Back to Spirituality!

The opening talk of the 1998 conference was given by Diarmuid O'Murchu, author of Reclaiming Spirituality and Quantum Theology

For most of the Christian era, spirituality has been a type of esoteric concept viewed with suspicion or anxiety. Not surprisingly, therefore, it has been largely consigned to the realms of monastic seclusion, deemed to be inferior to the more serious business of formal religion, and a distraction for the public masses in their desire to follow God in the life of the Church.

In the West, in the post-Renaissance environment of the university, spirituality became a subject of philosophical debate and logical argumentation, a rather heady academic analysis of the human desire for God. In the seventeenth century, spirituality referred exclusively to the interior life of Christians, often expressed in bizarre devotional practices. By the eighteenth century it largely referred to the perfection associated with mystical states, unattainable by the majority of people.

Finally, in the 18th and 19th centuries it assumed a certain academic status under the rubrics of ethics or moral theology.

Spirituality & Religion

The assumption always has been, and continues to this day, that spirituality is a corollary of mainstream religion, a viewpoint held across all the major religions, to the best of my knowledge, and hence the disparity and tension often noted around mystical experiences in the various world religions. We note, for example, that many books on the Islamic faith make no allusion whatever to the rise and expansion of Sufism. By the same token, it is noteworthy that many of the great mystics of the Christian middle age—Meister Eckardt, Hildegarde of Bingen, Mechtild of Magdeburg, Julian of Norwich—were never considered for sainthood by the Catholic Church.

It is this equivalence between religion and spirituality that I wish to explore and reconsider in the course of this address. My fundamental conviction is that spirituality is a universal phenomenon, across time and culture, predating the formal religions we know today by many thousands of years; that spirituality is an innate human predisposition to mystery and meaning in life; that the equivalence of religion and spirituality has not merely undermined the real meaning of spirituality but has had very destructive implications for human and planetary well-being; and finally that as religion begins to recede off the human stage—in terms of its impact on people's daily lives and their search for meaning—spirituality is likely to re-surface afresh and will require a radically new and creative hermeneutic if we are to access its potential and resourcefulness for a better quality of life for humans and for all creatures inhabiting Planet Earth.

The Evolutionary Approach

Currently, spirituality tends to be studied and explored within the realms of theology, religious studies, philosophy, psychology and to a lesser extent within sociology. What can easily be missed in all these approaches is the underlying evolutionary story which despite its incompleteness, carries a wisdom which other sciences can all too easily miss. We access this story through the growing body of research provided by anthropology, paleontology, evolutionary studies and archaeology—important sources of information and wisdom that both science and theology tend to ignore.

I now wish to enumerate some key dimensions of that unfolding story: As a species that can walk uprightly, and use our hands and brains to make some skilful and sophisticated tools, we humans, under the rubric of Homo Erectus, have walked this earth for at least two million years and for most of that time we behaved not as a primitive but as a highly creative species. Terence Deacon in his book The Symbolic Species and Steven Mithen in his pre-historic study of mind both highlight our capacity to develop communication and linguistic skills—particularly over the past 500,000 years—many of which skills are evidence for a profound innate capacity to relate and interact in a symbolic way. The widely accepted conviction for much of the present century is that we humans could only develop abstract thought and symbolic meaning after we had learned to speak. Increasingly, the evidence is now pointing in a very different direction, indicating that our linguistic abilities are themselves the finer developments of a species that was symbolically endowed for thousands of years before articulate speech evolved.

It is not surprising, therefore, that as far back as 70,000 years ago—further research will undoubtedly push this date further into antiquity—we buried our dead with accompanying rites and rituals that reveal a distinctive spiritual consciousness. The evidence, both anthropological and archaeological, points to a sense of the numinous and the transcendent, the awareness that life was held within some greater reality, experienced to be awesome and frightening, immanent and transcendent, and that life was envisaged as a type of journey that did not merely begin on this earthly sphere, nor did it terminate at the moment of individual death.

Various animistic ways of cyclic sense of how things unravelled and unfolded, governed by a higher principle, seem to have been quite extensive among our ancient ancestors as far back as 70,000 years ago and probably for much longer than that.

We now come to an area of intense research, debate and controversy, largely initiated by the pioneering archaeological work of Marija Gimbutas and Alexander Marshack and popularised in works like Riane Eisler's The Chalice and the Blade and Elinor Gadon's The Once and Future Goddess.

I refer to that highly artistic and creative phase covering some 30,000 years, broadly known as the Paleolithic Era and dated from about 40,000 BCE to 10,000 BCE. This is the epoch of Ice Age art, those varied and creative artefacts first discovered in the last century in South West France, Northern Spain, in Germany and parts of Urasia, but since then matched by similar discoveries in many parts of central and southern Africa, South East Asia, Australia and the island of Tasmania. In an age devoid of global communications and rather limited travel, one wonders what was this quality of creative energy that seemed to be transcending geographical space with people in such diffuse places apparently experiencing a very similar upsurge of creative talent. And how do we interpret the focus on the female nature of so many of these artefacts and the increasingly strong intimations that people across the inhabited world of that time worshipped God as a woman, a woman whose body they seem to have considered to be co-terminus with the body of the Earth itself, and hence the modern naming of that life-force as the Great Earth Mother Goddess?

Attempts to provide quantifiable and objective evidence for the Paleolithic Earth Goddess will not even marginally satisfy or make sense to the scientific and theological world of our time. And not all the archaeological research on earth will complete the jig-saw to our intellectual or religious satisfaction. Meanwhile, rather than dismiss the whole thing because of inadequate evidence, according to current scientific and theological standards, I suggest we befriend the piecemeal evidence with open minds and hearts while we continue to forge a growing sense of connectedness with so much of our sacred story from which we have been culturally and religiously severed for at least the past 5,000 years.

Now we come to another highly controversial development acclaimed to be a major breakthrough for the human species, but not necessarily for the rest of creation, namely the Agricultural Revolution which began about 10,000 years ago. The positive outcomes are well known and need no elucidation on this occasion. What has not been acknowledged until very recent times are the negative and destructive implications of this emergent event.

All indications are that prior to the Agricultural Revolution people considered the whole planet to be home, the source of their life and nurture, perceived to be a living and possibly "divine" organism on which they walk gently and respectfully. James Campbell frequently alludes to hunters submitting both their task and their captures to the Shaman, both before embarking upon the hunt and on dealing subsequently with the slaughter of the captured animals.

It is only after the Agricultural Revolution that we humans began to carve up Planet Earth into what we now call nation states and ethnic subdivisions, that we objectified the land into a commodity to be conquered and controlled, that human rivalries reached competitive levels that eventually gave birth to modern warfare, and finally that we invented systems of belief (called religions) to validate our anthropocentric insatiable instinct to divide and conquer the entire creation.

I suggest that this compulsive drive towards domination sought to manipulate and control even the powers of the divine and that this desire to conquer divinity itself is at the heart of all the major religious systems we know today. All of which forces us to conclude that religion could well be the most destructive and outrageous form of idolatry that our world has ever known. Even to this day, religion fuels an enormous amount of pain, bitterness, oppression and destruction in our world.

Finally, I want to expose the ideological subversion of two words that we use liberally, largely unaware I suggest of the convoluted undergirding of these terms. I refer to the words civilisation and tradition. When using the word civilisation academics of virtually every discipline are referring to our first attempts at writing and our initial attempts at developing an urban lifestyle in a place called Sumer (in the Tigris-Euphrates valley) around 3,000 BCE. These developments are often described as "the dawn of civilisation" or "the origins of modern civilisation".

Covertly, and at times overtly, we are asserting that everything before that time was uncivilized, primitive, pre-logical, pre-literate, savage, cannibalistic, etc., words liberally used in the anthropological literature in the first half of the present century, but not by any informed researcher of the past 30-40 years.

In a similar manner, we abuse the word tradition with each religion claiming unique access to tradition, each tracing its origins, and indeed the origin of everything that exists, to the upsurge of that particular belief system. It is this tendency to identify tradition exclusively with one or other faith-system that has led to the confusing confluence of religion and spirituality, a combination that undermines and camouflages the unique meaning of what I suggest are two very different phenomena.

We now realise that we have defined and continue to define, civilisation and tradition in a manner that continues to bolster and augment the reductionistic and imperial ordering of patriarchal power. In this process, we gravely dishonour and misrepresent the larger story of our evolution as a human spiritual species.

Long before formal religion ever came into existence, we humans lived and behaved within a spiritual sense of connectedness with planetary and universal life. With the introduction of religion these connections were gradually severed and we began to adopt a disconnected mode of relating which is the basis of our alienation right to this present time.

To illustrate what I mean, I need to shift the focus momentarily to examine two key concepts: our understanding of person and our understanding of Planet Earth. Our contemporary understanding of person, which is not entirely different from that adopted at the Church councils of Nicea and Chalcedon, is distinctly mechanistic and functional; it fits well with the existing models of the mainstream religions, particularly the monotheistic ones, whereas it certainly is not congruent with the sense of spirituality I am exploring in this paper.

How we understand the human

I wish to suggest that our understanding of the human person today, and throughout the patriarchal culture of post-Agricultural times, is very different from the self-understanding out of which we operated in previous millennia, indeed, of how we seem to have operated for most of our time as a species inhabiting Planet Earth. Today, we assume the epitome of personhood to be that of an atomized individual organism, an autonomous embodied creature. We perceive such creatures to be fundamentally self-reliant, self-referential and superior in their essential nature to all other creatures and to the Planet we inhabit.

The uniqueness of the individual person sounds impressive and important, but upon closer examination turns out to be a dangerous and alienating facade, a caricature of the heroic, robust individual upon which the whole edifice of patriarchy is construed and constructed.

For some years now, various schools of humanist psychology have expressed serious reservations about this anthropocentric self-understanding; we are invited to embrace a very different understanding. Instead of portraying the human person as a quantifiable, functional self-contained entity comprising flesh, blood, bone, emotions and psyche, we tend these days to adopt the notion that each one of us, at any one time, is the sum of our relationships.

According to this theory, what makes a person a person is the dynamic interactions of the various relationships operating at any one time in the person's life. These include relationships with significant others, with friends and colleagues at a whole range of different levels, with the surrounding environment, with the world, and with the realm of spirit which includes mind and psyche but also a sense of transcendence which is partly conscious but in the greater part, subconscious.

According to this understanding, the physical, embodied outline of the person who sits beside me is merely the external here-and-now structure of an organism whose essential meaning extends far beyond and far deeper than what I can see, hear and touch. In terms of the quantum theory in physics, I am dealing with something closely akin to the wave-particle duality. The collapse of the wave function marks the individualised physical encounter I have with a particular person, but that is only one very specific manifestation of a being whose essential nature never can and never will be reduced to that one specific mode of experience.

For much of the present century, philosophers and social scientists, seeking to defend as normative the patriarchal understanding referred to above, suggested that our prehistoric ancestors were so immersed in the culture and ecology of their environment that they had not yet evolved the reflexive consciousness which would lead to the process of differentiation; only in that differentiated state, set apart from and superior to everything else in creation may we be considered genuinely human. That view of traditional anthropology continues to be a basic assumption of theology and many other sciences down to our time. Our anthropocentric view of life has rarely been subjected to any serious or comprehensive critique.

Prior to this stage we assume that our ancient ancestors were primitive and savage to a degree that made them basically inhuman. Lucien Levy-Bruhl is only one of several theorists humble and honest enough to admit that he should never have used such derogatory allegations and after 1939 proceeded to change quite drastically his perceptions and theories along with the language he used to explain them. What is now much more apparent is that our understanding of our prehistoric ancestors was often based, not on solid research, but on projections from our barbaric present for which we used the ancients as cultural scapegoats. All of which indicates how dissected and fragmented we have become from a substantial portion of our human and cultural evolutionary story. What we are now having to reclaim and reappropriate is the greater picture of who we are as a species, those aspects that have been subverted through patriarchal oppression and are currently revisiting our world with a timely vengeance.

Before linking these observations directly to the main topic of this paper, let me briefly outline the planetary and cosmic connection. When I say that my personal identity is that of the sum of my relationships, I don't simply mean relationships with other persons. I also mean a multi-dimensional sense of interconnection with the surrounding world in its planetary and cosmic dimensions, e.g. as a carbon-based life-form we are connected to the distant world of stars and galaxies. It is more than a poetic quip to claim that we are the same stuff as the stars.

At a personal level this connection may be largely subconscious but there is at least a strong hunch that without a meaningful planet I cannot enjoy a meaningful life as a human being. And the more I can bring the planetary-cosmic aspect into conscious awareness the less alienated I am likely to be in myself, and in my relationships with everybody and everything around me. For an original and lucid exposition of these ideas I refer you to David Abram's recent work The Spell of the Sensuous.

Whether or not this renewed sense of what it means to be human, namely that my essential identity lies within my capacity to relate, leads me to some specific sense of God or of the divine, is a perennial question for our time. If we concur with the findings of the new cosmology, or which I recommend the seminal work of Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, which among other things claims that creation itself is the primary revelation of God for us (a notion that Thomas Aquinas alludes to in the Summa Theologica), then the ability to bond more closely with nature may indeed evoke deep spiritual sentiments, even of a theistic nature. While many of these ideas fly in the face of contemporary Christian theology, I believe they are at the very core of what contemporary spirituality is seeking to unravel at this time.

The relational understanding of personhood suggested above makes possible a whole new appraisal of some traditional religious doctrines. I refer in particular to our traditional understanding of Christology, as well as that brand of spirituality which refers to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. What does "person" mean in this context? May it not now become a great deal clearer why the Jesus of the synoptic gospels always seeks to divert attention away from himself as the "heroic, individualised divine saviour" that the disciples are forever wishing to enthrone as King, opting instead for something more akin to the relational suffering servant at the service of the New Reign of God.

The project of the New Reign of God, otherwise called the kingdom of God, therefore, is not an external cause that Jesus embraces but rather an extension of his rational personhood, a whole new way of being in the world for which Jesus may best be understood as the primordial embodiment.

In the light of these observations the doctrine of the Trinity also takes on new meaning. Long before the doctrine was ever formulated in the Christian church we see adherents of all the great religions grappling with this notion of a triune dimension to the divine. Might not this be an intuitive hunch as well as a psychological projection—that whatever else God is, God is essentially about relationships. The capacity to relate may well be the central dynamic that enables us to unravel the deeper meaning of life at every level, human and divine alike.

Key Descriptions

In the light of these reflections, I now offer you some descriptions of what I deem spirituality to be about. I draw on the insights of two feminist theologians of our own time.

First, "Spirituality is the relational component of lived experience" (Katherine Zappone).

Secondly, "Spirituality is the aspect of human existence that explores the subtle forces of energy in and around us and reveals to us profound interconnectedness". (Charlene Spretnak).

How we interpret our experience and internalise it is open to several possibilities. Zappon invites us towards a more inclusive sense which will include cosmic, planetary, environmental, interpersonal, as well as "individualised" aspects. It is in the process of unearthing and exploring the connections between these aspects that spiritual meaning will unfold, a process that has within it the potential to open us to that transcendent sense of selectedness we call "Trinity".

Spretnak follows a similar route, but with greater depth and subtlety. Instead of experience, she invokes the notion of energy, which in a universe of curved space-time is always "inter-relating" and indeed, pointing us towards a sense of profound interconnectedness.

Let me attempt a synthesis of my message by drawing on the work of the scripture scholar Walter Brueggemann. Because we as a species are so disconnected from our deep story, we suffer from a forced sense of forgetfulness, which he calls amnesia. In other words, we have largely forgotten who we are and what our lives are really about as a human-planetary-cosmic species whose destiny might well be—in the words of James Lovelock—to be the nervous system of Planet Earth itself. A rather lofty notion!

Because of our amnesia, and the consequent betrayal of our true identity, we have become to ourselves, to each other and to our world, a bunch of commodities, objectified, mechanistic entities that ferociously compete for the ever-depleting resources of our world, a world we have also excessively turned into yet another commodity to be exploited and consumerised.

Little wonder then, we are left in a state of deep despair which, more accurately, I would describe as a form of addictive alienation. And this alienation is not because we have lost faith in God, or in transcendent meaning. It is much more basic and has to do with the fact that we don't know how to relate meaningfully to the daily invitations of being a planetary-cosmic species in a highly creative universe.

And I believe Brueggemann points us quite accurately in the direction we need to take. We need to re-member, start putting back together again, repairing the terrible fragmentation we have caused to ourselves and to the creation around us. Is it too late? I sometimes think so, but being an eternal optimist, I still live in hope.

A spirituality grounded in creation, attentive to the complex unfolding of evolution, and seeking to repair the ruthless fragmentation we humans have caused to so many life-forms, is probably the most urgent need of our times. It seems to me that millions are hungering for such connectedness, but in a world so dissected politically and spiritually, so broken and alienated because of patriarchal rupturing, it is dauntingly difficult to even know where to begin. Yet, somehow begin we must, because our choice not to begin carries consequences almost too drastic to imagine.

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