broader spirituality in a roundabout way. It gave me a foundation upon which I could add wider knowledge and understanding. One way or another, I'm sure I would have left the organisation, had it not been for my expulsion when I was 27-years old. Staying safely inside the society though, seems to have worked well for my parents and my sister and I'm happy that they found their spiritual purpose and meaning there. Do what you need to do to grow your spirituality, even if by joining an organisation but I urge you to walk into these experiences with eyes wide open and with a healthy measure of scepticism. This goes for joining any religious or spiritual association, not just the Witnesses. There's a lot of dodgy stuff out there.
When one of my aunts died a while ago, I faced a big dilemma: should I attend her Jehovah's Witness funeral as a disfellowshipped person or should I play it safe and not go at all. Having not set foot in a Kingdom Hall since my father's funeral in 2000, I was hugely apprehensive. I had decided once before not to attend an uncle's funeral and got a mouthful of snide remarks from the family for being too callous. But I had good reason for not going. There was such a hullabaloo at Dad's funeral. Elders in Dad's congregation knew that I am disfellowshipped and they tried hard to prevent me entering the hall to attend his funeral service. They obstructed my passage at the side door until a woman, whom I have known from young, bravely broke protocol and came to my aid. She pushed her way past them all, took me by the arm and ushered to the front row to sit next to my mother. A buzz of consternation filled the hall as people tried to grasp what had just happened. Many of my work colleagues and friends attended the funeral to offer me their support and condolences. They were aghast at the incongruity of the events of the day. One of my friends there, a journalist who works for Die Beeld, an Afrikaans Sunday newspaper, was so appalled by what he saw and wrote a half-page article about it which the newspaper published that Sunday.
Given all the hoo-ha over past funerals, I was in quite a dilemma as to whether I should or shouldn't attend my aunt's funeral. I didn't want to be callous but I didn't want to hurt again. I always enjoy getting others' opinion and so, I approached close friends and family for their advice. Some guidance was quite militant and suggested that I go to the funeral with guns blazing; others proposed a far more passive approach. I didn't reach a decision quickly as it wasn't an easy choice to make but I finally chose to go, for my cousins' sake. Having made my decision to go, my next quandary was how I should behave if anyone tried to block me at the door, as they had done at Dad's funeral. I seriously considered wearing a lapel badge with the words, 'I choose love and forgiveness. What's your choice?' But making a fuss on this occasion wouldn't have been the right thing to do.
There was no fuss when I arrived, perhaps because they didn't know anything about me in this little coastal town. Some family members shunned me as usual but one or two abandoned protocol and greeted me warmly. I sweated profusely beneath my dark suit jacket. Two of my dear female friends noticed my nervousness and flanked me, one on either side, they ushered me to a seat in the middle of the second row. I felt much safer sitting there between them.
As the service began, I quietly started to meditate and soon sank into a very deep trance. I heard the talk but I paid no attention to its words or meaning. It sounded like the faintly familiar melody of a past song, remembered a little but mostly forgotten. In my meditative state, I became very aware of how much I'd grown since my excommunication, how much freer I was and how differently my beliefs had been shaped. My spiritual journey was like climbing a flight of stairs: I couldn't reach the top step without first having set foot on the bottom ones and I honoured the Witnesses for providing those initial steps. Deepak Chopra writes about of the seven stages of God in his book, "How to Know God." He suggests that our perception of God changes depending on where we are on our spiritual journey. The psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed a Hierarchy of Needs predicated on fulfilling innate human needs before one can tackle one's more social and personal ones. There are interesting parallels between Chopra's Stages of God and Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Simply put, Maslow describes our most primitive need as one of survival, above it is our need for safety, followed by a need for social belonging, then by a need for esteem and right there at the top of the list is our need for a sense of self. We cannot reach self-realisation while still struggling with a need to survive. As we satisfy each need, we move up the table and with each new step, we get a chance redefine God form our new perspective. When fighting for survival, God is our Provider. When we seek safety, He is our Saviour and Protector. When we yearn for love and social acceptance, He becomes our Father. As we find self-esteem, we create move into the phase where there is a need for self-respect and we yearn also for the respect of others. The uppermost need is self-realisation. Once we fulfil this need in a spiritual way, God the Father and His Son merge us and we become One.
Sitting there at my aunt's funeral meditating, I asked one question, "If I was certain to find God somewhere, where would the most likely place be to begin looking for Him?" I knew I'd find Him in the form of the tyrannically jealous yet incongruently loving God of the Old Testament if I looked for Him in the Kingdom Hall. In my past, when I was at the lower tiers of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, I bought into the belief of an anthropomorphised God, a wise old man sitting in a literal place called Heaven, somewhere out there above the clouds. But it was I who had created God in my likeness and image because I had no other way of contextualising Him. I had given Him his masculine gender. I had elevated Him to the highest rank in my social structure, that of Father. I also placed Him above all other men by giving Him sage-like qualities and I could never imagine myself standing on the same ground He had walked upon. Through me, God acquired His heavenly kingdom. Depending upon the level where I was on Maslow's Table of Needs, God became that which I needed Him to be.
If God isn't literally an old man supporting a long white beard somewhere out there, then who or what is He? Still in deep trance at the funeral, I wondered whether God existed at all as an actual presence of sorts, a yet undiscovered universal intelligence responsible for the design and creation of everything. I grappled with this concept. If there wasn't a place called Heaven, a localised spot somewhere in space, then there was also no tangible being, called God who lives there. I concurred that God is nowhere (not in any specific place) yet found everywhere (present in everything across the entire universe); God is also nothing (neither this nor that) yet everything (the origin of all things). If God is nowhere yet everywhere and nothing yet everything, it makes Him omnipotent, omnipresent and almighty. The closest plausible scientific theory that has these attributes is perhaps the Zero-point Field of quantum physics. This field is the coordinating intelligence of empty space, the ground state of all other forces and fields which carries all information necessary to maintain consistency across the universe. Yet every holy text I have read speaks of God far more personally than a mere compassionless backdrop to space. Instead, He is described as a being with whom we could forge a relationship. Unless I too am being snared by my own anthropomorphic neediness, the description of God being 'a mere compassionless backdrop to space' didn't seem like attributes I would readily ascribe to the Almighty. If God is plausibly neither an old man in space nor some theorised ground state of all universal fields, then who is He, She or It?
We've already established that the higher we move up Maslow's Table of Needs, the more God changes. At the lowest level, the survival need, God must be an external entity far greater than oneself, the Provider of all that we need and our Protector. Once we reach Maslow's highest-level, tour need for self-actualisation, God becomes much more and the gap between who we are and who He is collapses into Oneness. If you think there's an uncanny parallel between Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and Chopra's seven levels of God, then consider how uncanny it is to find other parallels the Chakra system. Starting at the heart chakra, the seat of human emotions, all lower chakras symbolise our physical struggle as humans: our physiological need for air, food and water; our need to reproduce; and our need for safety. The heart chakra neatly matches our need for love and belonging. All the upper chakras link in nicely with Maslow's classifications of esteem and self-realisation. During our primitive states of neediness, we go downwards and outwards from the heart chakra into the material world to find meaning and purpose. When we have a need to satisfy our sophisticated psychological and spiritual needs, we go inwards and upwards from the heart chakra where we discover a more abstracted form of God within. At the base chakra, God is an external presence; at the crown chakra, God becomes an internal presence.
Can we reconcile the primitive conceptualisations of God with the more enlightened views of Him without redefining God? Can the Old Man in Heaven also be the same God in the mindful experience of an enlightened being? I read a beautiful analogy in Yehudah Berg's book, "The Power of the Kabbalah." He draws a symbolic parallel between the mechanisms of the solar system and our relationship with God. The Sun, at the centre of our Solar System, knows only how to give; and all of Mother Nature knows only how to take. As the Sun gives, so Nature takes. This creates harmonious balance and synergy. Nature takes without conscience and without greed. All other creatures, apart from us humans, are reactive beings belonging to nature. The Garden of Eden, a symbolism of an uncomplicated, harmonious coexistence with all else, came with a warning, a kind of sinister prophecy waiting to happen: Do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil but we did. When we branched from the evolutionary path of other animals and developed a rational and logical brain, we surrendered our reactive nature, barred ourselves from the Garden of harmonious bliss and became co-creators of our own world. We separated ourselves from the rest of nature. We were no longer content, living in harmony with our environment. Instead, we became restless in our quest to be godlike. We sacrificed our reactionary place in nature to become proactive. Slowly at first but with increased rapidity, we learned to have dominion over all nature, we began to control it, exploit it, re-engineer it and soon, create it. We stayed trapped in feelings of dissatisfaction and discontent. Egoism stands in opposition to godliness. Earth, as symbolised by the lower chakras and Maslow's primitive needs, rebukes Heaven, our enlightened state of self-realisation and our unification with God. Egoism is idolatry, the false god, to whom so many devote their lives. To go down and out into the material world is Hell. It separates us from God and causes an external search for Him somewhere outside. Go inwards and upwards and we'll align ourselves with our inner God and it is there where we find Heaven. One day, we might fathom out the intricacies of this universe and solve the intriguing puzzle of how all things work. That will make today's knowledge and technology seem like relics of some bygone past. When we gain the Mind of God and know all things and understand the infinite complexities and interrelationships throughout space and time, when we know all there is to know about the natural balance and harmony that keeps this universe in place, perhaps then, we will have regained the paradise we once had lost.
Tucked away in an infinitesimally small point of nothingness prior to the Big Bang, lay an embryonic potential for an entire universe. In that point of cosmic singularity, milliseconds before the Big Bang, lay the blueprint for every galaxy, star, planet, life form, action, word, idea and thought. Somewhere in that point of nothingness lay the possibility of these very words and speculations. Our physical universe is still unfolding and there is a lot of unrealised possibility still within the system. Only after the cosmos has exhausted all possibilities, could we say that the universe found the full realisation of what it could be.
In Genesis, God declared that He made humankind in His likeness and image. For that to be true, it can't refer to our physical form which is too puny and frail to stand in God's image and likeness, it must mean a lot more than just our physicality. It must describe those attributes that separates us from everything else. We are the creation that glorified the Creator. We have a capacity to comprehend abstract things. For us to exist in the image of God must imply that we also exist in some formless, magnificent realm too. It might be true that there is a part of us which was never born and which will never die; a part of us that survives the death of our bodies.
Neuroscience is the complex study of our neurology. It shows us how thoughts propagate electrochemically through the brain, giving rise to sensory and motor tasks found in various regions of the brain. Neuroscience suggests that DNA methylation, or prions, supports long-term memory. Other researchers however, aren't certain that memory is stored inside the nerve cells but in the synaptic gaps between neurons. Karl Lashley was a psychologist and behaviourist remembered for his contributions to the study of learning and memory. He sought to deactivate portions of different rats' brains to find which part held specific memories. Lashley taught the rats certain routines and then, with a soldering iron, burned off parts of the rats' brains, each rat suffering the obliteration of a different part of the brain. Despite incurring serious physical impairment, the rats never lost the memory of the routines Lashley had taught them. He concluded that memory is no specific place in the brain where memory is stored. Walter Schempp, who revolutionised the construction of MRI machines, documented his theory of quantum holography after he discovered that all sorts of information about objects, including their three-dimensional shape, is carried in the quantum fluctuations of the Zero-point Field which I mentioned earlier. It is quite possible that memory and consciousness don't lie inside the tissue of the brain but somewhere outside it. I highly recommend that you read Lynne McTaggart's book, "The Field" and Ervin Lazlo's book, "Science and the Akashic Field" for a comprehensive and intellectually stimulating explanation of the integral theory of everything.
The aspect of us made in God's likeness and image is incapable of sin, and to propose that it is, is blasphemous. There is nothing in the rich spectrum of human activities that could ever offend God, for if it upset Him in any way, we, through our actions and behaviour, could control His mood and attitude. That's just not possible, is it? God remains holy indifferent to anything we do. Our challenge is not to curry favour with an external entity somewhere out in space but to question whether we are living in a manner that fosters a better relationship with our highest selves. When we strive to find God, we must go inwards and upwards to ultimately find our divinity there. Always be in devotional service to your highest self. These are the philosophies found in, "A Course in Miracles" which is widely regarded as Jesus' unabridged teachings to his disciples in the upper room.
Just as that non-existent, infinitesimally small point of cosmic singularity held the blueprint for an entire universe, so do we. You and I are infinitely great beings of pure possibility. We can be anything we choose to be. At the innermost core of every human lays an amazing propensity for greatness. It is the unquantifiable, incorporeal, ubiquitous essence of every human. Our only inhibitor, Satan within, is the glass ceiling through which we seem incapable of transcending. This glass ceiling is our ignorance of our true nature.
As my aunt's funeral service reached its end, I slowly emerged from my deep meditation and marvelled at the full impact of these insights. It had taken thirty-five years to come full circle and the irony was that it occurred inside a Kingdom Hall. There in the past, I once thought of myself as a Jehovah's Witness, but on this day at the funeral, I realised that you and I are the likeness and image of God and that He realises Himself through us and all creation. We are vessels for God, Jehovah if you feel brave enough to call Him by that name. I instantly knew what words I should have put on my lapel badge, "I Am Jehovah, Witnessing!"