Tag Archives: ineffable

Why Spirituality and Religion Need Each Other

In their effort to distance themselves from irrelevant and pathological forms of religion, many today are identifying themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” This general move across culture has also tended to brand religion itself as inherently irrelevant (outdated) and pathological (extremist and/or delusional). The so-called New Atheists have promoted this identification in their advocacy on behalf of science, humanism, and social progress.

A problem with not only this more aggressive opposition to religion, but even with the self-identifier of “spiritual but not religious,” is that it’s based in a fundamental misunderstanding. It treats spirituality and religion as if they are two entirely different things – one private and personal, presumably; the other public and institutional.

As a matter of historical fact, organized religion is losing credibility. A religion which is fundamentalist, anti-scientific, countercultural, and otherworldly is quite literally out of touch.

But notice that I said “a religion which is” these things, not that religion itself is out of touch. Just as we wouldn’t want to identify science with examples of bad science (e.g., parapsychology) or quasi science (e.g., creationism) and summarily scrap the empirical enterprise of science altogether, neither should we confuse religion itself with its irrelevant or pathological examples and dismiss it all as dangerous nonsense.

In this post I will make the case that while religion itself needs to be distinguished from its cultural (good or bad) examples, it also needs to be understood as inseparable from spirituality – another term which I’ll attempt to define more carefully below.

My diagram illustrates a watercourse flowing left-to-right, with the picture divided in the two dimensions of “outer” and “inner.” This is meant to correspond to a most fundamental and obvious fact, which is that consciousness opens simultaneously in two orientations: outward through the senses to a sensory-physical reality, and inward by contemplative intuition to its own grounding mystery.

Check it out for yourself.

As the executive organ of your sentient nervous system, your brain is constantly monitoring information coming through its senses from the external environment. By the process of perception it represents a relevant and meaningful picture of reality called your worldview (or simply your world). At the same time, your brain is receiving information from your body’s internal environment and gathering it into a gestalt intuition called your self-concept (or simply your self). Self-and-world is the integral construct by which you, moment by moment, work out the meaning of your life.

A secondary function of religion at the cultural level (suggested in the Latin word religare, to link back or connect) is to unify the disparate objects and fields of perception into a world picture that will orient its members and make life meaningful. For many millenniums religion succeeded in this enterprise by telling stories, which it draped over the frame of reality as people have understood it.

With the rapid rise of empirical science, however, that cosmological frame underwent significant remodeling, with the result that many stories no longer made sense.

So, if putting together a coherent world picture that makes life meaningful is the secondary function of religion, what is its primary one?

Still in spirit of “linking back,” this time it’s about linking this temporal world to that grounding mystery of existence which rises into self-awareness from deep within. Your spontaneous experience of life is not simply contained in your body but rather arises from the quantum field of energy, the electromagnetic realm of matter, the organic web of life, and through the sentient networks of consciousness, until it bends back upon itself in (and as) the utterly unique center of personal identity which you name “I-myself.”

The two distinct dimensions of your existence, then, are the world of meaning where you play out your identity, and the ground of being which supports and animates your self from within: Outer and inner.

Hopefully now you can see that these two dimensions of inner and outer are not separate “parts” of you, but two distinct orientations of consciousness – outward by observation to the larger world of meaning, and inward by intuition to the deeper ground of being. Just as the outside and inside of a cup cannot be separated from each other, so your outer life cannot be separated from your inner life. They are essentially one, as you are whole.

I have made this personal so that you will have a vantage point and frame of reference for understanding the relationship of religion and spirituality. Translating directly from your individual experience to the cultural plane, we can say that religion is a system of symbols, stories, and sacred rituals that articulate a world picture in which people find orientation and meaning. This world picture must be congruent with the frame or model of reality generally understood from empirical observation – as we might say, based in the science of the time.

In my diagram I have identified religion as an overland river which carries the heritage of beliefs, values, and practices that preserves the meaning of life. In providing this structural continuity, religion stabilizes society by orienting and connecting its members in a cohesive community.

However, as with your own experience, if this outer production of meaning should lose its deeper link to the underground stream of inner life, it quickly withers and dies. Spirituality is my name for this underground stream, and it is the fuse by which religion is energized. Whereas religion’s commitment to meaning (and meaning-making) makes it articulate and rational, this engagement of spirituality with the grounding mystery renders an experience which is ineffable (i.e., beyond words and inherently unspeakable).

Throughout cultural history these two traditions have been moving in parallel – one outwardly oriented, institutional, and theological in character (i.e., given to talking about god), and the other inwardly oriented, contemplative, and mystical (preferring to be silent in the presence of mystery). The overland river of religion gives expression, structure, orientation and meaning to life, as the underground stream of spirituality brings individuals into communion with the provident ground of their own existence.

Outwardly religion articulates this deep experience of mystery, while inwardly spirituality surrenders all meaning, the urge to define, and the very self who would otherwise satisfy this urge.

Religion and spirituality are therefore not separate things, but dimensions of the one watercourse of our human experience. As my diagram shows, the place where the overland river and the underground stream come closest (though without merging) is in metaphor, which, as the word itself suggests, serves the purpose of carrying a realization born of experience across this gap and into the articulate web of language. The ineffable mystery is thus given form. The dark ground of being is represented in translucent images that give our rational mind something to contemplate.

God as fire, god as rock, god as wind, god as father or mother, god as lord and governor, god as creator of all things, even god as the ground of being – all are prevalent religious representations of a mystery that cannot be named. As metaphors they are not meaning to suggest that one thing (the grounding mystery of existence) is like another thing (a rock, a person, or the ground we stand on). In other words, these are not analogies between objects or similes by which two unlike things are compared (e.g., she is like a rose).

Metaphors in religion are word-images that translate an ineffable experience (of mystery) into something we can talk about (our meaning).

As the mystics patiently remind us – but sometimes with greater admonishment: The present mystery of reality is not some thing (or someone) out there, over there, or up there. It is not a being, even a greatest of all beings. The god of myth and theology does not exist as we imagine, and we should not presume to speak on behalf of a deity who is our own creation.

Speak of the mystery if you must. And “tell all the truth, but tell it slant” (Emily Dickinson).


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A Spirituality of Religion

Spirituality of Essence_Religion of IdentityThe separation of spirituality from religion is a best-selling topic these days, particularly as religion continues to impress us with its tendencies toward conviction, bigotry, and violence – and complacency. More and more people are either dropping out or quietly declaring themselves “spiritual but not religious.”

In previous posts I have tried to make a case against such a clean separation of spirituality and religion. I’m not suggesting that a religion devoid of an active and deep spirituality is an impossibility; we see enough of that all around us. Certainly religion can lose its inspiration, its creativity, its compassion and ethical vision. At that point it becomes a perfunctory framework of rituals and stilted phrases. In my view, it is no longer really a religion. We may put that label on it, but we do so by mistake.

From the Latin religare, religion is a system by which the various domains and concerns of daily life are coordinated and anchored to the grounding mystery of being. Spirituality refers to the inner experience of this grounding mystery, as well as to an awakened intention in the way it is lived out. Spirituality, then, is the living intention of a dynamic religion, while religion is the relevant extension of a vibrant spirituality. A religion can lose its spirituality and die, but spirituality requires the structural support of religion if it is to engage the concerns of daily life.

My spin on religion challenges us to break out of the conventional definition, where we commonly speak of ‘the world religions’ as historical institutions organized on the cultural level. If the word merely refers to a system that coordinates and anchors our human concerns and activities to the present mystery of reality, then you have a religion, and so do I. Whether or not we affiliate ourselves with one of the institutional religions is of secondary importance to the question of how we individually (as well as communally) connect our lives to the grounding mystery and carry it consciously into all that we do.

This gives me a chance to illumine the relationship between two big ideas in my Tracts blog: the grounding mystery and creative authority. Very quickly (as if that will help), the grounding mystery is a metaphorical reference to the present mystery of reality, to the Real Presence manifesting to (and as) our awareness in this moment. Our deepest engagement with it is far below the reach of words, and this, along with the fact that it surpasses any definition our minds might attempt to throw around it, makes it universally recognized across the mystical traditions as ineffable, beyond name and form.

Our only direct access to the grounding mystery is by an inward path of quiet contemplation. Outwardly we can observe its countless manifestations, its many masks; inwardly we know it as mystery, disguised as our self. This may sound very “Eastern,” but Western mysticism carries the identical realization. Simply stated, you are a human being, a human manifestation of being, an expression of the grounding mystery in human form. The wonderful thing is that each of us can contemplate and release ourselves to that deeper mystery at any moment.

In my diagram above, I have placed identity (ego: my self: “I”) inside a list of terms that together represent a spectrum of existence ranging from the interior depths of being to the extended outreach of our individual lives in the world. Below – or rather, underneath and supporting – identity is consciousness, life, matter, and energy in descending order. Identity has its ground in consciousness, consciousness has its ground in life, life has its ground in matter, and matter has its ground in energy. The deeper we go, the more ineffable the ground becomes. We can say a lot about identity, less about consciousness, still less about life or matter, and really nothing about energy that makes any sense (even the scientists talk about its ‘spookiness’, indeterminacy, and quantum unpredictability).

Despite the fact that we can’t say much about the present mystery of reality that underlies and supports identity, this is precisely where spirituality lives. We have an intuitive sense that this deeper support is ‘more real’, and when we allow our center of attention to sink to these deeper registers, we feel more present and authentic within ourselves. Still, such an inward descent requires that we let go of all those attachments and hangups that keep ego intact – and this is what makes a vibrant spirituality such a threat to religions that have lost their soul. Its communion with a mystery that cannot be named, represented, or even precisely located must be heretical because it is incomprehensible.

Moving up my list from identity, we don’t release ego but rather assume it in all that follows. This is where religion comes into play. Our connections outward into daily life and relationships are necessarily personal, which is to say they involve who we are in the world (as distinct from what we are). Ultimately our individual development into maturity means that we start choosing (or willing, volition) the life we want, enacting our intentions (agency), taking responsibility in what happens, and fully investing ourselves in the process (care). This outward flow from identity to care is what I mean by ‘creative authority’.

Because it is all about shaping and coordinating the adventure of identity, from the awakening of self-consciousness in infancy, through the complicated role-plays of adulthood, and into the retirement of old age, religion should support our progress to creative authority (also known as self-actualization). Too often, however, its influence attempts to move us in the opposite direction where we are pushed back into a more dependent, submissive, and obedient state. This is when our religion, now outgrown and losing relevance, begins to strangle our spirituality. While the force of our spiritual growth is oriented on the higher ideal of human fulfillment, the dead weight of our religion pulls us into frustration and futility.

That’s when it is time to break through yesterday’s religion and create a new system, one that can coordinate and anchor our daily concerns and activities to the present mystery of reality, and in a way that expresses our true spirit. One way or another, it will lead beyond ego and to the other side of god.


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