Lecture 6: Interfaith Spirituality: IMPLICATIONS
Adam Blatner

(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 suggestions.

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 manicured lawn
• 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 than compulsive
• 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 noticed
• 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" irrelevant.

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 inherent qualities:
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 example.)

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, expressed.

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 syncretistic approach.


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 happening.


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 arise.

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 loaded guns.


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.