Interfaith Spirituality: Lecture 5: COMMON DENOMINATORS

  (This is the 5th in a 6-lecture series for Senior University Georgetown,  February 25, 2008)

In the first lecture, we reviewed some of the kinds of phenomena associated with interfaith spirituality, the scope of what is being discussed. In the second lecture I discussed some of the cultural trends leading up to the current cultural trend of interfaith spirituality. Lynette Reed discussed some other aspects in the third lecture and Linda Mitchell spoke about further dimensions last week. These, too, are posted on the website. Today we’re considering the common denominators within great variety of types of spirituality.

Religion is a mixture of cultural elements, basic psychological dynamics, spiritual intuitions, historical traditions, and so forth. It touches you at many levels—in the way you carry your body, eat, sleep, the different parts of your mind, the way you deal with others in your interpersonal and family relations, your status and role in smaller groups and larger organization, your allegiances in culture—wider and wider circles, influencing you, and growing stronger or weaker depending on your participation and support.

Some folks are trying to reform their own religion or religious denomination, working from the inside. Some want it more liberal, others more conservative. Other people have left the religion of their birth and are seeking a different religion or spiritual path (McLennan, 1999). Some folks who claim not to be spiritual critique religion, and others who claim to BE spiritual also refuse to affiliate with any particular denomination. Seeking common denominators is both a digging deeper and also moving towards a more abstract level of analysis. Still, that process of seeking to recognize common denominators is part of the advance of science in many fields.

An Analogy to Chemistry

(The first overhead is a picture of the periodic table of the elements, a diagram that was on the walls of most science classes in high school.) (Since that time, hundreds of people have explored the challenge of trying to make up a chart that would give even more clues to the dynamics:  )

Consider the history of chemistry, especially between the early 18th through the end of the 19th century. The field as a science emerged near the beginning of that two century era from the half-superstitious pseudo-science of alchemy. Then the challenge became that of identifying “elements”—substances that couldn’t be broken down into any more basic substances. A few had been known to the ancients (i.e., gold, silver, mercury, copper, iron, tin, and lead—which were seen as corresponding to the then-known moving heavenly bodies of, respectively, the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn). With the operations of the early chemists, perhaps forty others were identified between around 1750 and 1850; but what is more relevant is that certain of these elements were noticed to have properties similar to others, and there was a discernable pattern. After some years of wrestling, in 1869 the Russian chemist Mendeleyev came up with the foundations of what we know of as the periodic table. The problem is that no one could explain why this pattern operated as it did—that required a gradual series of experiments and discoveries that helped us understand the structure of the atom, the nature of electrons, and  and the ways electrons operating in the atom in what modern chemists call “shells,” or “orbits.” One thing for sure, they aren’t the nice simple regular orbits of pictures of atoms we learned as kids. Indeed, the word orbit is wrong—they operate in clouds of probability, and as much like waves as like particles. And there continue to be discoveries—that number of 92 wasn’t established till after 1940, and once research on nuclear fission commenced after the War and the atom bomb, new elements began to be created. Anyway, this story illustrates the way common denominators may be discovered as underlying patterns within not only chemistry, but in many areas of advancing knowledge.

The Blind Men and the Elephant

Another phenomenon needs to be noticed here: People often can perceive a small part of the wholeness of things, and that perception may be thus mis-interpreted. We tend to use vision, but that only is sensitive to a small fraction of all the possible electromagnetic vibrations available. Some insects and other animals can perceive colors and types of light we cannot, just as they may be able to hear sounds too high or low for our ears, or sense other subtle phenomena.

So, a common temptation for humans is to convert perceptions into conclusions, to believe that one perceives is all there is to perceive. This is a type of stupidity, which I define as the illusion that what one knows is sufficient. Instead, we need to cultivate humility, an attitude that there well may be more to what we see “on the surface of things.”

In this regard, consider, then, the following parable, in poem form:  “The Blind Men and the Elephant,”
     by the American poet John Godfrey Saxe (1816-1887):

It was six men of Indostan to learning much inclined, who went to see the Elephant (Though all of them were blind),
hat each by observation might satisfy his mind:

The First approached the Elephant, and happening to fall against his broad and sturdy side, at once began to bawl:
“God bless me! but the Elephant is very like a wall!”

The Second, feeling of the tusk, cried, “Ho! what have we here, so very round and smooth and sharp? To me ’tis mighty clear:
This wonder of an Elephant is very like a spear!”

The Third approached the animal, and happening to take the squirming trunk within his hands, thus boldly up and spake:
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant is very like a snake!”

The Fourth reached out an eager hand, and felt about the knee. “What most this wondrous beast is like is mighty plain,” quoth he;
“ ‘Tis clear enough the Elephant is very like a tree!”

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear, said: “E’en the blindest man can tell what this resembles most; deny the fact who can
This marvel of an Elephant is very like a fan!”

The Sixth no sooner had begun about the beast to grope,  than, seizing on the swinging tail that fell within his scope,
“I see,” quoth he, “the Elephant is very like a rope!”

And so these men of Indostan disputed loud and long, e
ach in his own opinion exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right, and all were in the wrong!

Moral: So oft in theologic wars, the disputants, I ween,  rail on in utter ignorance of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant not one of them has seen!
        -        -            -
And because they’re believing in their angle into a complex reality, they give in to the temptation to argue for their conclusions, which leads to transparent folly. Now if these guys would pool their perceptions we might make a little headway in the right direction, at least.

Recently, in a book titled “Toward a World Theology,” the scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith talked about our increasing mobility leading to a need for a more inclusive type of spirituality. It doesn’t mean you have to buy into mythic systems with which you have no familiarity, much less good feelings; rather, you can still respect that to their adherents these approaches are offering a number of certain kinds of common denominators that work in that culture.

Common Denominators in Spirituality

The field is young enough that no consensus has emerged as to what might be the fundamental elements of spirituality. I’ll present three lists, but these should be thought of not as definitive but rather as stimulants to your own thinking. What would you add that they’ve neglected or missed?

The first is from a book, Essential Spirituality, by Roger Walsh (1999). (Drs. Walsh and Fleischer, the author of the second list, are among that small group of psychiatrists who consider the interface of spirituality and psychology and recognize that these two domains can complement rather than compete with each other.)

1. Transform your motivation: reduce craving and find your soul’s desire.
2. Cultivate emotional wisdom; heal your heart and learn to love.
3. Live ethically: feel good by doing good.
4. Concentrate and calm your
5. Awaken your spiritual vision: See clearly and recognize the sacred in all things
6. Cultivate spiritual intelligence: develop  wisdom and understand life.
7.  Express spirit in action: embrace generosity and joy of service.
      -              -           -
Another list by Dr. Paul Fleischman, another psychiatrist, was part of a talk given in 1993 at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association. He noted ten universal elements in spiritual life:
1. Witnessed significance. The sense that someone is not just caring about you in general, but knowing you—that your life is somehow meaningful.
2. Lawful Order. The mind will come up with explanations.
3. Wholeness. All parts of us, all parts of nature.
4. Calling: Sensing there’s something for you to do it the world—a spiritual duty.
5. Membership: The need to belong, be part of something bigger.
6. Release: That you are more than that rather burdened complex of mundane events.
7. World View: That there is a way to look at life, events, history, meaning, purpose. Theology and morality overlap here.
8. Love: Promoting that special generosity of heart, that giving beyond selfishness, that really makes the world go round.
9. Sacrifice: That our childish egocentricity and self-interest be addressed and at times given up, relinquished, symbolized by sacrifice—this seems to be universal.
10. Meaningful Death. That within the worldview, and order, your death and the death of those close to you be framed in some comprehensible way, perhaps associated with rituals you can do to cope or facilitate the processes not only of the dying but also of the bereaved.

Dr. Fleischman also notes that all these elements can be misused, turned to the service of lower consciousness or even evil. We are not relieved from the responsibility to assess and use wisdom in the pursuit of these ideals.
           -         -              -
In 1975, Theodore Roszak wrote a book titled “Unifinished Animal,” and proposed the following list:
1. People can expand their human potential.
2. We develop experientially, not just in terms of "intellectualized knowing."
3. Transpersonal Subjectivity: "Spiritual teachings are not projected from the mind, but upon it by a transpersonal reality which is the object of the mind in the same way that physical things are the objects of the senses."
4. Universality—those principles that can be accessible and acceptable to peoples from all cultures.
Wholenes – bringing together mind, body, spirit, the arts, masculine and feminine, other dualities.
6. Organicism: health, vitality, ecology, inspiration from nature.
7. Illumination of the Commonplace: Everyday events and environment can be holy, sources of awe and inspiration.  
8. Community: The emerging ethos is profoundly social.

As I mentioned, you should consider these lists as a working model that you might find useful in stimulating your own thinking. Consider what basically works for you. You may have come from a background of atheism or raw secularism, but you can still wonder about how these ideas may be more or less useful in your own construction of meaning in your life.

The real purpose of the class is not to try to sell you any answers, any particular viewpoint. Rather, it’s the fun of appreciating the expanded menu, the range of choices, and the issues involved in choosing or making your own chosen mixture of more or less important themes.
Some Miscellaneous Themes
1. Love.  Ethics is part of it, and compassion, giving of yourself, love. Ah, that word has become too closely associated with mere lust, or temporary infatuation, with sexuality and conquest. Yes, there is love also of parents to children, and sometimes vice versa. Friendship, too—rare and precious. But the problem is that it’s more than mere sentiment, more even than feeling. As Madeline L’Engle noted in one of her books—I think it was “A Wrinkle in Time”— Love isn’t something you feel, it’s something you do.

The real challenge for loving is knowing how to apply it even when you are tempted to do the opposite. That’s why the kind of forgiveness Jesus taught wasn’t wimpy or weak. It takes more character, more courage, more inner strength to forgive than it does to fight.

Our culture has a dominant myth of strength, and that is associated with violence and a willingness to risk physical harm in pursuit of victory. For many, this is heroism. Peacemaking, in contrast, has become widely viewed as weakness—as has negotiation, compromise, and so forth. This is nonsense, of course—anyone who has ever been married knows that it takes all one’s maturity and strength of character to refuse to bicker like children, but to negotiate creatively. Anyone who has raised teenagers, also. But that’s not what sells action movies. We have a culture that is co-dependent with or panders to the stupidest types of mentality.

So love isn’t weak, and isn’t for sissies or –yuck–“girls.” And the culture is slowly evolving into an appreciation of values that were once attributed to women. Of course, many of these values are needed today, needed for true civilization, and in themselves have no necessary association with men or women. Much of what we think of as masculine or feminine is a hold-over from a centuries-old culture that is grounded in warrior mind, patriarchy, and other obsolete states of mind.

2. Your State of Consciousness: There’s a story of a pious sage who was granted a wish as a reward for his sanctity. He asked for a glimpse of heaven and hell. He was taken in a vision to a beautiful banquet hall. The people were sitting around long tables, the tables were covered with the loveliest settings, the most delicious-looking food. But the people were afflicted with a strange condition: Their elbows were locked or their bodies chained so that they could not feed themselves! The people were crying and gnashing their teeth! Ah, the sage realized, this must be hell: A world of all the gifts and an inability to partake. How poetic. Sighing, he asked to be granted a vision of heaven. Lo and behold it was the same scene! But the people were laughing and chatting! What was the difference? The sage looked—ah, the same affliction of the arms: They could not feed themselves. But why the laughter? Because in heaven... in heaven, people feed each other!

3. Togetherness: Perhaps the most important dimension of spirituality is that of the deep sense of bonding. I think that spirituality is an extension of our bonding instinct—that intangible and yet profoundly deep dynamic by which babies bond with their mothers, mothers bond to their babies, and this powerful energetic connectedness ripples outward to include other family members, and, as the child grows, friends, neighbors, community members, and others with whom one feels some allegiance. Five centuries ago (in much of Europe) this referred mainly to one’s locale—a village or town, and church. It was almost tribal. One may pay tribute to more powerful conquerors, but this held no emotional bond of loyalty. Two centuries ago the rise of nationalism (and modes of communication—roads, travel, letters) enabled the growth of a bonding to a much wider community, now numbering in the millions. This continued — and continues— to today, but beginning around the mid-20th century, and symbolized especially by the picture of the earth from space, the bonding has become not only all of humanity, but also all life on this planet. Ecological awareness, the potential of a mutually destructive nuclear holocaust, plus communications, all combine to enhance that sense.

On another level, more naturally, people not only bonded based on common tasks, but their connectedness also involved shared mythology, stories of where they came from, and stories about what their purpose is in the world. These have become much more diluted as mobility increases. Myth, fused with power politics, distorted the function of religion and made many feel alienated from the whole package. Now we are living in an era of increasing alienation and many are seeking to—playing off the proverb, ‘throw out the baby with the bathwater,’ go out to the dump and see if there are any babies. That is what people both within and outside of any particular affiliated religion seem to be doing more and more—distilling out what is most useful.

Psychology is part of this. I’ve made the point that psychology emerged, as did science, and has been becoming a more integral part of our daily lives. This process of integration is, I estimate, only perhaps 20-30% effective. Most folks have barely begun to learn about what I’ve called psychological literacy. This lecture series is an effort to remedy that, and the point of this particular series is an acknowledgment that, whereas the mainstream of psychology 60 years ago seemed to be anti-religion, the pendulum has swung. We now recognize that spirituality is an important part of spirituality.

The bonding I referred to at first extends fairly early in life to include not only neighbors, but also in other dimensions, mythic dimensions. Death happens, and spiritual myths are used to explain this mystery to people. Will it happen to me? Will it happen to you? And why is nature so grand, inspiring? What about wonder? What’s it all about? Kids relate to these questions, and the answers are provisional and adjusted to their minds—whatever we tell them. The point is that to varying degrees we do bond to the Greater Wholeness, the What’s It All About-ness. And for many people, that remains barely conscious, because it symbolizes interdependence.

Are we dependent? Not me! I am a loner, a ramblin’ guy, a lone ranger, and this is the Western hero myth. It’s a myth for a country full of emigrants who had to leave their roots, become uprooted, substitute other values for home and hearth, tribal togetherness. Admittedly, there are situations in which this is more adaptive, especially when home has become unbearably oppressive. But the West has begun to make an unconscious value of this hyper-independence, and has forgotten that it is a temporary and not preferred adaptation.

The point here is that people are fragile. I’m speaking now in my role as psychiatrist and observer not just of individuals, but also of the craziness of the culture as a whole. The culture has gone too much into the direction of valuing independence so that togetherness has begun to be forgotten. There’s a painful alienation, and a desire for experiences of community. (That’s part of what Sun City is about, and some of the other sub-communities sprouting among the more impersonal housing developments. That’s a big part of what church is about.

People need to be reminded that we share our humanity, our caring, and in that sharing, we engage not only in formal rituals up at the altar, but more so in the community hall for coffee and cookies. How are you—the words are less important than the looks, the nearness, the familiarity. Scientifically, this is called “limbic resonance,” the micro-non-verbal communications that signal familiarity and safety, approval and glad-to-see-you. It’s very easy to slip into a deeply felt sense that there’s no one out there who is particularly glad to see me, who misses me, who cares about my story. That’s part of the power of the family.

So when there’s a church or synagogue or meeting place where people share stories over the years, you start getting an almost tangible intangibleness, a sense of a thread: Oh, yes, you’re the one who fell in love four years ago and got married. Oh, yes, you’ve been recovering from your stroke. This is one of the major nutrients of religious involvement. Observing our social psychological need for community in no way explains away the spiritual intuition that there’s a greater out-there-ness that includes us. Rather, it grounds us in your hearts and not just our minds.

4. Spiritual Autobiography: All this is by way of supporting another way to explore this field. I’m not going to ask you to disclose your own spiritual journey to the group here as you haven’t agreed to come her to interact as a group. Should you ever want to do a more experiential group that would explore such matters, ask for it and see if you can round up enough other people.
    But I’ll give you a bit of a thought experiment: As I tell you about this situation, just imagine what you’d do, how you would responds:
        First, let’s do what is called a “spectrogram,” a way a group can give itself feedback as to the makeup and the issues concerning the different folks in the group. I don’t want to actually do this at this point, but even just imagining it might help.
       Where are you on your spiritual journey?
On this side....                         While on this side....
Haven’t imagined this situation, not warmed up        Already did it, have been talking about it
Have just begun to question my religion            Have tried out several religions
Have not read any books on this problem            Have read and studies many books

Summary: Common Denominators

The main thing about spirituality or God or the Greater Wholeness is that it is Greater. The comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell who died in the late 1980s said that God is the name we give to a category of that which is beyond human thought, beyond all human categories of thought. Faced with this, God, Life, Nature, the Cosmos, Everything—well, you can’t begin to describe it. All you can do is describe certain parts, parts that resonate with your consciousness.

So we use metaphors that we have encountered. It’s okay, if we recognize them as temporary hints, aspects of reality, metaphors—a metaphor being something simpler and more grasp-able standing for something that is less familiar or too complex. The sun is a red ball. Life is just a bowl of cherries.


Fleischman, Paul R. (1993). Spiritual Aspects of Psychiatric Practice. Cleveland, SC: Bonne Chance Press.

McLennan, Scotty. (1999). Finding your religion: When the faith you grew up with has lost its meaning. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Roszak, T. (1975). Unfinished Animal: The Aquarian Frontier and the Evolution of Consciousness

Walsh, Roger (1999). Essential Spirituality. New York: John Wiley.