Sunday 5 March 2017

Spirituality Without God

Can you have spirituality without God? I ask this question because for two thousand years people in the West would have replied, "Obviously not". The question would have seemed absurd, a complete contradiction in terms. Now, however, more and more people seem to think that you can and maybe even should for a spirituality without God is actually a higher thing than one with him. The idea of God is a limitation on pure consciousness runs the story. I shall go into that in a moment. For now the question to ask is, why would anyone want a spirituality without God? Why would you not wish there to be a being of boundless love and wisdom behind all that is? 

Part of the answer clearly is egotism and intellectual pride.  This is a result of the fallen consciousness that will not submit and wishes to be God itself. It is the old non serviam. We want spirituality without God because we want complete autonomy and that is the ego. 

What about Buddhists, you say.  They have no need of God. First of all, I think they do but secondly the point is that Buddhism arose in a completely different culture to that of the modern materialistic, narcissistic West.  There was much less sense of individuality and much more theism of a largely ritualistic kind that had sunk into formality and dogma. In this context the philosophical insights of Buddhism were greatly enriching consciousness openers.  They swept away superstitious cobwebs and introduced an abundance of useful spiritual practices to enable the human mind to transcend its psychological limitations. But Buddhism had its own limitations and the absence of God was one of them.

For God is real. He is not an illusion or lesser reality. He is the Creator and you cannot reach real spiritual understanding without acknowledging this in some way. This is why both meditation and prayer are important. I am not saying that Buddhism is a false religion but I see it as an incomplete one and especially so for modern Westerners because it does not sufficiently take their core problem, which is a strong sense of self, into account. That may seem a decidedly odd thing to say since the essence of Buddhism is the denial of the reality of self. However, in practice, if people deny the existence of something intellectually they make no real attempt to purify and ultimately sanctify it. I mean by this that if you theorise that self is an artificial construct which is fundamentally unreal you will not see the need to dedicate your self to God and do his will, and that is the fundamental spiritual task and the only one that puts us in right relation with the universe and its maker, this being the relation of love.  Not compassion, which is a human thing, but love which is divine.

'Remember the Creator' is one of the most important spiritual teachings there is. It is simple and to the point, and it is a teaching that Western Buddhists need to learn if they would find a true spiritual understanding and not remain locked in the ground base of their own being, failing to see that root consciousness is not God. That is perhaps less likely for those who follow the Mahayana form of Buddhism for there the sense of God has crept back in in a certain way. However even they need to open themselves up to the full reality of a Creator and personal God in order to become aware of the complete spectrum of spiritual reality and live the life that God intended for human beings, a life in which Creator and created have a full relationship based on love.

As for the belief that the entry into the pure consciousness of absolute being is a spiritual state that transcends any condition in which the sense of self remains see here for a piece that expresses the opposite view. In brief, though, the idea is that God creates human beings and the whole world of becoming in order for life to grow and expand in love and creativity through the integration of being and becoming, the One and the Many, rather than the rejection of one for full focus on the other. After all, why does God create or, if you prefer, why is there something rather than nothing? If Nirvana was the goal and the personal just a stain on the pure whiteness of being why would anything ever need to have come about? Indeed, how could it have done so unless a personal God was there from the beginning or, better put, before the beginning? The personal is not an illusion or lesser reality but the very point of life and expressed being. Yes, we must realise our oneness with God but in that oneness there always remains the individual for relationship and the creativity that comes from that, not entry into absolute being, is the purpose of our existence. 

And those who think that ultimate reality must be pure oneness with no differentiation within it (as opposed to the three in oneness of the Trinity) should reflect on the fact that if it were that's all it would ever be. There would not be the possibility of creation or even illusion.

The point of this piece is to emphasise that any genuine spiritual awakening in the West must be theocentric and that Buddhist or non-dualistic type spirituality, popular amongst materialistic intellectuals drawn to some kind of spirituality, is insufficient. Let it be an introduction to higher truths but it must eventually be superseded by the full acknowledgement of God or a nascent spirituality will remain grounded or sidetracked into a concern with self-realisation. What was right for the ancient East at a certain time is not right for the modern West except as an initial aid to turning away from materialism. Spiritual awakening can easily be derailed and it will be unless it has God at its centre.


Bruce Charlton said...

@William - I agree.

Spirituality without God was thoroughly tried in the 1950s-70s (from the Beat generation's fascination with Zen and Hinduism through to the hippie era) and proved itself inadequate. Current Glastonbury is the nail in the coffin.

But spiritual awakening seldom comes all at once, and spirituality without God is a reasonable beginning phase, so long as the person recognises its incompleteness and inadequacy and continues to develop.

However, your point stands - it will not do!

RJW said...

Very helpful, thanks.

Chris said...

Buddhism would be the first to agree with you - their idea of 'skillful means' says that means must be adapted to the situation, in some situations not emphasizing God might be the most spiritually helpful (like in ancient intensely theistic India where a focus on the Gods had become about ritual and dogma and detracted from the primary goal of spirituality, reduction of the ego), while in other situations a focus on God might be just the thing.

As you no doubt know, Buddhists don't deny God at all, they merely focus attention away from him as not being conducive to spirituality - which back then, it might not have been. What's more, Buddhism always had the notion of a an impersonal God - the unconditioned, the uncreated, the Absolute - and this was an absolutely crucial concept in Buddhism as the realm we should be trying to reach, which, if it didn't exist, there would be no escape from suffering (in other words Buddha wasn't a "psychologist", or "scientific", he had a religious belief in another realm that was the lynchpin of his religion). This conception of the Godhead is shared by nearly all Christian mystics as well - it seems to be a universal.

Later Mahayana Buddhism fully accepted the necessity and importance of a God, and developed a pantheon of divine Buddhas that offer consolation, love, and compassion in ways very similar to Christianity. Interestingly, Mahayana Buddhism developed after Christianity in a region of southern India known to have trading links to ancient Mediterranean ports, so it is quite possible the Mahayana concept of the Bohddisattva who refuses Nirvana out of love for sufffering beings was influenced by Christianity. Which would be fitting, as there is evidence that original Christianity was influenced by Buddhism (to my mind, this is undoubtedly true)

Unlike you, William, I think Buddhism can play an extremely useful role in the spiritual regeneration of the Christian religion, because Christianity has become so tainted with worldliness that contact with an utterly pure form of spirituality like Buddhism, where the message of turning away from the world and overcoming ego has been preserved in purity, might help in returning Christianity to its roots and original purpose.

So many Christians today that I know are obsessed with politics and worldly concerns and "changing the world" - a goal utterly foreign to a religion that said "render unto Caesar...". Rod Dreher, for instance, who I like and who has written eloquently on the need to overcome the ego and turn away from the world, is concerned because Christians our starting to find it hard to be wealthy middle class proffessionals in the current cultural climate. In my view, Christians shouldn't ever be wealthy middle class proffessionals, even if the climate is very favorable, or at least, this is hardly a major concern for a religion that is about renouncing the world, overcoming the God, and finding peace in God.

But you are quite right that the modern West needs God, and Buddhism as it is would be inadequate for our particular spiritual needs. I am not suggesting it replace Christianity, merely that it can serve as a reminder of what we Christians should really be about.

IF this were to happen, it would be a third instance of the ancient cross-fertilization between Buddhism and Christianity that has borne such happy fruit in the past.

William Wildblood said...

Very interesting comments. Thanks Chris. I do know that Buddhism doesn't actually deny God but he is still irrelevant to the religion especially in his personal form and, unlike the mystics you cite, I think the personal is not swallowed up in the Godhead but absolutely intrinsic to reality. It's right at the heart of it. Christian mystics like Eckhart may have thought the personal to be subsumed in an impersonal Godhead (he may not, I'm not sure)but Christ didn't appear to think that or why would he have spoken of the Father? The Godhead is not something that is above the Trinity of three persons in one God. If it were I don't see how creation or anything could have taken place. There must be differentiation within basic unity for anything to come about.

But I do agree with most of what you say and I too believe that Mahayana Buddhism was influenced by Christianity. Not just by the obvious external modes of communication and exchange but actually spiritually speaking by the Incarnation of Christ which sent out, as it were, spiritual shockwaves throughout what one used to call the ether. I have the greatest respect for Buddhism and I think it can help to reorient a contemporary non-spiritual Christianity but ultimately i think it is a spiritual dead end for Westerners.

Thanks again for your comments which provide much food for thought.

ajb said...

"So many Christians today that I know are obsessed with politics and worldly concerns and "changing the world" - a goal utterly foreign to a religion that said "render unto Caesar..."."

Jesus conceived of himself as the King of the 5th Kingdom, which was prophesied to start sometime in the early 1st century and never end. You're right that his role wasn't conceived of as political, which is what many Jews at that time were expecting, but it was metapolitical - a spiritual kingdom that would change the world by infusing the divine into it. This is part of the sign of Jonah, that Jesus said would be the only sign given to that generation (Jonah converted the gentile city of Nineveh).

So, I don't think the idea of changing the world was utterly foreign to early forms of Christianity.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ajb - Yes. One way that modern Christians need to change the world, is to change the metaphysical assumptions (inculcated both directly and implicitly through the entire realm of public discourse) that rule-out meaning and purpose in life, and rule-out the validity of Christianity.

What (we would agree) Christians *obviously* should NOT be doing is focusing their attention and efforts on secular, materialistic concerns pre-selected by the agents of godless materialism for their spiritually-destructive tendency - equality, diversity, foreign aid, global warming, feminism, promoting the sexual revolution and so on... which is exactly what the mainstream Christian churches currently actually do. This amounts to a kind of spiritual 'Stockholm Syndrome' (when it is not simply destructive subversion by fake-Christian leaders).