I have a hunch that this blog is going to raise a few eyebrows and, sadly, it could deepen a rift that already exists between most of my family and me. It’s an outcome I loathe to anticipate but a risk I am obliged to take. I have reached a stage where an inner light urges me to share my thoughts and experiences in the hopes of benefitting those as trapped as I once was. Please share and distribute this blog freely if you believe it might help someone you know in a similar situation. I have personally helped countless trapped Jehovah’s Witnesses find liberation. In most cases, they chose to fade from active service but still, their deep-seated anxiety over the emotionally devastating consequences of expulsion generally holds them captive in the metallic grip of a cult from which there is no clean exit. Once inside, one no longer has a right to choose one’s future without incurring huge collateral damage. If you take exception to what I say, I invite you to express your thoughts so that we may debate this some more.
I was once a Jehovah’s Witness. It wasn’t my religion of choice but it happened upon me in an involuntary way as a child growing up in a Jehovah’s Witness family. It’s an active religion, demanding a lot of time from its followers. The daily routine of intently moving from one scriptural activity to the next shaped a household. Whatever worldly goings-on there were, like school, playing with friends and other social events, they were always kerbed by an elaborate set of rules governing acceptable Witness behaviour. There were many things we couldn’t do as children, like having or attending birthday parties or celebrating Christmas and Easter. We learned from young that we were different. We would not sing the national anthem at school or stand up during morning prayers and because of our defiant attitude, we were often ridiculed and badly bullied. Nevertheless, those things didn’t really deter us much because we were taught from little that that’s what we as faithful servants of God were to expect from Satan’s wicked world.
It’s a black-and-white belief system based upon mutually exclusive segregation: the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the only true and faithful servants of God against the rest of the world, heathens, the Devil’s progeny. The Witnesses mission is equally simple: through intense involvement and close association with each other, one stays faithful at all costs, actively persuading and enticing the non-believers to switch allegiance to the only religion approved by God, the Truth. It’s a funnel-and-gate system, similar to the ones used when capturing game to relocated them from one wild habitat to the next. Witnesses stand with warm open arms, sincerely and heart-warmingly funnelling in anybody remotely interested in belonging to their spiritual family of brothers and sisters. Once inside, the gate is closed and there is no way out. The only exit from this society is by expulsion.
If any member transgresses Witness dogma, he or she must appear before a tribunal of elders who alone consider the evidence and pass judgement. If the offender shows neither repentance nor willingness to conform, the elders have jurisdiction to excommunicate (or in Witness jargon, disfellowship) that person. To preserve pureness, those inside the faith may not have any form of contact with any expelled member. It’s a well-documented practise termed shunning which, at a cursory glance, may well seem like a prudent thing to do. Surely, one should throw out the rotten apple before it contaminates the others. However, when dogma leans ludicrously towards fanaticism, the organisation has expelled and shunned many of its members for an assortment of absurd reasons. One only needs to perform an online search, looking for ex-witnesses support groups, to read the first-hand accounts of the awful consequences of shunning. It splits families, hearts are broken and children are left bereft of parents and parents of their children. I was disfellowshipped thirty-five years ago and have been the recipient of shunning ever since.
Since puberty, I found it easier to explore my sexual development with same-sex partners but I didn’t know that I was gay until I was introduced to the word and adopted its labelling much, much later on in life. Deeply burdened by this realisation, I tried to hide it from everyone for years because I knew damned well that, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t change the way I was. Without the comfort of knowing that change was possible, I couldn’t seek help because any disclosure would certainly result in my disfellowshipping. It was a terrible conundrum and a predicament without solution.
Yet life had its way of unfolding and it was inevitable that I would eventually be discovered and disfellowshipped. How that came about was sad and sordid. I was twenty-seven when a relative set a trap and snared me. He then took some glee in exposing and disposed of me. I couldn’t have hated an organisation and its people more at the time and it took lots of introspective self-realisation to shift my hatred and to find a way of honouring them today. I wrote about it in my book: It Is What It Is, Grace through Acceptance, www.iiwii.co.za.
Loyal adherence to the faith works well for my family and I’m happy that they use it to find purpose in in life. Most of them are lovely, sincere, amazing people and I need no convincing that these folk are true to life, even though they look at it through the Jehovah’s Witness lens. If culpability were to lie anywhere, it ought to be with the clique of men at the core of this society who, as a governing body, sadly twist the inspired teachings of Jesus into such literal contortions.
Ours is a family of matriarchs. Three sisters of Scottish origin who joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses in their youth and then zealously passed their beliefs on to most of their children and grandchildren.
The oldest of the sisters, my aunt Maureen, passed away last month (March 2015) at the age of eighty-eight. Since the death of my grandparents, she was one of only a few close relatives to pass on: my father died first in 2000, followed by a cousin, a close uncle and now my aunt. One would ordinarily pay one’s last respects at their respective funerals but my attendance has always been a complicated decision for me. There was such a hullabaloo at the Kingdom Hall at my father’s funeral because some elders decided that I, as a disfellowshipped person, should not gain entry. As this group of men obstructed my passage at the side door, a woman whom I have known from young, bravely ignored protocol and came to my aid. She let them know how unhappy she was and then, by my arm, she led me around these men, walked me up the central aisle and arranged a place for me to sit in the front row next to my mother.
A buzz of concerned conversation filled the hall as people tried to grasp what had happened. More than a dozen work colleagues and a large contingent of close friends, including Johann, my life partner attended Dad’s funeral to offer their support and condolences. All of them expressed their astonishment at the incongruity of the events of the day. One of them, a journalist for Die Beeld (an Afrikaans Sunday newspaper), so disgusted by what he had observed, published a half-page article about it.
When my uncle, the husband of the youngest of the three sisters, died, I considered going to his funeral but decided against it because I wasn’t prepared to put myself through that sort of ordeal again. This time, I got a reprimanding for being too callous. Perhaps they expected me to attend and subserviently take up a seat at the back of the hall where I wouldn’t draw attention.
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. I like canvassing opinion from others and asked close friends and family for advice. Some were quite militant and suggested that I go with guns blazing; others proposed a far more passive approach. It wasn’t an easy choice to make but I decided to take a risk and attend for the sake of my two cousins, Maureen’s daughters, whom I love very much. We are a reprobate sub-clan amongst the otherwise pious tribe of cousins.
I didn’t reach my decision to attend my aunt’s funeral in haste. The evidence that leaned heavily in favour of me choosing to be there was a mounting body of tiny realisations I had come to adopt over the past couple of decades. Collectively, they have radically changed the way I think and act. Having elected to go, the next decision I made was how to behave. What would I do if they tried to ban me? Would I make a fuss or would I quietly comply? A fantasy I considered was picketing in silent protest outside the Kingdom Hall. I imagined myself wearing a clapperboard bearing the words: ‘I choose love and forgiveness. What is your choice?’ but I decided against it because Maureen’s funeral was not the right occasion for this.
I arrived at the Kingdom Hall on the Monday afternoon, wearing my dark suit and tie. Entering through a side door, I paused just inside the hall and as though it were possible to inhale the entire room, I drew in a deep breath, blessed the space in my heart and symbolically took ownership of the room and all the people there. The little unseen ritual helped me calm my nerves and gain composure even though I continued to sweat profusely thereafter. Despite the butterflies in my tummy, I tried to make my way across the room in the most dignified and gracious way. Halfway to my seat I met my sister who had travelled with my aunt, the youngest of the three sisters. I hugged and kissed them both, offering my condolences. My sister embraced me warmly and it felt like the universe had folded, hiding the past thirty-five years, and in its folds it had created a wormhole through which her and I time travelled back to an emotional space where we had once been decades before. It was a profoundly tender moment. My aunt received my greeting stiffly and coldly for she needed to be seen to obey the shunning rule in front of everyone there. As I walked away from them, two other exceptionally caring female friends flanked and accompanied me to a seat in the middle of the second row. They knew what was happening and vowed to look after me. My cousins sat in the front row and we took our seats directly behind them. There, in the centre of this feminine cordon of unwavering patronage, I couldn’t be reached.
I sat apprehensively waiting for the talk to begin, fully anticipating a tap on my shoulder and a whisper in my ear asking me to move. I chose to sit in my seat and meditate and decided that, if anybody asked me to leave, I would have quietly allowed him to usher me out without resistance but I would not have moved voluntarily. Under his escort, he would have had to take action and responsibility for having disrupted my aunt’s funeral. Surprisingly, nobody challenged me but I believe the reason was that none of congregants there knew anything about me.
I closed my eyes as the talk began, clasped my hands in my lap and sank quickly into a very deep trance. It then occurred to me that Witnesses are strongly discouraged from meditating because it supposedly opens one’s mind and invites Satan and his demonic hoards to take control. I smiled wryly like a defiant, naughty schoolboy.
The talk followed a familiar format and its contents conveyed the same theme I had heard as a teenager at past funerals. When one takes similarly themed scriptures and carefully sews them together, one can weave almost any persuasive story of one’s choice. Biblical ambiguity lends itself to infinitely varied interpretations thus creating a hugely diverse spectrum of Christian belief. Some apply scripture very literally; others lean more towards its symbolic interpretation. I have heard many persuasive arguments from different authoritative speakers who utterly contradict each other because they construed the meaning of the texts differently. Who owns the correct cypher? Whose interpretation is right? Witnesses may not challenge the explanations fed to them. To dare contest the Governing Body’s version could easily lead to dismissal on the grounds of being an apostate nonconformist, an official title conferred upon me ever since I published my book.
Being in deep meditative trance at the funeral transformed my experience. Instead of seething at the narrow-minded, literal interpretation of scripture, as I would easily have done before, I discovered a new space of indifference to the information given there. I recall thinking that religion in the global human context, somewhere in our very distant past, surely had to have had an undifferentiated, uncontested, common starting point, regardless of whether God handed our sense of spirituality to us in the way the Bible suggests or whether it spawned from our cognitive realisation of having to contextualise our own mortality. If it had a common origin, surely we should find a common interpretation. With that single meaning in place, Jesus’ teachings could neither fundamentally contradict those of the Buddha, the ancient Jewish teachings found in the Kabbalah, the teachings of Mohammed nor even the Vedic teachings at the core of Hinduism. Please take time to study Paramahansa Yogananda’s unprecedented masterwork of inspiration: ‘The Second Coming of Christ: The Resurrection of the Christ within You’.
Deepak Chopra spoke about of the seven stages of God in his book: ‘How to Know God’. He said that our perception of God changes depending on where we stand spiritually in life. The psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed a Hierarchy of Needs predicated on fulfilling innate human needs in priority. 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 that of survival, above it is our need for safety, followed by a need for social belonging, then by a need for esteem, and it culminates in a need for a sense of self. We cannot possibly attain self-realisation while struggling to meet all our underlying needs. As we transform and satisfy each of our needs, new possibilities arise for us to redefine what God means to us. 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 build esteem, our need to respect self and earn the respect of others, He becomes our Certificate of Authenticity. Once we reach fully realisation, however, God the Father and God the Son merge and become One.
Just this past December in Lenk while writing, seated at the dining room table and overlooking the magnificent Swiss Alps blanketed in snow, I asked the question: ‘If I was certain to find God somewhere, where would the most likely place be to begin looking for Him?’
It’s easy to understand the common perception of God as a wise old man, sitting on a heavenly throne and thronged by a literal army of angels, situated somewhere out there above the clouds. Having been fascinated by astronomy and having lectured at the Johannesburg Planetarium for nearly a decade, I know that there isn’t a spot in space where we might find this literal form of God. The Hubble Space Telescope with its incredibly keen eyesight is capable of seeing to the outer edge of our known universe, yet it has never once shown any evidence of any kind of celestial kingdom.
At the lower tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we anthropomorphised Him. We created God in our likeness and image. It was our only way of describing the indescribable using early human superlatives. We gave God masculine gender. We elevated Him to the highest rank in our social structure, namely that of Father. Yet, as if that weren’t enough, we elevated Him above all men by giving Him sage-like qualities with feet that would never stand upon the same ground we walk upon. God, through us, acquired His heavenly kingdom.
So if God isn’t literally an old man supporting a long white beard somewhere out there, then who or what is He? I’m somewhat torn between the mere symbolism of God and the possibility of an actual presence of some sorts, a yet undiscovered intelligence which is the designer and creator of our universe. If this intelligent presence actually exists, I would then agree that it is accurate to say that God is nowhere (not in any specific place) yet found everywhere (in everything throughout the universe). It would be equally true to say that He is nothing (neither this nor that), yet found in everything. That would make Him omnipotent, omnipresent and almighty.
The closest plausible scientific theory that supports all these attributes of God is perhaps the Zero-point Field of quantum physics. This field is supposedly the coordinating intelligence of the vacuum of space, which in quantum field theory is defined not as empty space but as the ground state of all other fields. It is theorised that this field carries all the information necessary to maintain consistency across the universe.
Yet every holy text I have ever read speaks of God far more personally than a mere compassionless backdrop to space. Besides the Old Testament’s notion of a jealous, tyrannical and dictatorial God, we also think of Him as kind, caring, and loving, a being with whom we could forge a relationship. Unless I am now being trapped in my own anthropomorphic snare, the aforementioned don’t seem like attributes I would readily ascribe to the Field. 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?
Perhaps we must look outwards in our quest to find God when we stand fighting for survival but at an elevated position of self-realisation at the apex of Maslow’s pyramid, we have panoramic understanding and can find God elsewhere. I find it uncanny that the chakras loosely map to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which in turn loosely map, as we have seen, to our understanding of God. Starting at the heart, the seat of human emotions, all lower chakras symbolise our physical struggles 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 tie in nicely with Maslow’s classifications of esteem and self-realisation. It seems that during our primitive states of neediness, we seem to go downwards and outwards from the heart chakra into the material world in order to find spiritual meaning. Otherwise, to satisfy our sophisticated psychological and spiritual needs, we go inwards and upwards from the heart chakra to discover a more abstracted form of God within.
Can we achieve reconciliation of the primitive conceptualisations of God with the more enlightened views of oneness without changing God? Can the Wise Old Man in heaven be the same God in the mindful experience of the 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 knows only how to give and all of Mother Nature knows only how to receive that gift. As the sun gives, so nature takes. This establishes a harmonious balance. Nature takes without conscience. It also never takes with any form of greediness. We were, in our early evolution, reactive beings that belonged to nature. The Garden of Eden, is symbolic of an uncomplicated, harmonious coexistence with all else. However, it 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. I can’t imagine this as anything other than being akin to our ability to think rationally and to judge.
The moment we developed a frontal cortex with a capacity to judge good from evil, we started to separate ourselves from the rest of nature. We were no longer content, reactive beings living in total harmony with our environment. Instead, we became restless in our quest to be much more as we strove to be godlike, co-creators of our universe. We sacrificed our reactionary place in nature to become proactive and God thus symbolically barred from His paradise garden of natural balance. Slowly at first but with increased rapidity, we learned to have dominion over all nature, we began to control it, to exploit it, to re-engineer it and perhaps soon, to even create it. Since our eviction from Eden, we have remained trapped in 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 the idolatry, the false god, to whom so many devote themselves so fervently. To go down and out into the material world is hell. It separates us from God and necessitates an external search for Him somewhere above the clouds. To go inwards and upwards, aligning ourselves with our highest self is heaven.
One day, we might fathom out the intricacies of this universe and thus solve the intriguing puzzle of how all things work. That will make today’s knowledge and technology seem like relics of some bygone past. What if we had the Mind of God, to know all things, to understand the infinite complexities and interrelationships throughout space and time, and to know the true balance and harmony that keeps this universe in place? Perhaps, when we learn to stand in our godliness as noble co-creators of a new-world paradigm and find newfound balance with all else, only then might we regain the paradise we had once lost.
Tucked away in an infinitesimally small point of nothingness lay the 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. We could say that our physical universe, from its embryonic beginnings of pure possibility, is still, through the laws of nature, expressing itself. When those laws exhaust all possibility, when there is nothing more for them to express, we could say that the universe would then be fully realised.
God made mankind in His likeness and image. To believe Him, I would expect Genesis 1:27 not to be describing my body. God made our bodies from the same substance as all the other creatures. For us to receive His highest honour and favour, sculpting us in his likeness and image, must mean a lot more to us than just our having acquired some physical, living form, common to all other living creatures. It had to describe attributes that separates us from everything else. We are creation that was to glorify our Creator. Our understanding grasps Divine things. For us to exist in the image of God might imply that we must also exist in some formless manner. Perhaps there is a part of us which was never born and which will never die; a part of us that survives death.
Neuroscience is a new and complex study of our neurology. It shows us how thoughts propagate electrochemically through the brain, giving rise to sensory and motor tasks located in various regions and how information is encoded, stored, and retrieved. Some research suggests that DNA methylation, or prions, maintain long-term memory storage in humans. However, other research isn’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 rats’ brains to find which part held specific memories. Lashley found that despite serious physical impairment from having burned off parts of the rats’ brains, they never lost the memory of the routines he had taught them. Walter Schempp, who revolutionised the construction of MRI machines, documented his theory of quantum holography, having discovered that all sorts of information about objects, including their three-dimensional shape, is carried in the quantum fluctuations of the Zero-point Field, that vast universal memory store I spoke of earlier. Is it possible therefore, that memory and consciousness don’t lie within the tissue of the brain but somewhere outside it? It is worth reading 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 part of us made in God’s likeness and image is incapable of sin, and to propose so is gross blasphemy. There is nothing in the rich spectrum of human activities that could ever offend God, for if we could perturb Him in any way, we would be capable of controlling God’s mood and attitude, and that’s just not possible. God will always remain holy indifferent to anything we do. Our challenge is not to curry favour with an external entity somewhere out in space but rather to question whether we are living in a manner that fosters a better relationship with self. When we strive to find God, we must ultimately go inwards and upwards to reach Him there. I would then instantly find myself in pursuit of my highest truth and in unwavering devotional service to God. To grasp these teachings properly, one ought to read the book: ‘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 might we, as infinitely great beings of pure potential, hold the blueprint to be anything of our choosing. At the core of every human is an amazing propensity for greatness. In the non-unquantifiable, incorporeal, ubiquitous essence of every human lies vast potential. Our only inhibitor, the glass ceiling through which we seem incapable of transcending, is our ignorance of our true self.
As I sat there in deep meditation at the funeral, the full impact of these insights coalesced in my being. It had taken thirty-five years to come full circle, to reach a point where I could sit inside a Kingdom Hall, listening to a talk and comfortably identify my highest spiritual self, using the two words that I once detested more than all others: Jehovah and Witness. Having once called myself a Jehovah’s Witness, I realised I need only drop the indefinite article ‘a’ to embrace a much greater state of being: God finding expression through me.
My mother regularly asks the question: ‘When are you coming back to the Truth?’
I can now answer her sincerely: ‘My dearest mother, I am Jehovah witnessing and that is the truth.’
If you live in Gauteng, South Africa or plan to travel through here in the future and would like to meet me and share ideas around this topic, please signup to I Am Jehovah Witnessing Meetup to be informed of these regular events.