Are We Spiritual Idiots?

Heschel: “Is it not possible that we are entering a stage in history out of which we may emerge as morons, as an affluent society of spiritual idiots?”

What is spiritual intelligence? Do “spirit,” “spiritual” and “spirituality” even have a place in a worldview that rejects metaphysical realism as a foundational assumption? If the mythological God has died with our outmoded and irrelevant mythology (as Nietzsche claimed), then are we just done with God altogether? If an immortal soul was a prophylactic against our human anxiety over death (as Watts contended), does it have any significance once we come to full acceptance of our mortality? In other words, is the revolution leading us into an age where the language of spirituality is nonsense? Or are we already there?

Let me review the conversation so far, as it concerns our understanding of human nature. As a human being I am body, ego, and soul: each of these is a center of experience, and the focus of my conscious attention migrates “up” and “down” the axis connecting them. The experiential center of “body” orients me in the physical environment as well as in the deeper stream of my genetic prehistory. Instincts are those drives, reflexes and internal urgencies (as in the “urge” to breathe) that sustain this body as a living organism. (I caught myself about to write “my body.”) For the most part, these impulses are dedicated to ensuring my survival, and sometimes this means contending with others for what I need.

Ego is my identity as shaped in the social context of a tribe (first my family, then moving farther out). Beyond physical survival, I also need to belong – where I can “fit in” and “stand out” as a valued member. If body motivates self-interested behavior, ego is where “other-interested” behavior is trained into me. I need the acceptance, approval and recognition of others to hold my place here. The experiential center of “ego” orients me in the field of interpersonal relationships, social expectations, cultural anxieties and aspirations. My successful ego development requires definite “role models” – personalities who exhibit and demonstrate those qualities of character that my tribe deems worthy of emulation.

Chief and highest among these role models is the mythological God. At this level, religion is an organized program for supporting the devotee (ego) in becoming more like God – obeying God’s will and conforming to the way God is portrayed in the myths. It’s at this level, too, where the doctrine of one’s immortal soul is most “useful.” Who you really are does not die with the body (so don’t be anxious). But where you end up (heaven or hell, since you have to go somewhere) is determined by how obedient you are to God’s will, which by implication means how compliant you are with tribal orthodoxy.

Ego is not soul. Identity is not spirituality. However easy my tribal training has made it for me to say “I (ego) am immortal” and “I (ego) have a soul,” both statements are misguided. Not only that, they amount to a powerful trance that can prevent me from fully engaging my spiritual center of experience. Soul is spiritual, not personal – as persona refers to the masks of identity and tribal roles that connect us socially to others. As long as ego continues to personify and claim ownership of the soul (just as the tribe personifies “my” God in its mythology), we will become – or continue to be – spiritual idiots.

What does it mean to be “spiritual,” then, if not dutifully performing the religious and moral disciplines that (my tribe says) will get me to heaven? What is “spirituality” if not the ego reflecting on its own immortality and trying to be more like God?

Here’s a short answer …

This body is rooted in the rhythms of nature, and is itself a coordinated system of organic urgencies. This ego is my social identity, drawn out of the body and shaped through my interactions with other members of my tribe. And this soul is not who I am, but what I am: grounded in the mystery of being and a living part of The Whole. “Spirituality” is about living in the awareness of communion. “Spiritual” names that dimension of life where all things breathe together. And “spirit” is the breath, the creative dynamic of existence that inhales oneness and exhales the astonishing magnificence of it all.

Already too many words. In the face of mystery, it is best to be silent.

Published by tractsofrevolution

Thanks for stopping by! My formal training and experience are in the fields of philosophy (B.A.), spirituality (M.Div.), and counseling (M.Ed.), but my passionate interest is in what Abraham Maslow called "the farther reaches of our human nature." Tracts of Revolution is an ongoing conversation about this adventure we are all on -- together: becoming more fully human, more fully alive. I'd love for you to join in!

4 thoughts on “Are We Spiritual Idiots?

  1. It is the idea that everyone is trapped or controlled by ego that makes society “an affluent society of spiritual idiots?.”

    1. I’d say that the majority are trapped “as” ego rather than “by” ego. A lot of contemporary religion – especially the Christianity with which I’m familiar – almost demonizes the ego by blaming it for all our problems. Ego can go either way, as I see it, sucking us into self-preoccupation OR serving as a spring-board to higher experiences.

      1. If you consider ego to be all about “I” and what “I” want, then what about all the people who are concerned about “you” and what is best for you?

        I’m thinking about care givers like nurses and moms, the hero that risked his life to save you, the Buddhist who at the end of each prayer says, “May the merit that I have achieved be for the benefit of all sentient beings.” These people do not operate from ego. They are all about what is best for someone else. They sacrifice their personal comforts, so that someone else will be happy, healthy, or safe. I call them egoless. The rules that apply to ego-based personalities do not apply to the egoless. These people need to learn to stand up for themselves and claim the “I AM.” Prioritize who or where they give their energy.

        The rules of the ego-based personality like being humble and giving until it hurts are detrimental to egoless beings.

  2. I can no longer “like” without being a WordPress member. But… I’m “liking” what I read. Very challenging to my thoughts.

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