The Problems that result from locating Spirituality in the Psyche

~Rama P. Coomaraswamy

Modernist misconceptions of Spirituality

The Subconscious, not the intellect, is the organ through which Man lives his spiritual life. It is the fount of poetry, music, and the visual arts, and the channel through which the Soul is in communion with God.
Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History

Arnold Toynbee, in the passage quoted above, has clearly delineated the prevailing attitudes and convictions about the nature of "spirituality". This opinion however is a gross distortion, the consequences of which are fraught with dangers for those who legitimately seek out the "higher" things in life. Our psyches, which include not only our subconscious drives but also our egos and our thinking processes, are notoriously unstable in the sense that what we think or feel at any given time can easily shift and change. Moreover, they fail to embrace the totality of what we are as human beings. That spirituality should have its foundation on such "shifting sands" belies its intrinsic nature, for spirituality, if it be true and real, must be established on more solid ground. At the same time, the modern view ignores what is most central to our nature as human beings made in the image of God. It almost inevitably follows that spirituality has become divorced from religion, from true intellectuality, from reason, and even from common sense; and consequently some of the most bizarre cults unfortunately become characterized as religion.

One of the reasons for this view is that there is currently considerable confusion between "religions" and "belief systems". Indeed, there is an attempt on the part of certain academics to reduce all religions to belief systems, arguing that religions are merely belief systems that have somehow "caught on" and become accepted by large numbers of people and thereby become established as religions. But it is necessary to distinguish between these, for genuine religions are based on revelation which provide them with a fixed creed, code and cult that is independent of any individual thought or feeling, while belief systems not based on revelation are inevitably subject to human opinion. One recognizes of course that many founders of modern sects base themselves partially on what they might term "revelation"—accepting what they like and rejecting what they find offensive—and that almost all of them claim to be inspired by the "Holy Spirit". But the fact remains that all of them are based in part, if not completely, on the thinking and understanding of a human person. The problem is that such thinking and feeling resides in the psyche and is subject to illusion, a problem that can only be avoided by adhering to a fixed external source. Unfortunately, many representatives of traditional religions currently attack the revealed basis of their faith in an attempt to accommodate them to the values of the modern world, which in effect reduces them to the same level as other belief systems.

If one agrees that most of our belief systems are based on feelings and thoughts—all properties that, as will be shown, lie within the realm of the psyche—it follows that it becomes impossible to criticize any given belief system. As each person's psyche and thoughts can be argued to be of equal value as those of any other person, it follows that all religions and belief systems are of equal value because everyone's truth or beliefs—providing they do not create a problem for others—become acceptable. For one to claim that any given cult or religion is false would accordingly be an act of presumption. Moreover, it is thought that this kind of presumptive exclusive outlook has led to conflict and war—all in the name of God—and hence such attitudes must be eschewed. (It should be noted however that it is, as St. Paul said, "our lusts and our greed" that are the cause of war, and however much we like to indulge these in the name of gods or of ideals, they remain the root cause of conflicts.) In the practical order, "whatever works" for an individual is considered acceptable. And indeed, psychiatrists are now recognizing that religion has its practical uses as a means of helping people face the problems of life, and, by providing for a belief in the afterlife, as a way of dealing with death.1

Many people prefer to describe themselves as "non-believers", but I have never in fact met a "non-believer". Most people believe, for example, in Evolution and that they themselves are the product of an ongoing evolution which makes them more intelligent than their ancestors. They believe in the inevitable Progress of mankind towards a united humanity which will be Socialist in its organization.(without however reducing their personal holdings). They admit that things aren't perfect yet, but with the help of Science such defects can be corrected. In essence, they are sincerely convinced in the perfectability of the world, and above all of man. This evolutionary secular "vision" was well described by H.G. Wells' Outline of History in the 1920s, which clearly replaced the principle of Gloria Dei—Glory of God—with the principle of Homo Mensura—man as the measure of all things. Many of the ideas of modern man may not be clearly thought out or formulated, but then the same might be said of the belief systems of many outwardly traditional people whose beliefs are simply accepted without much thought.

Behind all this confusion is a certain "self-image" of what we are as human beings. It is easy for philosophers to specify the origin of this self-image, but most people don't read philosophy or even think in terms of the nature of man. However, it is useful to have some idea of the philosophical background involved. Now in some ways one can trace this self-image back to the fall of Adam but, more immediately, we can start with Decartes. From Decartes we learned that all reality was encompassed and limited by what he called res extensa (basically, what had extension and therefore could be measured) and res cogitans (or what we could think about). Such ideas took some time to permeate society, but from the middle of the 1800s this Cartesian dualism has been the philosophical bedrock of scientific endeavor, as well as a great influence on all branches of academia and the political and social order.

Our self-image based on the Cartesian world-view is vastly different to that of the traditional world-view. Because of our convictions about progress and evolution we have blinded ourselves to other possibilities. The opinions of our traditional forebears might be studied as part of a historical survey—usually in a somewhat distorted form—but are rarely seriously considered as solutions to our modern problems. That would be foolish, like attempting to reverse the hands of the clock. And so it is that we remain stuck with our modern self-image and stubbornly refuse to consider other alternatives. It may surprise us to know that our modern self-image is not exactly new. For example, Boethius, in the fifth century, commented that those who think man is only an animal who reasons have forgotten who and what they are. Be this as it may, let us for a moment consider the more traditional ("traditional" in the sense of "handed down") view of man.

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