The Spiritual Injunction: know yourself as fully as possible
The recent post ‘The Brains Behind Spirituality‘ received an unprecedented number of page views on this site. As many giving feedback have mentioned, there will always be the problem of definition, but as I mention in the above piece, for any given fuzzy edged form of knowledge or inquiry – including ‘spirituality’ – the question to ask is not so much- what’s the definition? But rather, what’s the injunction? Sometimes it is worth pinning something down in words to give analytic traction, but sometimes it is more productive to ask what our intuitive grasp of the idea asks us to do, think or be in a more general sense:
“…Every culturally sanctioned form of knowledge contains an implicit injunction. The injunction of science is to do the experiment and analyse the data. The injunction of history is to critically engage with primary and secondary sources of evidence. The injunction of philosophy is to question assumptions, make distinctions and be logical. If spirituality is to be recognised as something with ontological weight and social standing, it also needs an injunction that is culturally recognised, as it was for centuries in the Christian west and still is in many societies worldwide.
The spiritual injunction is principally an experiential one, namely to know oneself as fully as possible. For many, that means beginning to see beyond the ego and recognise oneself as being part of a totality, or at least something bigger than oneself.”
Of course, such expansive self-knowledge is not about narcissism but quite the opposite- it’s about seeing beyond our limited conception of who we are; through experience and the best available evidence. The following three sources speak to this spiritual injunction in various ways:
1. Rowan Williams on ‘spirituality’ in the Guardian.
“I’d like to think, at the very least, that spiritual care meant tending to every possible dimension of sense of the self and each other, that it was about filling out as fully as possible human experience” -Rowan Williams.
While Williams rightly has reservations with the way the term spiritual is used and misused, this sentiment relates closely to our perspective mentioned above.
2. Secular Buddhism and Secular Christianity
The general spiritual injunction to know oneself beyond the confines of the ego is different from the particular religious injunctions about how to do that, but they are related in important ways. In this respect I was fascinated to discover a conversation between Stephen Batchelor and Don Cupitt organised by The Secular Buddhist Association and chaired by the Guardian’s Madeleine Bunting. Both Batchelor (in Buddhism) and Cupitt (in Christianity) are known for deep absorption, training and experience in their respective traditions, followed by letting go of the tenets that underpin them, but, crucially, without disavowing the religious tradition as a whole(In Scotland, Richard Holloway is similar). Here are a few choice quotes from the transcript:
Stephen Batchelor: “I feel myself to be a religious person, but I feel that to be more the case in terms of the sorts of questions that most deeply motivate me. What is this life, what is death? Rather than religious in the sense of adhering to a particular set of dogmas or doctrines or beliefs. In some ways this is a sense of religion that is quite close to the old Greek understanding of philosophia, of the love of wisdom, of philosophy.”
Don Cupitt: “It was in the sixties that we began to get a shift away from institutional religion towards spirituality. A shift away from ecclesiastical theology towards what I call kingdom religion, a shift away from the supernatural Nicene Creed to the original historical Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount…The important thing: people were giving up two-world dualism and accepting that this life is all there is, and you’d better start living the last kind of life in the last world now. Because this is the last life you’ll ever have. You’re already living in the last world.”
Stephen Batchelor: “…I think Buddhism has been somewhat hijacked by the happiness industry in some sense, and I think it is another example of how we reach for this knee-jerk inclusion of happiness, because obviously it sells well. But I don’t think Buddhism is in the business of happiness, at least not overtly… So I always see happiness as a kind of a bonus, as a rather good side effect, but frankly I don’t practise Buddhism because I want to be happy. I would think that a rather superficial reason. I seek to practise Buddhism because, in the words of Don, it gives me a narrative, a framework within which to make sense of my life”
3. Beyond Dawkins: New editor at the The New Humanist
Finally, I was pleased to read the following hard headed and conciliatory piece by the new Editor of the magazine of UK’s Rationalist association(The New Humanist) Daniel Trillings, because it is important to recognise that valuing reason and challenging orthodoxies does not have to mean zealous disdain for religion:
“Declaring one’s self a non-believer, or an atheist, is not a free pass to the sunlit uplands of truth and reason. And if you regard organised religion as merely a product of misguided beliefs, then you lose the ability to understand why it grows and changes historically, and why politicised forms of religion are so attractive to millions of people around the world. Psychological studies that throw up conclusions like “religious people are less intelligent than atheists” not only rely on an extremely narrow definition of “intelligence”, but as their own authors will point out, are influenced by factors such as employment, salary and time spent in the education system.”
With this kind of generosity of spirit, I’m looking forward to future issues of the magazine.
By Dr Jonathan Rowson, Director, Social Brain Centre. Follow at @jonathan_rowson