Hence the difficulty which besets “undenominational religions.” They profess to include what is beautiful in all creeds, but they appear to many to have collected all that is dull in them. All the colours mixed together in purity ought to make a perfect white. Mixed together on any human paint–box, they make a thing like mud, and a thing very like many new religions.
– Gilbert K Chesterton, “Christmas and the Aesthetes,” Heretics (New York: John Lane company, 1905 [twelfth edition, 1919]).
“I’m not religious,” people sometimes say, “but I’m spiritual.”
A strange statement, since to be spiritual is to adapt some type of attitude toward religion (often a negative one). Most who are “spiritual” in this sense seem to have a mash of fairly ill-formed ideas, vague impressions, and a pastiche of slogans. They can often tell me what they oppose, but rarely what they embrace.
(My least favorite of these slogans is that ‘Everything happens for a reason.’ And, this is not offered as a type of Greek-philosophy-based claim about prime movers and efficient causes. Instead, it usually seems to mean that God, karma, the Fates, or the universe makes everything happen for the best, some deeper purpose. But, this is clearly false—many things happen because of our own evil or stupidity. And, much else happens because of the evil and stupidity of others. This is hardly reassuring.)
They are, of course, entitled. I would not have it otherwise.
My point is simply that I can’t ever remember anyone who was “only spiritual” ever saying anything about that spirituality that was in the least arresting.
They don’t, for example, say anything that I could agree with that 99% of our society wouldn’t also have embraced.
(“You should be kind to people.” True. But hardly novel, or a proposition that you need a “spiritual” dimension to agree upon, usually. And, one must then ask, “How ought we to know what being kind is? Is giving an alcoholic alcohol kind, or is it doing him harm? Is it kind to leave people in their delusions, or to seek to win them out by reason? By manipulation? By force?”)
But, nor do they make claims I would have felt to dispute. Trying to get a handle on anything they truly, deeply thought is like grasping at fog.
Instead, one is treated to statements that sound nice, but mean very little–or very little that is concrete. One could talk with them in circles endlessly, while saying very little.
And, I often wonder why this is so–for, certainly those who say this are often intelligent people. In fact, people who are sophisticated and intelligent are, in my experience, far more likely to say it than people who are less sophisticated.
Or, at the least, those who say it seem to want to be thought sophisticated, deep-thinking, seriously reflective types. That is why the lack of substance is always so surprising.
But, perhaps Chesterton has it right. Perhaps the problem is that being strongly for something necessarily requires that one be strongly against the opposite of the view. Those who embrace the path of “spirituality” seem above all to wish to be seen as urbane, tolerant, sophisticated men-and-women-of-the-world, grasping perspectives and nuances which the common rabble can’t. They mustn’t upset anyone, or at least anyone in the club. (The common rabble, of course, can howl as they like.)
They thus seek to hold these types of commitments in abeyance—because, to admit to any firm views about such matters is to imply that others are wrong: deeply offensive to some of the club. If one claims to have found an answer, then the debate, the discussion, “the dialogue” (they love the latter term) becomes merely the means, and not the end they seem to enjoy it being.
For, the goal of the modern (or, even more so, the post-modern) thinker is to keep “the dialogue” going on forever, worlds without end. But, Chesterton was prescient about the problems:
The vice of the modern notion of mental progress is that it is always something concerned with the breaking of bonds, the effacing of boundaries, the casting away of dogmas. But if there be such a thing as mental growth, it must mean the growth into more and more definite convictions, into more and more dogmas. The human brain is a machine for coming to conclusions; if it cannot come to conclusions it is rusty. When we hear of a man too clever to believe, we are hearing of something having almost the character of a contradiction in terms. It is like hearing of a nail that was too good to hold down a carpet; or a bolt that was too strong to keep a door shut.”
– Gilbert K Chesterton, “Concluding Remarks on the Importance of Orthodoxy” Heretics (New York: John Lane company, 1905 [twelfth edition, 1919]).
One may think, conclude, or believe wrongly of course. But, in the modern and post-modern eras, we seem too enamored of avoiding any conclusion at all (about some things—about others we are dogmatically certain and never reassess them). We worry, as we so often do, about the fault we are least prone to in our time: we worry we may believe or insist upon too much, when in fact we hold far too few convictions. We refuse to come to principled conclusions and act upon them.
The New Testament talks about the risks. We are
Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. Now as [Pharaoh’s Egyptian magicians] withstood Moses, so do these also resist the truth: men of corrupt minds, reprobate concerning the faith. (2 Timothy 3:7-8)