Sunday, May 07, 2006

Spiritual but Not Religious

The other day I saw a classmate of mine carrying a book named “The Wisdom of the Buddha.” I doubt he is a Buddhist. I also doubt he is an Atheist. I barely know him, but it would be safe to guess that he is not a true believer of any religion, nor does he intend to be. I am also sure he would describe himself as "spiritual."

The rise of "Spirituality" in our culture is a very interesting phenomenon. The hospital here has a questionnaire that they gave to all the patients. There was a question that asked the patients to identify their religion. The question listed the 70 religions most prominent in the US. Even with so many to choose from over 60% identified themselves as "other." Since 90% of Americans say they believe in God, it would be quite an anomaly to have a hospital in the “Bible Belt” with that many Atheists. No, instead they want to communicate "Yes, I am spiritual, but it is something that is my very own. It is not like anyone else and not like a religious system."

My classmate was reading Buddha to seek “spirituality.” Spirituality encourages exploration. Everyone's spirituality is different. Spirituality is a freer way to reach that which is transcendent. It is a way to believe without having to disagree with anyone else's belief.

It seems that "Spirituality" is a backlash against the cold, empty universe of Existentialism. Once it was popular to be a proud Atheist, but that was just a passing fad. Human beings need myth and transcendence to bring meaning to their existence. So now everyone is very excited about their rediscovered status as spiritual beings.

But we still hold to so much of Existentialism. Existentialism embraced the emptiness of a world without God, because without the weight of divine purpose human beings were truly free. We were free to define ourselves as we pleased and live and die in an existence that was ours alone. And the Western world loved autonomy, even at the price of a dead God. Since then, the idea of a cold and purposeless universe has lost its appeal. Westerners are flocking back to what was lost. We are ready for spiritual meaning in our lives. But we Americans love our individual liberty. We love our autonomy. So we run headlong back into transcendence as if it were a shopping mall. We enter with a new attitude, an attitude unique to our free, unstructured, and post-Atheist culture.

We have a strange view of transcendent things! We see the spiritual as if it were some raw material of the invisible world. Like wood, stone, or steel, we imagine we can take transcendence and build it into any form that suits us. New Spirituality is ours to use. We do not belong to the spirit, the spirit belongs to us. We trust it to give our lives meaning, but only because we give it meaning first. We have taken the infinity of the spirit and reduced it to a piece of ourselves. “We are Americans, we are free, and we will not be dictated to by anyone or anything. We create our own reality, so the spiritual world had better be pliable enough to fit our needs.”

The New Spirituality theoretically embraces all religious traditions, and yet is opposed to the basic spiritual premise underlying almost every religious tradition. Religious traditions believe that we did not create the spiritual world; it created us. Religions acknowledge that the spiritual world is beyond our understanding and we must approach it on its own terms. Although the many religions differ greatly in their approaches, they all approach humbly, believing that that which is transcendent sets the rules we are to follow. As far as I know the New Spirituality is the only religion on earth that claims that we can all just step into the spiritual and tell it how it should configure itself to fit our needs. We Westerners are so arrogant! We are highly offended by the idea that the spiritual world or God might be so rude as to possess specific eternal qualities without asking our approval first. How ridiculous we must look, approaching that which is immense and eternal and telling it that it must conform to our tastes and desires!

"The Almighty sits in the heavens and laughs" -Psalm 2

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