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From Spirituality to Theology

Let us imagine that there is a Great Reality hiding behind the wonder and hope we feel when we are “spiritual.” Let us dare to imagine that the feeling, the enchantment of being “spiritual” is not folly, nor mere entertainment, nor the self-indulgence of willing ignorance. Let us imagine that there is indeed meaning and purpose here, a value like Beauty, as real as Truth and Goodness. Being “spiritual” is by no means a mistake; it is wonderful.

And then, let us imagine — or simply be willing to take the risk — that our rational nature, too, has value. What if then we wonder about our wonder? What if we dare to ask What — or Who — is this Beauty, this Source and Object of our wonder? Perhaps someone will say, “No, this we cannot do! For the mind of the mere human is much too small, too limited, to understand this Effulgence, this Glory. The finite, we must insist, can never grasp the Infinite!” And here, too, the speaker is not wrong.

And yet, let us observe two things. First, we might say that theological reasoning is never a matter of comprehending, as if “comprehending” could be comprehensive. No “grasping” or “understanding” need claim to be full and complete. Of course! But does the finitude of human knowledge limit all thought? Is the only alternative to total knowledge some kind of total silence? Let us admit our finitude and take risks with the power we have.

And second, let us note that even “negative theology,” the language of apophatic descriptors, is already theology. Let us admit that we claim to know something of the Ultimate Being, the Great Mystery, even when we speak of effulgence, glory, and infinity. Perhaps there is more theology in spirituality than we thought. Perhaps there is more theology in spirituality than we want.

The Theology of Spirituality

If we are content to think of “spirituality” as entirely and exclusively aesthetic, then we may perhaps stop short of adding thought to feeling. And thus our religious life is akin to any other form of entertainment: You might like Marvel or you might like DC, but there is no point of discussing further any value or merit in either. Entertainment, at its best. At worst it is another drug, and the drug of choice is a matter of taste. For Huxley, it was mescaline, for Carlos Castaneda it was some kind of mushroom, for Hugh Hefner it was Viagra.

But if we might choose to treat ourselves as rational beings as well as aesthetic beings, we might begin to try thinking about the spiritual experience. This does not require us to dismiss spirituality as such, does not presume some kind of logical positivism that would preclude the honest appreciation of spiritual experience. But it does ask us to take reason seriously and to wonder if the object of our experience is real, and, if so, what it is. And if we dare to start such a journey of thought, then we can begin thinking theologically. And if we begin to think theologically, we risk the possibility that it leads us to God.

No doubt some are not willing to take such a risk. And those choose to treat themselves with less dignity than they deserve.

Spiritual, Not Religious

It is easy to understand why someone would want to say they are “spiritual, but not religious.” The latter term makes us think of real, historical, cut-and-dried religions, like Christianity or Islam or Buddhism. Doesn’t all the attention to history and doctrine just get in the way of feeling the presence of Something Greater? Isn’t it easier, more fulfilling, more tolerant of others, to avoid the discussions of religious truths and practices that merely separate us one from another? We can understand the beauty of the religious feeling of Presence, of the Wonderful. and there is no reason to corrupt this freedom of spiritual experience with concerns over doctrine or the demands of moral and ritual behavior. It is, after all, a kind of freedom, and freedom is good.

Funny, though, how ideas intrude. For even in the claim only to be “spiritual,” there is something the spiritual person claims to know, namely that there is, there must be, that “Something Greater.” Let us not name It. Let us not call it ‘He’ or ‘She.” I understand. But the spiritual person has already said a great deal, something grand that inevitably contradicts the beliefs of others, the beliefs, at least, of the simple materialist — “materialist” both in the philosophical sense, referring to those who believe only in matter and not in anything spiritual, and in the ethical sense of those for whom acquisition of material goods seems to be the highest value in life. “I’m sorry,” the spiritual person is saying, however sotto voce, “but there is more to reality than you materialists know.” And the spiritual person is right. Note, too, that he/she is right in a philosophical sense (contra the first meaning of ‘materialism’) and in an ethical sense (contra the second meaning). At the very least, the spiritual person believes something like what William James says, namely, that there is more to reality than the mundane world, and that attention to this greater reality will make living in the mundane world better. And these two points, James claims, is the fundamental teaching of … religion.

On Truth and Despair

“If there is no Christ, then I should be a Muslim; if there is no God, then I should be a Buddhist; if there is no enlightenment, then I should be an American surburbanite, for normality is the final despair.”

One can live a normal life. One can seek simply to survive, perhaps even to be happy, but survival and happiness are mediocre achievements. No doubt for those who are truly at risk of death or who truly suffer deprivation, they are worthy goals, but for the American suburbanite they are acquiescence to hopelessness. For at the very least, one might hope for a calmness and wholeness of mind that is not dependent on common wealth and suburban security. And this greater wholeness is the greater hope.

Yet this, too, is a peculiarly weak hope, ironically selfish and indulgent. Yes, take your mindfulness and your centering and be at peace, at peace with yourself. These trends of the middle-class self-satisfied are only an extension of self-satisfaction, a spiritual narcissism added to American economic narcissism. Yet one might hope that there is a greater glory than myself, however enlightened I might fancy myself to be. And that greater glory is a greater hope.

But the greater the theology of might and glory, the greater the distance between God and the soul. “Allahu Akbar,” there is none greater than God, and as a consequence there is no going to God from finitude, let alone from sin. But suppose that instead of the climb to God, God should descend to us. Suppose that, instead of sin rising to perfection, perfection should take on the ugliness of sin. Of course these suppositions do not prove truth, but if they are true, then there is a greater hope. And if they are not, then so begins the descent into American despair.

Sin and Karma

Imagine this scenario.  A young man, troubled through high school, finally gets a job at a local shoe store where, for a while, he tries to become a good, hard-working citizen.  But the temptation is too great, and eventually he embezzles from the store.  As a result, the store itself becomes insolvent, the company folds, and, consequently, the young man loses his job.  Thus his own action comes back to hurt him.

Now, suppose instead that the troubled student did not merely “find” his job, but was befriended by another high school student, one whose father owned a family shoe store.  And in an effort to help the troubled young man, the family gave the wayward kid a job.  But again, the kid embezzles from the store, the store collapses, and the young man loses his job.  It’s the same story.  But suppose the family finds out why they lost their store.  Suppose they find out that the young man whom they befriended was the cause of the collapse.  We find then that the issue is not just one of suffering the consequences of one’s own actions.  For in the second case  there is more than some abstract “evil.”  There is betrayal.

This is the difference between sin and “bad karma.”  For sin is not merely a “bad” action with repercussions; it is a betrayal of trust, an affront to love.  No wonder people prefer karma, for in some imagined economy of automatic moral retribution, there is no one to face, no one that can look at you with sorrow.  To break the shoe store is the same in both stories; to betray love and trust is something entirely new in the second tale.  And it is a burden no honest soul can bear without tears.  The dishonest conscience would therefore much more happily believe in karma than sin.

Yet here is one more difference between karma and sin: it is possible that the family that trusted the young man can learn of his sin and forgive.

How Many Generations?

How many generations passed between Joseph and Moses, seeing nothing but the decay into slavery and the lonely, weary, angry rebellion of a heart against the unkept covenant?  We do not know what they thought, how they might have raged against the God of their fathers.  And rightly so.

How many more generations passed between the prophets of a newly restored Israel and the astonishing revelation of a dead and risen Messiah?  We know much more about what these people thought, as Persian conquerors gave them hope and Greek conquerors changed it to temptation, as Seleucid conquerors then made it despair and Roman conquerors finally scattered hope to the winds.  We know there was a brief period of victory for “God’s people,” though even that fell easily to corruption and made even the holy temple a place of simony and nepotism.  Wicked, aggressive and ultimately co-opted Hasmoneans gave the Davidic throne to an Idumean tyrant and sold priestly office to aristocrats.  No wonder Essenes changed hope into waiting in the desert, and Pharisees changed hope into the labor of establishing a perfect law.

How many generations shall we who live these millennia later labor in hopeless fear of a glorious faith sold to a culture of achievement and self-satisfaction?  We, like those who waited for centuries in apparently forgotten silence — we will cling to an ancient promise in our spiritual moments and in darker moments secretly despair of a real world’s redemption.  We cannot remove ourselves to some hermitic cave nor pretend a perfect law in Talmudic detail. Yet we, too, must continue these centuries alone as an over-used faith dies of a passed popularity.

Hope for Claudius

The show of piety in the prayer of Claudius is enough to stay the murderous hand of Hamlet, but Claudius himself knows it is not enough.  He knows he cannot truly repent of a sin that he intends to continue to enjoy.  Admittedly, the theology of Claudius — and of Hamlet, too — is too magical for most of us, but even so, it is difficult to know how to announce grace to a Protestant Claudius who cannot imagine the practical reality of repentance.  Some there may be who could really spurn the usurped queen and throne; some there may be who could truly abandon middle-class wealth and the idolatry of American sexuality.  But few.  And so what hope is there for Claudius?  Only grace.

But beware: Reliance on grace cannot become antinomianism, and freedom from the law cannot become acquiescence to sin.  So if there is hope for Claudius, it must be in some kind of longing repentance that acknowledges his inability to “go and sin no more.”  It must be a kind of repentance that sees him perhaps struggle and cry and continue to feel the pangs of guilt, even while knowing he is made guiltless.  He must continually accept grace and continually want to be better than he is.  He must be uncertain; he must be uncomfortable.  Claudius must be willing to be unhappy.

There must be hope for Claudius because there must be hope for me.

The Prophet’s Despair

The prophet in Nineveh stands in the center of the bar, speaks into the din of top-40 music and somehow awakens a sleepy world to their own glory, then to the glory of God.  He speaks and some would mock, but they are hushed, maybe just once, just for a minute, and so the poem of love and eternity begins.  Someone, just one person, weeps, and the light from the Feathered Stone shines where it will.  “Kasyapa understands!” the prophet smiles, and that is enough.

But we are victims of the most recent love song. We have accepted the fickleness of life even as we make promises and declare our love.  We speak of eternity and know we don’t mean it.  Or, we mean it for now and will change our minds later.  It’s too late!  The words of the prophet have already been taken and used up.  They can no longer hold the precious nectar; they leak.

The Mistake We Make

It is a sad and common mistake that we choose to be happy instead of good.  In some imagined Eden, perhaps, there would never have been such a choice to consider, and in the mere imagining of that paradise we can see that goodness and happiness are not intrinsically opposed.  No — let it be clear — happiness is not evil.  But this side of our broken souls the choice between being happy and being good is all too often set before us, and, all too often, we choose happiness over goodness.  Couched in such abstractions, perhaps it is difficult to see why we should consider the alternative.  Yet we know (don’t we?) that in a fallen world the good is greater than happiness, as truth is greater than both.

Here, perhaps, is the root of our temptation: That in Eden happiness is greater than goodness, greater even than truth.  In Eden the glory shines foremost, and the lovers of glory may delight in innocence, naked and unashamed.  And even now, driven from the Garden, the glory calls and whispers, telling us to delight, reminding us of dew-watered grass and the beauty of the world’s first sunset.  But with innocence gone, all is twisted, easily misled, most of all the delight that is made to love without caution.  And so must delight be held, kept, not caged like a beast, but guided like mighty waters between rocky banks.  Like the soft wildness of sex kept sacred in a marriage bed, delight is made free by the dedication of the moral vow.  Without the vow, it is an impostor at best, rape at worst.  And so is happiness a moral usurper if chosen above the good; so is it necessary, when confronted with the horror of the choice, to sacrifice happiness for goodness.  I’m sorry.

If there be a God…

Perhaps there is a Judgment Day, and God — if there be a God — will call me to account for all my actions, some good, some bad.  And God — if there be a God — might say, “Look, the scales are heavy,” or “Look, the scales are light,” and by some bizarre and unimaginable arithmetic my wildly divergent acts will add up to a calculated sum that no one but God Himself can calculate.

Or perhaps God — if there be a God — will say, “For all the good and bad you did, you followed a conscience bent on the good and therefore I take the actions from you as good deeds.”  Or God — if there be a God — might say no such thing.  Perhaps God — if there be a God — will say, “In fact, your intention was far from pure, for indeed you intended to do only as much good as you could do easily and only the kind of good you could understand without much challenge.” For that matter, why should I assume that God cares about intention, as if God were a Kantian?

Perhaps after all God  — if there be a God — will say, “Nothing of what you said or thought or did matters, for it was all lila, divine playfulness, and in the end a trivial thing.”  Thus shall all human concern for justice and all human burdens of guilt not be alleviated, but made absurd.  We thus become not peaceful, but laughable.

Or perhaps God  — if there be a God — will say, “You may leave aside these questions, for my grace is sufficient.”  And if that is what God  — if there be a God — says, then I may rest, not from action or from its eternal meaning, but from concern for the good per se and for purity of intention.

Or perhaps there is no God.