A friend asked me what I thought about the whole "Spiritual But Not Religious" thing, and how the Church might deal with it - which set me to thinking.
Most A.A. members would, I think, classify themselves this way. Some of us add "religious" to our résumés after awhile - but almost everybody, at least in my experience, starts out as a SBNR. And in fact, A.A. is a fantastic SBNR path; it borrows just about all of its practices from religion - but it's not a religion itself. Or perhaps it is, in some way - but it's an experiential one, without Creed.
And, starting off as a SBNR in A.A., I found that what interested and attracted me were things like Zen koans, and the sort of "spiritual aphorisms" we heard in meetings. One such saying was "When the student is ready the teacher appears"; while this may appear to be facile, it's actually simply true. It's a commentary on the learning process - and on the experiential acquiring of "new ears" with which to hear and understand. It's saying: yesterday I couldn't hear or understand this, because I didn't know enough, but somehow, today I can; time and experience have broken the barrier. The "teacher" is the event or person responsible for bringing about this epiphany. (The idea is actually quite close to "Knock, and it shall be opened to you; seek, and you shall find.") It all sounds quite mysterious - but that's just the way it's wrapped; it's a simple truism about learning. The wrapping, though, is actually quite important!
Later on, I fell for Rumi. There's nothing better than this, if you're an SBNR:
Come, come, whoever you are.What's interesting there is that there's talk of "vows"; a little bit of straight-ahead religious talk right in the middle of Sufi ecstasy. Genius! Rumi is, in fact, fantastic at stuff like this; here's another example:
Wanderer, worshipper, lover of leaving, it doesn't matter
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
Come even if you have broken your vow a thousand times,
Come, yet again, come, come.
One went to the door of the Beloved and knocked.
A voice asked, "Who is there?"
He answered, "It is I."
The voice said, "There is no room for Me and Thee."
The door was shut.
After a year of solitude and deprivation he returned
A voice from within asked, "Who is there?"
The man responded, "It is Thee."
The door was opened for him.
Very A.A., that: "the Beloved" is never strictly defined - yet clearly he's speaking directly of "that than which nothing greater can be conceived" - i.e., of God. He's speaking directly to the "spiritual sense." And he's speaking a deep truth: there really isn't room for "Me and Thee" in the spiritual life - and again, this is a bit of deliberate opacity. It's meant to tickle ears and souls, and lead people to wonder what it can actually mean - which is rather refreshing in a climate (even in the church) in which everything must be defined. It's nice to be left hanging a little bit. And again: it's straightforwardly about the inner life, and about learning and experience. (Another beautiful aspect is the totally unexpected exchange of "Me" for "Thee"! How strange, and how wonderful - and how true, in a dozen ways. It hands back to God what was God's to begin with - all while expressing the need for "self-emptying." I find this little poem miraculous in so many ways.)
I realized that what attracted me to things like this was the sense that there was a path one could follow - a path that others had followed, and who were now looking back and describing their experiences. At the time, I took this to be the "Zen path," and it to me involved movement. And I think that a sense of "journeying" - this kind of inward journeying, through the highways of the soul and human emotion and experience - is something we're sort of missing in the church. We have no particular sense of, or way of talking about, the fact we are all on a journey of discovery, and that there are real and describable signposts along the way that we can talk about.
And I think the SBNR resonate with things like this; I sure did. Fortunately, these things do exist, in every tradition. All mystics talk about this sort of journeying, sometimes in puzzles and riddles (AKA, "koans"); all of them try to point to the process of the "spiritual paths" they have undertaken, and to document these journeys - often in allusive, rather than analytical, ways.
One reason people resonate with this stuff - especially now, I think - is because there is very little of it around these days. There is more media than ever before - but very little of it has to do with the spiritual, inward life - and very little of it offers much of value that can help with explaining human experience, and how we understand the world and ourselves in it. But it's always been a deep interest, I think; people want to know what being alive is for, and how human beings are made. Especially, I think, they want to know that they themselves are on a path that goes someplace real and true - someplace people have looked for many times before, and will continually and always be looking for.
In A.A. we have stories, and aphorisms, and koans, and mysteries, all in the service of teaching and learning - and we have practices (prayer, meditation, self-examination, confession) taken directly from the religions of the world. And I have noticed lately that people really resonate with mystical and experiential stuff these days. A couple of days ago, on a blog post that asked the question "Is religious experience like falling in love?," I talked about William James (The Varieties of Religious Experience) and pointed to St. John of the Cross' "Stanzas of the Soul":
On a dark night, Kindled in love with yearnings—oh, happy chance!—
I went forth without being observed, My house being now at rest.
In darkness and secure, By the secret ladder, disguised—oh, happy chance!—
In darkness and in concealment, My house being now at rest.
In the happy night, In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught, Without light or guide, save that which burned in my heart.
This light guided me More surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me— A place where none appeared.
Oh, night that guided me, Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover, Lover transformed in the Beloved!
Upon my flowery breast, Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him, And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.
The breeze blew from the turret As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand he wounded my neck And caused all my senses to be suspended.
I remained, lost in oblivion; My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself, Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.
The response? "Awesome, awesome."
On another occasion, talking about some faith topic - and again with a SBNR type - I quoted from Meister Eckhart :
God is nameless, for no man can either say or understand aught about Him. If I say, God is good, it is not true; nay more; I am good, God is not good. I may even say, I am better than God; for whatever is good, may become better, and whatever may become better, may become best. Now God is not good, for He cannot become better. And if He cannot become better, He cannot become best, for these three things, good, better, and best, are far from God, since He is above all. If I also say, God is wise, it is not true; I am wiser than He. If I also say, God is a Being, it is not true; He is transcendent Being and superessential Nothingness. Concerning this St Augustine says: the best thing that man can say about God is to be able to be silent about Him, from the wisdom of his inner judgement. Therefore be silent and prate not about God, for whenever thou dost prate about God, thou liest, and committest sin. If thou wilt be without sin, prate not about God. Thou canst understand nought about God, for He is above all understanding. A master saith: If I had a God whom I could understand, I would never hold Him to be God.
Again, this was received with enthusiasm and in fact delight. Truth, wrapped in an entirely enchanting package.
I think the reason this stuff seems "awesome" to people today is because they are not used to hearing things that touch on subjective human experience, truth, and the spiritual life; everything today is about objective "data." So all that other stuff sounds mysterious and beautiful to them - which, of course, it is. And it affirms them in their longings to be more than just data points that can be objectively measured.
"The Tunnel" is a wonderful Zen story about love, experience, and the long road to redemption - something that would fit very well into the Christian worldview, in fact:
Zenkai, the son of a samurai, journeyed to Edo and there became the retainer of a high official. He fell in love with the official's wife and was discovered. In self-defence, he slew the official. Then he ran away with the wife.
Both of them later became thieves. But the woman was so greedy that Zenkai grew disgusted. Finally, leaving her, he journeyed far away to the province of Buzen, where he became a wandering mendicant.
To atone for his past, Zenkai resolved to accomplish some good deed in his lifetime. Knowing of a dangerous road over a cliff that had caused death and injury to many persons, he resolved to cut a tunnel through the mountain there.
Begging food in the daytime, Zenkai worked at night digging his tunnel. When thirty years had gone by, the tunnel was 2,280 feet long, 20 feet high, and 30 feet wide.
Two years before the work was completed, the son of the official he had slain, who was a skillful swordsman, found Zenkai out and came to kill him in revenge.
"I will give you my life willingly," said Zenkai. "Only let me finish this work. On the day it is completed, then you may kill me."
So the son awaited the day. Several months passed and Zenkai kept digging. The son grew tired of doing nothing and began to help with the digging. After he had helped for more than a year, he came to admire Zenkai's strong will and character.
At last the tunnel was completed and the people could use it and travel safely.
"Now cut off my head," said Zenkai. "My work is done."
"How can I cut off my own teacher's head?" asked the younger man with tears in his eyes.
The mystical traditions all contain such ideas, aphorisms, poems, stories, events, etc. And they have always enchanted me; people want to know, I think, that there is something splendid and fascinating and mysterious about living - and they want to hear what that consists of. They want to hear about what human experience is like when looked at from this angle - and they want very much to know about the parts of themselves that are going unused.
I also came to think that articulating the Anglo-Catholic worldview - leaving out the fact that it's both Anglican and Catholic - might be a really interesting thought process. I believe it to be a philosophy that stands perfectly well on its own, even if it does come to us via Revelation; why not just use the Christian axioms for a base, without necessarily noting that that's where you're getting them?
Work it through systematically - and describe it as one philosophy of living among others; why not? Give people the guts of the thing - and you have the added benefit of being able to drop all the accumulated baggage. Just use the ideas. I think I'd have been interested in something like that, as an SBNR; I just didn't know such a thing existed in those days.
Well, thinking all this through has been an interesting process, I have to say - and it's exactly the same kind of "process" I've been talking about here, in fact: looking back and describing what I've found along the way. There's more to this, too, having to do with "recovery"; probably I'll put up a post about that at some point as well.
So, many thanks to my friend for asking the question.....