Monday, February 4, 2013

Spiritual



I'm spiritual but not religious.  

How often we hear this, but what does it mean? I suppose that at root the speaker is acknowledgeing a belief that the plenum--everything that is, reality itself--is not entirely the world described by science.  Or it may be mere fashion not to identify as an absolute materialist.  But to at least assume sincerity here, people who claim to be spiritual but not religious must believe that a world of spirit exists, however defined, and further, that it's a good thing to participate in that world.  Perhaps they believe that it’s a source of energy, amoral, like electricity, into which they can tap, for personal advantage.   Fair enough, but why not go the whole way and join a religion?  Usually the answer is because they reject the dogma, or the rules of behavior, or even the political stances assumed by various organized religions.  Why cannot one have the advantages of contact with the world of spirit without all this extraneous, not to say embarrassing, stuff?  

To ask this, however, is to assume that the people who have thought deeply about this subject through all the ages have been mistaken.  Something about the spiritual life seems to call for rules, procedures, rituals and dogmas.  This is because the spiritual life implies a goal: this goal is variously described as transcendence, enlightenment, or heaven, but let’s not descend into religious controversy and agree that these are all more or less the same thing.  Indeed, when we examine those people judged to have got there while still in the flesh, we observe that saints across all religions seem to be quite similar—Sufis, bodhisattvas, Christian contemplatives, shamans, and so on.   They seem at once not of this world, but very much engaged with it.  Yet saints are also not generic.  They tend to be strong characters, very much themselves.  Many of them are also hilarious.  So if spiritual life has a goal it must be that.   Not everyone can be rich or powerful, but, in principle, anyone can become a saint.

Now, virtually all organized religion (and some that are not quite so organized, Buddhism, for example) agree that actually doing this is difficult and that it's good to have help, hence gurus, hence holy scriptures, hence organized religion.    Beyond that, there is the sense that trying it without help is dangerous.    The reason for this is a bit of a stretch for most modern people, but religious tradition holds, almost universally, that the spiritual world, like the material one, is inhabited by intelligences, and that these have moral valences.  This tradition informs us that if you spend time in the spiritual realms, eventually you will have Company, and that theres is no guarantee that such entities will have your best interests in mind.  The opposite is often the case.

This idea tends to run counter to the ordinary belief that since the world of pure materialism is felt to be unsatisfactory for various reasons, an opening to the spirit must be “good.”   But, as C. S. Lewis often observed, the Devil is a spirit. If you wander long enough in the spiritual realms you will encounter malign enitities.   These entities typically present either with your own voice or, if you have religious tendencies, with the voice of God.  Religions vary, of course, but all of them are to a large extent exorcistic in intent. All regard spiritual pride (which is the major consequence of what we may as well call demonic influence) as the strongest impairment to the spiritual life; saints across all religions are universally depicted as humble.     This is why religons have rules and rituals and why they insist of some form of communal association, which may act as a kind of antibody to such influences.  Despite this, all religions are subject to demonic invasion, and it is is clear from their history that for long periods they have been largely controlled by evil.   Still, religions do survive and not merely by inertia.  Religions can certainly perish—these days Zeus and Mithra are not widely revered—and it is reasonable to assume that the ones that have survived possess a self-corrective faculty.  It is easy to do evil in the name of religion, but it is hard to do only evil for substantial periods.   The good pushes back. That's what religion is for: a mighty fortress is our God, as they used to say.  Otherwise we could all be individually spiritual and it would work just fine.

There is, of course, a position that holds that religion is bad per se, but this position typically also holds that religion has no content at all, that the spiritual world is an illusion, and that reality consists entirely of the particles and their forces.  We assume that the spiritual but not religious would reject this stance, by definition.   So all in all it might be better to be a devout materialist than spiritual but not religious.  You just have to be really careful not to worship stuff at all.  But this is impossible in practice.  Everyone has an object of worship, the non-negotiable, inarguable highest value for which everything else can be sacrificed.   For most people this is the Self, the most convenient object of worship.  It's always present and it can talk back, unlike God.  Others choose Truth, or Reason, or The People, or Progress, or the Family, or the Beloved.   And since such worshippers reject the very idea that demonic forces exist, the demonic forces have no trouble taking over such objects of worship.  The result of this process is known as the World.

7 comments:

Diana R. Chambers said...

Hard to read Gruber's work and emerge untouched. Thinking about the "unseen world" as never before.

"Everyone has an object of worship, the non-negotiable, inarguable highest value for which everything else can be sacrificed. For most people this is the Self, the most convenient object of worship. It's always present and it can talk back, unlike God. Others choose Truth, or Reason, or The People, or Progress, or the Family, or the Beloved. And since such worshippers reject the very idea that demonic forces exist, the demonic forces have no trouble taking over such objects of worship. The result of this process is known as the World."

Stacy Welsh said...

It seems to me that as we grow spiritually, whatever our definition of that is, evil always meets us as fear, intolerance, bitterness, racism, war, egotism, etc. It is up to us to decide what relationship we will have with evil since it is part of the World. Developing a relationship with Death is helpful and choosing to walk with others as the path changes.

Steve Bodio said...

I often feel more Catholic when reading your work-- that is, conscious of the good in our tradition, though at base I would have to describe myself honestly as "S not R" these days.

And though I am by education if not practice I am also an evolutionary biologist, that most atheistic (right now) of philosophies, I find myself kicking against that, with of all things a humorous skepticism of its all- explanatory claims (see Dennett); "Really?" It is as though something not just in me insists intuitively that there is some deeper order.

I'm comfortable therefore with Catholicism (all of them), biology, Buddhism, Judaism,, some Islam. I feel like one semi- ex Catholic I am "pedalling in air". But I am still pedalling-- and curious if you are, though it seems rude too ask-- please don't feel you must!

BTW- In my not totally uninformed opinion you have written some of the most & best Catholic novels since Greene-- better than Percy. Valley of Bones, and some of your late Karp in particular make me want to believe-- that or go to Confesssion .

Michael said...

I am actually a practicing Catholic, a convert no less. It seems to me that evolutionary biology, where really science, has no conflicts with religion, and where it does is not really science. John Polkinghorne has a lot top say on this subject, if you're interested. He was a fairly big-time scientist at Cambridge--mathematical physics--before resigning and becoming a priest.

That's a huge compliment, by the way. Thanks, while not believing a word.

Steve Bodio said...

Second time I have been sent toward Polkinghorne and this time will take heed-- the other fan was not as comfortable with evo as I see it.

I am not sure the Catholic church ever disapproved of evolution-- I was taught a straight up version in a remarkable Catholic school in the late (pre Vatican two) fifties. Ensoulment of the evolving animal was the creating act/ metaphor. Teilhard de Chardin, who I first heard about in grade school, got in trouble because he doubted Original sin, not because he dug up and believed in (and lost?) Peking Man as he was then. Whether metaphorical or literal I tend to the Church's side on that one, though Teilhard might have been a saint

But French teaching orders were remarkable-- I knew a nun who welded sculpture, wearing a full nearly opaque mask; one, a short young woman of Quebecois descent and in retrospect of mathematical genius, who was already looking at computers (the big things with cards); and an Irish one who taught us altar boys to rappel in the quarry. This was all before modern habits.

I think the veracity I feel in Bones has much to do with the formation-- is that the word? of nuns, and the believability of its order's founding story.

And believe your compliments- my serious eastern Orthodox stepson, who also accepts evolution, and other "literary" readers think so too, especially a small number that knows religion and science and is not ashamed to be entertained. That you are entertaining, have a sense of humor, and can "make my flesh creep"-- Dickens said that, no?-- is no argument against your being a serious (Catholic) writer. Greene called dark Brighton Rock and light Travels with my Aunt both "entertainments."

Besides, anybody who knows Broomhandle Mausers-- my wife Libby calls them "Rubik's Cubes"-- and Siberian shamans, knows a few things. (I have consulted one, born a Kazakh herder until struck by lightning, and utterly mundane and pragmatic she was, 600 miles from pavement and surrounded by boxed electrical equipment).

She, twisted of body but elegant, with two grimy Tuvan attendants, was alleged to predict, or... not --a strange polite eloquent laughing woman who deflected us from seriousness, made at very least uncannily observant remarks as on my medical prospects, and bowed us out. I am still not sure what happened, or why a well educated agnostic biznizman wanted to have her see us.

Sufiya H. said...

Hello, Mr. Gruber; I just want to say that your "Valley of Bones' book made a BIG impression on me, having had a very similar kind of spiritual experience, although mine involved the Knights Templar.

I think you might be well served by checking out Idries Shah and his books on Sufi. The genuine spiritual article starts with "an experience". Another excellent direction in which to look is the teachings of "Shri Ramakrishna". But, only if one is serious, of course!

Sufiya H. said...

Hello, Mr. Gruber; I just want to say that your "Valley of Bones' book made a BIG impression on me, having had a very similar kind of spiritual experience, although mine involved the Knights Templar.

I think you might be well served by checking out Idries Shah and his books on Sufi. The genuine spiritual article starts with "an experience". Another excellent direction in which to look is the teachings of "Shri Ramakrishna". But, only if one is serious, of course!

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