[Re-edited 14 Feb 2018, responding to comments]
I’m sometimes surprised when people say that we live in a ‘material age’. It is true that we are governed by an economics and politics that only values money, profit and power, but that is not usually the subject of people’s disapproval, they usually object to science. To be clear, I’m not arguing that we live in an effective spiritual age – I’m not sure such has ever happened – but we hardly live in a scientifically materialist age. The urge for spiritual experience is as great as ever, and its dangers are as great as ever.
We (and it’s a Western ‘we’ here, apologies to everyone else) have probably lived in one of the most exciting spiritual and theological periods of human history. Since 1880 or thereabouts the flourishing of spiritual thought and action(of various levels of sophistication), has been extraordinary – partly because of the, perhaps beneficial, decline of religious authority.
In theological terms we have had Mary Baker Eddy, Albert Schweitzer, Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, Martin Buber, Simone Weil, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Wolfhardt Pannenberg, Rudolf Bultmann, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Teilhard de Chardin and Mathew Fox to name some of the original and more well-known writers. That’s just off the top of my head and I’m not a theologian; I’m sure people will think of other influential originals. We have had important movements such as liberation theology, death of god, process theology, ‘traditionalism’, feminist theology, historical Jesus, and green/gaian theology. We have had the popular recovery of alchemy, hermeticism, gnosticism, kabbalah, sufism, goetic magic and altered states of consciousnes. We have had the ongoing (and again popular), cross fertilisation between Christianity and Buddhism (to the betterment of both in my opinion, with the shift of Buddhism from suppression of desire to active compassion, and the recovery of Christian meditation and oneness). We have had the influx of Indian religious practice, and we may have some popular understanding of Taoism. We have popular contributions from science (Haldine, Bateson, Capra), philosophy, (Bradley, Wittgenstein, Edith Stein, Heidegger, Barfield, Agamben, Vattimo), anthropology and comparative religion (Frazer, Eliade, Levi-Strauss, Victor Turner, Evans Pritchard, Rene Girard (ok this list could go on :), literature (From Kazantzakis to Dan Brown and C.S. Lewis) and of course psychology (Jung, Maslow, Ornstein, Houston, Mindfulness, AA etc). We’ve had arena’s full of popular spiritual writers and practitioners. We have probably had more channelled texts than at any time in history (from the ‘Book of the Law’ to the ‘Course in Miracles’). The world is full of spiritual healers. We have even had important and influential ‘joke’ spiritualties like Discordianism (All hail Eris!). Again this is not to say that all are beneficial; that is the point, because something claims to be spiritual does not automatically mean it is a good guide to life or ‘spirit’.
If ‘materialism’ means not limited and not dogmatic, then we have had a materialistic age. However, if ‘materialism’ means non-spiritual then this has not even remotely been a non-spiritual age. It has been an age of flourishing experiment rather than authority, and an age in which few people have been burnt at the stake for heresy. We should probably celebrate it, rather than denigrate it.
However, this does not mean we have had an age without shadow. Clearly not as the ‘spiritual’, (like everything human) is rarely without shadow or its specific ‘evils’, and it is dangerous to think that because something is spiritual it is automatically good or constructive. Part of the spiritual problem is that spirit sometimes can only see its own as spirit and protects its own and only its own, and attacks all else. Hence, perhaps, the apparent inability of ‘spiritual people’ to perceive current spiritual flourishing, and the (perhaps necessary) descent to dogma.
As for the ‘darkness’: we now know about child rape in church and the protection of rapists for the spiritual good of authority, of the insistence on obedience and not thinking, of spiritual desolation in proposed saints, of spiritual violence against the failing world. There was Nazism, and if you don’t think Nazism was a spiritual movement you have not read enough of the original Nazis. We have the activity of some Christian and Islamic Fundamentalists who work in a unity of hatred to bring about the apocalypse in the middle east, with the second coming of Jesus and the birth of perfection in the death of millions of sinners and infidels, and we have religious terrorists, sexists and racists – every ‘evil’ you can think of will have some spiritual defenders.
We have many spiritual programmes that primarily seem to seek personal wealth as the mark of divine favour, and who often condemn the poor as unspiritual or undisciplined. I would tend to agree with the proposition that people are mislead by much of this kind of spirituality; that is part of the shadow I am discussing. But simply stating that one is not so mislead, and that the followers of such movements are, does not mean one is without shadow. We perhaps need to ask whether this condemnation of others is an inherent part of the shadow of spirit, which helps to justify the elite who ‘get it’ and their position as beings of influence?
Then we have Platonist spirituality where focusing on the ideal spirit, or absolute perfect forms, can lead to denigration and attacks on the ‘fallen’ ‘imperfect’ real/material world and help foster ecological crises and the destruction of Nature. In this wordview only death opens perfection as we escape the material we hate. Only a dead or transcended world seems a good world. Or we can say everything is in the hands of God, and nothing harmful will eventuate from human action – spirit is already perfect and that is all that matters. People can attack their bodies, their minds and their empathy for others, in the name of spiritual perfection. We can see murder of the ‘evil others’ on whom we have projected our spiritual shadow, as the solution to problems – particularly if our God is good because ‘he’ is all-powerful and prone to vengeance. In that case, what difference is there between our spirituality and existential fear? Our righteousness seeks to prove we are on the right side, by condemning others before we ourselves are condemned. The shadow is massive.
The idea that all that is spiritual is totally of the light, or immaterial, is dangerous. Especially when it is phrased as if people on the right path cannot be deceived. Again, this can be a basis for murderous righteousness. The idealist shadow can penetrate all modes of life, making the possible seem deadly material by comparison, and lead to the sacrifice of both humanity and nature for a perfection which exists elsewhere – and possibly only imaginally.
If we need more spirituality then we need as much care in identifying its shadow and integrating it as we do in all other parts of life. We may well need a material spirituality, in which the world itself is part of the sacred and, if we transcend, it is as in alchemy, and endless circulation in which we bring back the spirit to this world and unify the two – neither being complete without the other. We respect what is, as we live amongst it.
To repeat, just because something can be called spiritual, it does not mean it is unalloyedly good or beneficial for either humans or nature. This has to be discovered rather than claimed in advance – anything can have unintended effects.