The Knowledge of Good and Evil

Levels of Spiritual Action

In daily life, we can reliably apply spiritual action at four levels - obedience, belief, understanding, and knowledge. Each individual will tend to favor one specific level of action based on his or her relative stage of spiritual practice. Our individual beliefs establish the context within which we will perceive spiritual efficacy and exercise spiritual action. When numbers of these levels have been brought into play, they will tend to act in series. Learning about these four levels provides a basis for understanding the patterns in which human religious beliefs form, the stages of universal and individual spiritual evolution, and the different ways individuals perceive spiritual issues.

Human beliefs about spiritual things mirror or shadow, to a limited degree, aspects of absolute or ultimate spiritual truths. Like the shadow of a man's hand that we might mistake for the real hand, human religious beliefs often have a ring of truth to them. Upon examination, however, like shadows, human beliefs will be found to be missing some dimensions when compared to their infinite originals. Nevertheless, improved human beliefs can sometimes strike us as absolute truths. When better beliefs dawn from our spiritual progress, they are often very meaningful. It is not hard to get so wedded to an improved belief that we feel like holding on to it forever. But even the most inspired human beliefs are transitory and need to be regenerated.

There is a wide area of human interest in the spiritual that precedes the four levels of rational spiritual action. This early spiritual dimension comes into view as an undefined spiritual awareness. It can involve a sense of the mystical, a revered sense of the natural, or the pure desire for a higher good. This beginning phase of the spiritual dimension has a distinctly whole and undifferentiated aspect to it. Good and evil are not yet clearly delineated or easily separable. This stage of looking to transcendent things, where we have just started to pay attention, can lead the way to more evolved perceptions. Prior to analyzing the issues we see, there is no basis for determining a meaningful response. If this pre-rational phase of thought is put into action, it usually shows itself in ceremonies, rituals, and observances, and in exalting the natural.

While we may discern spiritual effects here, it is doubtful whether this level offers any reliable linkages to spiritual action. When our yearnings for goodness are stronger than our attractions to the mystical, we will cross out of this mental environment, bringing us to the place where rational action can begin to empower our spiritual pursuits.

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The first level of rational spiritual action involves obedience, which often begins with simple following. Our analysis of spiritual issues can evolve into patterns that we may discern as spiritual laws. Obedience is an affirmative response to a spiritual imperative perceived in a word, thought, intuition, or law.

Obedience has to do with the relationship between perceiving a legitimate command and acting. It is a direct linkage. Before we are at the point to positively energize obedience as a type of spiritual action, our reason for obedience might be a negative one, the fear of punishment. At its best, obedience has nothing to do with reasons except that our reason for action is our love of obedience.

If we turn on the light switch, we expect the light to go on. There is a relationship described by laws. Obedience, as a type of spiritual action, is the relationship between word and action. The word is directly linked to action. What a word is this!

It makes sense that obedience would be the first level of rational spiritual action, because obedience brings out the most basic relationship between spiritual cause and effect. Obedience is the point where mentality embodies manifestation. If some cause and effect relationship exists in spiritual nature, that relationship defines a law. If A causes B, the command to do A will be enough to involve an obedient one in the cause and effect process resulting in B. As far as obedience is concerned, we do not even need to know about B to be involved in the process.

Obedience can sometimes be exercised as a completely internal activity. An internal commitment or resolution to obey, unaccompanied by an outward opportunity, can sometimes be as much an act of obedience, as far as the spiritual world is concerned, as an outward act. Even the desire or will to be obedient can sometimes energize the spiritual force of obedience.

Most religions, all but the most mystical or sentimental, have some recognition of the concept of spiritual law. Obedience to spiritual laws, ethical laws, and sometimes even to civil laws, can throw our spiritual weight into the right scale. The proportional value of our obedience is related to the degree to which it embodies important spiritual issues and choices.

When discussing the value of obedience, the question can arise: Obedience to what? That is something we will have to figure out. Obedience as a type of spiritual action first becomes available to us when we relate to our spiritual ideal as a lawgiver, when we follow spiritual leadings, or when we perceive specific spiritual imperatives. Even if we are wrong in our interpretations, a sincere desire to be obedient to good sometimes has spiritual power to bring things around.

One thing that distinguishes obedience from the next level of spiritual action is that there may be no obvious association between our behavior and an immediate positive outcome. Actions associated with obedience sometimes look like they involve something called sacrifice. Expectations having to do with positive outcome involve belief, which we will discuss next. Obedience defines a level of spiritual action where authoritative words are directly linked to action.

Obedience to any command is not necessarily a good thing. Obedience to good commands will cause good, but not often otherwise. The degree to which obedience can be fruitfully activated depends on identifying proper authority, discerning directions with clarity, and carrying out actions successfully. In practice, I think the second part is the hardest.

Without valid authority, the concept of obedience is questionable. In this sense, obedience is relationship dependent. In speaking about recognizing authority, it is not meant to imply that authority comes from a person, although it is hard to imagine learning spiritual obedience without having mastered human obedience.

True authority could be experienced as spiritual law or spiritual principles, infinite word, infinite identity, or pure inspiration. A command needs to be evaluated to see if it comes from a reliable authority. Real authority for the spiritual thinker has very little to do with what other people say or think.

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The second level of spiritual action involves our beliefs. Beliefs are conclusions that we accept about our world. Our beliefs significantly comprise our sense of reality. They largely determine how we feel about it. Beliefs form as we accept conclusions about what is true and what is real. They predispose us to expectations about outcome. Where obedience was an almost automatic response to a command, beliefs involve us in considered actions. When we hold to beliefs in goodness that go beyond appearances, that involves us in trust and faith.

If we are told that doing A will cause B, we may accept a belief about that to the degree that it is believable. The believability will be a net conclusion from such things as the reasonableness of the statement, the extent to which we might want it to be true, the consequences of our being wrong, and our trust or faith in the information source. Belief as a positive form of spiritual action comes into play when our sense of authority is felt to be a benevolent information source.

Awakening to the spiritual value of our beliefs, we also become aware of the concept of informed choice. With obedience, we had to respond correctly to a command. We could have been motivated by fear or loyalty. With belief, we are told how cause and effect are related. We can then choose actions associated with our desired outcome. If we want to do good, we need only decide if B is a good outcome. Then we can put A into action.

Believing in goodness makes us feel good and gives us confidence to take initiative and to overcome obstacles. Believing in goodness brightens our outlook and can open our thoughts to greater possibilities.

Belief is useful when it leads us into right actions, but beliefs need to be viewed with care. Had the one who informed us that A would cause B been mistaken or been feeling mischievous, we could have been told the wrong thing. Perhaps A really causes C, or perhaps A does not cause anything at all. There is little inherent in the mental process of believing that validates the belief itself. One who simply believes must assess the credibility of the source, the validation of experience, comparison to their principles, and common sense. As far as the mental action of believing goes, one can as easily hold a belief that is completely correct as one that is utterly silly.

Were we to take four small children and whisper to each one of them something different, for example, that two plus five equals six, seven, eight, and nine, they might then all have a belief about two plus five. Only one of them would happen to be correct, but the one who was told the answer was seven might be holding the correct answer by the same mental process by which the other children were holding the wrong answers with perhaps equally ernest convictions. Without having understanding, the answers could only be held in their minds by belief, trust, or faith in the credibility of the information source.

Being relatively correct in one's beliefs is of value. However, one thing to remember about beliefs, besides their liability to being wrong, is that beliefs transferred from one person to the next may be relatively loosely held in the mind. If I could convince a child to accept on face value that two plus five is seven, I could perhaps, as easily at some later time, persuade the child that I was originally mistaken and that two plus five is really six. The child might accept this new belief if it came from a credible source. But if the belief continues to be changed or challenged, the child may ultimately realize that he or she has no idea what two plus five is. At this point the believer is likely to dismiss the whole subject as confusing and troublesome. This happens a lot.

Beliefs about the relationship between cause and effect settle in the mind as beliefs of law. These beliefs of law will be likely to guide our behavior relative to issues to which particular laws are believed to apply. Our beliefs of law predispose us to the expectation of consequences, of rewards and punishment. These beliefs may or may not effect anything. The weight we throw into the mental scale of belief is often way below the threshold where it connects with anything. When our beliefs in goodness solidify, however, they can supersede all manner of lesser beliefs.

The discussion of obedience was careful to point out that obedience includes no specific presumptions about the direct outcome or consequences of our actions. For our purposes, the level where one simply believes is defined to precede the believer having any understanding of the spiritual principles behind cause and effect. The believer has a belief that A causes B, but does not understand how or why.

While obedience is dependent on a relationship for the soundness of commands, belief is relationship dependent for the validity of beliefs. When being obedient, we lend our actions to words of authority. As believers, we lend our trust to explanations about the way things are. Obedience involves our response to authority. Beliefs involve our feelings about the message source and content. Feeling good about the source of a communication lends it credibility and helps us believe that things will work out.

In trying to assess the validity of a belief, if we have no understanding of the principles at issue, our assessment will be influenced by how we feel about the information source. The source could be a book, a person, an institution, or our own feelings and sensations.

The way to find out if we are originating our thoughts primarily at the level of belief is to examine the degree to which we justify them based on reference to their source. If our thoughts are supported because they came from book X, person Y, institution Z, or from our feelings and sensations, then they are based on source credibility and originate in us primarily at the level of belief.

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If we sit down with the children to whom we had conveyed beliefs about two plus five, and explain what a two is and what a five is and, with so many bottle caps or beans on the carpet, illustrate the addition process, those having the required level of mental development can come to understand the process. Now the child need not simply believe but can think about and understand correct conclusions. With an understanding of the relevant principles, the child will be able to create his or her own beliefs, correct them, or expand them into new ones. Indeed, the child might soon be able to tell us what two plus three is or might be able to derive any other sums within the reach of the principles and numbers addressed.

As a result of understanding, the child will still have beliefs about sums and these will influence his or her behavior, one would hope, but the beliefs will be generated or at least reinforced from within. When beliefs resulting from understanding are challenged, the spiritual thinker can re-think the beliefs, not simply revert to old sources for justification.

One cannot truly understand something unless it is so, because understanding involves thinking from an underlying principle until a conclusion is reached. For this reason, it is not possible to truly understand a subject that is not based on principles. On the other hand, were one to accept thoughts without understanding them, one could not be sure to what degree one might be holding beliefs having no principle or basis whatever.

Were we to accept a number of basic principles, we could think through to conclusions that might eventually settle in our minds as beliefs. One could accept such principles as true, or one could simply say, I do not know if these principles are true, but if I base my thinking on them, the following conclusions result. Having done that, one might then consider whether the principles were useful or seemed valid. To the degree that the principles upon which we base our thinking have in them seeds of discord or limitation, we could be supporting or promoting inaccurate, limited, or even discordant beliefs.

What is needed to regenerate beliefs is to have sound spiritual principles and to reason based on those principles. Were we to wish to improve or expand our beliefs through spiritual understanding, we could practice thinking expansively from spiritual principles pertinent to the matters at hand.

Where obedience involves a positive response to authority, and beliefs form through trust in the credibility of information sources, spiritual understanding comes from reasoning in accordance with spiritual principles. When addressing an issue, one could start with a spiritual premise and think out from it until a conclusion is reached. One could use this method to nurture spiritual understanding about a specific situation by thinking about the relevant issues using spiritual principles as a rule. The one who holds conclusions resulting from spiritual understanding will support them, not based on authority or source credibility, but based on their following from spiritual principles and from the striking sense of reality conveyed in the experience of spiritual realization.

Thinking based on spiritual principles introduces us to the idea of science. True science involves instances where knowing is generated from principles and the conclusions of understanding are validated in experience. Those who base their thinking on spiritual principles, and have their conclusions demonstrated in practical life, find their spiritual pursuits having the aspect of being spiritually scientific. Such pursuits seem scientific because this type of spiritual action gives one the sense of experiencing true knowing.

When something is understood, it is often accompanied by a brief glimmer in the mind not unlike a faint internal visual experience, an instance of seeing. Aha! Understood ideas are often at least momentarily seen or perceived in the mind. Since seeing is believing, especially seeing one's understood thoughts, the mental seeing that results from the spiritual understanding process can often be used to bring related beliefs into accord with the conclusions of understanding, the things seen. For this reason, a good way to develop or improve your beliefs is to understand and perceive the operation of spiritual principles through basing your thinking on them.

When you follow a line of thinking from the viewpoint of a spiritual principle, your conclusions will be in harmony with that principle. Your ideas will be reflections of that principle, and your relationship to your ideas will be like the relationship between the principle and its ideas.

If you are thinking as the principle of spiritual light would think, your ideas will be conceived and seen in that light. Spiritual enlightenment naturally accompanies the arrival of spiritual ideas. In this spiritual light, each emerging idea can be seen as it is. The illumination that comes with spiritual understanding can sometimes startle us with the natural perspective of goodness that encourages the spontaneous regeneration of our human beliefs.

Beliefs regenerated through spiritual understanding will be valid to the degree that they stem from valid spiritual principles. As our spiritual understanding progresses along any line, our corresponding beliefs can be corrected and updated, as new spiritual ideas are perceived. This is important, because the quality and scope of our life experience can be constantly improved as we apply spiritual understanding to regenerate our most deeply held beliefs.

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The relationship between spiritual understanding and belief is noteworthy. It involves the transition from levels of spiritual action that are primarily involved with investing in causation, to those that deal primarily with bringing out manifestations. We are often very aware of the feelings and emotions that we experience at the level of our beliefs. This makes our beliefs seem quite important to us. The level of spiritual understanding is more abstract and impersonal, but it is here that we can best employ spiritual reasoning to regenerate our beliefs, with their associated feelings and resulting sensations. Developing spiritual understanding can lead us to naturally believe the profound truths of spiritual goodness and to experience them in our lives.

We may occasionally be struck by wonderfully hopeful thoughts about prospects on the human scene. Sometimes these can be prophetic. More often, however, such beliefs want for firmer spiritual foundations. Human beliefs are sometimes like fresh fruit. They can be wonderful when we first get them, but their value may be confined to a narrow time; after a while, we may need to replenish them. We can benefit greatly by regenerating our beliefs using our best spiritual thinking and being, by conducting an on-going reconstructive spiritual dialogue with our environment. If our beliefs are holding us back, less limited beliefs can displace them as the result of progressive spiritual thinking. It makes no sense to unthinkingly espouse a myriad of beliefs that may happen to imprint themselves on the mind. But to think deeply about what is true and to apply one's spiritual perceptions to generate better beliefs can make a real difference.

Beliefs not growing out of your own spiritual understanding do not have the benefit of having been seen spiritually. For this reason, from the standpoint of those having spiritual understanding, mere believing is often regarded as blind belief. Beliefs may be blind, not because they are wrong, which they may not be, but because they did not result from the seeing process. When you nurture understanding from spiritual principles, you will not only have the benefit of understanding your resulting beliefs, but you will be enabled to continually refresh them as time goes on.

More than any higher levels of our thought processes, our beliefs most often seem to govern our actions. This may be a matter of proximity rather than of fidelity. In any case, it is important to develop progressively better quality and less limited beliefs. Beliefs perform a critical function in linking our understanding to obedience through the visions and feelings that carry us into right action. Our beliefs spawn the commands for action to which we will most readily respond. Our beliefs constitute a significant part of the sentient environment in which we live and move.

Our belief or disbelief in concepts related to spiritual ideas will guide our inclination to apply them and to follow through. If a farmer is given what are said to be good seeds, and he does not believe they are good, he will be unlikely to invest the effort required to plant them. If his belief in the seeds recommends investment in planting them, his beliefs and actions might get the seeds in the ground. If they are slow seeds and he grows impatient waiting for them to germinate, he might lose faith, become discouraged, and stop weeding and watering them. In such a case, his resulting harvest might be the same as if he had planted no seeds at all.

If we have grown discontented with our beliefs about something, and we would like to engage in spiritual action, obtaining spiritual understanding on the subject can lead to our developing better beliefs. We will tend to act in accordance with our genuine beliefs, and we will tend to believe what we have thought about to the point of spiritual understanding. As was stated earlier, our ability to hold beliefs may not be an indication of the validity of the beliefs, while spiritual understanding is to some extent self-validating. To the degree that understanding derives from valid principles, it serves as a check on the soundness of corresponding beliefs.

Because externally acquired beliefs are often loosely held in the mind, it is more reliably helpful to cultivate spiritual understanding than to gather improved beliefs from outside sources. Until we are ready to practice thinking based on spiritual principles, however, we can strengthen our beliefs by nurturing affection for positive thoughts and benevolent conceptions. We can benefit from listening to or studying from sources consistent with our spiritual ideals. The beliefs we may try to assimilate will need to be consistent with our general sense of things for them to be trusted and to act as useful beliefs. The more we love our beliefs, the more we will be apt to hold them. Beliefs held only at a distance are of little value, and they can lead us into confusion, indecision, and vacillation.

When you are willing to base your best thinking on spiritual principles, the process of harmonizing and unlimiting your beliefs becomes straightforward. You simply mentally stand up for relevant spiritual principles and apply them to your beliefs. The productive utilization of spiritual principles is not so much dependent on their availability from an objective source as on our investing the energy to apply them, bringing them to conclusions of conviction or realization, and then acting them out.

In practice, the levels of action we have just covered could be illustrated by a simple sequence. I could get up in the morning and feel the need to replenish my spiritual batteries. That means I am paying attention. I might then put aside some time and do some studying, praying, or spiritual thinking. That means I am being obedient and taking disciplined action. I might read some passages that are inspiring to me and make me feel good. That will appeal to me at the level of my beliefs. Then I might think deeply about some issue and exercise spiritual reasoning beyond my beliefs to correct or expand them. When I have come to a new conclusion that improves my beliefs, I may have experienced a fresh measure of spiritual understanding. When I have newly glimpsed an aspect of spiritual truth, my willingness to accept an improved belief is proof that I understand it. My resolution to act better in the future may indicate that my beliefs have improved.

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The fourth level of rational spiritual action involves knowledge. Knowledge is a level of knowing that is deeper than understanding. Knowledge is not theoretical. It is an embodied sense of knowing and being. Spiritual knowledge comes as we identify with our spiritual principles, understand them, embody them, and let them be infinite. By acting out our best thoughts, we eliminate any sense of separation between their source and our true identity. At the level of spiritual knowledge, the source of our principles is not separate from the spiritual mind and ego and will that we reflect. We are open to knowledge when we are willing to identify spiritual laws as our laws, spiritual beliefs as our beliefs, spiritual sense as our sensations, and infinite identity as our identity. We begin to encounter true knowledge when we let our spiritual principles be infinite. This level of apprehension goes beyond simply understanding the principles involved. The principles are part of what we call our identity.

Spiritual knowledge does not necessarily come from experience, but it never comes without it. Understanding and experience can work together to bring knowledge. If I do not understand something, however, and then I experience it, I may still lack both understanding and knowledge.

While I would like to describe knowledge more completely here, it will probably take the rest of the book to begin to do it justice. After all, the book is about knowledge.

The four types of spiritual action described in this chapter require the progressive identification of information sources that are lawful, good, spiritual, and infinite. Later chapters will build on these distinctions. Obedience is the direct connection between spiritual word and action. Faith is unqualified belief in goodness. Spiritual understanding is a mental standing based on a spiritual principle. Knowledge of the infinite comes from a commitment to wholeness, from thinking and being based on the logic of the infinite word.

Spiritual ideas can sometimes be pondered somewhat separately from ourselves. Infinite ideas do not quite make sense when thought about remotely. The infinite idea identifies the thinker with its own self. That is why simply understanding infinite ideas does not complete the process. Infinite ideas require us to have knowledge. They ask that we express them and that we let them express us.

This is beginning to sound pretty drastic. Why would one want to have this knowledge if it requires such an extreme measure of participation to get it? One reason is that knowledge of infinite ideas reveals our true identity; another is that it is the ultimate antidote. The usefulness of thinking from infinite words and ideas, compared to other levels of transcendent thought, is due to their unique character and extraordinary scale. Infinite ideas are different from human concepts in such a fundamental way that considering things in the context of infinity leads to radical transitions in our point of view.

In our individual experiences, moving through each level of spiritual action presents a significant transition from the last. One trying to live in obedience to spiritual laws may feel set apart from the rest of this world. Maintaining consistent beliefs and living by faith can require great trust in the unseen. The commitment to spiritually minded thinking can put thought at odds with the familiar senses. The viewpoint of infinitely minded being embraces all these, and, while bringing a greater sense of wholeness and peace, it is perhaps the most radical viewpoint of all. It is occasionally so radical as to seem almost absurd.

As was suggested earlier, it is not possible to ease from finity into infinity. To arrive at infinity we must start there. Infinity defines ideas that are one, and such ideas acknowledge their source as infinite universal identity. In this way, infinite ideas naturally address the source issue. When you glimpse infinite ideas, you will be experiencing infinite ideas glimpsing themselves. Infinite ideas come from and dwell in the infinite mind that knows itself as the infinite I am. Even the infinite I.

It is natural to consider infinite ideas to be outside the human mind's ability to comprehend. In a sense, this is so. This does not mean you cannot comprehend them. It just recommends the exchange of one's finite, human sense of i for a larger one.

The four levels of spiritually mental action are increasingly more comprehensive and invite increasing levels of our involvement. Although knowledge of infinite ideas may be the ultimate manifestation of spiritual action, one need not always use the ultimate. As one progresses, obedience remains of utmost importance. It is one's sense of authority that evolves. The quality and scope of our beliefs become increasingly important, leading us to look for ways to make them ever more sound. The source for the individual's linkage to the process can be continually seen in new light.

Our level of preferred emphasis in spiritual action changes as we reach for higher spiritual ideals and act out our spiritual growth. In practice, this focuses our efforts on each level in succession. In our spiritual evolution, rational spiritual discipline predominates over attention to mysticism and observances. The development and expression of trust in good gradually supersedes legalistic expectations. Spiritual understanding makes us the master of our beliefs and involves us in their regeneration, and we no longer hold them blindly. Spiritual practice based on infinite identity reconciles apparent opposites, revealing a wonderfully new sense of wholeness.

The latter levels of spiritual action embrace the earlier levels as illustrated by the idea that we come to believe what has been understood, and we tend to act in concert with our firmly held beliefs. In our exercise of spiritual action, there can be a constant interplay between the different levels. One can progressively act from obedience to spiritual laws, have faith in sound beliefs as they increasingly come into accord with goodness, cultivate spiritual understanding and demonstrate the supremacy of spiritual sense, and ultimately think and be from the standpoint of infinity as identity.

In the chapters so far, we have been talking about definitions and structure. Spiritual content has been addressed only in the most general way. The next two chapters will address some of the process and give an example of the spiritual subject matter. This is to provide the perspective and light needed to go further.

Copyright 1994, Jim Chapman

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