November 3, 2005
In part catalyzed by a seminar titled “Common Ground” held at The
Crossings–a holistic learning center in Austin, Texas, this last
September, I have been pondering a number of issues related to the
trend towards re-thinking ways of developing spirituality in the 21st
1. Can prayer include simple chants, popular songs, certain poems, and
so forth? What lifts and aligns us, turns us toward the light? Must
these be restricted to roots in traditional religion?
2. Some have stated their belief that spirituality must be channeled
along a well-trodden path, some “deep” tradition. Others have asserted
the claim that spirituality can be valid even when created anew, with
elements drawn from many sources. I confess my tending to agree with
the latter position for a variety of reasons.
First, what are the boundaries of what the traditionalists might define
as an established path? For example, Judaism: The problem with this
tradition, though, is that it is and has been “traditionally” a most
evolutionary, diverging, reforming, tradition, ever re-defining itself
on all levels. So which path can be followed?
Second, what if one’s spiritual vision requires some significant
integration of elements–e.g., the discoveries of science, depth
psychology, and the frames of reference and aesthetic elements
introduced by postmodernism, science fiction, humor, comparative
mythology, anthropology, and so forth–that weren’t available to those
in the past, those who developed “well-trodden paths.”
Third, what is depth, anyway? Who is to judge how “deep” or
“established” some “path” is, or even the boundaries of a “path”? What
defines this ambiguous term?
How new can an established path be? What about the Bahai religion? Can
it be just a few centuries old? What about sects? How about an
established path being only a few decades old, or even just a few
years? Or does it require a minimum of a million adherents?
Or a hundred thousand? What is the rational basis for drawing any
boundaries in this direction.
Other issues addressed in Utne, about 2 years ago.
3. What are the most dynamic organizations furthering interfaith
What if most of them don’t think of this as one of
their explicit goals, but might come to agree that they are in fact
furthering that goal as well.
What if one of the goals of Common Ground might be
to operate as a clearing house for some of these organizations? I
haven’t seen anyone try to coordinate them, or even introduce them to
What if one of the elements of interfaith
spirituality might be to encourage each and every organization to
develop a liaison department who will actively explore their
boundaries, interfaces, degrees of synergy, inclusiveness, etc.
Some possible organizations to begin this process:
Institute of Noetic Sciences, New
Thought Alliance, “The Forge” (?),
International Network for Personal Meaning, General
and local Jung Institutes, Association for Transpersonal Psychology,
other transpersonal associations
Various colleges, e.g., Saybrook, JFK University, & CIIS in the SF
Esalen, Omega, Crossings, and other Growth Centers
Institute for Transpersonal Psychology and other institutes
Private practitioners, schools, who emphasize psycho-spiritual
Religions that emphasize an interfaith connection–e.g., Bahai, etc.
Journals and magazines: more popular, Yoga, New Age; more professional:
Journal of Consciousness Studies, ReVision; more balanced: Shift,
Related approaches that aren’t particularly oriented to this mission,
but some of their
practitioners would be:
Theatre artists, drama therapists, psychodramatists,
Educators, Waldorf, Montessori, other pioneers and
Business coaches, consultants, trying to develop
more transpersonal or spiritual business climates
Social and Emotional Learning movements, emotional
Please write me and add to
Philosophical centers–especially the Center for Process Thought
(dealing with the trans-denominational and spiritual ideas of Alfred
North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne)
- Listing issues to be added to the list of issues: (smiling). What are
the issues to be considered? What themes seem taboo? What are we
avoiding sharing for fear of offending, hurting, bruising widely held
– how much overlap is there between interfaith spirituality and
How can philosophy–or at least some types of it–be
brought into contact with this trend?
– ditto for politics? Economics?
5. It has become “politically correct” to express compassion and
non-dualistic ideals regarding all humans. What about the problem that
some folks reproduce irresponsibly? That there are major population
explosions among the “have-nots,” and this trend is actually encouraged
by certain religions? Dare anyone speak to this problem? Are the
“haves” obligated to subsidize the reproductive irresponsibility of the
While there well may be a place for charity in this system, how much
are we obliged as a matter of public policy to care for those afflicted
with misfortune? (That is, by enforced taxation and re-distribution of
resources?) Can such hard-hearted-seeming questions even be raised?
(This relates to the need to recognize the taboo
boundaries–the unspoken collusion in “that which must not be spoken or
even thought–in all human endeavors.)
Another issue recently raised, for example: New technologies are coming
in that promise to raise both the quality of life and quantity of years
lived. However, such technologies cost money–some have estimated to be
about a thousand dollars per each person per extra year lived–and some
technologies would cost ten thousand dollars, or a million dollars?
Where’s the cut-off?
Dare we begin to say, in the backwash of a tsunami, rising oil prices,
diversions of military expenditures in various chaotic regions,
hurricanes, earthquakes, and so forth, that perhaps we (collectively)
cannot “afford” all possibly desirable goals, and that systems of
priorities, rationing, restraint, humility, and the like are necessary?
Can we afford the self-indulgence of responding generously to every
high-profile misfortune while at the same time ignoring the tens of
thousands of low-profile misfortunes that don’t get political traction?
Can all the high-blown rhetoric in the world get us over really facing
and making these hard choices?
7. Is there a place for a kind of self-policing of vague generalities
(also more recently identified as “bulls**t,”)? How can we bring a
sharper level of discernment to the noble goals of interfaith
For example, shall we assume unquestioningly that:
– enlightenment is possible, desirable, and
attainable? Is there any evidence whatsoever for such assertions?
Or that this state is measurable, able to be assessed, and not simply a
product of group consensus, seeking a “leader,” and other less-rational
– ego-less-ness, self-transcendence, non-duality,
and other spiritual goals are other than illusions, claims of possibly
narcissistic or megolomanic sociopaths, or other forms of self-delusion?
– questioning these extreme claims need not be an
assertion of the opposite, a totally cynical or materialist position.
Perhaps a middle position is possible, affirming the value of some
relative movement in these directions?
8. Just as we asked about the politically incorrect themes of
compassion as public policy, perhaps also we might ask about other
-- the “right” of parents to impose their own belief
systems on their children
-- the idea that there are no “rights,” only
collective agreements, and that it is appropriate to re-evaluate all
collective agreements in a multi-cultural and changing world.
-- might meditation and other acts of piety be
recognized as expressing a spectrum of activities that range from
simple brief re-alignments with deeper values and mythic connections to
a self-indulgent and self-delusional attempt at spiritual materialism?
That this range may reflect the amount of time spent in prayer,
meditation, and so forth? Is it even possible to
suggest that more than 30 minutes a day at such activities diverts too
much energy from the needed tasks of helping to make the world a better
place? (Just for argument’s sake). Can such questions be rationally
9. What are the requirements for an ideal spiritual path or
religion? How can we support a religion–as a social organization
that supports spirituality–while minimizing the pitfalls of social
organization in general?
10. Can any religion overcome its own weight of tradition, dogma,
orthodoxy, the influences of its more conservative elements? Can a
religion be reformed from within, or must new alternatives, sects,
outside religions, be formed anew? What is so wrong with the
11. Can we introduce a process of discerning the difference between
mythic and factual modes of discourse? (Both have a place in life, and
there are situations even when a mixture of the two are appropriate;
nevertheless, it is often important to interpose a process of making
this distinction explicit. Certain criteria for action, public versus
private policy, what is to be “taught” and what simply “witnessed to,”
and so forth, all depend on this distinction being made.
12. There has emerged a new trend towards the blurring of the political
and the religious, with the rise to power of a political party that
panders to those who feel entitled to impose their religious beliefs on
the general public. These fear-based religious groups have created an
atmosphere in which “faith-based” is uncritically accepted, and those
who question the rational foundations of revealed religion are viewed
as being incapable of moral judgment. This refers mainly to
Christianity in the United States, but similar tensions exist in other
religions and internationally.
There is also another trend towards the liberalization of religion,
allowing for its mythic and subjective nature, its psychological
validity, and promoting an inclination to seek the spirit of the
message rather than value mindless loyalty to traditional
interpretations. It may well be that the liberal thinkers in the
various religions have more in common with each other than with those
who are more literal, fundamentalist, or evangelical in their own
traditions. The liberal thinkers feel okay about allowing others to
practice their own different paths, without needing to coerce or subtly
impose their own ideals and values on others.
Should there be any moral obligation of those who are more liberal and
ecumenical to take a stand against their own more reactionary
co-religionists? For example, is there any moral obligation for clergy
who don’t believe in Hell to speak to the toxic mental health impact of
Furthermore, can interfaith dialogue include as faiths those who are
deists, agnostics, and atheists?
Does faith require a belief in a supernatural “being”? Can faith
not equally involve a positive attitude towards the world and its own
innate energies, including the most noble aspirations of
humanity? I’ve known many secular freethinkers whose sense of
morality is sharper and more closely reasoned than many who presume
their own righteousness based not on their deeds but on their capacity
to believe in doctrine.
Can morality derive from a sense of responsibility for making this
world a better place, without recourse to the finely micro-managed
instructions given to a small tribe in the Middle East over three
thousand years ago?
13. What are the most controversial and disturbing books, websites,
articles, that you’ve encountered–disturbing in the sense that they
make you think, are not easily dismissed, and may offer some
uncomfortable ideas that stretch your system?
Well, that’s what’s on my mind this month. I’m open for discussion.