…O gods, gods! who used to come so often and are still asleep in the Things around us… (Rilke)
Spirituality means something different to everyone. For some, it’s about participating in organized religion: going to a church, synagogue, mosque, and so on. For others, it’s more personal: some people get in touch with their spiritual side through private prayer, yoga, meditation, quiet reflection, or even long walks. But the central element is the ‘spiritual aspect’ that refers to a real, though less obvious dimension of life. Research shows that even religious skeptics can’t stifle the sense that there is something greater than the concrete world we see. So spirituality is a way of accessing this ‘something greater’: experiencing it, understanding it, seeing its implications for my life, and deciding and acting accordingly. In fact, these elements already suggest a process of transformation and growth. Which means that spirituality is about growth and development, though the implication of the ‘something greater’ is that it is deeper growth, in an ever-expanding context, toward an infinite realization.
But already, language like this this makes spirituality sound a little strange or certainly esoteric and belonging to a world of professional spiritual folk, like monks, priests, and mystics. I want to explore what I’m calling an ‘everyman’s spirituality’: a way of accessing the ‘something greater’ that it appears everyone experiences or intuits, but a way that is understandable and accessible to all.
By way of preface, I might add that this ‘everyman’s spirituality’ will have to be relevant to the world that we find ourselves in today. On the one hand, it will have to be related to everyday, ordinary life, including the larger existential questions we all face. On the other hand, it will have to at least make sense in the world we know today through science.
Like many others, I have drifted away from traditional (in my case Christian) spirituality as presented by religion. Part of the reason is that the institution of religion, like all of our institutions, has struggled to keep abreast of a rapidly changing world. In the case of religion, this has been reflected in a number of its elements, including its male, hierarchical structures as well as its positions and teachings. In the case of the latter, the cosmic framework that was the traditional foundation for these teachings no longer has credibility. For example, the image or idea of a male God, separate from the world who stands back, observes and judges our faults and failings no longer works. This view, in fact, has contributed to the idea that there is something inherently wrong with us, and the world. Christianity’s adherence to the Greek philosophical ideas that spirit and matter are separate has perpetuated a split between theology (or “God-talk”) and science, which has prevented science from playing its critical role of keeping ‘God-talk’ relevant and related to our experience. In a recent blog – https://dannymartin.org/is-god-dead/ – I outlined the process of this separation and its results: from the Homeric Greek world of infinite gods who were involved in our lives – ‘who used to come so often’ – to the modern nihilism and absurdity that resulted in Nietzsche’s ‘dead God’. Today, in the vacuum of meaning that this has created, there is a clear and perceptible shift toward the resurrection of some kind of spirituality, if only in the form of a growing sense of responsibility for the future we are leaving to our kids. There is a hunger for something important that we used to have in our lives.
Recently, I was privileged to be part of an online global conference entitled ‘Remembering the Truth of Who You Are,’ that brought together a wide range of speakers from many different perspectives to address this important topic. (You can take a look at my interview at https://dannymartin.org/resources/ if you haven’t already seen it). All of the speakers began with the same rationale for their efforts: to leave a better world for our children; better, certainly, than the world we have created over recent decades. All of the presentations reflected aspects of an emerging spirituality.
There was a wide-range of approaches – from shamanic healing to magnetic fields that impact our emotions, and from redefining God to connecting with our ancestors – many of which reflect the various responses to our changing world that we have encountered since the middle of the last century. Essentially, they all reflected a basic and essential impulse to survive and thrive. While I don’t intend to offer a critique of the conference here, I have one comment that relates the presentations to this conversation about finding an ‘everyman’s spirituality’, which is that the approaches tended to fall into two basic categories: regressive and progressive. Of course, it is important to recall and even reclaim – ‘remember’ in that sense – old wisdom and practices that can still help us, but there is always the danger of romanticizing the past – the golden age – and even imposing such wisdom in a fundamentalist way. There was some of that in the presentations. Similarly, while we need to keep our values relevant by integrating new knowledge, it is also important to retain the wisdom of older experiences lest we get caught in the illusions of control that science can create. Some of the presentations struggled with this.
All that said, I think I’ve come to understand spirituality as two things: a framework for understanding the world we live in, and a process for living more fully in this world. The framework that has emerged for me is inspired by people like Thomas Berry (and, before him, Teilhard de Chardin) who attempted to integrate science and religion. Berry claimed that our generation is in-between stories. We are caught between the story that religion has told and the story that science is telling us today. But, he added, a new story has been emerging, a new cosmology that brings issues of science and matters of faith into a place where they can complement each other and generate a fuller picture of what is happening. The universe, in fact, Berry concludes, is not simply a phenomenon but, more accurately, a story: a story in which we are all immersed, to which we belong, and out of which we have evolved. This story has the power to awaken us more deeply to who we are. For, in this new story, the Milky Way becomes the universe in the form of a galaxy, and a daffodil is the universe in the form of a flower, and we are the universe in the form of a human. And so every time we are drawn to look up into the night sky and reflect on the awesome beauty of the universe, we are actually the universe reflecting on itself, because this is what humans uniquely do. With the emergence of self-reflective humans, we – the universe – have arrived at an evolutionary breakthrough of conscious compassion: compassion, not just for our own offspring, but for all beings. Our human destiny as earth inhabitants, then, is to be/become the heart of the universe that embraces the whole of the earth community. We may be just a speck in the vast universe, but we are beings with the capacity to feel comprehensive compassion in the midst of an ocean of intimacy. This, for me, is the beginnings of a framework and direction of our becoming more fully human: our everyman’s spirituality.
The word ‘spirituality’ brings up a somewhat recent phenomenon which is that a growing number of people nowadays identify as ‘spiritual but not religious.’ For many this is the result of negative personal experience with the tradition of their childhood, but, for others, it is more the result of a shift in the culture. Many of the more modern notions of spirituality developed in the 19th and 20th centuries through a combination of the growing influence of Asian religions and an increasing disconnect from religious institutions that sometimes reacted defensively to changes in society, including scientific findings and social movements. In the U.S. the Transcendentalists in the 19th century – specifically Ralph Waldo Emerson – emphasized an intuitive, experiential approach to life, inspired by European Romanticism. Other important influences included Rudolf Steiner, who was interested in developing a genuine Western spirituality, and exploring the ways that such a spirituality could transform practical institutions such as education, agriculture, and medicine. The Second World War clearly impacted people and caused them to question many old assumptions, including religious beliefs. The arrival of Asian religions in the form of meditation, yoga and other practices pushed people increasingly toward a subjective experience focus and away from the more traditional approaches of converting or redirecting oneself toward a prescribed – even revealed – path. A new discourse developed, in which (humanistic) psychology, mystical and esoteric traditions and eastern religions were blended, to reach a ‘true self’ by self-disclosure, free expression and meditation. The distinction between ‘spiritual and religious’ became more common in the popular mind during the late 20th century with the rise of secularism and the advent of the New Age movement. The term “spiritual” is now frequently used in contexts in which the term “religious” was formerly employed, though both theists and atheists have criticized this development. Finally, modern systems of spirituality may (or may not) include a belief in a supernatural (beyond the known and observable) realm, personal growth, a quest for an ultimate or sacred meaning, religious experience, or an encounter with one’s own “inner dimension.”
All of this reflects the process-for-living aspect of spirituality. So, what does the science-expanded framework – the cosmic story – mean for our everyday lives? What are helpful practices for cultivating the ‘something greater’ that we sense within and beyond our immediate interactions with everyday life so that this can shape the way we think and live. I’m doing some research into what is being called ‘the science of happiness’, and will share my findings as we go down this road together. Suffice to say here that, already, it becomes clear that a sense of meaning (and purpose) is a critical aspect of happiness or well-being.
So maybe, here is a place to pause. Let me summarize by saying that I think spirituality is an essential aspect of the human process that expands the context – the infinite spaces – we live in and that we all apparently intuit. Unfortunately, the traditional guides of this essential aspect – the religious institutions – have lost credibility for many of us, so many have turned to other resources. This is clearly good, but I think it would be important not to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’, but rather to reclaim the treasures of our traditions that reflect the efforts of our ancestors to address the same existential questions that we still face today.
And, by way of underlining the importance of this spiritual resurgence, let’s keep in mind the very real challenges we face in today’s world. David Brooks, the NY Times columnist wrote this week:
Conscious reason can get you only so far when tribal emotions have been aroused, when existential fears rain down, when narcissistic impulses have been given free rein, when spiritual longings have nowhere healthy to go, when social trust has been devastated, when all the unconscious networks that make up 99 percent of our thinking are aflame and disordered…
‘When spiritual longings have nowhere healthy to go…’!! But I’ll leave the last word to my friend Rilke who always seems to get the picture:
Once again let it be your morning, gods. We keep repeating. You alone are source. With you the world arises, and your dawn gleams on each crack and crevice of our failure.
As we know, it usually takes a kind of ‘cosmic nudge’ to get us going. Or, as a colleague of mine used to say, ‘when you’re sick of your sickness, then you’ll start to get well.’ Maybe that’s where we are….