The Postmodern Tapestry
Now let’s look at the most provocative and vague word in my text’s title: “spirituality.”
What do we mean when we use this word?
Of course, spirituality means different things to different people. Some define it as having to do with moral values, others with a sense of meaning, for some people it is about belief in something beyond our mortal existence, for others it is more about asking ourselves what matters the most in life.
I want to talk about the popular Western use of the word “spirituality” in the late 20th century. In this context, people who did not identify with conventional, organized religion but who still had some interest in philosophical questions about being a good person, the deeper meaning of life, inner peace, self-knowledge and perhaps notions of a divinity that transcended names and forms, called themselves “spiritual, but not religious.”
Given the liberal freedoms, separation of church and state, high levels of education, being surrounded by science an technology, and the related waning of ardent religious belief, we may not have spent much time at church or subscribed to some of the stricter black-and-white codes of the Abrahamic religions (Islam, Judaism, Christianity), but still claimed an interest in spirituality.
This interest in spirituality extended to certain core philosophies and practices like yoga and meditation from Eastern religions, and also expressed a respect for and curiosity about ritual practices and mythologies of indigenous cultures.
People who identified as spiritual were generally (and rightly so) uncomfortable with fundamentalism; with any “only-way” religious approach that proclaimed all other traditions wrong.
They may have also grown quite uncomfortable with the historically unholy marriage between colonial imperialism and the closely associated mission of religious conversion —a mission that left in it’s wake genocide, slavery, the loss of tribal cultural identity and economic and political oppression in much of the non-European world.
Most spiritual Westerners in this sense of the word were (and continue to be) white and liberal and feel great (and appropriate) distress at the legacy of their forebears.
But the mistake often made is to then conflate the virtues of Western liberal values, science, reason, and the momentous liberation from religious dominance over the political, social, artistic and intellectual domains, —all really good things, with the appalling sins of colonialism, missionary fundamentalism and racist oppression.
So that now, in a topsy-turvy inversion, a liberal, egalitarian, modern, secular and scientific worldview is often mischaracterized as dogmatic and fundamentalist, while truly authoritarian, old world religious perspectives are mistaken as somehow being more open minded and liberal.
In a perplexing act of revisionist and ahistorical sleight-of-hand, the claim is often also made that pre-modern religious texts and tribal societies hold the antidote to our modern woes, and were actually somehow in-line with contemporary progressive, inclusive and tolerant values, but had simply been misinterpreted (because all meaning is relative) in the past.
The Western use of the word “spirituality” is closely associated with the rise of multiculturalism and further evolution of modern, enlightenment era liberal values that now seek to recognize the rights of the individual, regardless of their gender, race, religion or sexual orientation. Beautiful.
Built into popular spirituality is the important intention to not oppress any beliefs or points of view, and this makes for a very open and tolerant worldview that aspires to not only take multiple perspectives, but also to see the best in different traditions and seek out underlying commonalities.
There is a significant overlap here with a way of thinking called postmodernism, specifically the idea from postmodernism that concepts like truth, reality, and facts, are all relative and contextual. Postmodernism sees science as merely another type of mythology, no more or less true than a religious or novelistic narrative.
With the stance that all perspectives are equally valid, some postmodernists see it as a form of oppression to claim that any one perspective is more true, factual or well evidenced than any other.
Spiritual people tended to feel that everyone had a right to their own beliefs —after all, following the influence from postmodernism, there was no “one truth”, and cultural differences should be respected. Beliefs were seen as a matter of taste or personal choice.
This has left the spiritual community especially vulnerable and confused when it comes to toxic cults and abusive authoritarian gurus —”who are we to say?” is often the refrain, and even, (with a wisely knowing look) “maybe those people needed to be in those abusive and toxic situations in order to grow, and it is all perfect.”
Moreover, “maybe there really was a spaceship waiting behind the comet that they ascended to after eating the poisoned yoghurt —we just don’t know!”
Denying that any truth, facts or valid value judgments can be discovered out of a fear of being oppressive or arrogant creates a kind of intellectual coma, that serves no-one.
This valuing of open-ness is a wonderful antidote to theocracy (religious control of government), monarchy (belief that certain families were ordained by a god to have unassailable wealth and power), fundamentalism (belief in the literal truth of any specific religious text as being unquestionable truth) and of course the racism and cultural superiority of colonialism, but it runs into trouble when trying to address logical and evidential claims of what is actually true and false, and moral/ethical arguments about what is good or bad, and why.
Extreme forms of postmodern relativism tend to see any claim of an objective truth, a reality true for everyone, scientific principles, or statements about what is false, wrong, or evil, as just another kind of dogmatic fundamentalism. In the same bag would be any lines we might draw between sanity and mental illness, between delusions and beliefs that fit with an actual reality we all inhabit.
This postmodern brand of personal spiritual choice then likewise extended from beliefs about moral behavior, how to worship, the existence, names and qualities of a god, life after death, reincarnation, and karma, to those about synchronicity, divine intervention, ghosts, demons, angels, aliens, ancestors, and magical powers.
Its as if we were so sickened by religious bigotry and cultural colonialism that spirituality became an anything goes, who-are-we-to-say salad bar in which everyone could choose how to mix and match our life philosophy and metaphysical beliefs about the nature of reality.
Anything short of that would be biased and arrogant, and (here’s the mistake) therefore reason, evidence and an interest in demonstrable truth were definitely out of style —because they were (wrongly) seen as a relic of patriarchal, colonialist superiority.
While the laudably tolerant and sensitive attitudes of multiculturalism were a tremendously important shift, the philosophical problem that it fosters is based mostly in the wild over-compensation of extreme relativism.
We should all of course be completely free to choose what we believe is important or true about life, but the above worldview too often mistakenly associates a lack of critical thinking with an abundance of spiritual freedom.
It also tends to confusedly try to extend tolerance toward points of view that are themselves grossly intolerant, often deeming it taboo to criticize absolutely any spiritual or religious belief, even if it is oppressive, hateful or violent toward women, gays, or even threatens execution to those who choose to abandon said beliefs.
If we fully embrace a who-are-we-to-say moral relativism, then there is too often an erring on the side of not feeling entitled to judge practices like female genital mutilation or throwing homosexuals from rooftops. Ironically, this abdication of moral judgment will often be explained as not wanting to be oppressive, because maybe in their culture this is right for them —who are we to say?!
Postmodern relativism inevitably runs into this type of self-contradiction.
For example: If it is oppressive to criticize oppressive beliefs, what are we to do about oppression?
If all truths are merely relative, then so must be this statement itself, therefore we have said nothing…
If all perspectives are valid, then so is the perspective that says some perspectives are not valid, and again the intellectual foundation is non-existent.
I hope the practical problems with this are obvious.
For those finding a kind of refuge in the vague and soothing postmodern worldview, any emphasis of critical thinking or scientific method raises the specter of oppression.
After all, (they might say) isn’t the scientific method a kind of dogmatic religious bias against emotions, women and people of other cultures? Isn’t critical thinking a relic of patriarchal dominance; a fascist insistence on logic over feeling?
Actually, no. Scientific method and critical thinking have been, and remain, the antidote to dogmatism, authoritarianism, bias, and oppression. These non-authoritarian ways of testing evidence and logic (instead of being forced to agree with the Pope or the King) have been central to the development of our still evolving and imperfect democracy, which seeks to create more freedom and equality than any previous system on the planet.
Tellingly, in modern day theocracies, dictatorships and truly oppressive regimes, critical thinking, scientific inquiry, and the rights to free speech against authoritarian dogmas are all criminal offenses when they contradict the official dogmas of the state and its religion —whether scriptural or of the bizarre “great leader” supernaturalist mythology of states like North Korea.
The understandable postmodern over-reaction brings our spiritual evolution into an unfortunate cul de sac in which all beliefs are held as sacred, as long as they contain some kind of spiritual sounding idea or claim some exotic or (especially) ancient origin —no matter how authoritarian, outdated, or oppressive these beliefs, in practice and on the page, may be.
A dualism is then set up between untouchable sacred beliefs and any observations we make based on questioning these beliefs. Questioning is seen as too heady, linear, patriarchal, definitely unspiritual —indeed, as profane. This popular but misguided logic then elevates anything that is unscientific and requiring of a leap of unwarranted faith to the level of enlightened open-mindedness. This is especially true in “new age” spirituality, which has become a multi-million dollar industry.
In new age spirituality, the true believer is self-inoculated against critical thinking, arguments based in evidence, reason or logic, because all of these have been deemed the enemy of open-mindedness, intuitive connection, and living from the heart, before the conversation even starts.
So, how do we move forward?
Three Stages, Not Two Halves
The core split (discussed in an earlier chapter) between reason and faith exists not only in old world religion but in new age spirituality as well. The new age worldview generally sees an implicit divide between rational and non-rational ways of being.
Non-rational = spiritual, rational = unspiritual.
All too often, belief in the power of crystals, the truth of ancient prophecy, the accuracy of astrology, the god-ordained divinity of certain gurus, or the channeling of inter-dimensional alien beings are all seen by this formula as evidence of “being spiritual.” Expressing doubts is therefore the mark of an unspiritual person, someone too much “in their head,” lacking in faith or open-ness, or perhaps scared to surrender their ego and “come from the heart.”
But what if, instead of the above black and white options of child-like uncritical belief vs. stodgy (and usually stereotyped as masculine) closed-mindedness, a more complete understanding can see three developmental stages, that move from child-like naïve magical thinking to reasonable respect for evidence and logic, to an embrace of an embodied and integrated adult spirituality that is not at odds with our rational faculties.
Pre-Rational, to Rational, to Trans-Rational
In the previous chapter we looked at research-based models of cognitive, moral and worldview development. These models can be seen as describing a set of broader stages that move from pre-conventional, to conventional, to post-conventional in the case of Kohlberg and from pre-rational to rational to trans-rational in the case of both Piaget and Gebser.
As mentioned above, popular new age spirituality often champions non-rational modes of experience, which is a very valuable and important message: It is true that contemporary humans are often too caught up in mental stimulation, are disconnected from our bodies and emotional life, that we live in ways that are stressful, disconnected and sometimes champion rational control over full-hearted, embodied aliveness. Engaging in activities and practices that develop greater body awareness, help us to access the heart wisdom of emotions and intuition, and cultivate a creative flexibility toward life are all important —but so too is maintaining a healthy engagement of reason.
The key here lies perhaps in recognizing that the non-rational domain includes both pre-rational and trans-rational ideas and beliefs, and telling the difference is crucial! This is the first step in our quest toward enacting a contemporary spiritual vision.
A simple example might be the following:
Pre-rational: Poseidon is a god who lives at the center of the ocean. He also is responsible for creating earthquakes. If we praise and please him all will be well, especially in matters of war involving our ships. I stand on the beach and make offerings and prayers to Him, petitioning for the well-being of our people.
Rational: Earthquakes are caused by the movement of tectonic plates. Poseidon is not real and there is no mental influence behind natural disasters or weather conditions. The ocean is just a very large body of water. I am fascinated by what science has revealed so far about nature and it fills me with interesting thoughts as I sit here on the sand.
Trans-rational: Poseidon is an intuitive personification of the power of nature. Sitting in open-eyed meditation I gaze upon the ocean and feel the earth beneath me. I experience my own body and mind in relationship to these powerful forces. An awe-inspiring sense arises of both my own smallness and the vast capacity of my consciousness. The ocean moves in its moon-inspired rhythm, the waves of my blood ripple through my body, my heart beats in the silence and (for the moment) the earth feels unmoving and solid beneath me – even as it spins on its axis and rotates around the sun! I also bear witness to the part of me that longs to able to magically control that which arouses fear and a feeling of smallness – but keep letting go into acceptance and awe, as my self expands for a timeless moment to include all that is. Then I stand and walk down the beach – all that has changed is my internal state. Though there are elemental forces and patterns in nature, there is no influence-able deity or magic power controlling any of this and that is not only OK – it is simply what is.
So, what has happened here, what is the difference between pre-rational and trans-rational – and how does the development of rational awareness come into play?
Simply put, at the rational stage we surrender literal interpretations and magical thinking of the kind that postulates literal supernatural beings who we attempt to sway by means of superstitious ritual. Rationally we realize that reality simply does not work that way and we become more able to tolerate that existential discomfort – which in turn generates more wisdom and compassion than is possible while invested in defensive pre-rational beliefs.
Trans-rational then builds on this growth but is able to go deeper into the metaphorical, symbolic meanings behind the previously literalized archetypes (here represented by Poseidon.) Trans-rational also embraces a more deeply self-aware and self-empowered experiential opening between the inner and outer worlds, rather than stopping at the rational stage and simply negating the literal interpretation and going no further. Genuine trans-rational awareness is not possible without the solid foundation of rational awareness – and because the rational stage debunks superstition and literalist magical thinking, these are not part of the trans-rational stage.
Anytime we see magical thinking, superstitious belief or literalized metaphor, we are in the domain of the pre-rational, and usually this kind of spirituality is unfortunately explicitly anti-rational, because rationality threatens it’s cherished ideas. Perhaps rightly so, because exercising rationality will mean that we have to let go of pre-rational beliefs, but that is not the end of spirituality.
At the rational stage we can still be profoundly moved by art and music, be passionate about human rights and equality, and find a profound sense of awe at the natural world. There can be a rational but deeply spiritual reverence for science, truth, love and life itself; a reverence that needs no reference point beyond this world.
Magical thinking, supernatural beings and superstition are replaced by a more humble yet expansive existential honesty and an ability to tolerate the polarities: shadow and light, meaningful and meaningless, personal and impersonal, order and randomness, suffering and bliss. Ongoing, integrated spiritual practice not only develops our latent capacities for insight, awareness, compassion and clarity, but also allows us to make peace with the realities of life that are unavoidably difficult to face.
At the trans-rational stage we become ever more open to the power of poetic metaphor, mythic symbol and archetypal representation to guide us into our inner lives. We use integrated spiritual practice to open us up to profound states of consciousness and to work with self-development, healing and growth.
Trans-rational spirituality is not at odds with reason, does not quarrel with science, makes no supernatural claims, and is actively involved in an inquiry into truth as well as the cultivation of compassion in the face of the very real suffering, injustice and chaos that are an inescapable part of human life. There is most often in popular spirituality a troubling lack of tools and ideas to help us deal with what I will call the essential shadow work that comes up as part of one’s journey through the rational stage. Here’s the interesting twist: precisely because the rational stage demands a level of emotional and existential honesty that is scary for many of us, we often initially make an avoidant spiritual u-turn as a way to regress and hold onto what are actually defensive pre-rational beliefs, even if they are very well-dressed up to look like trans-rational ones.
The Psychological U-Turn
Here are the familiar telltale signs of the pre-rational regression enacted as a psychological u-turn:
If the beliefs suggest that we can magically influence external events through ritual or the power of special intentional thoughts, even (perhaps especially) if they try to misguidedly “prove” this using quantum physics – they are most likely pre-rational.
Well, because developmentally, they have not yet reconciled a rational perspective on cause and effect, and magical thinking is basically on the same level as Santa Claus, the tooth fairy and unicorns. No-one can walk through walls or on water, transcend the classical laws of physics, stop time or control the outside world with their minds, and no ritual act or intentional focus has the power to literally affect the natural world so that bad things don’t happen, green lights and parking spaces appear everywhere just for you, or million dollar checks arrive in the mail. This is classic inner/outer fallacy, and it confuses genuinely trans-rational ideas that rest on the foundation of rational grounding, with pre-rational ideas that see rationality as the enemy. It also raises the red flag of narcissism, apparent in the notion that the ego can become all-powerful over everything via some special ability, knowledge or belief. This is, ironically enough, the precise opposite of spiritual growth.
If the beliefs say that even the most terrible injustices, traumas and suffering are either self-created, or happening for some reason that is part of a divine plan, universal perfection etc – they are pre-rational.
Well, because it indicates having not yet come to a basic honesty about the existence of evil, the reality of suffering and the presence of random chance in our lives. It is to a certain extent an appeal to some kind of dysfunctional parental force that is always protecting and always knows best – even when it seems abusive! This unwittingly distorts reality and limits our compassionate response to suffering – while laudably aspiring to be positive. This is classic shadow denial and it keeps spirituality on the surface – a perhaps pleasing and pretty surface, but nonetheless lacking depth, substance, meaning, honesty and the transformative and healing potency of a spirituality that faces life as it is – warts and all. Perhaps by now it is easy to see that these ideas come from a child-like perspective of a reality controlled by all-powerful parents who know what is best – even when they are causing pain. But the truth is there is no invisible parental figure – good, bad or indifferent, orchestrating the way our lives unfold.
Part of the rational stage in this sense has to do with having an honest acceptance of the shadow and seeing through the popular fabrications that help us to pretend that what we’d rather not face, does not exist.
This tendency toward denial and rationalization in the human psyche is so strong that it is woven in a largely unquestioned way through what most of us think of as “spirituality.” Having faith is often unwittingly equated with believing unreasonable magic or mythic explanations for how bad things are really good things in disguise, or how injustice and trauma has really been “chosen” at some level by their victims.
These soothing but ultimately very spiritually damaging ideas can be understood as a part of a spiritual defense system that is a way of both denying what is unpleasant and giving us the illusion of either a) us having an impossible level control, or that b) a parental, supernatural, benevolent force is in control —and that even when something looks terrible, it is really for the best.
If we are honest with ourselves and have spent any time either experiencing or witnessing real trauma, poverty, war, or oppression, we know that these kinds of beliefs are not only inadequate to the task of containing reality, but are unintentionally insulting to those who truly are victimized.
The single question that helps us to grow beyond these defenses is simply this:
What would you have to feel if you considered that this belief might not be true?
Perhaps fear, guilt, grief, and rage might be part of the list.
The next question might be:
Now how do we develop a spirituality that can help us deal with these feelings more honestly?
In essence, it takes a deeper kind of faith to face life on it’s own terms, accept shadow and light and trust that the process of taking down our defensive walls and re-integrating what we have denied and avoided will lead us not only toward greater wholeness, but to the further stages of our spiritual growth as grounded human beings.