Friday, June 19, 2009

Concerns with the i-Religiont/UUA style of spirituality

You may be surprised, if you are even partially familiar with the history of what I have written here, but I have very serious reservations concerning what Clark Strand has referred to as the i-Religion approach to spirituality, an approach which is frequently expressed by those embracing Unitarian Universalism. There is risk, depending on how this method is approached, of eventually subverting and even inverting what I hold to be the core purpose and values of religion and spirituality.

There is a reason why fundamentalists react so harshly to secularism and modernism and the idea of valuing individuality above everything else. I don't agree with a majority of the views of religious fundamentalists, but I do share their concern about the contemptuous dismissal of tradition that is increasingly common in the modernist/secular sphere and the dangers of setting up the individual as the end all and be all - the measure of all things. No, I am not accusing Strand or the UUA of doing this, but rather wondering where the approaches mentioned are vulnerable to such pressures.

There is no way I can replicate everything I have written that is relevant to this issue here. I don't deny that we should be free to choose what we believe or whether to practice a religion or how to practice it. In that sense I am definitely in opposition to the radical wing of the fundamentalists. Nor do I deny there is value in going out and learning about/trying out different sacred traditions and experiencing spirituality from various perspectives (for more examples of my thinking on this look here, here, and here). And I have personally found that insights gained from one faith helped open my eyes to previously unseens wisdom in another (see examples of how Buddhism has helped me appreciate Christianity here, here, and here). So let's get that clear from the start.

I do object though to ideas like "religion divides/spirituality unites". I admit and embrace the benefits of but also challenge the biases and flaws in positivism and modernism, particularly when taken to extremes: presenting a flat view of the world where everything is fixed in knowable patterns just waiting to be discovered; that technological progress is always inevitable, desirable and beneficial; that religions are failed primitive science or psychology and that they can only be useful if its stories are reduced to allegory. In particular I am disturbed and frustrated by how this tends to play out between the flat-thinking members of the atheist and theist camps and their holy war against each other (more here, here, and here).

For example, I think we can embrace the lens of science without being dismissive of other lenses or possibilities, including those suggested or hinted at through sacred traditions and the impact of stories using supernatural elements (more here, here, or here). Unlike many Western Buddhists, I don't see Buddhism as (nor do I think it should be reduced to) a mere humanist philosophy or just a form of empirical investigation. As I've written before:

Which takes us back to so-called Western Buddhism and what it should or should not be. And the aforementioned desire I suspect to be at work in some circles to "cleanse" Buddhism of any non-rational elements, with the caveat that rational often means what we think makes sense, hence what fits our current "paradigm", which for a number of potential or actual Western Buddhists is, again, the so-called empirically based rationalism which is often associated with the methodology of science but which is often co-opted into what is sometimes termed ontological naturalism, which means anything that smacks of supernaturalism is out. Which makes for an interesting dilemma.

In the end, are we just making a new, secularized, empirically-safe finger to latch onto? Does the nature of the Dharma change whether we call Shunyata (emptiness) the Tao or even God? Or if we fail to name it? Does it change if we believe in magic? If we do not? If we pray or do not? For who or what do we need to reinvent or reconstitute Buddhism "in the West"?

There is more to the figures, liturgies, and devotional practices in Buddhism than many recognize. I feel the same is true of those who casually dismiss these aspects of other sacred traditions as well. In fact, it was learning to appreciate the nuances and value of religion in a "safe" novel environment like Buddhism that has helped me in appreciating other sacred traditions.

It may seem odd for someone like me who is floating adrift and untethered between Buddhism and Christianity to have problems with religious or spiritual do-it-yourself-ism. So with a better understanding of where I am coming from generally, let me add a little more texture. I've recently written (emphasis newly added) that:
I see religion is the shared, ritualistic experience of spirituality and the collected insights of a culture's attempts to deal with existential concerns. In traditional societies religions weren't separate from other spheres of life and in fact offered a blue print for living a full and meaningful life. They still do for billions of people.

What each tradition offers (including the newer ones) is a unique story that speaks to certain people, echoing their pain, their joy, their confusion, and their hopes. Each story paints a picture and offers a path leading to surrender and transformation, complete with rituals to commemorate and reaffirm one's journey. Each tradition offers a common history and presents a vision of the future that resonates with those who embrace it. Each tradition challenges preconceptions, egos, and a self-centered view in its own way. Each tradition provides a complete working system that can assist us to see and fully embrace its received wisdom, like having a coach and teammates working toward a goal, to encourage or carry us when we are tired and when we stumble.

Religions aren't just philosophies or social groups. They are living traditions.
No one can be debated into understanding that. It would be foolish to try. But the truths and practices which are purely about getting closer to appreciating the Divine have been effective for thousands of years. They have molded and nourished the very saints and gurus whose spiritual wisdom many revere.

Then there is this nicely summarized concern:
If we do a little of one kind of practice and a little of another, the work we have done in one often doesn't continue to build as we change to the next. It is as if we were to dig many shallow wells instead of one deep one. In continually moving from one approach to another, we are never forced to face our own boredom, impatience, and fears. We are never brought face to face with ourselves. So we need to choose a way of practice that is deep and ancient and connected with our hearts, and then make a commitment to follow it as long as it takes to transform ourselves.

- Jack Kornfield, A Path with Heart

In other words, many "spiritualists" who like to collect quotes and practices from this or that saint or guru may fail to realize that these quotes and practices have a context within a larger religious framework. As I have heard or read so many times from and about accomplished practitioners of various religions who are engaged in interfaith dialogue, while it is true that their language may sound more and more similar as they progress deeply along their paths, having a path and following it was essential to reaching this point of seeming convergence. And these systems are internally consistent and designed by trial and error and inspiration to help people transcend their ego (not reject it) and their false sense of alienation from the ground of Becoming. Or in religious shorthand, to "find God".

Because of the unwanted cultural baggage or the failure to take an expansive view of religious language and practice, there is a temptation to try to be a junk dealer who searches through the "garbage" of received tradition to find the occasional treasure. Taken too far, this kind of thinking loses sight of the forest because of a few objectionable trees. Is it really the forest we want to clear or just a few rotten timbers?

When we appreciate that religious stories and practices are meant as much if not more so for the heart than the intellect, and are meant to be heard and felt as much if not more so than analyzed, we can see that they really are universal, with value at the literal level, the metaphoric level, and beyond as we continue to grow. The problems arise when people try to firmly tether these stories and practices to a strictly 17th century understanding, or a strictly 18th century understanding, or 19th or 20th century understanding. Their power and relevance become diminished and dependent on a particular philosophy of the material universe or social agenda. Why would we want to compound and continue such errors by limiting these stories and practices to a secular, individualistic 21st century understanding?

No, you don't need religion to "find God". Yes, you can find the wholeness and peace of the Divine without it. Are you as likely to do so without religion? I doubt it. Can the history and institutional aspects of some religions obscure and interfere with that goal of helping people "find God"? Of course. But finding God, to continue to use the same shorthand, isn't the same as growing in God or serving God. And for that, a hodge-podge of one's favorite inspirational hymns, sayings, or practices may not be adequate. Moreover, such an approach runs the risk of superficially appearing beneficial but underneath may still be feeding and puffing up the lesser self. With no teacher or community or the wisdom of tradition in which such obstacles may be more readily identified and corrected, one can become complacent. That isn't to say one cannot borrow or learn from other traditions, but it does suggest there are things that religions can offer that private, self-serve spirituality cannot.

I know a lot of people like the idea of flying solo in their spirituality, but I am realizing that if I want to experience or discover God or to serve or to have any gratitude it cannot be in isolation. That is the gift and challenge of a spiritual/religious community. Nor can we fill this void just with discussion groups or only by participating in public charity. This is not to downplay or devalue these aspects of spirituality, but they are not a replacement for gathering to share in a sense of the sacred through ritual. This is why I have so often found the UU congregations I have run across frustrating - when you become so generic as to say nothing and so shy of conviction as to mean nothing, out of fear of offending someone in the congregation, what is the point? How is that a foundation for a serious approach to transformation? These congregations strike me more like picnic where people who already have a path bring a different dish, but just enough to sample. It's nice if you are being fed somewhere else but if you are really hungering and in need of a substantial meal, then in my experience you may be out of luck.

None of this is to say that you shouldn't be a solo flier, or an i-Religionist, or a UU! If that fits where you are, I am not in any place to judge you. I myself am spiritually homeless, despite my long philosophical and practical search for meaning (especially in regard to suffering). But what I wish to convey is the importance of religion and sacred tradition, to plead that we don't kill the geese that laid all of the golden eggs that we have the good fortune to have access to in our pluralistic society. To advocate in strong terms that we understand the importance of the legacy and continuation of major sacred traditions as a unique and priceless treasure of humanity.

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