by Jack McLean
Since this is my maiden column with the Millstone, I want to send potential readers an introduction about my upcoming columns.
If you are one who is still fascinated by God questions — the Transcendent, the Force, the Great Spirit, the One — or if you follow in life or mind some form of religion or spirituality, Pilgrim’s Notes may interest you.
If, on the other hand, you have written off religion, spirituality or faith as being the domain of the “dims,” to use Richard Dawkins’ prejudicial word to describe those who subscribe to religion or spirituality, or if you feel that your religion alone possesses all Truth, this column may not be for you. (I do entertain however the faint hope of an interest). Following a current slick formula: “the God that you don’t believe in just may be the God that I don’t believe in.”
It may help to clarify my use of the words “religion” and “spirituality.” According to the popular formula, “I’m spiritual not religious.” Although some have argued that this statement constitutes a notwithstanding clause, in which I accept no impositions except by consent, the distinction has been created because of the negative experiences people have had within organized religions. Some solitary spirituals, either by nature or experience, mistrust any corporation, organization or institution. They accept community, but only on their own terms.
And, should we glance at the ancient or more recent historical record, we have ample reason to suspect the behaviour of powerful, monolithic, religious institutions.
The alleged separation of religion and spirituality does not completely hold. To cite but two outstanding examples of spiritual practice—prayer and meditation—both have their origins in religion, both eastern and western. Spirituality has always been embedded in a larger system of precepts and beliefs.
The practice of loving-kindness or compassion, for example, is not just beneficial for its own sake. It is based on the perception that the other is a reflection of the sacred, a spiritual being who, like myself, will grow and thrive more from magnanimity than from judgement and rejection. It does not seem entirely coherent to attempt to separate rigidly spirituality from religion. Religion is not just a belief system, a discrete set of doctrines. Its credible and tangible face is the face of spirituality, the daily, lived experience of our social interactions.
Spirituality, in turn, is not merely a free-floating lifestyle that I can tailor to my own needs. Even for society-shunning monastics, it was and is a shared community experience; it was never intended to be strictly divorced from the belief system and morality code in which it is rooted. I will be using religion and spirituality, consequently, more or less interchangeably. If we cast in iron the meaning of either word, we shall soon find that the other is inescapably present.
I suggest that religion in history has more to offer than the dodgy profile of hateful fanatics, discredited clerics, rigid dogmatists — and more recently, destroyers of human beings and civilizations.
Religion, and even its more innocent child, spirituality, have not escaped being stereotyped by their opponents. The political and ideological usages that the power-hungry have forced upon humanity in the name of God must be clearly distinguished from, say, the spirit of compassion as taught by Christ in the Beatitudes, the loving-kindness that the Buddha embodied, the Golden Rule and the other wisdom traditions and ethical precepts that exist in all the world’s independent religions, or from the dynamic force of example shown by those who have lived by charity, sacrifice or moral rectitude. Too many have thrown out the baby because the bath water has become dirty; a life is there they didn’t see.
The story of human civilization over the millennia has demonstrated the staying power of faith, organized religion and spirituality. Although the scientifically inclined atheists and the logical positivists have sometimes predicted the extinction of religion in the face of the growing prestige and provisional “certainties” of science, these predictions have never come true.
And it’s a safe bet, in spite of the vogue of new atheism and enervating materialism that is currently spreading over the western world, and despite the harm done by religious fanaticism, that the confident predictions of the extinction of religion will prove to be quite wrong.
It is a safer bet that religion and spirituality will not die; they will, rather, be reborn in shapes and forms that will more readily administer to the crying needs of a fractured humanity. For faith, religion and spirituality are intended to be healing remedies for both individuals and the body politic. If these remedies become toxic, if religion promotes division, hatred and prejudice, it would be truly a religious act to withdraw from such a religion.
In the psycho-spiritual sense, the stunning electronic innovations fostered by science, technology, the Internet and social media have promoted worldwide “connectivity”: the growing realization of one global consciousness. What do religion and spirituality have to say in light of this emerging global consciousness?
The philosopher of communication Marshall McLuhan recognized a generation ago that the effects of the mass media have created a networked “global village.” What do religion and spirituality have to offer that will assist world citizens to live in harmony in the global village? These are questions that I intend to explore in other columns.
In closing, full transparency and disclosure about my own spiritual orientation would be in order. My own religious background is that of the Baha’i Faith, the youngest of the world’s independent religions (1844–). But I should be clear that, although I have been influenced by the Baha’i perspective, Pilgrim’s Notes is not intended to be an authoritative statement of the Baha’i teachings, nor am I offering my reflections in any official capacity.
My purpose is simply to stimulate reflection, to engage a conversation that invites exchange on a wide variety of religious themes in the perspective of interfaith spirituality. For these purposes, I welcome the comments of any interested readers. email@example.com