Wednesday, July 4, 2012

"Spiritual But Not Religious"

David Webster has a book out called Dispirited: How Contemporary Spirituality Makes Us Stupid, Selfish and Unhappy. I haven't read the book, yet, but I did read a short interview with him about it, and it definitely got me thinking.

There's always a lot of talk about the idea of being "spiritual but not religious." It certainly is a fairly common refrain, and it's no surprise that proponents (and leaders) of organized religion are often against it. I'll admit to having pretty mixed feelings on the matter*. On the one hand, I'm really not all that eager to attack people who are, more or less, minding their own business. It's one of the ways in which religious people like myself often allow themselves to engage in mean-spirited pettiness. Not very religious, or spiritual, frankly.

* If you read this blog at all regularly, this should come as no shock to you!

And, maybe more significantly, it's often not fair. At the very least, it's using the same broad brush that many of us religious types hate being used on us. I mean, when someone says, "religion is all superstitious nonsense," I usually protest about the word "all." It's manifestly true that some religion is superstitious nonsense. Maybe much of it. But, I say, there's no reason to judge my version of religiosity, which is firmly grounded in non-superstitious rationality, based on those. It's like judging all music by what you hear on the radio. You might be missing the best stuff (even if it's not the most popular)!

So, while there is a lot to dislike about some/much of the "Spiritual but not Religious" world, let's also remember that there may be much to appreciate, as well. That being said, Webster does raise some good points which are, at the very least, worth considering.

First, let's talk about "stupid." This one is a personal favorite of mine.

One of the hallmarks of much of this kind of Spirituality is a "whatever works for you is good" approach. There are some merits to that, but there are also some serious problems. One of them, maybe the biggest, is the question of truth (or, if you prefer, Truth):

Stupid—because its open-ended, inclusive and non-judgemental attitude to truth-claims actually becomes an obstacle to the combative, argumentative process whereby we discern sense from nonsense. To treat all claims as equivalent, as valid perspectives on an unsayable ultimate reality, is not to really take any of them seriously. It promotes a shallow, surface approach, whereby the work of discrimination, of testing claims against each other, and our experience in the light of method, is cast aside in favour of a lazy, bargain-basement-postmodernist relativism.

One of my professors in Rabbinical School, Rabbi Leonard Kravitz*, used to love to say that some things are nice, and some things are true. Some people are happy with nice. Some require true.

* Yes. I studied in Rabbinical School with Lenny Kravitz. It's cool to be a Rabbi.

I require true.

I acknowledge (and even embrace) that truth is often confusing, contradictory, fluid and ineffible. It's hard to achieve. But, that's different from saying that everything is true, or that all "truths" are equally valid. There are things that we wish were true - "nice" things, in Kravitz-speak. But, wishing doesn't make it so.

One of the great things about Religion, when done well, is that it acts as a way to check our experiences - to analyze them, and try to understand them. To start with the personal, but through study and other contemplation, try to understand it as part of something more universal, more Eternal. Of course Religion often falls short of this goal. But, it can often be a very effective way to get to it. And, for me, it's one of the most important parts of a Religious life. I want to experience and feel, for sure. But I always want to understand and, hopefully, ultimately, to know. And, I'm not sure that much of what gets labelled as Spiritual tries to get to that same place.

So, let's talk about "selfish." Because this one, too, I think is very important. Let me again qualify this - I am not claiming that all Spiritual but not Religious people, or all non-religious people, are selfish. I have, as I'm sure you do, countless counterexamples. But, there is a potentially selfish strain to Spiritual that's worth considering:

Selfish—because the ‘inner-turn’ drives us away from concerns with the material; so much so that being preoccupied with worldly matters is somehow portrayed as tawdry or shallow. It’s no accident that we see the wealthy and celebrities drawn to this very capitalist form of religion: most of the world realizes that material concerns do matter. I don’t believe that we find ourselves and meaning via an inner journey. I’m not even sure I know what it means. While of course there is course for introspection and self-examination, this, I argue, has to be in a context of concrete social realities.

Now, this is certainly a claim that can also be laid at the feet of some more traditional Religions, but I think that it's one of the greatest thing about Judaism. As much as Judaism may be concerned with our inner lives, it is also concerned, perhaps more so, with our world. It's not enough to love God; we must also love each other. And, more to the point, we must take care of each other.

True spirituality, however it is achieved, must result in a greater concern for the worldly needs of our fellow human (and, I suppose, the whole earth). In fact, I learned recently that that's one of the standard tests of many mystical traditions - if you don't come out your mystical, spiritual encounter as a kinder, more caring person, than you didn't have a true mystical experience.

It's all well and good to feel close to God. But, if you aren't going to take care of God's other creations, then I don't think God feels all that close to you. And, I'm not sure it was actually God to whom you feel close.

At the risk of being a broken record here, I know that everything I'm saying, or that Webster is saying, can be aimed at Religion, just as easily as it can at Spirituality. So, I guess, in the end, ultimately this is more about what makes for good Spirituality and Religion, as opposed to bad Spirituality and Religion. That's fine. But, I think that just brings us back to another angle on "truth." If you aren't willing to seriously examine your self, and your religious life, then how can you possibly know that you've arrived at anything true? And, if you haven't, then what, exactly, are you worshiping?



Anonymous said...

Not having read the book, I somehow feel comfortable commenting on the discussion...why is that? ;-)

Re: "stupid", as a spiritual person, who am I to reject outright the customs and beliefs of other spiritual or religious traditions? -- even if they directly contradict what I believe to be moral, I can feel uncomfortable with them, but I cannot say they are more or less a true than what I believe. To quote the renown philosophers Parker & Stone,

Man 4: Hey, wait a minute, I shouldn't be here. I was a totally strict and devout Protestant! I thought we went to heaven!
Hell Director: Yes, well I'm afraid you were wrong.
Soldier: I was a practicing Jehovah's Witness.
Hell Director: Uh, you picked the wrong religion as well.
Man 5: Well, who was right? Who gets into heaven?
Hell Director: I'm afraid it was the Mormons. Yes, the Mormons were the correct answer.
Crowd: (disappointed) Awww.

Re: "selfish", my understanding of the word religion is that it means to ascribe to and invest in a set of beliefs perfectly or as nearly as possible (when you practice the piano religiously, you don't slack off because something good is on TV). Spiritual people pick and choose what they believe from a given set of beliefs. Selfish perhaps...but it sounds a lot like Reform Judaism to me (or any of dozens of other of more contemporary, liberal belief sets).

While it may be "selfish", it is also likely more "true" by Rabbi Kravitz's definition. I prefer to think that rational people can choose to reject traditions and beliefs that no longer make sense (or never made sense in the first place). To quote another world-class, if potentially unenlightened philosopher:

Ned Flanders: I've done everything the Bible says — even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff!

We might believe Flanders is misguided, but I think it would be downright wrong to suggest that his belief set is wrong and ours is right.

Only the Mormons know for sure. ;-)

Rabbi Jason Rosenberg said...

Anonymous - I think you may have gotten hung up on the headings, and not on the content!

"Stupid" isn't referring to the beliefs themselves. It's not claiming that one set of beliefs is more intelligent than the other. It's asking which systems are most likely to get us to examine and question our own beliefs. It's that questioning which leads us to deeper, more intelligent understanding.

And, "selfish" isn't about picking and choosing beliefs. It's about whether our religious/spiritual lives are fully inward directed (i.e. are we only concerned with our inner lives?), or outward directed (i.e. are we concerned with the real problems in the world around us?).

Adamy Shoe said...

Wow, you are right. I didn't get that at all from the first post. I think those interpretations are much more favorable (to the author of the book particularly) than my initial ones.