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.
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.
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