Tuesday, March 23, 2010

You Non-Conformists Are All Alike

The belief that the world as it ought to be is, really exists, is a belief of the unproductive who do not desire to create a world as it ought to be. They posit it as already available; they seek ways and means of reaching it. "Will to truth" as the impotence of the will to create.

- Nietzsche

I thought of that aphorism while reading this essay:

It's a trend today to disdain religion as repressive and affirm spirituality as transformational or liberating, but really, one can be a member of a religious institution and be spiritual, or be religious or spiritual without belonging to a church -- or both. There's a new trend of "do your own spiritual thing," forming one's own religion based on a kind of à la carte sampling of traditions and religions, from Buddhist sangha meditation to Christian prayer chanting to Hindu or Hebrew dietary codes. It's très hip to be a Jew-Bu (Jewish/Buddhist) or a yogi for Christ. One practicing Hindu I know often reminds me that "Jesus Christ and Buddha are both incarnations of Vishnu."

Another poll of Americans by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life late last year found that many people attend multiple religious services and hold spiritual, religious, and "New Age" beliefs all at the same time.

I wouldn't call it a new trend to treat the world's religious traditions as a Whitman's Sampler, given that I've read people exulting or lamenting about it for as long as I can remember. But leaving that aside, I'm always amused at how such a, well, consumerist mentality is held up as an expression of individuality. The religious buffet. The metaphysical shopping mall. Accessorize your inner lifestyle. Differentiate yourself with this year's new fashions.

And I understand the comfort to be had from hewing to some community standards or tradition, really I do, but still, when someone starts telling me about their "spirituality", why do they never surprise me with something resembling an original thought? Why do we get the same hoary old quotations from the same predictable authority figures? Why is there an unthinking assumption that any answer to the "big questions" has to be steeped in antiquity and passed down through the centuries to have any value? God is dead and you really are free to find your own way, people. There's no reason you can't come up with a thought or insight derived from your own experience just as profound and useful as anything Jesus or Buddha or Gandhi said. And just to keep you on your toes, let me immediately contradict myself by letting a literary authority figure like Emerson back me up on this point:

A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.

On previous episodes of "spiritual-not-religious", I talked about how I despise the word "spiritual" and all the metaphysical connotations it smuggles in with it, preferring terms like "reflective", "contemplative" or "philosophical". It occurs to me lately that those seem to suggest I trust my thinking rather than my feeling to get me right with the world (and meditation, for me, has nothing to do with "spirit"; it's a way of clarifying and streamlining my thinking.) Of course, both religion and spirituality are full of exhortations to not be led astray by the devious machinations of the intellect, to go with what feels right in your heart instead. But when you notice how often your heart is just telling you what you want to hear, how can anyone take this idea seriously?