Ah, remorse. If I believed in its sanctifying effects, I would be a saint.
Not for anything downright wicked, exactly, but for an article I wrote a few years ago called “The Soul of Spirituality.” In it I argued that the term is spacious enough–or fluffy enough–to accommodate all kinds of people who just can’t make up their minds about religion. Talk about wrong.
It isn’t that I don’t “believe” in spirituality. It’s that people who are advocating spirituality as a meeting place for religious and non-religious people are digging semantic holes while seriously confused people are filling them up with goo.
That was the late, great Tony (Antony) Flew’s point before he was seduced into a kind of vague, sentimental, tentative religiosity by some intelligent design advocates.
Flew believed in complexity, order, Newton, and Hume in that order. When he was confronted with the ID arguments of physicist Gerald Schroeder (misrepresented of course) he succumbed to his eighteenth century instinct and became (he said, somewhat confusedly) a deist. Something as grand as this world may as well have had intelligence behind it because it takes a very great deal of intelligence to comprehend it. The emerging headline was: Flew is a Christian.
But I knew him pretty well, and at his sharpest, and he never was a believer, after adolescence (his father was a Methodist minister). His withering attack on “spirituality,” which he delivered at a conference at Oxford in 1994–the remains published under the title “What is Spirituality?” (Modern Spiritualities: An Inquiry, 1997) will always be an adequate summary, for me, of what he did believe. The strange case of his conversion will always be a reason for me why informed unbelief is preferable to the belief of the people who went after him for a trophy.
I highly recommend this book, even though I was one of the editors, and I strongly recommend Flew’s along with one other essay in the same collection by the renowned Gandhi scholar, Margaret Chatterjee: “The Smorgasbord Syndrome,” in which she asserts that westerners are especially prone to make a Swedish salad bar of Hindu, Buddhist, Kabbalah, Sufi and assorted esoteric traditions–as though spirituality is something you pick up at the supermarket, not something that comes to you through a specific religious tradition. I can’t imagine what she would make of adding the current frontrunners to the shelf: Mayan, gnostic, shamanistic-magical, and Microcosmic Orbit. (Whee: here I come again).
My gripe about the seekers–well, one anyway–is that as they don’t know what they’re looking for, any dream will do. The modern idea of spirituality is that it’s disconnected from religious tradition–neither grounded in it nor corrective of it but an alternative to it. If that weren’t the idea, it wouldn’t be half so attractive to the shoppers. Rule number one: it has to be easy. Rule two: it has to be available. Rule three: it has to be blendable. The mix and match approach means you can remain a Presbyterian while having a Zen master on the weekend, or believing into existence the syzygy between Yeshua and Buddha, perhaps even thinking that a completely useless text like the Gospel of Judas can teach you secret wisdom that was erased by the villainous, earth-bound writers of the synoptic gospels.
Religions have always been syncretistic of course; but this hefty word simply means that, like language and political systems, as they encounter their others–other practices, other doctrines–they both accommodate and assimilate features orginally foreign to themselves. Even religions that have an obsessional worry about such evolutionary developments and overlays, like Judaism, have not been spared its effects. And religions that did not scruple to accommodate the stories and practices of its neighborer-faiths–Christianity and Buddhism come to mind–represent a pattern that is common from antiquity to the Reformation period and beyond. Sociologists sometimes call the process in its constructive mode “adaptation” and in its corrective or adversarial mode “fissipiration.” Spirituality and mysticism can be a case of either, but both are dependent on often well-defined religious traditions, both textual and liturgical. At a minimal level of popular spirituality, for example, the Catholic rosary is a borrowing from the Japa Mala(s) beads of Mahayana Buddhism, which also influenced the prayer life of Islam through the use of the Tesbih or Tasbih beads, and all of which derive from the Japa traditions of ancient Hinduism. In all cases you get about 100 repetitions (but often many fewer beads) of prayers special to the individual traditions. The official version is that the rosary came to St Dominic in a vision in the year 1216. The truth is, it probably didn’t.
The “spiritualities” of an Eckhart, a Luria, a Rengetsu or a Jallaluddin Rumi were evoked by particular historical situations. They were attempts to reform or restructure what the spiritual writers regarded as morbid or threatening to the religious life of their own traditions. They derived their meaning and sometimes their success as regenerating movements from contingency, not from independence of tradition. Usually this meant moving beyond the textual level. In fact, the real opposite of the word spiritual is not religious at all, but literal from the Latin word for letter (litera).
The church, synagogue and mosque have always worried about mystical movements and spiritual revivals because the mystic is a borderline heretic when it comes to ideas like canon, authority, scholarly interpretation, exclusivity, and the finality of what was written in the sacred text. The fates of the Spiritual Franciscans (Fraticelli, declared heretical in 1285 by Pope Boniface VIII) and groups like the Ismailis, the Hurufiya, the Alawis, the Bektashi and even the Sufis, often regarded as heretics by the Islamic mainstream, tell the same story: suspicion and mistrust of groups pretending to deeper insight and a more direct channel to salvation than the unredeemed of the main body of believers or the hierarchy of authority.
We have to confront the possibility that someone who says “I’m spiritual, not religious,” is really just saying, “I’m not religious.” Or that they don’t know what “being spiritual” means. But that is obviously very different from what the term has meant throughout history, where it has implied either “I am very much more religious than you book-reading louts,” or “I am gifted with special wisdom and knowledge of the truth that you don’t possess.”
Putting history to one side, however, we can choose to side with Flew: “Spirituality doesn’t mean anything in particular because we don’t believe in spirits anymore.” Or we can go with Chatterjee’s view that the perpetual sloppiness of the western pick and choose culture robs the term of any meaning at all. Either way, we are left with a word that is gradually losing its power to describe a commitment of any significance or any particular valence with regard to belief. At no time has spirituality meant “I just don’t know what I believe.” But it has often meant believing too much.
Perhaps it’s owing to the malleability of the word that the self-anointed shamans of Los Angeles and Amsterdam and Munich, where spirituality-training centers thrive, can draw hundreds of lost, confused, religiously dysfunctional souls [sic] into their courses, retreats and workshops. Like “new religions” (with which they share a number of unfortunate characteristics), modern spiritualities are appealing to spiritual libertarians who aren’t too choosy but do like variety in their life. Example: you are standing behind a seventeen year-old at your favorite fast-food emporium, waiting to dispense a cup of yummy diet Minutemaid lemonade, when into her cup, in measured squirts, she releases Coke, Fanta, Mr Pibb, Hawaiian Punch and lemonade. That kind of variety.
There are hundreds of examples of how this spiritual smorgasbord works, but my favorite find is Sunflower Health, which promises registrants spiritual light, happiness, and the means to become “one with all creation.” They link their teaching to “lightworkers, ascension, harmonic convergence, and the end of the Mayan calendar.” The Midas Muffler of spiritual garages, Sunflower offers Chakra Clearing (“the energetic fabric of ourselves and our universe”) and the opening of the “third (Visionary) eye to psychic visions.” For a few bucks more (Tuesday special: free psychic alignment included), Kundalini and microcosmic orbit chi cultivation practices are yours.
If you like your spirituality with a Christian flavour, Mystic Web offers instruction in the “true” meaning of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Gnostic Gospels, Pati’s spiritual path, and the Gospel of Judas. Says one satisfied customer in praise of the “Gnostic Web-Master” –
I may not understand every single line of the document, but the Gospel of Judas speaks to me as a whole. I read it, re-read it, understand bits and pieces, understand things here and there and see parallels between this lost Gospel and the teachings of modern Gnosis. More important than the understanding, however, is the strength it gives me, how good it makes me feel to see that mankind has searched for the truth, for liberation, for thousands of years, and that the findings have been the same as those Master Belzebuub teaches us today; the only difference is that he teaches in a way that everyone can understand, making the path to liberation attainable for all of humanity.
I just want to say this about the vast majority of modern mystics, spirituality-seekers, and spirituality vendors: This is crazy stuff, taught for the most part by desperately unknowledgeable fakers who make old fashioned theosophy look like biochemistry by comparison. You are wasting your money, your time, and the language. I apologize for throwing you out of alignment, but somebody had to tell you.
But you have performed a service: You have convinced me that the term “spirituality” is unusable. And that the next time the woman next to me at the bar volunteers that she is “not religious but, you know, spiritual” it is time to pay my tab and walk away before another word is spoken. Hoping Master Belzebuub doesn’t follow me.