“Spiritual but not religious” reloaded

I entertained myself last night perusing what the net had to say about the “spiritual but not religious”.  It seems that a lot of people just don’t get it.

No, I’m not talking about the usual New Age crowd of spiritual dabblers. Of course they don’t “get it”. But the spiritual cowboys of the world don’t get it with or without a religious affiliation (and keep in mind many of them do have one). The ones who seem to be struggling with the concept — who reduce it entirely to that stereotype of mere dabblers — are religious figures.

I am not someone in opposition to religion, per se. In fact I see it as a valuable thing. I wish I were a member of a spiritual community. It’s not indifference, stubbornness, ignorance, or the absence of spiritual maturity that makes me a soloist. It’s that established spiritual communities — both religions and their monastic subsets — have failed miserably at adapting to the 21st century.

Information is no longer scarce, yet religions are mired in a previous era of information scarcity. Fundamentalists maintain artificial scarcity with the threat of hellfire and damnation on the one hand and an information-deprived alternative religious media on the other, but the rest of us move in a world where texts and communities to discuss them with 24/7, are only as far away as the length of  g-o-o-g-l-e-dot-c-o-m.

We have a historical precedent for what happens when previously scarce information becomes less scarce: the invention of movable type. Few areas of life were affected as profoundly by that invention as religion. Prior to the invention, books were rare and precious things, produced by scribes and guarded by an elaborate hierarchy of scholars, who were largely conterminous with the hierarchy of the Catholic church. While I do not doubt that a millennium or so of dominance fosters corruption, it is unfair to the mediaeval Church to portray it an impediment to progress. As long as information was rare, it needed an army of guardians, and that is what it found in the Church. It was the Church that kept learning alive and made progress possible: that ultimately made both the printing press, and Martin Luther, inevitable.

Movable type democratized learning, religion, and politics, because if information is available to anyone who had the opportunity to learn to read and the money to buy a book (i.e., to the middle class) why then should decision making not also be in the hands of those who understand the questions of the day? Books made hierarchical religious monoculture obsolete.

The internet takes the devolution of power one step further: it anarchizes information. Information is free, or nearly so, for anyone who cares to make the effort. In such a situation, even “democratic” structures  look oppressive. It is small wonder that the political rebellion bursting out all over has been making decisions, not by majority vote, but by modified consensus. The 21st century human is Homo Anarchus. No one waves a Masters degree in Theology in front of Homo Anarchus and tells it to sit up straight, stay awake,  and stick its donation in the collection basket.

Yet that is exactly what the tone-deaf critics of those who identify as spiritual but not religious are saying. They can’t conceive of community without hierarchy, and see the deteriorating social connectedness brought about by a dying capitalism as identical with the wishes of Homo Anarchus, when instead they should be looking to a mass Occupy assembly as the blueprint for the future. When you ask almost anyone who identifies as “spiritual but not religious” about what it means to them, what you hear is “I don’t want anyone telling me what to think” and “I value community” — essentially the platform of Emma Goldman  and Giovanni Baldelli, transmuted to the religious sphere.

I dream of a 21st Century religion. I crave a 21st century religion. Nothing would make me happier than for me to hang up my self-identification as a monastic without portfolio and, well, get myself a portfolio. A 21st century religion is not unimaginable to me. It is perfectly possible to bond with others on the basis of perennial philosophy and a bucket of tolerance for its myriad expressions and misexpressions. It is perfectly possible to organize on the principles of DIY and consensus.It is never right to force anyone to surrender their conscience in the name of conformity to a religious community, nor is it reasonable to stifle religious expression in the name of conformity to formal procedures.

But religious leaders tsk-tsking about us “spiritual but not religious” can’t see any of this.It is as incomprehensible to them as a superhighway might be to a buggymaker lobbying to keep horseless carriages off the road.

Can we just get it over with and #occupy religion and be done with it?

Spirituality and the virtue of doubt

I don’t get out much. I mean, I really don’t get out much. It’s not enough for me for a movie to make it to DVD– that means I need sooner or later to escort that movie back to a mailbox. No, I wait until a movie, milked of most of its immediate and secondary profit, filters all the way down to Netflix streaming video. So it was with delight that I opened the Netflix app the other day to find that a movie I had been waiting for was available: Bill Maher’s “Religulous”.

It may seem pretty religulou— er, ridiculous– that I had been looking forward to seeing the movie. But not only did I enjoy the movie, I agreed almost completely with its conclusion: that doubt, not faith, is the more authentic virtue. My only dispute with Maher is with his confusion of faith with spirituality.

In his defense, most persons who would describe themselves as “religious” or “spiritual” share his confusion. Real spirituality is hard work. It doesn’t take long for religion rooted in genuine inspiration to be watered down into mere parroting of the founders’ insights, rather than the hard work of following the founders’ guidance. Putting faith in an authoritative roadmap to guide me to an unfamiliar destination is appropriate and necessary.  If however my faith in the roadmap leads me to sit at home with the expectation that  someday my map will magically transport me to my desired destination, if only I believe hard enough, I’m a fool.

Ask most dabblers in religion (that category almost always includes religious hierarchy, once a religion is established enough for ambitious persons to covet the status and privilege of such positions). God wants, more than anything else, for his believers to do what they themselves hope to do– to not think.

But ask someone who takes spirituality seriously, and you get a different picture. Most accept on faith some portion of the advice of experts, some flavor of advice that a combination of prayer and meditation, self-examination, study, ritual, compassion, and service, will bring them closer to spirit (all spirituality regardless of flavor draws from that short list). They put faith in the means, the method, the way. This is a different concept of faith from the notion that all you need to do to know God (or at least, avoid condemnation by Him) is to stop using your brain on the big questions of life (presumably, He still permits His believers to employ their minds gainfully to obtain, say, Justin Bieber tickets).

Belief in the Magic Map is what Bill Maher deftly ridicules in Religulous. Surrounding the ridicule, and punctuating them from time to time, he reminds us that Magic Map faith isn’t just a barrel of laughs. It’s the raison d’être for violence on a vast scale.

Mysticism is about knowing the Divine in the present. Magic Mapism asserts that the Magic Map, which so clearly does nothing in the present, will deliver the goods at some point in the future, usually at death, for those with sufficient faith in the right Magic Map. More ominously, a majority of the world’s Magic Mappists believe the world will end in an orgy of bloodshed when their Magic Map destroys evil believers in all the other brands of Magic Map. Why don’t you kill yourself, Maher repeatedly asks believers, to which they have no response. And Bill Maher, standing in Meggido — the very “Armageddon” referenced in Revelations as the place where the world ends– asks us, might not believers, in their enthusiasm to bring about the End Times, someday kill us all?

I share his concern. But I don’t think religion alone is the problem. Humans are eager to substitute Magic Maps for actual movement. Most ideologically driven politics, for example, involves faith in a Magic Map, and political map-faiths have proven themselves to be just as dangerous. The Magic Map we call the free market, for example, powers the climate change denialism. On the flip side some deep ecology believers cannot restrain their joy over the prospect of mass human die off due to climate change. Magic Mappism is intellectual laziness taken to a recklessly immoral degree. It knows neither creed nor its absence.

Maher ends his film with a plea for the virtue of doubt over belief. Again, I concur with him. Doubt is better than belief, not simply because it is the foundation upon which one can understand the physical world, but because doubt, and not faith, is the true foundation of mysticism. The humblest possible position is “I don’t know”. A mystic, regardless of flavor, must aspire to become as humble as nothingness, so that they might be filled with Everythingness. This state of nothingness is fundamentally a state of doubt.