Discover more from Layman Pascal
Why "spirituality" & "religion" ???
I was asked to comment on the use of the concepts of spirituality & religion as framing tools for personal and interpersonal development and I immediately thought of GameB patriarch Jim Rutt’s response to Jordan Hall’s article “An Inquiry Concerning Science and Religion,” in which he wrote:
Sigh … while as you know I mostly agree with your formulation, I must take great exception to your terminology… This sure seems to me to be nothing more than personal development or the development of character. Maybe if you wanted to get a little fancy you might call it “cognitive-social tuning”. Why bring in the baggage of “spirits” and the metaphysics that implies? Your formulation works just fine without any metaphysical baggage… It sells, but it isn’t right.
It is a very interesting question.
For me, it is even more interesting because so few people change their minds on this topic. We have each grown up associating the complex mixtures of spiritual and religious phenomena with either bad affects, dumb people & dangerous ideas OR good affects, wise people & surprisingly deep ideas. In reality, we all encounter both of these things but we have different habits of prioritizing their significances.
Personally, I tend to use these words positively although I am extremely sympathetic to my peers who find the concepts of “spirituality” and “religion” to be troubling, distasteful & potentially corrosive to developmental/transformative communities.
Obviously, there is a danger connected with spiritual phrasing. It threatens to open the door to degenerate, superstitious malarkey that undermines genuinely new and sane activity. In many ways, this is precisely what higher, deeper and more transformative worldspaces should be avoiding, replacing and challenging. So that is a strong incentive to switch to new wording that leaves old-fashioned spiritual phraseology in the dumpster fire of history.
On the other hand, the immediate virtue of spiritual phrasing is that it is good marketing for many populations — both in the broader world and within leading-edge communities. It may be a political necessity, over time, to cultivate good relationships (or even to learn to hack) prominent religious traditions. It is almost certainly important to respect the participants in our own communities who have arrived here via a deep commitment to esoteric practices and their deep veneration of the sacred transhumanism of the past — as long as they do not use that as an excuse to evade the practical effort of experimentally and rationally improving human life on this planet. We need a big tent and a lot of discernment about what smart people mean when they use terms that we personally associate with dumb foolish people.
And maybe we want our terminology not just to reflect what we know to be reasonable but also to poetically represent the unknown aspect of depth, complexity and transcendental power? Maybe that kind of languaging is an essential functional component of establishing viable and inspiring human cultural spaces? It is a gamble either way.
Why do I come down on one side of this? Well, beyond nostalgia and marketing, I think in terms of three reasons — a terminology argument, a privileged examples argument & and a postmetaphysical religious studies argument. Here they go:
THE TERMINOLOGY PROBLEM
Everyone who participates in new efforts for themselves, their communities or their civilization faces a choice about terminology. Do we invent new words or redefine our existing words?
New words are very attractive because they seem locally adapted to the new necessities and stand free of the baggage publically associated with old terms. However, the clean new car smell isn’t going to last very long. As soon as there is any significant popular usage of the new term it will be widely misunderstood and subject to problematic affective associations. Also, new terms tend to be arcane and clumsy — not tested by cultural history for their value as useful heuristic descriptions but instead invented by single minds in ways that are frequently weird, offputting & non-visceral.
My real reason, thought, for favoring redefinition-or-deepening of inherited words is a kind of moral argument. It cedes the battlefield in advance of the battle. It says, basically, “I agree to let people who I think are idiots define the words in my language and I will just react to their definitions.”
But… if I think they’re idiots… then why do I accept their categories and definitions? Should I not simplyl say that they are wrong about what is implied by spirituality and religion? Should I not have the linguistic self-confidence to treat words fundamentally according to my most positive definition of them? Should I not join the historical prophets in saying, “You people are NOT doing religion properly and it’s going to lead to disaster! The real definition of your religion must meet this new standard…”
Many people who have a problem associating civilization upgrade, cultural renaissance and personal growth with spirituality/religion seem, at the same time, to have no problem making the move I just suggested in other areas.
They do not, for example, oppose democracy or freedom or health just because those things were poorly, inadequately or even pathologically expressed in the past by large numbers of people. They do not necessarily denounce “the market” even though many people treat those processes superstitiously. The critique pre-rational and softheaded notions within the education system but they don’t shirk from the notion of education.
I am simply suggesting an extension of this basic ownership of our own inherited words and extension of what all our ancestors did — which was to give old forms new and more precise meanings.
THE “PRIVILEGED EXAMPLES” PROBLEM
There may be a kind of Dunning-Kruger effect whereby the dumbest participants in religion and spirituality are the most likely to identify with it — but there is no special reason to treat them as the exemplary representatives of the phenomenon.
Who, then, are the exemplary representatives?
Well, it’s different for each of us. Having personally had the privilege of growing up without strong religious indoctrination, I have no particular grievance to color my thinking. I was able to form my own impressions about reality, then expand through interesting reading into a deep appreciation for esoteric spirituality and inner practices, and only then got involved (and with a great sense of freedom, humor and experimentation) in any organized social activity.
Although I thought the “church kids” in my hometown were peculiar dummies in certain respects, and although I have been very critical of bad explanations in New Age teachings — and I certainly also experience a kind of aesthetic and moral revulsion a people who come to my door with dull, lifeless outdated pamphlets and dogmatic pre-rationalism & am horrified by fanatical bigotry and violence in fundamentalist sects and their more mainstream enabling populations — I never “felt” that those people represent real religion.
I always experienced them as primitive, deluded or imbalanced versions of a more general phenomenon whose real examples consisted of the wise alchemists, the Sufi saints, the rascal gurus, the Zen masters, healthy witches, the primordial shamans, philosopher-adepts, and smart personal and cultural transformationalists in all epochs. The people who always tended to be the most daring, experimental, intellectually agile, humanist and transformational members of their communities — and also the people who stood most strongly for personal depth and the cultivation of a “spirit” among the people. You know — religion.
Alternatively, it is of course quite valid to emphasize (italics added as “emphasis” joke) the danger of outdated, non-evidential, unquestioned superstitious thinking and highly limiting conventional social organizations but my personal feeling is that we are responsible for the examples that we privilege. I use my favorite religious human beings as the privileged examples… but that’s both an instinctive temperament and a personal choice.
Are the people that YOU think of, when you think of religion, actually adequate instances of what religion ought to mean?
Are the desert monotheisms normal or outlier examples of mythic-membership religions?
Are people who identify as religious even good examples of the phenomenon of human religiousness?
INTEGRAL POSTMETAPHYSICAL SPIRITUALITY & RELIGION
What if most religion is not called “religion”?
This is a deep question for integral religious studies — because, if we accept the notion of developmental stages or diverse cultural operating systems, then we cannot define any concepts, including religion and spirituality, according simply to the style by which they are presented at any given stage.
If we take up the suggestion of people like Jean Gebser or Clare Graves, the idea that we should think about a general mythic-membership style of human society appropriate to pre-rational traditions, symbolic thinking, kingdom hierarchies, scribe-bureaucrats, etc, then we immediately have a problem in analysing religion.
Any description of religion that matches the description of this “mythic-membership” cultural operating system may not actually be a description of religion per se but rather a description of a general mode of operation for every phenomenon at that phase.
If there is a roughly analogous pattern across certain kinds of education, politics, art, science, etc. then this does not especially characterize religion. It only and predictably characterizes the one form of religions found distributed among those particular social systems.
The study of human religion, in the ‘integral sense,’ has to applicable to archaic, traditional, modern, postmodern and metamodern civilizations. And when modern minds accept the famous large belief-sects as the normative examples of religion then they become blind to the more general phenomenon as well as the potential range of its successful and inadequate variants. They are narrowly defined and flattened.
So one of the jobs of new religious studies is to explain why it works when it works, what's healthy and unhealthy, how it looks different in different epochs and knowledge spaces. And we could do that with new words but the question like with democracy or systems or science is whether we allow idiots to define the terms and then we react to their malskeey or whether we expect that we should definite all classic terms in ways that are useful to the new epoch and to our knowledge spaces.
The job of integral postmetaphysical religious studies is examine the whole field of religious and spiritual manifestations, across multiple social operating systems and historical phases, including those which do not name themselves religious or which are typically left out due to their colloquial, idiosyncratic or unofficial styles, and abstract out that a description of a generic process that does not require but can substantiate the experience of spiritual phenomenon and decompose them into a gradient of more and less healthy, more and less authentic, which can then be reapplied to any historical or knowledge paradigm.
My take on this so far is that a process and ancient human heuristic wisdom around producing surplus coherence from coordination between intra-psychic or interpersonal experiential subsystems. The numinous gestalt extra is then accessible through first, second or third person interpretive lenses. These peak experiences accumulate into and plays a key role in motivating and energizing action, self-refinement, overall existential wellbeing and emergent style.
Most of this has not occurred as a self-consciously religious or spiritual activity even though it ideally characterizes the most productive and benevolent historical integrations of human subsystems and uptodate cultural genres. So that’s my story about why I lean toward using these terms.
On the other hand, we do not need to call this religion or spirituality even though that’s what it is… under any name…