Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Nov/09

3

Spirituality, real and imagined

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The sweat lodge deaths have focused scrutiny on the New Age community in Sedona, which over three decades has become a magnet for spiritual seekers thanks to spectacular scenery and links to Native American rituals. The Angel Valley retreat center, which hosted the five-day Spiritual Warrior event, offers a menu of services like soul retrieval, vortex healing and dolphin energy healing.

(From the New York Times, reporting on an October 8 sweat lodge ceremony intended as a rebirthing experience that left three people dead from dehydration.) 

I know that this is wildly unrealistic, but how about if people satisfy their “spiritual” longings with what we actually have: the human spirit.    There’s plenty of evidence that it can survive death.  Aeschylus’ Oresteia, for example, has lasted thousands of years through a transfer of custody as marvelous as any soul channeler could dream up.  Every time an orchestra starts the terrifying opening chords and palpitating, yearning arpeggios of the overture to Don Giovanni, Mozart’s spirit is given living form. 

Several years ago, the religious apologist David Hart wrote an essay celebrating America’s most zealous forms of religious enthusiasm.  Speaking in tongues and snake-handling showed America’s still robust faith and “spiritual” fiber, so different from Europe’s religious apathy, he argued.    My reaction is the exact opposite: I find such foaming-at-the-mouth frenzy repugnant.  I know that I am merely revealing my own limitations here, but consciousness at its most normally functioning seems to me not just an adequate way of inhabiting the world but a superb one as well. 

The desire to escape the self is obviously ubiquitous.  But I wish it could be satisfied by singing in a chorus, say, rather than seeking some more extreme form of release from ordinary neurological operations.  Even without the ever-present threat of the mob that lurks in efforts at collective transcendence, the search for a supra-human reality is susceptible to charlatanism and fraud:

On a conference call . . . held last week for sweat lodge participants, . . . a self-described “channeler” who visited Angel Valley after the retreat [claimed] to have communicated with the dead.  [T]he channeler said they had left their bodies in the sweat lodge and chosen not to come back because “they were having so much fun.”
Dr. Bunn had a less charitable view: “They couldn’t re-enter their bodies because they were dead.”

All this New Age business is laughable, of course, but more mainstream claims regarding the afterlife are no more grounded in knowledge. 

 
Almost none of us will create anything worthy of immortality (though the internet may provide it anyway), but merely by reading, observing, or listening to the creations of past geniuses, we participate in a great chain of being that requires no hucksters but only an inter-generational recognition of beauty.

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24 comments

  • John · November 3, 2009 at 5:58 pm

    Almost none of us will create anything worthy of immortality

    How about my genes? As long as my kids have kids who have kids…, that is about as close to immortality as I’m going to get. It’s not as nice as a permanent afterlife in heaven, but it’s not nothing, either.

    Besides, the theory of relativity proved that there is nothing special about the present moment. We only see it as more real since that’s the time we’re in now, just as the place I’m sitting in seems more real to me than Tokyo, because I’m not in Tokyo. Even after we’re dead, we are still a part of 4-dimensional reality. I actually find this to be rather consoling.

  • Ed · November 3, 2009 at 6:03 pm

    Heather MacDonald wrote: ‘merely by reading, observing, or listening to the creations of past geniuses, we participate in a great chain of being that requires no hucksters but only an inter-generational recognition of beauty’.

    Apt observation! Thus we individual humans, what Frank Salter as ‘dissolving links in evolving chains of life’, transmit the life of our culture to the next generation, adding what contributions we may.

  • Ed · November 3, 2009 at 6:06 pm

    That is, what Frank Salter described….

  • A-Bax · November 3, 2009 at 7:17 pm

    From where I’m sitting, Layne Staley’s recorded vocals have as much spirituality and transcendence in them as any religious ceremony – mainstream or otherwise.

    And they have the added bonus of being based on actual events inside a recording booth, are transferable to impressionable young musical minds, and have already had a noticeable influence on many aspiring artists.

    If you can’t be satisfied with the spirituality that comes from the art you love best, no amount of rabid gibbering, sweat-lodge chicanery, or transubstantiation is going to help much.

  • Thursday · November 3, 2009 at 7:33 pm

    Almost none of us will create anything worthy of immortality (though the internet may provide it anyway), but merely by reading, observing, or listening to the creations of past geniuses, we participate in a great chain of being that requires no hucksters but only an inter-generational recognition of beauty.

    I don’t want immortality through my work. I want immortality through not dying.
    – Woody Allen

  • Kevin Lawrence · November 3, 2009 at 9:53 pm

    Heather, celebrating the magnificence of the human spirit is what you do best. Don’t stop.

  • Aaron · November 4, 2009 at 1:03 am

    HMD writes:

    I know that this is wildly unrealistic, but how about if people satisfy their “spiritual” longings with what we actually have: the human spirit.

    You answered your question yourself: because it’s wildly unrealistic. The solutions you offer to spiritual longing – “take a cold shower”, or “go see an opera” – have been offered ever since the 19th century, when they were even more fashionable than they are today. They just don’t satisfy those spiritual longings the way New Age retreats do. Like it or not, the choice isn’t between Christ and Mozart, it’s between Christ and some sweat-lodge guru. And kudos to Andrew Stuttaford of this blog for recognizing and accepting that reality.

  • Matt · November 4, 2009 at 5:30 am

    If only they’d eaten some Psilocybin mushrooms they’d still be with us, the desire to escape the self at least momentarily satisfied.

  • Susan · November 4, 2009 at 7:25 am

    Is responding to an aesthetic or sensual experience actually spiritual? I’ve known dozens of people who describes themselves as “spiritual, not religious,” and I’ve never known what they’re talking about. When they try to explain it, it seems to me that what they’re talking about is what I would call an aesthetic or sensual experience.

  • kurt9 · November 4, 2009 at 9:51 am

    One man’s theology is another man’s belly laugh.

    One man’s “magic” is another man’s engineering. “Supernatural” is a null word.

  • A-Bax · November 4, 2009 at 10:08 am

    Susan asks Is responding to an aesthetic or sensual experience actually spiritual? I’ve known dozens of people who describes themselves as “spiritual, not religious,” and I’ve never known what they’re talking about. When they try to explain it, it seems to me that what they’re talking about is what I would call an aesthetic or sensual experience.

    I think that aesthetic/sensual experience are on a continuum with what’s often called a “spiritual” experience. The difference between the two is one of degree, not kind.

    Hence the common occurrence of someone who’s taken hallucinogens and then claims to have “found god”. Or the many, many folks who claim to be “closer to god” while taking in natural wonders like the Grand Canyon or Crater Lake, etc. Or we can think about how the term “ecstasy” has both a religious and sexual meaning. (As well as being the well-chosen street name for MDMA.)

    I think when these sorts of experiences reach a certain threshold, there’s a kind of ineffableness to them, and many are quick to slap the label “spiritual” onto an otherwise inexplicable feeling.

    In cases like that, I’ve always interpreted the term “spiritual” charitably, and not assumed the speaker to intend anything like ghosts or metaphysically dubious entities. It’s just a hardcore aesthetic experience.

  • j mct · November 4, 2009 at 11:20 am

    Maybe they should get into the size of their carbon footprint, that’s what smart people do nowadays.

  • Aaron · November 4, 2009 at 11:46 am

    Susan :

    Susan

    Is responding to an aesthetic or sensual experience actually spiritual? I’ve known dozens of people who describes themselves as “spiritual, not religious,” and I’ve never known what they’re talking about. When they try to explain it, it seems to me that what they’re talking about is what I would call an aesthetic or sensual experience.

    Some people who describe themselves as spiritual-not-religious just mean that they believe in some vague Supreme Force or cosmic blob or just some kind of transcendence. For this type, it’s just a belief that they never give much thought to, and nothing more. Clearly they’re not in the aesthetic-or-sensual category.

    For others, the ones you seem to mean, their spirituality is an actual experience of the transcendental (as they see it). Their subjective experience of the transcendent seems to be like that of traditional religious people I’ve known. Where a Christian might talk about the Holy Spirit, a New Ager might talk about energy. The phenomenology seems the same.

    Almost every spiritual-not-religious person of this type that I’ve known was into some kind of New Age spirituality in particular, and of course a lot of that is just vulgarized – very vulgarized – Buddhism, Christianity, etc. When the spiritual people said they weren’t religious, what they meant was that they didn’t believe in authoritative, doctrinal, organized religion (though New Age can be all of those).

    So I say, phenomenology-wise, take them at their word. They really do mean spiritual (transcendent) and not aesthetic or sensual.

  • Susan · November 4, 2009 at 11:54 am

    I guess what this discussion proves is that “spiritual” has become one of those words that means whatever the speaker chooses it to mean. Generally the people I’ve known who like to identify themselves as “spiritual” have been fairly insufferable, smugly assured that their “spirituality” grants them an equivalent moral superiority. Something that I, as a mere gross aesthete/sensualist, don’t possess.

  • Thursday · November 4, 2009 at 1:06 pm

    The spiritual and the aesthetic overlap, but are not identical. Spiritual needs they won’t necessarily be fulfilled by aesthetic experiences.

  • Caledonian · November 4, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    What exactly does ‘transcendent’ mean? It seems to me that Aaron is taking one meaningless word and replacing it with another. Six of one, half a dozen of the other.

  • j mct · November 4, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    Transcendant means outside of space and time. An ‘ordinary’ transcendent truth, or one that even physicists normally if not consciously think is transcendant is “2+3=5″. 2 doing it’s thing with 3 to make 5 does not depend on where or when ‘it’ is, 2,3 and 5 are nowhere and everywhere doing their thing no matter what time it is.

    God is transcendant, in that he exists outside time. When a physicist contemplates the world, where time is just another dimension, and he’s “outside” it when he does it, he’s contemplating the world from the God’s eye, “transcendant”, point of view.

  • Caledonian · November 4, 2009 at 2:38 pm

    If it’s outside of space and time, you can’t experience it. You have to interact with a thing to be able to experience it, and if you can interact with a thing, it’s part of our universe.

  • j mct · November 4, 2009 at 2:54 pm

    Really? What’s the rest mass of ‘3’?

  • Polichinello · November 4, 2009 at 2:55 pm

    That’s the point, Caledonian, for spiritualists. Belief in the “transcendant” means belief in going beyond our universe. Thus the appeal, even if wholly false. You can break the rules! Rewrite the rules!

  • Sully · November 4, 2009 at 4:16 pm

    “sweat lodge ceremony intended as a rebirthing experience that left three people dead from dehydration”

    Think of it as evolution in action.

    Unless they actually were reborn, somewhere else. Religious instruction manuals can be vague.

  • black sea · November 4, 2009 at 10:24 pm

    “One man’s theology is another man’s belly laugh.”

    On the topic of Native American spirtuality, I still remember an anecdote that I read years ago. A particular band of 19th century Plains Indians received instruction from their shaman to place all of their arrows on the summit of a nearby hill, where they would, during the night, absorb some strange magical power from the moonlight. Of course, that same night the band was attacked by an enemy tribe, and more or less wiped out.

    Members of the very same tribe as those who had been massacred considered this a hilarious story, and loved to recount its absurdity while sitting around the fire.

  • Susan · November 5, 2009 at 10:51 am

    @Thursday

    Allen also said that he didn’t believe in an afterlife, though he planned to bring a change of underwear.

  • Caledonian · November 5, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    Really? What’s the rest mass of ‘3′?

    What’s the rest mass of a photon? What’s the color of an electron? How large is Thursday?

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