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What Every Westerner Should Ask About Spiritual Life

As the Western world’s never-ending reaction to its history of distorted spiritual life continues, there are some common myths and bits of wilful ignorance that have become embedded in our culture. Today, we tackle two of them.

 

1. It’s all the same

Religious syncretism is one of those feel-good viewpoints that people adopt when they want to feel enlightened or progressive or open-minded without thinking too much. It’s all very well if you view spiritual life as an exercise in feeling good, connecting with the community, a “cultural heritage” and so on. Different people connect with the Absolute in different ways and it’s all good. We’ve mentioned the difference between religions and Authentic Ancient Traditions before. This view of things struggles even to qualify as religion.

The moment you get serious about spiritual life as an exercise in self-transformation, you have to face the fact that the results you will get will be heavily conditioned by the worldview and schema of spiritual life that you adopt. And yes, you have to adopt one if you expect to get anywhere. Taoism, for example, has more than two millennia of experimentation behind it, and has always regarded self-transformation as a science with a definite process behind it. You can’t make it up as you go and expect to come up with comparable results.

The presuppositions of Taoism place great emphasis on the body and its energy system, and so their results will always be qualitatively different from those of Buddhism, which regards the body with more reserve. There’s no particular conflict between these two traditions, but neither can they pretend that their worldviews and methods are the same. What they both can do is point to their results, to the transformed people they have produced. And this is the key. The moment you embark on spiritual life as self-transformation, you have to look for evidence.

From there, you realise that there are faiths and philosophies with inner traditions of self-transformation and union with the Absolute that can produce results- and everyone else. To place these traditions alongside mainstream Protestantism, or attempts to revive dead paganism, or any other religion which does not have results behind it, is disingenuous in the extreme.

2. Christianity Was Always the Way it is Now

There is a general ignorance of Christian history in the West, and so the popular mind tends to project the centralised, hierarchical Catholicism of the present back in history right to the beginning. What we often fail to realise is that the Catholicism of the second millennium was the result of a long process of degeneration. The forces at work in this process can be summarised as:

  • Political: Following the conquest of the western Roman Empire, the Roman papacy attempted to gain as much authority as possible to gain leverage against the Germanic nobility. The Germanic nobility eventually took control of the church, and were able to recast church doctrine as a means of social control against their subjugated serfs.
  • Theological: The groundwork for the juridical theology they would use had been laid by Augustine of Hippo, and continued by the Norman theologian Anselm of Canterbury, who declared that God, being infinite, was infinitely angered by Adam’s fall and therefore took out his infinite anger on an infinite target, his Son.

There’s more to it, of course, but the bottom line is that the flaws of Western Christianity today were not just always there. It was a particular path chosen at identifiable points in time, and there is very little beyond the wishful thinking of some Catholics to connect this later, centralised, juridical church with the diverse, decentralised and theologically very different church of the early centuries.

Until the West understands this history, it will never come to terms with its religious heritage, and will continue to be divided by it.

Conclusion

The modern-day spiritual confusion is allowed to reign because of the questions people don’t ask. In the case of Christian history, the reason huge aspects of the topic are glossed over is dominantly emotional. Those in Western churches are eager to defend their particular takes on Christianity, while many outside are violently and categorically dismissive, creating a false polarity which stops people from asking the real questions. In the case of syncretism, people often just don’t know what to ask. The real question is, on what principles do you want to base your spiritual life? If you know your principles and you have decided to seek self-transformation through union with the Absolute, you have a good starting point for asking some penetrating questions.




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