Every person’s journey includes moments when everything makes sense. Struggles cease, craving ends, and divisions disappear. We tend to describe these episodes in ‘spiritual’ terms, but such wording makes some people uncomfortable. Since these numinous feelings occur regardless of belief system, we should try to treat them as inclusively as possible.
In a recent post on my primary blog, I announced readiness to believe in cosmic and pervasive love, which seemed reasonable to call “God.” As I thought later about what I’d written, this language began to trouble me. Opening to profound wellness does not demand overt theological language. It doesn’t depend on concepts of any sort. It only requires that we take seriously the purest and most selfless moments of human existence.
This post continues the progression of the last three, and derives from comments left by a fellow blogger, SaraJoyM. Relatively new to this game, she blogs about philosophy and ethics and touches on similar themes as those explored here in recent times. In her commentary, and in a nice piece on her own site, she explores the upside of belief. Her take on this subject awakens me to a wrinkle that I hadn’t considered: belief brings benefits.
That set me thinking. The recent series of essays isn’t the first time I’ve trashed belief as unreliable and hazardous for society and individuals. One of my posts earlier this year was even titled, “The Danger of Belief.” I stand by my position that fixed beliefs (especially those about metaphysical topics) get us in trouble. On the personal level they provide precarious support for happiness. On the cultural level they lead to warfare and persecution. Bad news, certainly, but as in all things there remain positive aspects, which I will now explore.
A blog is forever a work in progress, never a polished and completed tome. Unlike a book that gets reorganized and revised many times before publication, a blog flows with only a little more planning and control than stream of consciousness writing. Sometimes I write a series of posts in which each new piece serves as a corrective to the last. This is such a time.
First I wrote a post describing an approach to life that leads to peace with no dependence on metaphysical beliefs. Then in a second essay I remarked on numinous and nonverbal realizations that sometimes erupt in the human mind, and described their transformative value. At the same time, I cautioned against forcing interpretations on the resulting transcendent states of mind. In that second piece, I rather inexpertly equated faith with belief. I told of the dangers of combatting doubt with ‘blind faith’.
In so doing, I sidestepped a subtlety I want to address now.
My last essay described how one can find reassurance in any situation by developing the right attitude toward life. It gave the impression, perhaps, that I believe spiritual pursuits unnecessary. However, that’s not my stance. Transcendent development is important. The problems arise when people hold fixed beliefs about the nature of reality.
Because we can’t know ultimate truth, any idea or theory is provisional. New data could appear at any moment to undermine conviction. If one believes, for instance, that God works in mysterious ways for our own welfare, one can too easily end up bargaining with the cosmos: “I’ll be happy if there is an all-powerful deity who decides what’s best for me.”
Such specificity in belief is precarious. If too much hardship accumulates, one begins to doubt God’s beneficence. The traditional religious solution to such wavering is to cleave even more tightly to ‘faith’ in a particular kind of God. This hardening of ideology in the face of contradiction underlies many religious and philosophical battles, sometimes with lethal results.