Yesterday we had the first public event in the RSA’s new project: Spirituality, Tools of the Mind and the Social Brain. It’s the child of the RSA’s Jonathan Rowson, who wants to rehabilitate the term ‘spirituality’ and re-connect it to our public conversation. As he noted, there is a large body of people out there who don’t sign up to any one particular religion, but still have a hunger for a spiritual life – including him. I found it refreshing to hear a public conversation on this topic – as if a window had been opened and we could all breath easier.
The Guardian’s Madeline Bunting was on the panel, and initially made a slightly caricatured dismissal of ‘spirituality’ as self-pampering rather than self-denying, suggesting it’s all scented candles and personal development rather than hair-shirts and soup kitchens. I presumed she was speaking from a superior position of orthodox religious commitment. Actually, no – it emerged later in the conversation that she grew up a Catholic but still went to Buddhist retreats, and has wrestled for years with the question of which tradition to commit to. She, like the rest of us, is meandering down the aisles of the spiritual supermarket.
I found myself meandering down the aisles a few weeks ago, when I spoke at a New Age festival in Holland. Every tradition was thrown in together, as in some heavenly paella – angels, yoga, palmistry, Tarot, aura photos, crystals, more Buddhas than you could shake a joss-stick at. The line from The Wasteland came back to me -
Madame Sosotris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe
- and I wondered what TS Eliot would make of the festival. Then I thought, well, Tom, you helped make it, you and your generation.
There were some pre-modernist pioneers, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I’d suggest that it was the modernist generation who created the spiritual supermarket – artists and thinkers like Wagner, Jung, Tolstoy, DH Lawrence, TS Eliot, Yeats, William James and Aldous Huxley. They ate the apple of knowledge – knowledge of other religious traditions, particularly through their first, breathless reception of eastern classics like the the Dhammapada, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the I-Ching. Eliot was as heterodox as any of them, studying Sanskrit and Bergson, and ending The Wasteland with some rousing Hindu chanting. And they also had a Romantic sense (I’m thinking particularly of William James here) that spiritual experiences could happen outside of any religious tradition, particularly if you’ve done enough nitrous oxide.
Spiritual pluralism was developed by the modernists before passing, via the Beats, into the main arteries of western culture. We all now grow up in the spiritual supermarket – I am fairly typical in having dismissed Christianity as a teenager, and turned instead to Walt Whitman, the Buddha, Rumi, Marcus Aurelius, Lao Tzu and Hunter S. Thompson for spiritual guidance.
After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Once you are aware of the spiritual wisdom in many different religious traditions, how can you commit to any particular one? It’s the paradox of choice – we are offered so many paths, we end up going a few steps down each one, before returning the way we came to try out another route.
The free market in religion is the consequence of liberalism, the disestablishment of church and state, the tolerance of multiple faiths – all of which seem to me a good thing. And yet the free market works in strange ways. Holland and the UK, for example, have established churches, and are among the most secular countries in the world. The US, where religion is disestablished, has a much higher percentage of believers.
Why is this? It may be that America’s 250-year-old free market in religion has spurred more innovation, new religious movements (Mormonism, Christian Science, Seventh-Day Adventists, Pentecostalists), more aggressive marketing, bolder truth-claims on the part of all those competing churches, while the Church of England always reined in their evangelical wings before they got too ecstatic. Or it may be, as Robert Rowland-Smith suggested at the RSA, that World War II and the horrors of the death camps made it difficult for Europeans to believe in providence.
In any case, some have reacted to the free market by hardening their faith into fundamentalism. This weekend, I chatted to a nice Christian girl about how spiritual experiences seem to happen to people outside of any religious tradition. ‘Oh yes’, she nodded. ‘Spiritual experiences can happen without Jesus. That just means they’re demonic.’ In a similar vein, I read an American pastor recently insisting that anyone who doesn’t accept the divinity of Jesus is going to Hell. ‘Otherwise Jesus would have died in vain’. So he’s happy to consign four fifths of humanity to Hell to preserve the specialness of one life.
This modern fundamentalist reaction to the free market gets nasty when it feeds into the public sphere. There can be no tolerance of other religions – they are demonic. We see the fruits of this attitude across the Middle East and Africa, where Christians are murdered every day by Muslim fanatics. It makes us long for the cosmopolitan spirit of earlier Islamic eras, so beautifully elegized by William Dalrymple, when many different religions rubbed shoulders, mixed together, interbred.
On the other hand, there is a risk in not being committed to any particular path – as I’ve put it before, you end up sleeping with everyone at the New Age orgy, and not marrying anyone. You never really commit to a religious tradition, never allow yourself to be transformed. I’m not saying this is always the case, by any means, but it’s a risk of the ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ approach.
I wonder if it’s possible to be spiritual and religious: one recognizes that the Spirit connects with people in many different religious traditions, and also with people outside of any religion. At the same time, one also recognizes the value of submitting oneself to a particular religious tradition, its scripture, practices and community structures. As Elizabeth Oldfield suggested at the RSA, perhaps one can recognise many paths to God but still suggest yours is the best (the best you’ve found, anyway). I wonder if it’s where TS Eliot ended up too – Four Quartets is clearly a Christian poem, yet we also get guest-appearances from the Buddha and Krishna.
What I’m grappling with is this: does the ‘spiritual and religious’ position undermine the specialness of Jesus, and contradict his words that ‘no one comes to the Father except through me’? Can one be a Christian pluralist, or does that basically mean I’m not a Christian, I’m a (gulp) Unitarian? Am I Ba’hai? Ba’how did I end up here?
In other news:
This coming Monday, pragmatist philosopher Robert Talisse is speaking at the London Philosophy Club. Handful of places left.
My book came out in America! Without any media promotion alas, so it’s languishing at #50,000 on Amazon. But anyway, you can get it in the US and Canada now.
Check out the great trailer Donald Robertson made for Stoic Week (last week of November)! Keep November 30 free for a big Stoic event we’re organizing in London.
Talking of Stoics, I did an interview with Jonathan Newhouse, CEO of Conde Nast International, about how he uses Stoicism in his life.
Next weekend I’m speaking at the Radio 3 Free Thinking Festival in Gateshead, about ecstasy. Fuck knows how that will go! Come and find out.
New paper by Kinderman et al showing how psychological processes like rumination predict mental illness. Good to show that mental illnesses aren’t just physical diseases, but involve thought habits that people can change.
Two days left to watch this fantastic Otis Redding documentary on BBC iplayer. You gotta!
Here are my top ten tips for recovering from mental illness.
Finally, do listen to Grayson Perry’s first Reith Lecture, on why democracy has bad taste when it comes to art. Funny and interesting.
See you next week,
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