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Spirituality Beyond Belief

Craig Chalquist, PhD

When the Berlin Wall came down, a global wave of euphoria convinced some of us that a just and happy world society waited around the corner. The nineties seem far away now, with authoritarian governments on the rise and, in the United States, the GOP now a religious cult in all but name, and every bit as bullying, divisive, and fanatical.

The more rationally and intellectually inclined among us were surprised by this power of zealotry but should not have been. The zealots wield myth power; the rationalists, dry facts whose influence they overestimate. The side with the emotionally stronger story tends to win.

As a result, entire populations are turning away from religion in disgust. Some nations are almost entirely secular now; the U.S. has record numbers of the "spiritual but not religious" and a smaller but growing sector of atheists and agnostics. These developments should surprise no one either.

A split in our thinking says that uncritical religiosity and suspicion of anything to do with spirituality are the only options available. The first leads to worship of authority, because religions are irresistible magnets for those who desire power over others. The second condemns us to a chaotic and meaningless universe devoid of higher purpose.

Neither option offers any real fulfillment. Neither takes embodied life on Earth at all seriously. The world is either an illusory backdrop or a collection of mute parts to reassemble as we please...until the parts push back. (The double meaning of the English word "object" is instructive.)

To envision an alternative, let's start with questioning the importance of belief.

Yes, belief matters, at least day to day. We wouldn't get out of bed if we didn't believe a floor would be there to stand on. But that kind of belief is like what the philosopher Santayana called "animal faith." Animals think their senses report accurately, more or less, and that they walk on solid ground. Only human thinkers invent elaborate systems of intellectual uncertainty and tie themselves in mental knots over them while flowers grow, insects pollinate them, and animals browse among them.

The belief to consider is belief in absolutes. Descartes, and rows of thinkers after him, searched for something absolute to believe in. But why? What good is this when one remains riddled with other kinds of unresolved doubt? Or when we go to war because my absolute belief is different from yours? Three world religions believe in the same God, but fighting between them never ceases.

We ought by now to suspect - and many of us do - that belief in supposed absolutes always divides us, inwardly and outwardly. Zealotry masks repressed doubt. And fear.

What if we went through life with a series of exploratory notions about ourselves, relationships, place in the world, guiding principles? Scientists do something like this when they hypothesize. When I did psychotherapy, I formed tentative ideas about the sources of what harmed and helped my clients. Artists might sketch a few soft lines to see how they lay on the canvas. Novelists follow their character's lead. Let's think of these guiding notions as working fictions: stories we tell that help us understand where we want to go in life, what to do, how to be, what sort of melody to play.

Notice that this does not mean being wishy-washy or timid about what we value. We stand up for what we cherish even while staying open to life's changes and complexities. It really amounts to not being rigid or fanatical.

Besides, no holy book interpreted by authorities can substitute for getting clear on your principles and being willing to modify them if the need arises. We should have learned from the war criminal Eichmann that "I just followed orders" can lead to dreadfully immoral acts. Clinging to supposed absolutes do not make us moral; they make us immoral, with the darkness we deny in ourselves projected onto others.

Some of our creatively adaptive keystone stories might involve ideas about whether living presence beyond us animates and permeates the universe we inhabit.

In many languages, "spirit" derives from a word that means "breath" or "wind." An oversimplified explanation with a kernel of truth is the obvious fact that living beings tend to breathe. Less obvious is that many cultures have understood wind as the breath of nature, place, or even planet.

Now, a common argument among atheists is that no hard evidence exists for either spirit or God. But what is meant by "evidence"? A presence beyond thought or word, image or concept could hardly be measured or calculated for. But it might express itself through direct encounter: what the ancients called gnosis.

You dream about someone you haven't seen in years, someone well outside your circle of friends and acquaintances, and they contact you the next day. You go for a walk to ponder a difficult problem, and a boy runs by blurting the answer without even knowing your question. On a day when you lose hope, a friendly bird lands nearby. Such synchronicities (as C. G. Jung named them) occur all the time; we have but to notice them, especially when they pile up far beyond coincidence or some inherent capacity for seeing patterns. ("Coincidence" is what we call an event that fails to fit our worldview: our story about how the world works.)

Then we have all those accounts from gnostics, mystics, and medicine people around the world: millennia of oral and written testimonies of beautiful visions and visitations by intelligent presences. The cynical dismiss these as pathological or deceitful, but that says more about the dismisser than the experience. Lionel Corbett refers to the "Scrooge Defense" of being closed to anything transformative. That is pathological. Transcendent states only turn pathological when the visited literalize the vision - in other words, make it an object of absolute belief - and start claiming holy authority.

Things are deeper than they seem. When C. G. Jung experimented with active imagination - a kind of deliberate daydream - and spoke with "his" imaginal figures, he quickly learned they had insights beyond those of us conscious mind. Yesterday we hear confident proclamations that we basically understand the universe; today, that only 4% is composed of visible matter, with the rest mostly unknown. A startling dream predicts a calamity with pinpoint accuracy. For a truly rational mind, these and other mysterious events would counter smugness. We live in a cosmos of endless surprises.

Our ancestors knew the sense of a world pulsing with sacred presences. It comes with being a human animal. When we suppress it, we relocate the spirits and daimones elsewhere, unconsciously and symptomatically: idealizing royalty, flagolatry, bibliolatry. An addiction is an exiled god; a doctrine is once-living signs and symbols of the natural world stripped down to a skeleton of rattling precepts.

By "spiritual," then, we do not mean "religious." We mean being in touch with sacred-feeling presences that infuse daily life rather than being located above or beyond it. A spiritual path can be a path of wonder, imagination, play, and vision, a tending of Who shows up and not submission through divisive belief.

Spirit as animating presence can be slippery, quicksilvery, corner of the eye. Religions, authority figures, creeds, and exclusive brotherhoods (no women allowed) attempt to pin it down, dress it up in archaic robes, house it in the roped-off sections of colossal buildings, and draw on it for the glory of one's prestige. Only our book describes it; only our priests converse with it.

When things get exclusive, spirit promptly departs. Or as Catherine Keller puts it, "In a civilization whose religions are forms of fortification, the bronzed ego who builds walls instead of webs triumphs...Religion defining holiness as separation has made itself into the barrier of barriers, of disconnection, of exclusion" (From a Broken Web). Worldread seeks to weave webs.

Not a mythology, religion, or a legendarium, then, firmly fixed on the past. Not a franchise, fixed on money. Not a philosophy to be believed, but a storied, imaginative enactment to believe in. An adventure in falling back in love with a world reenchanted.

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