Religion and Spirituality

Adapted from a manuscript draft of Creative Systems Theory:

“In the beginning …”

Defining Questions

What conception or conceptions of the sacred are most consistent with future human meaning and planetary well-being?

What does it mean to act morally in a world without clearly defined moral codes?  Do universal moral truths exist that can guide us in the next chapter of culture’s story?

How do we most creatively and usefully understand the similarities and differences between the world’s religions? How do we best understand the relationship between religion and science, religion and business, religion and governance, religion and education, religion and art? (And why, or why not, might understanding such relationship be important?)

The future

The world of religion and spirituality has been ambivalent in its contribution to Cultural Maturity’s changes—at different times and places pointing toward their importance and protecting us from their implications. On one hand, the sense that something is missing in modern culture’s increasingly secular and material explanations and values has for many people played a key role in driving the courage of questioning that mature perspective requires. At the same time, formal religion has been decidedly limited in its contribution to cultural maturity’s debate. For many people, the church (the synagogue, the mosque) has served as a primary refuge from Cultural Maturity’s easily overwhelming demands. And alternative, New Age forms, have as often proved trivial —and diversions from the tasks at hand—as enlightening.

What lies ahead for religion/spirituality if Cultural Maturity’s predictions hold?  Cultural Maturity affirms the important significance that at least the roots of religious experience have for the future and identifies important future roles. At the same time Cultural Maturity challenges religion, and does so fundamentally. While Culturally Maturity does something analogous with every other domain, the place religion holds in many people lives can give this challenge added significance.

Three arenas where we should see important new contributions (though also new  challenges) make a good place to start. Each relates to religion’s social role—to ways we should expect religion to help us with cultural tasks new on the horizon. Religion has taken at least baby steps with each of them—though also often gone out of its way to keep their full implications at bay. Each extrapolates from a traditional strength of spiritual sensibility.

Religion and Peace

In theory, religion should be able to contribute significantly to helping people get along. Religious values traditionally emphasize peace (“God is love), humility (“blessed are the meek”), and tolerance. The difficulty (and needed stretching), of course, lies with the fact that our gods historically have reserved their love for our own kind. Religion has played as big a role as politics—some people would argue a bigger—in defining the world in “chosen people/evil others” terms. To realize its potential as a force toward peace, religion must embrace a more inclusive “us.” At the level of ecumenical perspective—and sometimes in ways that are more overtly integrative—it is doing just that. I’m reminded of Reverend Desmond Tutu’s role with South Africa’s Peace and Reconciliation Commissions.

But bridging of self and other in a deep way requires a greater stretch than we might first assume. Certainly it demands that we recognize and own that human propensity to project our less savory dimensions onto others. Beyond that it requires that we question the absoluteness of our beliefs—including religious beliefs. I am reminded of Mark Twain’s observation that “Man is the only animal that has the true religion—several of them.” We have to accept the possibility of multiple perspectives, to recognize, even celebrate, that there may more than one right “gate into the city.” In the end, the challenge is deeper yet, that we be willing to question past parental/mythologized notions of divine truth. At least ours must be a parent with a most generous and encompassing vantage. With Cultural Maturity, spiritual sensibility’s valuing of connections and things sacred finds expression within the larger system of humanity (and life/ecperience as a whole).

The Moral/Ethical Dimension

A second task for which religion’s traditional role might seem to promise important future social contribution relates to that growing importance of the moral/ethical dimension in good decision-making. I’ve emphasized how the loss of clear cultural guideposts means that even the most familiar moral concerns stretch us—and, more, how the bridging between before-distinct worlds of experience inherent to more systemic understanding means that in an important new sense no question is value free. Being that moral understanding has traditionally been the province of religion, spiritual belief, at least if maturely conceived, should be able to help us navigate what should be an ever-more demanding moral/ethical landscape.

Again, we face some obvious difficulties if this potential is to be realized.  Different religious traditions may view what is good and what is evil quite differently.  And even if traditional belief is not held dogmatically, it generally stops well short of the subtlety and nuance today’s increasingly complex and often highly situation-specific moral/ethical concerns require. Cultural Maturity affirms that religion has a critically important potential role to play in bringing a moral voice to the conversations of our time.  But at the same time it emphasizes that that voice can make useful contribution only to the degree it speaks from a maturity and subtlety of systemic perspective that people of religious conviction can often as yet find difficult to welcome.

Faith-based Initiatives

The third social opportunity and challenge is interesting both for its significance and what it has to teach us about bridging between cultural spheres. Religion,  traditionally, has  helped ensure that the powerless are not ignored and the injured healed. Religious groups have financed or run hospitals, schools, community service programs, and agencies for global relief. They’ve also worked for human right around the world. The need for such efforts should be no less in the future and Cultural Maturity suggests ways this function could increase. The more sophisticated boundary capacities that come with mature perspective mean that public/private partnerships with religious institutions could be of newly potential benefit.

The required stretchings are ultimately no less demanding than with the previous two examples. Certainly there is that need for greater inclusiveness and acceptance of differences. But as much of a stretch will be the required new boundary sophistication. As with boundaries in mature systemic relationships more generally, boundaries between church and state need to become at once more solid and more permeable in a culturally mature reality. The demands are great equally for those of more liberal persuasion who may fear incursions of religious dogma into democratic process and conservatives who tend to tie sacred truth to specific doctrine. Public/private partnerships with religious institutions can serve us, but only when combined with a mature systemic understanding of the relationship of governance and religious sensibility of which we are only just becoming capable.

The Future of Belief

How about the future of religious/spiritual belief and experience? The dialogue with Jonathan at the beginning of the chapter on Reengagement did the preparatory work particularly important with left-hand concerns. It examined both the cultural roles religion/spirituality play and some of how those roles have evolved. It also described how Cultural Maturity makes some provocative suggestions about where our relationship to the spiritual may be headed.

Religion’s Question of Referent—how, ultimately, spiritual experience serves us—provided the dialogue’s starting point. Once again (as with each of our domains) the simple notion that there is a Question of Referent to ask about requires a stretch. Conventionally, religious truth is God’s word and that is that (or the word of Allah, the utterance a polytheistic pantheon, the inclinations of a collection of animistic forces, or whatever). No larger perspective is needed—or desired.

In the dialogue, I observed four motifs that cut across spiritual thought and practice: religion is concerned with how things come to be (with creation), with oneness (with how things are connected), with community (congregation and communion), and with right thought and behavior (with ethics and morality). I also observed that each is an expected manifestation of far left-hand sensibility.

This last conclusion is provocative not just for how it frames religion’s creative purpose, but also for how it helps us make sense of religion’s past. The Creative Function describes how the general historical progression from animism, to polytheism, to a more fundamentalist monotheism, to monotheism of a more liberal sort is a predictable expression of how formative process’s left hand manifests through the stages of creative differentiation. Religion’s history becomes an evolving story of how we connect with connectedness.

This interpretation also helps us make sense religion’s current conundrums and invites useful conjecture about religion’s future. With regard to the present, it is consistent with how deeply religion has been questioned during the last century. We’ve seen how the influence of left-hand sensibilities diminishes over the course of the first half of formative process. With Transition they become largely eclipsed—a situation (that we saw confronted in a related way by art) that would seem not to bode well for things spiritual. If this direction were to continue unmodified, we would appropriately pronounce God dead.

Respected thinkers through the last century have argued just that. Nietsche proposed that “A casual stroll through a lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.” Noting religion’s role in world conflict, Bertrand Russell argued good riddance to any notion of divine causation: “[If life has] deliberate purpose, the purpose must have been that of a fiend.  For my part, I find accident a less painful and plausible hypothesis.”

But Cultural Maturity’s perspective suggests that such questioning is not the end of the road—indeed that it cannot be. As a start, a mature meta-perspective supports that the underlying sensibilities of religious/spiritual experience are inherent to who we are—they can’t really be lost.  (Truth’s left hand is necessary for anything creative.) More, if the concept of Reengagement holds, the contribution of spirituality’s root experience should in fact grow in times ahead. Certainly, much of what the spiritual has traditionally helped link us with will be increasingly needed in the future. (Each of those common themes should become more, not less important in the future.)

For people who identify strongly with religious belief, this picture presents reason for celebration. If Cultural Maturity accurately defines today’s fundamental challenge, in the future the sacred might manifest with even greater significance than in times past.  And, at the same time, as we have seen, Cultural Maturity does not let religion off unscathed. The price for this renewal is high—extremely so. The doorway to this deepened spirituality can open only to the degree we are willing to reexamine not just particular beliefs, but much in the very foundations of belief. This is a fate religion shares with every other sphere. But for many people the dislocations here are particularly disturbing.

Certainly Cultural Maturity brings into question culturally specific notions of the sacred. It argues that life in the future will be most unhappy if we cannot transcend particulars of belief. This is especially the case if such particulars make one religion true and all others false.  It also challenges religious truth’s past parental/mythologized status, adding a culminating refrain to the Reformation’s call for responsibility. In an ultimate act of dislocation, its systemic perspective removes spiritual truth from the center point of truth’s equation (just it does for science and any other approach to knowing). A mature meta-perspective requires that the spiritual surrender claims to the last word. Spiritual experience becomes an important aspect of truth, but only an aspect.

Cultural Maturity proposes that none of our usual more comfortable postures are able, ultimately, to get us where we need to go—not religious absolutism, atheism (its own kind of “religious” absolutism), simply agnosticism (in the end but a Compromise Fallacy), or even conventional dualism that keeps sacred and secular in safely separate worlds. Each equally protects us from the necessary magnitude of a maturely conceived world. Cultural Maturity predicts renewed affirmation of the root-sensibilities of religious experience. And at once it predicts the importance of a more humble relationship to such experience—though also more mature, and thus ultimately more powerful.

In all of this, Cultural Maturity leaves necessarily unanswered some of the most basic questions. Cultural Maturity’s concern is how we understand, not final truth. It does not answer the question of God’s ultimate existence—separate from our perceptions—or the ultimate extent of divine power. Indeed, in the end, it can’t claim absolutely that religion does not constitute the totality of truth. Cultural Maturity argues for a more encompassing, systemic picture, but part of what that picture teaches us about is limits to ultimate understanding. As with scientism, religiosity remains impervious to final dismissal. We can only confront it with the possibility of more compelling and useful perspective.

How does all this translate into future religious faith and practice? If what I’ve suggested holds, we should see renewed interest in things spiritual. At the least we should see new appreciation for more receptive/connectedness side of experience—a greater valuing of loving relationships, peaceful surroundings, life lived at a sustainable pace, connections with nature, or the “spirit” of creative and intellectual pursuits. For some this might translate into renewed appreciation of specifically religious belief, for others not,

We should also certainly see new and deeper appreciation for faiths beyond one’s own heritage. Ecumenical acceptance is a start. We should also see a growing interest in how spiritual persuasions relate one to the other. In the dialogue with Jonathan I suggest that one of the best ways to get at the full significance of religious experience is to visit the very different ways through history that significance has manifested.

In addition, we should see greater ability to appreciate when spiritual/religious belief leads to traps in our thinking. This should be most obvious when clashing faiths lead to conflict. But we should also get better at recognizing when spiritual/religious Unity Fallacies lead to naïve, self-serving conclusions.

Beyond these basic observations, our tools are again limited. Likely we will still have traditional churches, mosques, and synagogues well into the future—though their significance in culture may change.  (If spiritual experience remains important, we will continue to need places that engender it. Traditional structures should at the least be historically revered.) And spiritual practice such as prayer and meditation should similarly still have a role—perhaps an expanded one.  (If the spiritual is a kind of knowing, then we should increasingly value approaches that help us access such knowing.)

We will likely also see a deepening of relationship between religion and other cultural realms. Separation of church and state, religion and pubic education, and more conceptually, religion and science represent some of the most important achievements of modern culture. We would lose much by going back. But Cultural Maturity should make possible a maturity of collaboration not possible before. It should also bring forth new interest in more integrative conceptual frames—both perspectives that better link religion with other spheres and more encompassing, whole-ball-of-wax views in which the spiritual plays a contributing role.

Of particular fascination is that possible creative bridging of  sacred and secular, science and religion. Certainly the best of thinkers appreciate the important role of each—and, more, some level of complementarity. I think of Einstein’s famous assertion that “Science without religion is lame, and religion without science is blind.”  Pope John Paul went similarly beyond simple dualism in suggesting that “Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from false idolatry and false absolutes.” We are a particularly long way from making this bridge successfully.  I’ve described how most views that claim to be integrative in this regard in the end collapse one hand into the other. But we’ve also seen how a creative frame offers at least a starting point.

Creative Systems Theory emphasizes an additional piece— the future importance of more differentiated understandings of belief and practice—part of the “multiplicity” aspect of mature religious understanding. I’ve proposed that a full maturity of perspective requires us to examine the larger story of religious sensibility through time and the very different ways sacred experience manifests within that story’s various chapters (a considerable stretch with regard both to our general ability to tolerate complexity and our capacity to think in maturely systemic ways).

Getting there presents a challenge we encounter with other more left-hand aspects of our lives (for example, with art or love). It requires us to “think” a whole lot more than we are accustomed to when it comes to questions of faith.. Addressing religion’s Question of Referent, theorizing about how spirituaity might relate to science and other concerns, teasing apart how faiths from different times and places are different and how they may relate one to the other—these things involves making subtle distinctions.

We might easily find this need for more complexly systemic discernment not very appealing—even antithetical to what the spiritual is about. There are two keys to such discernment becoming attractive. First is the recognition that culturally mature perspective is about “analysis” in a fundamentally different sense than that which deadens faith. Second is how, once into culturally mature territory, a more conscious and differentiated picture supports a more rich, abundant, and powerful spirituality.

Religion’s success with contributing its important piece will lie with the courage and fullness we bring to our spiritual inquiries. I am reminded of Alfred North Whitehead’s observation that “Religion will not regain its old power until it can face change in the same spirit as does science.” There is hope for this task in who we are.  It is important to remember that religion at its best has always been about the possible.  As Langston Hughs put it, “We build our temples for tomorrow.”

A Thumbnail Summary: Cultural Maturity predicts …

—that, over time, we will set aside parental images of religious truth and authority and take new and deeper responsibility in religious/spiritual experience.

—that we will become better able to separate experience and belief from ideology.

—that we will become increasingly fascinated by the diversity of forms religious/spiritual experience has taken and intrigued by how differences in experience might fit together.

—that we will find newly mature ways to reconcile and integrate spiritual experience with other reams of activity and understanding such as science, government, medicine, education, and art.

Thought experiments

List what, at different times in your life, have most generated feelinga of awe or sacredness (nature, a parental God, love, the spirit of scientific inquiry, etc.). What aspects of each of feel consistent with the kind of spirituality needed for the future? Conversely, are there aspects that need to be left behind?

What, if today you want to live a more spiritual life, might that involve?  How might what you chose to do and believe look differently from times past?  Also, how might your choices be different from someone else’s (and what, given the demands of Cultural Maturity, would your choices necessarily have in common)?

Examine possible future collaborations between religion/spirituality and other cultural domains—education, government, art, medicine. What sorts of relationships might most serve us, which might diminish us, and what kinds of safeguards would be important?  What roles might culturally mature religion/spiritual play in the tasks of shaping a culturally mature world?