There is a creeping danger to society in matters of the Spirit
One hardly knows what to think about Deepak Chopra’s extraordinary success. Is he truly a genius who has solved the riddle of life, or is he a talented grifter who has read the signs of the times and learned how to manipulate the culture?
Given the kind of money that can be made by New Age books like Chopra’s, a former teaching colleague of mine and I once had a conversation on co-authoring a book that might be equally radical in its approach. The subject we choose appears not to matter, so long as we seem sincere there would to be a very malleable, if not gullible, public willing to buy it.
I came up with the bright idea of our writing a book on Jesus as the first Scientologist. It would argue that the founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, in the writing of his book Dianetics, was channeling the spirit of Jesus.
My colleague and I talked about the interviews we’d have to give, the stories in the popular press, the inevitable book tour, appearing on various gabfests on TV.
Eventually, there would be a CNN program in which we face a panel of serious-minded critics of our work, each ready and able to nail us for our shoddy scholarship.
Here is where we differed. I said let’s just play it out, let our critics have their say, and afterwards we’d meet at the bank to see how much wealthier we were.
He wanted to end the CNN program with our announcing it was all just a hoax, much like Alan Sokal did when he outed his Social Text article as postmodernist gibberish and a complete hoax. The point, though, was how seriously everyone was taking it.
Before publishing, my friend did suggest that we should probably make sure we had tenure first. A practical fellow, my friend.
But to get back to my primary concern: Yes, there are aspects of religion I and others do not like, particularly the tendency toward religiously doctrinal hubris. That said, I want to save the reality of “religion” from being seen in a purely negative way. I don’t want the concept to disappear because of some people’s dyspeptic and dismissive identification of religion with the institutional church and traditional faith communities.
Fact is, religion, more than spirituality, is the glue that helps hold a society together.
Alfred North Whitehead near the end of his book Symbolism writes: “Those societies which cannot combine reverence to their symbols with freedom of revision, must ultimately decay either from anarchy, or from the slow atrophy of a life stifled by useless shadows.”
Whitehead describes a society’s symbols as that which transforms a “crowd” of people into a unified society with shared values and viewpoint. There are various shared social symbols within a society, some of which would include the symbols of a society’s religion.
But life is dynamic and is ever-changing. And if a Church, Synagogue or Mosque is unable to adapt and adjust to changes in its society, to be open and tolerant of other points of view, other interpretations and practices over time, it will suffer the “slow atrophy of a life stifled by useless shadows.”
That is precisely the risk for those who insist that one’s religious tradition remain as it always has been, and who intolerantly insist on rejecting other points of view on religious matters.
Think of that line from Inherit the Wind when the fundamentalist character Matthew Harrison Brady confronts the agnostic Henry Drummond. After noting how close they were to each other in years past, Brady asks how it has happened that Drummond has moved so far away from him. Drummond responds: “All motion is relative, Matt.
Perhaps it is you who have moved away – by standing still.”
But there is a fine line between maintaining a tolerant reverence for one’s religious symbols on the one hand and adapting to the surrounding culture to such a great extent that the religious symbols decay, become empty ritual and ultimately become meaningless.
That is the danger faced by many mainline churches that are so immersed in the culture around them that they leave their own historical roots and abjure the transcendent, thus making themselves irrelevant to the lives of people seeking spiritual grounding. It is why mainline churches are losing members at an increasing rate.
One of the greatest films ever made that explores the dynamic of tradition amidst change is Fiddler on the Roof. It is captured by the father’s wrestling with the desires of his daughters to violate tradition to marry the one they love. This is laid out in scene 1, scene 2, scene 3 and scene 4.
This breakup of a society is also the danger of unchecked solipsistic spirituality.
A nation’s religion, when healthy, reflects the cultural symbols which informs that society’s experience of the world.
There will be a social cost to the extent individualistic spirituality is valorized and institutional religion is denigrated. Robert Putnam, in a well-known essay later expanded into a book, Bowling Alone, remarks on the importance of “social capital” in maintaining a dynamic community. In turn, “social capital” is created by the extensive networking of voluntary associations, including religious associations.
Among the data Putnam cites in identifying the “fraying” of the American social fabric is the fact that more Americans are bowling today than ever before, but that fewer Americans are bowling in leagues. Instead of bowling in the context of a voluntary association, there is more of a tendency to “bowl alone” for purely individualistic satisfaction.
Similarly, it can be argued that while more Americans consider themselves spiritual than ever before, there is more of a tendency to experience one’s spirituality as an individual quest than as a social reality within the religious traditions of an identifiable community of faith.
Those who reject all trappings of traditional communities of faith, including the accepted symbols of religion, and would replace them with individualistic spirituality are leading us on a path toward the kind of spiritual anarchy to which Whitehead alludes.
Spirituality is surely a good, and there is a long and honorable tradition of spirituality within traditional communities of faith. However, to the extent spirituality means purely personal experiences it will continue to fray the American social fabric. Sadly, it also opens the door to everything from spiritual manipulation to the spiritually silly – smarter vegetables, indeed.
So, if a turn toward pure spirituality is not the answer to the arrogance and intolerance that is often found in traditional communities of faith, then what are we to do?
Perhaps there is a clue in that story Melchisedech tells Saladin.
In Mechisedech’s story, as recorded in Boccaccio’s The Decameron, there is a ring of inestimable worth passed down from generation to generation, from fathers to their sons who would be heirs. Then there was a father with three virtuous and obedient sons, each of whom he loved deeply. Before his death, he promises the ring to each of them.
Nearing death, and aware of his promises, he has two exact replicas of the ring made. So skillfully are these rings made that the father could no longer distinguish which is the original. He then, in private, gives one of the rings to each of his sons.
When the father dies, the sons come out in public holding their rings aloft, each claiming to be the true heir of the father. Seeing each has a ring, they fuss with each other claiming their own ring as the one true ring and denying legitimacy to the others. Their virtues have turned to self-serving vices.
Melchisedech tells the Sultan it is the same with “the three Laws given by God our Father to three peoples. . . . Each of them thinks it has the inheritance, the True Law, and carries out His Commandments.” And still they fuss and struggle.
Later, in the hands of Gotthold Lessing in his play Nathan the Wise, the ring story becomes one of tolerance. “I hear the genuine ring enjoys the magic power to make its wearer loved, beloved of God and men,” a Judge tells the three sons. “Who, then do two of you love most?” The brothers are silent. “Each one loves himself the most,” the Judge concludes. “O then you are, all three, deceived deceivers.”
But he finishes his judgment with a note of hope: “If each one from his father had his ring, then let each one believe his ring to be the true one. . . . And know: that you, all three, he loved, and loved alike, since two of you he’d not humiliate to favor one. . . .
Let each aspire to emulate his father’s unbeguiled, unprejudiced affection.”
Being tolerant is not possible if one’s religious views are grounded in a revelation that dismisses in the most heinous ways those outside that religious community. A centrally important part of tolerance is to be able to maintain a faithful skepticism about that which is revealed in one’s own religious tradition.
To repeat that basic question: How do we know that that which is revealed is true, that a prophet or messenger is speaking not just his truth but the Truth?
Skepticism is not heresy. It is not unbelief. It is simply asking questions, even unanswerable questions. Wisdom is not derived from the kinds of answers obtained, but by the sorts of questions one pursues.
For people of good will, tolerance and respect for the other is an attainable goal.
Others, however, seek to maim and destroy those outside their faith community in a myriad of brutal and horrific ways. And all of it justified by a “revelation.”
Let me close by citing a prayer written by Allen Stockdale. I have no idea who Mr. Stockdale is other than the fact he was a clergyman, nor do I know the occasion for his writing this prayer, but his words have remained with me: “Dear Lord of gracious mind and heart, forgive me for the unbearable ways of my arrogance and snobbishness. How unkind of me to think poorly without cause of those about me!
Help me to realize that a song can be lovely even though I neither wrote nor sang it.
Make clear to me that all worthy thought did not originate in my mind; that other folk have good manners; and that when I pass away the world will not be bereft of grace.”
I admire the humility of his vision. While sure in his faith, he nevertheless is open to the wisdom that can be found in other beliefs and traditions.
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 geralt at Pixabay.