After rescuing spirituality from dysfunctional religion, its proponents have sometimes gone way to the other extreme, turning spirituality into a catch-all for anything mystical, metaphysical, magical and spoon-bending. In their rejection of religious tradition, institution, and orthodoxy, they “rescued” something of a shapeless blob of experience, which has been branded in countless ways and sold for huge profits to sometimes desperate, somewhat disoriented seekers.
The end result is a graveyard of dead and dying religions, but also this magic ooze that can be turned into whatever the willing consumer wants it to be.
Now, I’m not suggesting that the conditions and circumstances warranting such a rescue effort aren’t real. Much of religion has lost its soul. For a couple generations at least, it has been trying to compensate for a steady slide into irrelevancy, exhaustion, and rigor mortis by investing aggressively in megachurches, entertainment productions, and celebrity leaders. The pose that such religion strikes for us, however, feels a little too much like the stuffed and rigid products of taxidermy collecting dust on the shelf.
What we have, then, is a dead or dying religion on one side, and this oozy whatever-you-want-it-to-be spirituality on the other. I have been making a case for some time now for seeing healthy religion and a vibrant spirituality as inseparable, as the temporally relevant expression of an eternally (i.e., timelessly) creative essence. Just as we can’t take the life out of a living thing and set it aside as we dissect and examine its now lifeless body, neither can spirituality live outside and without the structural support of religion.
Spirituality is the “soul” to religion’s “body,” and despite the wildly popular but erroneous belief that one can exist without the other, the truth is that they are the Yin and Yang, respectively, whose entwining interaction is the Tao which cannot otherwise be named or known.
Our ego can be forgiven for wanting to identify itself with the immortal soul and eventually gain its escape from the mortal body. The important thing to understand, however, is that this division and separation of body and soul is the ego’s fantasy, a delusion it has projected into the nature of reality and into our own human nature.
This projection is a kind of therapeutic prescription for a death anxiety it has no obvious way to effectively address or resolve.
Ego doesn’t (“I don’t”) want to die, so it dissociates itself from the temporal body, conceives of the body as just a temporary residence, and identifies itself as that which will (it must!) continue on after the body dies. Such an “immortality project” (Ernest Becker) or “Atman project” (Ken Wilber) only deepens and magnifies the death anxiety, however.
Once it gets going, the fantasy can be all but impossible to break. But when it does break, we suddenly come to know the truth, and this truth sets us free.
The decline and death of religion is historically correlated with this gradual dissociation of ego from the mortal body, its self-identification as an immortal soul, and its mindless degradation of all the systems, processes, principles and mysteries that conspire together, as Yin and Yang, in the Tao of Reality.
Once we invented the dualism of body and soul, it would be just a matter of time before the “body” of religion and the “soul” of spirituality had to come apart, each destined for its own kind of extinction.
Is there any good news here? Anything we can do to repair (re-pair) religion and spirituality, body and soul, time and eternity, human and being?
Of course there is, and it’s been with us for thousands of years. It just so happens that religion has placed it on the Index of things that true believers must avoid, and that contemporary so-called “spirituality” has almost completely dissolved into its oozy solvent of metaphysical oddities.
We are talking about the Perennial Philosophy or Sophia Perennis, an underground stream of spiritual wisdom that has inspired, nourished, and refreshed our human quest after the ultimate Truth of things. This Truth is acknowledged in Sophia Perennis as transcendent of the religions themselves, but nonetheless (and paradoxically) immanent in and inclusive of all things – including the religions.
The above meditation image, or mandala, illustrates the basic principles of this holistic and dynamic vision of Reality using the familiar design of the Tao.
Consciousness goes “out” to wander, explore, dance and play among the ten thousand things. It also goes “in” to be still, to rest in Being, return to its Source, and find inner peace. We need both. If we should invest all our attention in just one side of this Yang-Yin polarity, the outer will become a rigid empty shell and the inner an oozy shapeless goop.
So we are back again to our contemporary dichotomy of religion without a soul and spirituality without any shape.
The domain of religion is the outer realm, where the expression of experience in the form of symbols, stories, sanctuaries and sacraments constructs the frame for an overarching meaning to life. This should prompt the question of what kind of experience gets the process going in the first place. The answer brings us into the domain of spirituality, an inner realm where the essence and depth of consciousness reaches along dark roots into the grounding mystery of Being.
The multitudinous symbols of God in religious mythology and iconography are not artistic replicas of divine beings encountered in the outer realm, but rather artistic representations of a present Mystery sensed in the inner depths of Being.
The overarching meaning and the underlying mystery are not two separate things – until religion gets too attached to its doctrines, to the point where these formal expressions of meaning are defended as the absolute truth and final word, the one and only way of salvation.
As advocates for Sophia Perennis, the mystics and teachers of spiritual wisdom have patiently but insistently reminded true believers that the essential depths of Mystery can never be “solved” into meaning. The Mystery they speak of – so far as anyone can speak of the ineffable – is not epistemological, a problem for thought, but ontological, a matter of being.
Only as we can remain rooted in awareness to the inner mystery of being-itself will the meaning we construct around ourselves be, and remain, relevant to the life we are living. And the way we do this is our religion.