May 9, 2022 § 2 Comments
Christine and I participate in a spiritual support group that meets every month to explore some idea or practice offered by one of our members and then to meditate together. The last time we met, the conversation prompted a writing that has been forming in my mind for decades and suddenly poured forth with coherence and clarity—a set of definitions and speculations about the life of the Spirit, which follows.
What is God?
For me, God is the Mystery Reality behind our spiritual and religious experience, whatever that experience is.
We have spiritual experiences and they are real. We know they are real because they have changed us.
But these experiences are also transcendental. They transcend the personal. They transcend the sensual. They transcend the normal consciousness.
Thus these experiences are also mysterious. They transcend our understanding. They transcend our capacity to express them fully in words; we can express them partially in words—I am doing so right now. But beyond what we can say about them lies more that defies expression or explanation.
Behind these experiences, underneath them, at their deeper center, lies a Mystery. We know there is more to them than we can consciously apperceive, and that Real Mystery I call God. That Mystery I also call Spirit.
What is Spirit?
Spirit is the transcendental dimension of human experience.
What then is the spiritual life? What is the life of the Spirit for?
The life of the Spirit is made up of those aspects of life with which we reach for the transcendental in order to transform ourselves for the better, to become more whole and more fulfilled, more loving and more compassionate, more creative, more inclined to right thought, word, and action.
Spiritual experience takes place when, by this active reaching, or by blessing or grace, we do touch this transcendental dimension and are remade in ways both great and small, both life-changing and incremental.
What then is religious experience?
Religious experience is spiritual experience that takes place in the context of a religious tradition. Sometimes religious experience results from religious practice; sometimes we make sense of spiritual experience that takes place outside a tradition with the help of a tradition. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is a good example of this latter. The gathering in the Spirit of a Quaker meeting for worship is a good example of the former.
What then is religion?
Religion is the spiritual practice of a community that has been gathered in the Spirit. Religion is a community reaching toward the transcendental dimension of human experience on behalf of its members and also on behalf of itself.
For just as individual spiritual experience is both real and mysterious; just as individual spiritual experience brings personal transformation for the better through the transcendental; so religious experience reaches past, or behind, or into the center of normal community life toward collective transcendental transformation, achieving greater wholeness as a community, a unity in the Spirit, in the Mystery Reality, either through practice or through blessing and grace. Through its religious experience, a community becomes more loving and compassionate, more creative, more inclined toward collective right action, in a process analogous to the experience of the individual.
Just as individual spiritual experience reaches into the foundations of our personhood, beyond the reach of our senses, and past the apperceptions of our usual conscious selves, to transform us for the better, so collective religious experience reaches back to the foundational Spirit in which the community was originally gathered, transcending the personal to become wholly communal, and therefore a holy community, and this lifts up the individual consciousnesses of the communicants into a unity that passes all understanding.
The formation of the people of Israel as Yahweh’s people at the Exodus, and the subsequent practice in Torah as the operating system for her covenantal relationship with Yahweh, and the historical evolution of her tradition until the present day, is the classic example of religion as the spiritual practice of a people who have been gathered in the Spirit.
What then is religion for?
Religion’s purpose it to provide the living context for religious experience—nourishment for individual religious experience and a vehicle for collective religious experience. This context—the community with its fellow travelers, its traditions, the collective memory of what has worked in the past, the stories, the explanations (theology), the disciplines and practices, the history, the guidance both moral, mental, and physical—the religious tradition context allows the individual to go deeper, farther, and faster in the life of the Spirit than they might have on their own.
However, the unique value of a religious tradition is this: beyond the reach of most individual spiritual practice, religion provides the vehicle for collective spiritual experience.
Collective spiritual experience—that is, religious experience—is harder to come by than individual spiritual experience. The community needs a critical mass in several dimensions, most of them transcendental, in order to experience holy communion. This requires a living tradition.
The contemporary drift away from religion toward spirituality reflects, I think, the fact that many of our religious traditions today have lost the life that first animated them or had renewed them in the past. They no longer enjoy the forms of critical spiritual mass that collective religious experience requires.
Collective religious experience requires a critical mass of individuals who are steeped enough in the tradition to enrich it, advance it, and pass it on. Enough people must really know “how to be a Quaker”, for instance, for Quakerism as an operating system to work in a meeting.
Collective religious experience requires a critical mass of individuals whose own spiritual maturity is advanced enough to radiate beyond their persons to seed the collective in the transcendental dimension.
And it requires a critical mass of individuals who are willing and fertile soil, whose own deep yearning is for transcendent communion, whose faith in its possibility is rooted in their own past experience.
And it requires collective religious practices that work, that have not yet been hollowed out by rote repetition, or practices that have been revitalized by prophetic inspiration.
What is Spirit–God?
So perhaps we can name the Mystery Reality behind and within individual spiritual experience the Spirit, and name the Real Mystery behind and within collective spiritual experience God.
Are they the same, the Mystery behind my own experience and the Reality behind my community’s experience? Is the Spirit behind and within all persons’ spiritual experiences the same Spirit, by whatever names we individuals might give it? Is the Spirit behind and within all collective religious experience the same God, however our various communities might name it?
This is itself a mystery. It’s an appealing idea. I suspect that they are both the same and not the same, across any of these levels of experience. I suspect they are the same at the pure level of Spirit, that is, in the medium in which such transcendental experience transpires, as different waves will form in one body of water.
But I suspect that, to the degree that Spirit manifests differently, even uniquely, for each individual and for each community, then the Spirit, and the God, are different, also. I think of them as separate wave forms, if you will, in a spiritual medium, which we might call the ether, or the astral plane—something immaterial, yet “viscous” enough to hold a standing spiritual wave. But this is pure metaphysical speculation, and thus, not much more than farting in a windstorm, however intellectually satisfying.
I believe these differences matter and should not be decried. They are what gives rise to our various traditions as communities, and to our various spiritual journeys as individuals. Furthermore, in my experience, these distinctive manifestations of the Spirit or of God border on the sentient and homeostatic. They are capable of relationship, even though I suspect that they are in important ways dependent on human consciousness, if not actual projections of our consciousness.
I am fascinated by the nature and the role of what I call the spirit of the Christ in this regard. So many people have a real relationship with something they call Christ, over millennia, and across traditions. But what is that spirit? Are all these people experiencing the same spirit? And what is its relationship, if any, with the real person of Jesus whom we encounter in Christian scripture? These people inevitably testify that they are experiencing Jesus Christ, but how do they know that? If they had been brought up in Buddhist Japan, or among the traditional Mohawk, would they still call it Jesus Christ? And would it function the same as Jesus Christ does in Christian communities, as a savior from sin, for instance?
I think of such spirits, from the devas of Findhorn to the spirit of the Christ, as emergent phenomena. Not quite separate entities, but neither are they merely slavish projections of ourselves, even of our collective selves. They emerge and evolve much the same way an organism does as its DNA manifests in relationship with its environment to produce a unique ecosystem of cells, tissues, and organs all communicating with each other as they develop, and even after they reach homeostatic maturity as a unique creature.
Ah—more farting in the windstorm, that. But fun.
What really matters is the Mystery Reality, the Real Mystery calling to us from the transcendental—whatever that actually means—both as individuals and as communities, and how we can successfully answer its call in ways that make us more whole and fulfilled, more creative, and more inclined toward right action.