Friday, June 22, 2012

Quick Summary of Outlooks in Religion and Spirituality

English: Sadhu offering charas to Shiva, India.
English: Sadhu offering charas to Shiva, India. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Too many people in modern industrialized societies have such a limited view of what religion is that their approach to thinking about, reacting to, and discussing religion can become counterproductive. Below is a rough sketch of a brief summary of some important distinctions to show what I mean. I use popularized terms and concepts such as "right-brain consciousness" for the sake of balancing clarity and expediency (more on my thoughts on that particular notion can be found here):

Right-Brain consciousness = holism, poetic sense, and creative response.

Left-Brain consciousness = reductionism, literalism, and logical analysis.

Spirituality = emphasis on Right-Brain experience and a focus on the depth of the present moment or on an expereince beyond time, broad and inclusive sense of connection and identification, sublime emotional states, non-judgmental, open to possibilities.

Anti-spirituality = emphasis on Left-Brain experience and a focus on the past or future or the immediate moment in terms of needs and desires, narrow and exclusive sense of connection and identification, reactionary emotional states, judgmental, fearful of differences.

Mystical/Contemplative Religion = embraces spirituality and shares impressions in artistic and poetic forms, seeks balance.

Fundamentalist Religion = anti-spiritual tendencies, attempts to interpret mystical and contemplative expressions through Left-Brain analysis, seeks domination.

Mainstream Religion/Liberal Religion = attempts to reconcile tendencies and history of a sacred traditions including their more mystical and fundamentalist aspects, tend to lean more towards spirituality.

Mainstream/Conservative Religion = attempts to reconcile tendencies and history of a sacred traditions including their more mystical and fundamentalist aspects, tend to lean more towards anti-spirituality.

(One could also go on to map things such as spirituality and anti-spirituality onto to different forms on non-theism as well.)

This brief and over-simplified taxonomy has implications for how people use concepts and terms such as religion and spirituality but also those such as faith, sacred, and the like. It is worth exploring or at least having a good grasp of because if the spiritual impulse in inherently human, it is surely a good thing to guide its expression toward healthier and more beneficial forms. 

For example, look at spirituality and anti-spirituality. Now consider what "faith" might mean to those who are religious and deeply spiritual and those who are religious and strongly anti-spiritual. When people talk about the dangers of faith, they are likely talking about faith as it would be understood by anti-spiritualists/fundamentalists. Look at the quick summary for anti-spiritualism and fundamentalist religion again. Isn't it so?

But that should not be conflated with what faith looks like to spiritual people in contemplative religion. That doesn't mean you can't be critical of their understandings of faith either, but those understandings should be examined and evaluated on their own merits and not arbitrarily lumped in with the rest. 

The same goes for sacred. For anti-spiritualists and fundamentalists the sacred is reduced to forms, either words, concepts, shapes, or structures, which are then imbued with a special and exclusive power that reflects their own deep-seated fear, judgmentalism, and desire for control. In other words, their notion of the sacred is often expressed in the creation of idols to which they cling desperately and ferociously. They then tend to see other symbols of meaning or power or the sacred as rivals to be hated and destroyed. Again, check this against the summary of anti-spirituality and fundamentalism above. See what I mean?

Now try the exercise where you look at spirituality and contemplative religion and ponder what the sacred might mean in that context, from that kind of perspective.

Not quite the same, eh?

If you are curious, try this exercise out on other words associated with religion. If you really want to see a difference, apply to it a prayer, or perhaps a parable or other passage from a holy book.

Again, this isn't about getting people to convert to a religion or to even like religion. It's about understanding that spirituality is a human impulse that can manifest through the rituals and institutions we collectively refer to as religion, and that this impulse and these rituals and institutions are not all the same.

Now for a list of caveats and acknowledgements that seem appropriate as I am writing this. Yes, religion is more than rituals and institutions, it is also a worldview, an institution that can be politicized, and a mechanism for socialization and social control, to say the least. 

Yes, the name fundamentalism comes from a religious movement spanning the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries in the United States which produced the so-called "five-fundamentals" of Christianity. Yes, this was a reaction to modernism and the label has been applied to other anti-modernist backlashes in other religions, other times, and other societies. But for all of that, I still think my brief definition shows in part why there was a backlash or at least describes the form such reactions tend to take. 

Yes, it is probably impossible to find a religion, a branch of a religion, or even an individual who is "purely" spiritual or anti-spiritual, contemplative or fundamentalist, etc. But that doesn't mean some aren't very heavily weighted in favor of one side of the scale or the other.

And yes, and yes, to similar calls for clarification that may be forming in your mind. Thank you.

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