Spirituality in the Anthropocene

I keep reading and hearing people saying, or implying, that what we need is a spiritual approach to fix the problems we face. I hear this a lot in the Depth Psychology community in particular.

I think this is fundamentally wrong. Spirituality is not automatically a solution, and ‘rationality’ is not always a problem. Human knowing is very often fallible, irrespective of its source, and this should be remembered, otherwise both spirituality and reason become props for the ego, its limitations and defence, rather than ways of accessing knowledge or relatedness.

The potential problems with spirituality seem as important to me, in terms of our ecological problems, as is the use of science or technology to ‘control’ nature.

For example, in Western and many other traditions, spirituality has been used to deny the reality of nature, or used as a means to get out of nature or to diminish nature. Christianity and Islam have both taught that our true life is elsewhere. It is not in nature. Nature is a snare, at best a distraction to be mastered. Reality is found after death.

Intensely spiritual people can believe and intuit strongly that everything is in the hands of God, and that humans can do nothing to hurt the cosmos. They can be both calm and beautiful as they destroy the world. They could for example, think it is their duty to cut down forests and destroy fertile fields to bring forth their temples, unaware of what they are doing, or even condemning those who protest as heretics or unspiritual. They can be passionately devoted to killing people or animals as sacrifices to the Gods.

Perhaps one of the most harmful ideas ever proposed, is the spiritual idea/experience usually associated with Plato, that the real is perfect and unchanging and not of this world. This may completely alienate people from any engagement with life and the natural world as it is, as that is constantly in flux, birth, death and decay. The acceptance of such an idea, and the spiritual practices around it, may mark our initial separation from Nature, and our attempts to control it rather than live with it.

There is nothing inherent in spirituality which leads to a beneficial interrelationship with natural processes. Spirituality can impose a hostile order on the world as much as any reason.

Similarly, while we may want to forget, war can be intensely a matter of spirituality. Not just for zen samurai, Vikings, Nazis, shaolin monks, warring Tibetan temples, jihading Muslims, Crusading Christians, and Aztec warriors gathering sacrificial prisoners, but to ordinary people who may frequently tell you that they felt more alive, more connected and more meaningful when the war was on. Not all people feel this way, of course, some live in terror and die in agony. However, this aspect of spirit should not be forgotten.

People can see the position put forward here as an attack on valuable experiences. However, I want to suggest that ‘peak experiences’ or ‘spiritual experiences’ have little to do with ‘spirituality’. They are, in some ways, frequently ‘mundane’, they seem to happen irrespective of whether a person is particularly spiritual or not. They might imply connection, or simply the sheer strange presence of something different from yourself. Spirituality has little to do with this, and is more like a theory of everything or an approach to the world.

Whatever it is, spirituality is often assumed to be good, and in opposition to whatever is bad – many people seem very confident of that. Indeed, contemporary spirituality is often defined by opposition. It is opposed to logos, it is not science, it is not reason, it is not materialism. People also seem to assume that logos, reason and so forth have the dominant position in the world, and are therefore responsible for the destruction we observe. However, even a brief look at our politics should lead to that particular theory being cast aside. Reason, whatever its failings, is not even vaguely dominant. If it was then we would be seeing some attempts to deal with climate change. Science is largely captive to State and commercial interests.

Given the oppositions people set up, it becomes too easy for spiritually aligned people to say science is the problem, and spirituality is the solution, when they may well be both parts of the problem and solution. The Sacred and the Profane are perhaps not separate… Personally I was relieved to discover that anthropologists decided this distinction was not present in many societies.

Historically, spirituality has grown up alongside (and with) logos, science, materialism, reason; and similarly they grow out of it. As mutually dependent, both ‘sides’ are as responsible for our problems as anything else.

Jungians might be expected to sit with these opposites, rather than to declare one side responsible for harm and the other good. We might find that both are necessary, to correct the other, or we might find that we discover something new.

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