There is a creeping danger to society in matters of the Spirit
Allow me to give just one personal experience of the kind of religious arrogance that can arise when one allows a “revelation” or religious leader to go unchallenged. It is an almost silly example, but nonetheless instructive. It happened on my 50th birthday.
It was a late Wednesday afternoon, and I sat down to read e-mail from various mailing lists, including one group with an interest in the 19th-century American Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, a movement that has as one of its central tenets a rejection of the use of creeds as a test of Christian sincerity and fellowship.
One of the topics that night was the PBS television production From Jesus to Christ.
One poster asked who had seen it. I wrote a breezy response saying I didn’t get to because of my wife. She wanted to see the A&E production of the Henry Fielding novel, Tom Jones. Because it was shown at the same time as the PBS show, we decided to record the latter.
I expected no response to my message. I mostly wanted to have fun with my wife’s ongoing attempt to recreate her undiluted pleasure with an earlier A&E production of Pride and Prejudice, the Colin Firth version. Imagine my surprise when I found this message posted to the world – to the world: “How odd to think it more valuable to seek out to better know ‘Tom Jones’ than Jesus Christ.”
Setting aside the split infinitive, as well as the Kierkegaardian point that knowing Jesus Christ is hardly a matter of watching a TV show, I was dumfounded. And I was angry.
I happened to be minutes from leaving to have a birthday dinner with my wife, so there wasn’t time to respond. Instead, I went to dinner and seethed through my meal. It was a good meal, and it is always nice to have time for a long conversation with my wife, so I can’t say I wasn’t having a good time seething. But seethe I did.
I know my wife to be a graciously giving person, and here was this hyperbolic harpy telling the world that my wife is somehow deficient when it comes to matters of the spirit. And how does she deduce this? Because my wife chooses to watch one TV show and not another.
By the time I got home I was ready to let ‘er rip. Just for the record, here is what I wrote to the community in response to that woman’s message:
“What an incredible non sequitur. For my money, how odd that a group of Christians who historically have rejected creeds as an arbiter in determining one’s status and worth as a Christian, should have among its members one who uses a TV show as a similar test of one’s status and worth as a Christian. I didn’t think there was anything that could get me angry on my birthday, but this statement is one of the most stupid and condescending and spiritually arrogant pieces of codswallop I have ever seen on this list. Take care getting down, lady. That’s a mighty high horse you’ve managed to climb up on.”
Come to learn others had already responded to her original message before I had a chance. She ended up sending one more message: “I guess I will be signing off from this group. I thought this was a group for those who seek to know and serve Jesus.” In other words, she moved from saying my wife is spiritually deficient to saying everyone else in the group is benighted and lost.
Now, in the grand scheme of things, this is a very minor and silly incident. So why even bring it up? I mention it because it highlights what many don’t like about religion, and also what many don’t like about those who, in the name of religion, impose their own religious rigor on others and then club them with God and scripture and whatever invective is available if these others somehow don’t measure up to their own idiosyncratic standards.
Think of the Westboro Baptist Church which, on Biblical grounds as interpreted by them, celebrates the deaths of American soldiers and demonizes other groups that inspire their ire. They use religion to justify their hate.
It seems the three revealed religions are full of people who pronounce judgment on others, sending them packing straight to hades. I suspect, though, that the underworld is full of people who have consigned others to hell. After all, hell – as Jean-Paul Sartre sardonically writes – is other people.
The reaction of many, when confronted by this kind of religious intolerance, is to reject anything connected with religion. Others, though, wanting to maintain a spiritual dimension in their lives, make a strong distinction between historical religion, where intolerance and arrogance and the spilled blood of nonbelievers can be found, and spirituality.
In a recent survey of people it was found that 6 percent of those responding described themselves as “religious but not spiritual,” while 27 percent described themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” I can understand the attraction of such a response, “spiritual but not religious,” but I also see a potential danger.
The Gallop organization some years back produced a study that showed men and women at the time of their deaths are most concerned with spiritual matters. George H. Gallop, Jr., cited this study and others to conclude that “seminaries could do a lot more” in training clergy to meet these needs.
Clearly, there is a burgeoning interest in spirituality today, and while the Gallop organization accurately points to a quest for spirituality on the part of American men and women, it is not so clear that the answer lies in seminary training of clergy. There is a complicating dynamic, one that may leave traditional seminaries and churches out of the loop.
Fact is, there are many who aspire to spiritual heights who see seminaries and the churches they feed as irrelevant to their spiritual quest. One can see this even in commercial bookstores, where the religion section seems overwhelmed with books loosely, and often misleadingly, termed “Eastern” or “Meditation” or “New Age.”
It seems today that the words “spirituality” and “religion” are taking two distinct paths. While there are many within traditional communities of faith who seek to develop more spirituality within the context of their own religious tradition, there are many others who seek a deeper sense of spirituality quite apart from any traditional religious community.
Among the latter, the term “religion” is taking on a negative connotation as it comes to be identified with the institutional church.
We are all familiar with those historical occasions – the Inquisition, for one – when the church acted in a morally reprehensible manner. As such, those who see religion as identified with the church come to see religion as stultifying and oppressive.
This is reflected in a recent Gallop report which shows the percentage of Americans with a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in Churches and organized religion reached a new low of 36 percent, from a high of 68 percent in 1975.
By contrast, spirituality has come to have the very positive connotation of “real” experiences of self, of others and of God. And because spirituality is usually expressed in private, non-historical ways, there is little that can be said by way of criticism.
The following is a message from an Internet group in which one individual sought to advise another: “I just wanted to add that one should not focus on the institution of ‘religion’ because it is man-made and will always be a disappointment to those who follow that way, . . . I just urge you not to give up on spirituality and relationships. That is where you will find peace.”
In other words, traditional communities of faith, i.e., Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, are identified by this person as perverse examples of man-made rules masquerading as a portal to transcendent reality and peace. Real transcendence and peace, for this person, come about only through spiritual experiences and relationships achieved apart from a traditional community of faith.
Sometimes the quest for spirituality can take bizarre – and even dangerous – forms.
In another Internet group dealing with the intersection of medicine and spirituality, those same “New Age” ideas that appear to have taken over the religious section of bookstores seem poised to take a run at Western allopathic medicine as well.
Made up mostly of counselors and nurses who practice various forms of “Eastern” therapies, the group has few kind words for your local doctor or the institution of medicine in this country. Their main argument appears to be that modern medicine merely treats symptoms rather than the origins of disease.
And what are the origins? According to one message that addressed how endometriosis should be treated, it was claimed that while some cases may be caused by a chemical imbalance, most are caused by an imbalance of yin and yang, resulting from a disturbance in the second chakra, which in Tantric kundalini yoga is a center of energy.
Solution: meditation, after which that endometriosis will just melt, melt, melt right away. And if it doesn’t? Well, you just don’t meditate well enough.
One of the intriguing aspects of this approach is that the cause of disease is placed squarely on the head of the person diagnosed with a disease. Like a latter-day manifestation of the Biblical friends of Job, they say the patient has done something or is hiding something or has some unresolved conflict which causes the disease to appear. Address that, and the disease will dissipate.
One self-promoting practitioner even claimed during a time when AIDS was ravaging the land, that only the stupid and spiritually blind die of AIDS. According to him, the only clients of his who die of AIDS are those who resist and thus fail to attain a certain level of meditative excellence. Of course, like rubber-sheet geometry, those who die are, by definition, those who “resist.”
It is instructive to see how they use the word “spirituality,” almost as an antonym to the word “religion.” Indeed, traditional communities of faith were about the only group that was treated more harshly than modern medical doctors.
When an unsuspecting Catholic priest wandered onto the list he was asked pointedly if there was anything good to say about the Catholic Church. Not unexpectedly, he said yes. His response unleased two weeks of inflammatory rhetoric blaming the church for almost every human misdeed known.
At one point a member said she was interested in doing a “life regression” to see who she was in past lives. There followed serious responses recommending “proven” guides in such life regressions. At the very least, one would hope, these “proven” guides will attach to their flyers the message, “For entertainment purposes only.”
A simple question or two: How does one know if what a “life regression” guide says is true or false? What would constitute a falsification of a “life regression” guide’s claims? How might a “life regression” guide’s effectiveness be measured other than by a client’s “feelings”? It’s kind of like the question about how one can know if what a “prophet” says is true.
Did such considerations matter to those in the medicine and spirituality group? Not a bit.
And then there was the self-described “master” among the members who – I kid you not – tried to convince us all that vegetables on other planets are smarter than those on earth.
We live, unfortunately, in extraordinarily silly times. Think of Deepak Chopra. He is a well-trained M.D. turned guru with knowledge of ancient Eastern spiritual practices who wrote a book titled Ageless Body, Timeless Mind. The book is the result of his coming under the influence of Ayurvedic medicine during a visit to India.
The basic lesson of the book in 25 words or less – actually, in five words – is “Love is the ultimate truth.” Wow! And it cost only $24.95 to learn that, all wrapped up in language that has been likened to “a bubble bath for the soul.”
No one ever heard of the guy until he appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show plugging the book. Within 24 hours 137,000 copies had been ordered. His publisher went into round-the-clock production to meet the demand. By the end of the week there were 400,000 copies in circulation. He has since published 80 books and counting, along with hundreds of audiotapes, videos, CDs and DVDs. He has allowed his medical license to lapse.
And as for the “ageless body” from the title of his first book: I don’t know if he’s looked in a mirror of late, but if he has it should be clear to him that that is one argument he is definitely losing.
[In Part III we look at how an emphasis on spirituality can weaken society.]
By Ron Nutter
Ron Nutter is a regular contributor to The Blue State Conservative, and retired college professor of Philosophy and Religion living in a cabin on a mountain in Western North Carolina with his retired physician wife, and he still reads voraciously.
Photo by Nicky Pe at Pixabay