Lecture 6: Interfaith Spirituality: IMPLICATIONS
(This is the 6th and last in a 6-lecture series for Senior University Georgetown, March 3, 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 in the 4th lecture. The fifth lecture considered the
common denominators discernable among the variety of types of
spirituality. Today we’ll talk about the Implications of Interfaith
Spirituality, the “so-what-ness” of all this.
The obvious first implication is to continue to respect and learn about
different religions and also about the teachers in those religions who
may have transcended the official dogma. Many were mystics, but not
all. Many sought to reform the religion, to re-establish some aspect of
the deeper spirit of the socio-cultural institution. Remember, religion
is a social organization, a concerted effort to do something to support
the spiritual impulse. But social organizations often get de-railed. So
Francis of Assissi, and Martin Luther, and people throughout history
have risen up to speak a fresh message. This was part of the work of
prophecy in the Old Testament.
So what about you and your own search? That’s the second implication.
Respect your own search, your own journey. Some may use these ideas to
go deeper into their own faith tradition, some to make bridges with a
son- or daughter-in-law who comes from a different religious
background. And so forth—I suspect you can help me with further
Consumerism: The Most Prevalent Pseudo-Religion
Now I want to talk about
some of the most common forms of quasi-spirituality. I heard it said
that one interesting way to think about the concept of worship is that
it is or should be not what you give your lip service to, but what you
make as your highest priority. In that case, the real religion and form
of worship in most of the West and maybe most of the world has become
consumerism, the god Mammon. One of the more interesting theologians I
met, Jay McDaniel, wrote about this and noted (on transparency 1) that
there were ten temptations of consumerism. (Reference: McDaniel, J.
(2000). Living from the Center. Chalice Press.)
The Ten Tempations of Consumerism involve believing that:
• appearance, affluence, and achievement are—and ought to be—the central organizing principles of our lives
• being compulsively busy, even to the point of exhaustion, is a sign of healthy and productive living
• having a successful career is more important than being a good
parent, being a good neighbor, being a kind and loving person, or
taking walks in the woods
• good work is reducible to making money, and that unpaid work—particularly in the home—is not really working
• the appropriate goal of life—higher than service to the poor or
service to God—is to enjoy prosperity in the suburbs with the perfectly
• depression can be cured by shopping
• the most important thing in life is to "have my needs met"
• we humans are not citizens of our communities, much less vessels of
God's love, but rather "consumers" who participate in a "global
marketplace," and that other creatures are "commodities" for our use
• the universe is not a communion of subjects, but rather a collection of objects
• we are all on our own, because there is no grace—no ultimate mercy—within the depths of things
Consider how pervasive these beliefs are, even if they’re only
partially conscious. One way to appreciate consumerism is to consider
its opposite—in this case, ten healing alternatives to the
temptations of consumerism. These alternatives also reflect some
somewhat spiritual ideals, and include the following ideas:
• living lightly on the Earth and gently with each other is much
more important than appearance, affluence, and achievement
• healthy living requires not only creativity, action, and good work
but also rest and relaxation, so that our work can be productive rather
• it is much more important to be a good parent, be a good neighbor,
and be a good person than to have a successful career, particularly if
"success" is defined purely in monetary terms
• truly good work does not consist in making money or in exploiting
natural resources, but rather in serving others, often without being
• helping others, and dwelling in solidarity with people in need, is more important than prosperity in the suburbs
• compulsive shopping is a symptom of disease, not a cure for depression
• the world is not a global marketplace, but rather a gorgeous planet,
filled with many creatures, each of whom is loved by God on its own
terms and for its own sake, and each of whom contains God within.
• happiness lies not necessarily in "having my needs met," but rather in living simply and in service to others
• the universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects
• we are not on our own, because the universe is enfolded within an
ultimate grace that renders questions of "success" and "failure"
The Iago Complex
Okay, let’s take this from
a different viewpoint: A fellow named Arjuna Ardagh identified a group
of beliefs that in depth psychology we call a complex—you know, like
the Oedipus complex or the inferiority complex. And like the Oedipus
complex, Ardagh named it after a character from literature—the
character named Iago—the villain of Shakespeare’s play, Othello. Why
was Iago such a bad guy? Envy? Sure, but what goes with envy? That’s
what’s intriguing in Ardagh’s analysis. He noted the following
qualities—and you’ll notice some overlap with the beliefs that give
rise to the virtual religion of consumerism.
Arjuna Ardagh, on page 20 of his book, The Translucent Revolution
(2005), writes: Iago is the dominant trance state of our planet. It
influences our relationships, our sexuality, our parenting, and our
attempts to relax. It permeates corporate business, international
politics, and our economic system. The Iago state possesses numerous
• Sense of lack: a pervasive and undefined sense that something is missing. Enough is never enough; we always want more or better.
• Sense of separation. Looking to the external world to fulfill
our perceived lack keeps us focused on a me-oriented reality,
reinforcing alienation and separation.
• Addiction: to work, television, videogames, the Internet,
shopping, sex, food, drink, drugs— and some people even become addicted
to seeking spiritual “highs”!
• Anxiety and Fear: of poverty, of loneliness, of the future....
a constant sense of worry. It's as though we are continually late for
an appointment with something we cannot remember
• Suspicion. We trust no one completely, not even family members.
• Strategic living, planning for the worst eventualities, living in a permanent state of alert.
• Hostile competition. Iago creates a feeling of hostile competition, as opposed to co-creation.
Other qualities of the Iago complex include
self-doubt, self-sabotage, disappointment, and meaninglessness. However
the important thing is to imagine the alternatives to these beliefs,
and those are part of the emerging, trans-denominational spirituality.
Integrating Spirituality, Contemporary Psychology, and Life
You might say that these
considerations—about the general materialism and hustle of contemporary
culture—that these may be valid, but that they have nothing to do with
spirituality. I might suggest that the two domains cannot and should
not be separated. In many cultures their religion is their law and way
of life and general value system. In the West there have been multiple
compartmentalizations—partly because there are multiple religions.
Civil law has risen to the status of a kind of quasi-religion,
sociologically, politically, and one might argue that this is
appropriate in a more diverse culture. More homogeneous cultures can
still claim that there are certain standards of morality that cannot be
so easily separated from structures of authority—and it might also be
argued that this is part of the tension between more liberal and more
conservative trends in many modern and postmodern cultures.
The point I’m making is that while we might want to dissociate the
specifics of belief or dogma — what I call the “symbol systems”—from
the policy-making process, we cannot in good conscience successfully
dissociate the deeper moral feelings about overall goals. In the last
national election there was a component of the conflict that focused on
values. The question, of course, is which values—some times focus on a
more dramatic issue that can be teased away from the whole
socio-economic complex seems to satisfy the need to feel righteous
while abdicating from the challenge of questioning whether the basic
economic set-up may be itself unjust, immoral, or blind to values.
So a resurgence of spirituality has political implications, if nothing
else, to call issues into question that had been comfortably split off
into their own business-is-business compartment. Because consumerism
has come to bleed over into ecological concerns that in turn threaten
our existence, it’s no longer a neutral dynamic in our philosophy.
These issues are not spiritual if spiritual only involves belief in any
God or angels or anything like that. But this lecture series is a
little subversive in that it has expanded the meaning to refer to
feeling connected to the wholeness of things. If God is imagined as
being close to the Wholeness of Everything, then the overall health of
the world, of not only other peoples, but all of humanity and all of
life in general must also be included. That shifts spirituality from
mere church-going to a more holistic attitude.
Recently in the news has been a study showing less church affiliation,
still a relatively high level of “belief in God”—but unclear what that
belief might be. Many who identify themselves as Christians are not too
tightly committed to a given dogma—but there are simply few other
categories that seem fitting. Few know enough about other religions to
identify with them; few know about secular humanism or agnosticism. So
most identify themselves broadly as Christian or Jewish, though they
know little of the theory of these traditions, and feel even less
obligated to follow the rules closely. So another implication of this
class is that you simply talk about these issues with your kids,
nephews, friends—get the conversations started.
Let me take a moment as a
digression that may yet be most relevant. A saint—I guess that’s what
some called him—but in India, a Hindu—a bit of hagiography— that’s the
word for the study of the lives of the saints. One of the richest
stories I know is that of the life of an East Indian saint named
Ramakrishna, who lived between 1830 and 1880. Fascinating fellow, with
little formal education, spoke in Bengali. He was to spirituality what
Mozart was to music. It came to him, he really got it. He would
meditate and fall into a mystical trance called samadhi. It was ecstasy
for him. But just as Mozart tried a multiplicity of forms, quartets,
operas, oratorios, symphonies, concertos, so too did Ramakrishna
explore religions. He would ask visitors, “Do you have a God with form
or a God without form?” (Buddhists might be imagined to have a formless
connection to the Greater Wholeness, as perhaps might also Taoists, for
In his mature adulthood, he explored the visions of spirituality of
Christians, Muslims, and followers of other mythic systems in
India—namely the semi-erotic cult of Krishna and the maiden
cow-herders. He studied the scriptures, sought teachers, did the
practices devotedly until he felt he had experienced a vision and an
experience of the Divine through that channel. Then he would
contemplate, re-ground in his own more familiar and personal vision of
the Divine as the Mother-Goddess Kali, and after a while went on to
become curious about and explore a different religion.
Interestingly, Ramakrishna became well known in India and many people
from some difference came and sought to learn from him. One of his
students was a fellow named Vivekananda, – ananda means the bliss of...
as in the bliss of this or that quality, of beauty, or freedom, study
or service, and so forth. Anyway, it was Vivekananda who was sent by
Ramakrishna to the aforementioned World Parliament of Religions, and
who later toured the United States, intrigued a goodly number of
intellectuals, and in a way, set the stage for later teachers.
Vivekananda taught about Vedanta, the refined teachings of the early
scriptures, which offered many insights apart from the overlay of
cultural myth, folk ritual, and other elements that felt right for
people living in the various communities, but might feel quaint,
foreign, and uncomfortable for Westerners.
Incidentally, there is no such thing as Hinduism—. Hindu relates to the
region of the Indus river in the West of India, and was used by
Westerners to describe the actual mixture of hundreds of cult religions
that were related to each other, I guess, in the way that the many
variations of Christianity are related—and that would include the
Seventh Day Adventists, the Mormons or Latter Day Saints, Jehova’s
Witnesses, and on the edge, the Jews for Jesus. There have been some
groups of Christians that emphasize the Jewish aspects, appealing not
to Jews, but to other Christians, reminding them to live the way they
believe Jesus did, as an observant Jew. Christian or Jew?
In India, there are other groups that became clear, including followers
of saints who bridged between Islam and one of the Hindu religions—they
called it Santana Dharma, the true path.
Anyway, the point here is that there have been deeply spiritual people
who have sought to appreciate the nuances and gifts that come from
different backgrounds, different ways God is worshiped, celebrated,
The implication, then, is to do some cross-cultural or interfaith
hagiography—that is, read about the lives of wise people, teachers,
sages, in different traditions. You don’t have to buy the religion, you
don’t have to buy the whole package. The point is to seek to appreciate
what it is they saw, thought, felt. You might find you can use some of
those perspectives, or even better, that they give words to what you
yourself may have had intuited.
Remember, in the olden days, others’ religions were vaguely wicked, and
their prophets were all willing or foolish puppets of the Devil. This
ethnocentric vision is dissolving—though it is alas by no means gone.
So perhaps—as the late medieval Catholics did with the works of ancient
Greeks—mainly Aristotle—, perhaps some of those pagans had certain
degrees of truth. So ancient philosophy was coopted into medieval
church dogma. We can just cast a wider net and work towards a more
This word refers to those
who make up their own blend. There are more of these folks than they
might want to admit, if you include picking and choosing which elements
within their religion they relate more closely to. One might argue that
most folks selectively emphasize certain things differently than their
teachers might have preferred. Throughout history we have stories of
reformers who want to reform in different way: One wants to restore
what they think is the purity of the liturgy, another the
meticulousness of following the laws. One wants to emphasize the
simplicity and poverty of Jesus, another wants to glorify God through
decorating the cathedral. One wants to perceive God intuitively, to get
past the images. In the 5th century there was a wave of iconoclasm—the
word means image breaker—and there were people going around breaking
statues and defacing pictures because they were thought to be
idolatrous. A century ago the Baptists and others emphasized more than
other denominations the importance of keeping statues or ornamentation
out of their churches.
I know a good woman, raised a Protestant, who found the liturgy too
stark, and converted to Roman Catholicism in order to participate in a
liturgy that felt more, well, mystical. She doesn’t buy much of the
Church doctrine, but chooses to work from inside. There are so many
variations of different stories.
Even among those who are open to people shopping among the various
East- and South- Asian religions, there are some who say it’s important
to pick one and dig into it with some depth. These folks are dubious
about those who take just a bit from this and a bit from that—it seems
superficial to them. Others who do pick and choose feel that it’s an
appropriate response to the postmodern condition—to immerse oneself in
a religion that doesn’t fully appeal feels phoney. I have no
conclusions about this issue, but find it interesting to note that it’s
There are many who have
delved into the realms of spirituality and have found it to be of
interest for a while, but have turned their interest to the challenge
of spiritual activism. One leader, Matthew Fox, made a point of saying
that it might be useful to imagine having the spirit of prophecy in one
pocket and the spirit of mysticism in the other. The mystic wants to
feel that relationship with God, to become immersed in it, to have that
experience of one-ness. The prophet is the archetype that feels the
real point is to allow the Divine to channel energy and inspiration in
the service of helping the world be a better place, more righteous,
more friendly, just, awakened, whatever. Fox’s point is that perhaps we
need a bit of each, to apply as needed to the circumstances as they
Certainly, if we think in terms of religion evolving, and consciousness
itself evolving, then perhaps humanity should be recognized as not
fully evolved! My own take is that it is more like only 25% evolved,
collectively averaging the age of an older child, but with access to
We grew up in a world where
many rituals had been fairly established and standardized. One might
even say they had lost much of their power from routine use. By the
1960s, increasing numbers of people had begun to experiment with new
rituals, new additions or variations to ways of getting married,
performing a funeral, welcoming a new child into the family or
community. Indeed, rituals began to be designed for things that had
never required a ritual before—including such role shifts as retirement
or divorce. By the turn of the millennium new books and articles had
been published about how to do rituals.
Another implication of interspirituality, then, is what you might want
to actually give some emphasis on in your life, invite others to
witness and participate. A renewed spirituality, a change in your
understanding, a celebration of the little things, a new way of doing
sabbath? As your kids and grandkids go through major role transitions,
your alertness to this theme may be a source of wisdom and support.
There are retreats, marriage encounters, ways of renewing or deepening
spiritual experiences. Some rituals are really week-long personal or
community-growth workshops. The common theme here is the spirit of
creativity—supplanting the spirit of mindless tradition. Tradition is
not dispensed with—part of the game often involves digging up old
traditions or re-examining established ones and picking out the babies
from the bathwater, identifying what seems meaningful, salient,
relevant and keeping those elements—maybe even highlighting them in new
ways. Evolution rather than revolution.
So, let’s consider the main implications of our class:
First, open to the idea that elderhood is a time for cultivating your
spiritual journey, and what interfaith spirituality offers is a wider
palette of colors, more media to work with, as you construct your own
map of your life’s meaning.
Second, reflect on your life’s spiritual journey, it’s ins and outs,
ups and downs. What has brought you closer to God, Jesus, the Ground of
Being, the Tao—whatever works to help you feel more connected to the
Great Mystery? What has left you feeling left out, dangling, abandoned,
betrayed? These stories abound.
Third, talk with friends and relatives. Your kids as adults will be
nourished by having a parent who is thinking about life, philosophizing
a bit. Your mental aliveness will be an inspiration to them, and it
will offer them an entrance for them to tell you about their
explorations and feelings regarding spirituality.