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In recent decades, the decline of religious belief and affiliation in the West has been accompanied by a steady increase of interest in “spirituality” and the deployment of the term. The word has come a long way from its Christian roots to encompass alternative and mystic traditions from a number of religious traditions, and, more recently, to denote a kind of lifestyle most often characterized as “spiritual, but not religious.” As the authors of Selling Spirituality, Jeremy Carrette and Richard King observe, “There are perhaps few words in the modern English language as vague and wooly as the notion of ‘spirituality.’”
This past week Tricycle caught up with scholar David Webster over email to discuss his recent foray into contemporary trends in spirituality, Dispirited: How Contemporary Spirituality Makes us Stupid, Selfish and Unhappy. Webster holds a Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies and currently teaches religion, philosophy, and ethics at the University of Gloucestershire. In the book, Webster critiques what he views as the dominant—and pernicious—trends in contemporary spirituality that collude with a culture of consumption to bypass the most valuable challenges of religious practice.
What is the principal danger of following a self-made spiritual path as opposed to a specific faith (or number of faiths)? When we put together a set of concerns from a buffet of beliefs, building our own spiritual platters, one of dangers is that we drop, or fail to select, those elements that challenge us. Most notably, we can choose to not select those elements that fail to fit our preexistent ethical outlook.
A religious tradition may contain elements that we are really drawn to, that speak to our experience very profoundly, but it will also have aspects that we find really difficult. These aspects have, nonetheless, remained part of the tradition for a reason. Maybe those reasons are outdated, or political, but it might be the case that they exist because prior practitioners have ultimately come to believe that they offer vital challenges, ethical or otherwise. Either way, even if we come to reject certain aspects—and this is how faith traditions change—we have to take all aspects seriously and engage with them.
What distinguishes the contemporary spirituality you critique from the study and even adherence to a faith without affiliating with it? The Western reluctance to describe oneself as a “member” of an Eastern religious tradition is in itself interesting. Following my experience of mixing with Westerners sympathetic to Buddhism over the last two and half decades, I would say that many resist describing themselves as Buddhists for complex reasons. These seem to include concerns about racism, cultural sensitivity, anxiety about what a “Buddhist” is/does, fear of appearing prone to following fads, associations (often muddle-headed but pervasive) between Buddhism and counter-cultural trends in the West, and a sense that what people want from Buddhism is very much not the “religious” cultural and ritualistic aspects of it. Of course, we can see this in that common maxim in popular books, essays, and websites: “Buddhism isn’t a religion, it’s a…”
The strain of spirituality I criticize in the book can apply to those who adhere to a faith without affiliation, but I’m more focused on those who conflate traditions. The book explains the dangers of spirituality, but doesn’t totally rule out that one might find in Buddhism things that are valuable, profound, true, and transformative without becoming a Buddhist. I would say that I have encountered all these things, but we need to be wary—they might lead us into a pit of self-regarding solipsism or be used as a well of detail that obscures fundamental existential truths. I actually think Buddhism is rather good at encouraging us to face the latter, but in drawing out aspects, there seems a real need for caution and a rigorous honesty with oneself.
You conceive of contemporary spirituality as entailing a willful prejudice against critical thought. We see this in Buddhist circles sometimes as well. How did discursive reasoning come to be scorned in the spirituality movement? I think there are two drivers for this. The first is a mystic, monist, obsessively-inclusivist approach to truth which regards all paths as equally valid and all religious or spiritual outpourings as an expression of the same unsayable hidden one-ness.
Second, some meditative traditions are prone to privilege experiential, inner “no-thought” events over “mere reason.” We might note how reason is treated in the Pali texts, and we could speculate at length about how the inclusion of logic as one of the rejected reasons to accept a teaching in the Kālāma Sutta is interpreted by many Buddhists. [Conversely, logic is often omitted in misquotes and mistranslations of the sutta that are tailored to appeal to rational thought.]
Buddhism offers space for a really interesting conversation about how reason and experience interact. Nonetheless, there is a danger that dethroning reason, moving it aside from the unquestioned privilege it enjoys in Plato and since, can lead to one discarding it altogether. This is both dangerous and at odds with much that has taken place within the history of Buddhist thought.
How might we appeal to universal commonalities that transcend specific religions without falling into the traps of spirituality that you just mentioned? Through reason and experience. Rejecting the claim that all aspects of religions are compatible, that all their truth-claims are ultimately true or the same doesn’t mean that they don’t concur in some respects. One might argue that there is an element within most, maybe all, religious traditions that is an attempt to deal with a certain existential unpleasantness about human life.
We appear to be mortal and to live in a world where the guilty go unpunished and the virtuous unrewarded. The world is ethically indifferent to us, and we are drawn in different directions by aspects of our own character. In articulating this, many traditions might share fundamental insights and enumerate useful ways that people have dealt with existing in such a place. This doesn’t mean that these traditions agree about what causes us to be in such a world, whether we are really in such a world, whether a higher reality sits behind it, or what we might do to alleviate or mitigate our plight. These vitally important aspects are not commonalities, and we need to assess them each against a blend of our reason and experience to adjudge which are true and which are false.
What kind of thought or engagement do you see as the antidote to the perils of the contemporary spiritualist mindset? If the world is illusory, or just an endless churning pit of temporary suffering, perhaps we cannot find true happiness “out there,” but might be better off withdrawing from the world, to like-minded people or deep within via introspection and meditation. The Buddhist milieu in the West has seen both this and corrective tendencies over the last four decades. It’s a tension I’m sure Tricycle readers are familiar with. How do we ensure that self-examination, honesty and introspection lead us toward compassion, connectivity and action?
A commitment—even if it’s confused and unsure—to the idea of truth seems important. Philosophical truth: about the exclusivity of truth-claims; political truth: that we mean only as we mean for others and are ethically compelled to act for a more just world; and existential truth: where we can only begin a path toward fulfillment through an acceptance of our finitude.