Being religious seems to be going out of fashion.
However, although recession may be true for much of the Western world, one growth area is the new spiritual self-help industry said to be a commercial filling of the gap left by the decline of Christianity. These days you can pay for any amount of books, courses, residential retreats, audio tapes, videos and conferences, all offering to guide you along a journey beyond yourself, by freeing your soul embracing who you really are, awakening to your life’s purpose, and finding the fulfillment of your dreams.
If Christianity in Britain these days is a dead duck, can this new industry replace it? Can spiritual self-help really help you find a sense of meaning and purpose not to mention personal well-being and development? Is it no longer necessary to believe in a supernatural reality or a transcendent divine being in order for you to find patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, and a concern for others? Do you no longer have to be religious to be spiritual?
Reasons for decline of being religious in the West
In my view, Christianity, as a religious culture, is in its death throes because it hasn’t always been fostering the spiritual life. Too often it has had a limited understanding of the deeper meaning of the Bible and taking it as literally true regardless of scientific and historical research. Too often Christians have been seen to be hypocritically failing to abide by their own professed standards of charity and family values. Too often have those who believe in a God of love, clung to the notion of an eternal punishment of those who fail to do or believe the right things. Too often Christians have worshipped an immoral god who required the suffering and death of Christ.
We need something much better than this, but is the new spiritual self-help industry the answer?
One of the characteristics of the new ethos is the principle that different valid spiritual paths exist. This is an emphasis on finding one’s own individual way to spirituality. If there is no longer one absolute truth then what is true for me may not be true for you and so what is right for me to do may not be right for you. My point is that adopting different spiritual practices, picking and mixing different beliefs, pursuing different life styles, and travelling to meet up with others for brief encounters, all adds up to ‘bowling alone’, doing your own thing.
Yet having a sense of belonging to a family and community with shared values and beliefs helps a person to experience companionship and acceptance. You feel as if you are a part of something bigger and more important than yourself.
And so I would ask whether an individual self-help spirituality can provide that same vital sense of belonging?
The religious attitude is that only through learning to forget oneself can one find oneself — only by focusing on the needs of others can you find a new you — a more tolerant, generous and kindly you. Thus there is a strong ethical dimension to religion; a focus on duty and obligation, doing what is right, and resisting temptation to do what is wrong. Loving your neighbour as yourself and the ten commandments come to mind — do not steal, murder, commit adultery etc. According to the Bible, Christ challenged us to take up our cross and follow him.
In urban anonymous life, it is only seldom that you are stimulated to pull together with other people, like helping the neighbours during local shortages or contributing time towards a well publicised social project. However, spending regular time within a community means often being confronted by the needs of others.
One can ask whether the new non-religious angle on spiritual life — with its individualised approach to personal improvement — can fill the gap left by religion when it comes to this test of social conscience without the context of religious community to provide a shared social consciousness of charitable action? Is meditation, spiritual counselling and personal reflection sufficient for spiritual growth without encouragement for altruistic action provided by social acceptance of the principles behind ethical conduct expressed in sacred writing?
The spiritual self-help industry has a lot to offer. But I feel something more is needed. By itself inner psychological examination can just end in self-indulgent contemplation of your navel. In other words you can’t develop spiritually in isolation. Don’t you also need shared social norms to support ethical learning? It is not easy to respond to the challenge of other people and their needs. When religion works well it is when for example a religious group regularly prays together genuinely seeking help to grapple with the real challenges of community.
I would suggest you also need a clearer sense of your destiny beyond the brief physical life of the body. When things gets really tough, don’t you need something in which to put your hope, a higher power that can deliver you from what is bad in your life and provide you with the transforming gift of new character?
Three centuries ago, Emanuel Swedenborg’s expressed his notion of a New Church using Christian language. But the essence of his insight is that he clearly foretold that the age of religious dogmatic culture would pass away and a new religious spirit would replace the old religion: not a new organisation but a new state of human society able to recognise what is genuinely deeply true. His idea was that this developing inner state of humanity would enable each of us to experience and understand our true relationship with the divine “Christ within”.
Copyright 2013 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems