WHY WE NEED A SPIRITUAL RENAISSANCE
We need a “spiritual renaissance.”
The heart of life isn’t about bills, chores, or mere survival. Most of us sense this in our bones. It isn’t even about wealth, fame, status, or power. Even for the few who achieve these, there never seems to be quite enough. The real stuff, the juice in life, it seems, lies – well, somewhere else.
But where? Our basic situation boils down to a predicament. We live in a tiny window between birth and death. What’s it all about? What’s the point? What should we do, and why? The “Big Questions” of life frame our everyday experience. When we invest vigor and energy in attacking certain questions in new ways, the results can be transformational.
The Renaissance, for example – the explosion of vitality in the arts, science, and culture that took place in the 15th and 16th centuries in Europe – marked a turning point in history. It launched a new era where humans – by some measures – flourished.
But what if something similar could happen in the central questions of life?
What if there was another creative explosion of vitality – but this time, in the areas of spirituality, religion, philosophy, and psychology? What if our new frontiers were in the direction of ancient advice – to “Know Thyself”?
Could it happen? What would it look like?
The benefits in these areas could be vast. Genuine advances in these endeavors would lead to greater mental clarity and emotional strength, stronger relationships, a more solid grounding in reality, and more. This involves directions we almost universally say we want: more kindness, compassion, and mutual understanding, as well as advancing new frontiers in self-knowledge and inner health.
This might seem naïve, but few disagree with the general direction. Opportunities abound.
Part of the challenge lies in clearly understanding the problem.
Western culture has made clear progress in certain areas – technology, communications, medicine, civil rights, and others. As a whole, broadly speaking – at least on paper – many of us today are healthier, wealthier, and better off in many measures than nearly everyone across the course of history that came before us. In many ways, we’re incredibly fortunate.
But despite this, many of us don’t necessarily feel better off.
Central to all this is a gnawing paradox: external wealth combined with inner poverty.
Depression, anxiety, addiction, and suicide rates have been increasing steadily, over decades. An exclusive focus on externals leaves us hollow. Everything is valuable, but nothing is sacred. Over time, mere creature comforts leave us hungry. Life can be a table full of condiments, but no main course.
Our current political, cultural, and moral problems seem to worsen by the day.
Without some sort of major course-correction, this trend could easily continue.
A functioning society depends to some degree on good, healthy, sane people who are able to live and work together. But we don't just disagree on mere issues anymore; we disagree on entire worldviews. We aren’t just arriving at different answers; we’re asking entirely different questions.
Half of America lives by a code of life the other believes is wildly mistaken. We suddenly seem barely able understand each other, and we don’t even seem to know how to communicate about our lack of understanding.
Problems of this magnitude won’t be solved by politics or even culture.
The problem, apparently, lies deeper.
In some ways, speaking broadly in regards to the past few decades, we seem to have undergone a psychological deterioration. The uptick in anxiety, depression, addiction, and the current political and cultural frictions aren’t necessarily just problems in themselves, but symptoms of even deeper problems.
We’re constantly struggling to solve problems on one level with solutions from a different level. But cultural problems won’t be solved with politics. Spiritual and psychological problems won’t be solved with culture. In this sense, our political and cultural frictions seem to be less of a cause and more of a symptom.
But, "symptom" of what?
Over the past century or so, we’ve gone through a period where even asking The Big Questions was deemed bad form. Science was in, philosophy was out. Secularism was in, ontology was out. Anything measurable and quantifiable was in, the intangible was out. This was all deemed as progress, and in some ways, it was.
But it also might have, in some ways, demoted the essential and elevated the trivial. “Religion” was smeared by some as a premodern superstition, a mere fantasy, an opiate of the masses, and was increasingly abandoned in favor of standalone science and reason.
Yet the 20th century was also the bloodiest in human history.
This was due entirely to human actions, and was justified on some fronts by clearly distorted forms of “science” and “reason.” We’re still haunted by these events. In regard to both World Wars and much of what surrounded them, we still don’t seem to really understand what happened and why, or how to prevent it from happening again.
It's a goal almost everyone agrees on.
The aim is universal. The “how” part isn’t.
But any form the “how” would take would require a good understanding of human nature.
There seems to be something in human nature that isn’t satisfied with mere creature comforts. When we ignore The Big Questions, they don’t just disappear. They go underground. And when they go underground, this “something” in our nature generates angst, an inner discomfort, or a deep restlessness of the soul. When we experience this, we often blame it on external conditions. These “external conditions” often take the form of other human beings. If that trend continues unchecked, it soon becomes scapegoating. If scapegoating runs unchecked, things can go to truly dark places, and quickly.
This can mean that we ignore The Questions at our own peril.
Mainstream psychology hardly offers a functional definition of “sanity.” But if we define sanity as “being in touch with reality,” then losing touch with reality means becoming less sane. And if spirituality is about being in touch with reality – not just reality, but Ultimate Reality – this would make spirituality not peripheral, but central to a healthy, well-lived life.
Yet in psychology, spirituality is often treated as an afterthought.
(To be clear, this doesn’t mean that everything that passes under the banner of “spiritual” or “religious” is necessarily healthy, as many would be quick to point out. Agreed. There’s plenty of room to sort babies from bathwater.)
A healthy spirituality provides good answers to The Big Questions.
A lack of answers leaves a void.
Without a credible spirituality, we wind up facing this void disarmed and defenseless. We sometimes try to answer The Big Questions with mere philosophy, distractions, or random grab-bags full of platitudes. These efforts often fail, get undermined, or lead to endless speculations and confusion.
Nihilism is unbearable and unlivable. That’s why we rarely see it in pure form. It’s usually disguised as something else. When we do get exposed to it directly, we tend to seize on almost any escape we can find. This means we invent substitute religions. (Nietzsche described it more as getting “creative,” but the lines here get blurry.)
These “man-made religions” often seem to wind up keeping the worst parts of religion and remove the best. They sometimes morph onto full-fledged political ideologies. These have the potential to lead to war, mass oppression, famine, and a wide array of horrors.
If this line of thought is generally on point, then it means a few things.
It means the driving force behind political fanaticism is misguided religion. (And we’re all religious – even atheists. We can’t duck the problem. We have to face it.)
It would mean that the core engine of war, murder, and oppression is spiritual weakness.
The best medicine for diseased spirituality is healthy spirituality.
This should orient us in the direction of a solution, which for many, is obvious. We need a spiritual renaissance. The hard part is the “how.”
So, how might this actually work?
Is there “progress” in philosophy, psychology, and spirituality?
A lot of thinkers would answer with a hard “no” here. There’s been clear progress in physics, chemistry, or biology. In these other areas, it doesn’t seem so.
But there’s also the possibility that there really is genuine progress in these fields. It’s just harder to spot, more difficult to communicate, and more easily lost. It’s hard enough to make progress when we’re studying rocks and atoms. When what we’re studying is us, progress becomes exponentially harder.
With the scope of the challenge in mind, here are seven general potential directions a spiritual renaissance could move in.
It could be both “tough” and “tender-minded.”
Alan Watts described two different types along these lines: the “prickly” and the “gooey.”
“Prickly” people are tough-minded, rigorous and precise,” while “gooey” people are “tender-minded romanticists who love wide generalizations and grand syntheses.”
This can parallel religious stereotypes of “blind faith” types versus the “hard-nosed skeptics.” Each side without the other tends to become dysfunctional, dissolving down into either cranky, Scroogelike pessimism, anti-intellectual mayhem, or some form of rigid dogmatism. One tends to become dry, dusty, boring, and lifeless, the other, lively but incoherent insanity.
The trick, it seems, lies in a marriage of the best sides of each – a union of the tough and tender, heat and light, vitality and clarity. It’s an approach that's both gooey - it welcomes all perspectives, approaches, and data unconditionally, yet it's also prickly, in that it also sorts, tests, organizes, and examines with rigor.
It could communicate very clearly.
Poor communication is often a major problem in these areas.
Ernest Becker said it well: knowledge is “strewn all over the place, spoken in a thousand competitive voices. Its insignificant fragments are magnified all out of proportion, while its major and world-historical insights lie around begging for attention.”
He published those words in 1973. Things have gotten exponentially worse since then. Our problem, once upon a time, was poverty of information. Our problem now is information overload. (Or really, “misinformation overload.”) We’re overwhelmed with data, but starved for comprehension of what it all means. The problem now lies in sorting the useful from the useless. Organization also poses a steep challenge. Individuals often spend years or decades working to solve problems that someone else already solved long before. When new discoveries are made, they routinely get ignored, misunderstood, or forgotten. This leads to knowledge being discovered, lost, rediscovered and lost again, repeatedly.
Yet amid all this, there’s great opportunity. The invention of the printing press, for example, revolutionized the transmission and absorption of knowledge. The tools we have today are much more powerful. The potential is tremendous, if we can make things work for us instead of against us.
It could heal unnecessary divisions.
Several longstanding points of friction exist across these fields. But some are false dilemmas – meaning, they’re based on misunderstandings or miscommunication. Bad theology creates dilemmas while good theology resolves them.
For example, there’s the “otherworldy” verses “worldly” debate, or “anti-sexuality” verses “pro-sexuality,” or even certain disagreements between atheists and believers.
In each of these cases, there are apparently two opposing sides. Each seems incomplete without the other. For example, in regard to the “otherworldly” verses “this-worldly” issue, one side (the atheistic) describes the other as devaluing life here-and-now in favor of an imaginary, hypothetical otherworldly future, while the reverse has one side (the “believer”) describing the other as sacrificing the eternal for the temporary, the infinitely valuable for the ultimately worthless.
Both sides seem to have valid points, yet they also seem to contradict. Yet both sides also tend to become dysfunctional when they reject or ignore the other. Genuine resolution seems to lie in a higher level of complexity – one that encompasses the best insights from both sides while ignoring the most dysfunctional extremes. Respectful dialogue could clear up a great deal.
It could be decentralized.
“The inside scoop” on spirituality and The Big Questions of life, once reserved exclusively for the elite few, has been trending more democratic. Instead of purely “top-down,” it’s become increasingly “bottom-up.”
For example, at one point in history, only highly trained clergy who knew Greek could read the Bible. The printing press, along with translations into more “common” languages, changed that. This presented scores of “ordinary” people with one step closer to “direct access.”
This same dynamic could also apply to the higher reaches of spiritual knowledge. Instead of relying exclusively on secondhand knowledge, such as sacred texts, prophets, or gurus, increasing numbers of individuals are seeking firsthand knowledge, direct experiences, or personal revelations.
This can lead to both opportunities and hazards. “Top-down,” heavy-handed, bureaucratic religious institutions as well as “guru” models have been plagued with problems for as long as they’ve existed. When they’re functional, however, they also provide structure, accountability, and reality checks. The “do-it-yourself” approach offers freedom, but also potential anarchy. A competent and intelligent combination of these, though, could harness the best of both.
It could integrate disciplines.
The fields of spirituality, religion, philosophy, and psychology are sometimes treated as almost entirely separate disciplines. On campuses, they’re in different departments. “Philosophy is over here, psychology is over there, and religion is way over there.”
But in real life, these areas are deeply interconnected.
To overview just a few examples: psychology often studies human beings while operating – consciously or not – under an assumed materialistic (philosophical) worldview. Religions often contain models of human nature (sometimes implicitly, sometimes fully articulated), which is operating exactly in the jurisdiction of psychology. Psychology has also explored “self-actualization” or the higher reaches of human nature, yet this is terrain that a number of spiritual traditions have already mapped out. The idea that “life is meaningless” might seem like a purely philosophical assertion, yet it plays a key role in psychological conditions like depression, and is also directly connected to questions addressed by theology. “Know Thyself” is often seen as a philosophical assertion, but “self-knowledge” is almost the very definition of psychology, and is also a critical component in spirituality.
And so on. Examples like these abound. The areas of overlap are extensive. Cross-discipline approaches can help one another tremendously.
It could be experiential.
“Religion” is sometimes presented as a series of beliefs to either sign off on, or not.
But we often ignore the experiences that lead to those beliefs.
Beliefs typically follow in the wake of experiences, the way a laugh follows after a good joke. Yet we often try to force ourselves to laugh without hearing the joke. This points us in the direction of experiential learning. This approach would emphasize telling jokes first, and then allowing laughter to follow afterward, naturally, instead of the other way around. In other words, it would foster genuine experiences or an orchestrated series of insights, after which “beliefs” would naturally follow.
This approach not only solves the shoving-dogma-down-the-throat problem, but also allows space for individuals to discover answers for themselves. Allowing only predetermined, off-the-shelf answers often disrupts any sense of mystery or discovery. It gives the impression that there’s a stale stack of boring facts to memorize. It’s like a legal contract to sign off on. But allowing room for periods of questioning and searching, seeking and finding, on the other hand, can stoke the inner fire of an individual’s personal quest.
It could be transformative.
One of the primary tasks of religion is to transform potential jerks into decent human beings, and human beings into saints and sages. It doesn't always succeed, clearly. But then again, it’s a difficult task.
This should challenge us to do more, not less.
So, could these developments actually take place?
Who knows? A creative, open-ended, wildly complex process can be impossible to predict.
But many of these are already happening, to some degree. Whether they evolve into an actual “renaissance” or not seems difficult to say. But it seems well worth the effort to find out.
After all, what would the world be like if we made genuine breakthroughs in our understanding of anxiety, depression, addiction, and the inner workings of our own emotions? What if we could discover more sturdy answers to the point of it all? What if we could distill down the best nuggets of modern science and ancient wisdom in ways that help each of us live richer lives?
This all might seem a bit far-fetched.
But in these areas, it doesn't take a lot to make a big difference. This is the existential command center, where small changes can lead to dramatic results. And at any rate, the question isn’t really whether we “should” work along these lines or not. The Big Questions are impossible to avoid. We can’t not face them. The trick is to face them well.
Many individuals are already working along these lines, and working hard. Some appear to be making genuine progress. There’s wide, open ground to make a lot more progress. That’s the plan.
The question, then, is often how much energy we invest in it.
For some of us, the plan is to invest a lot. There’s a lot at stake here.
With some luck and sweat, the next great leap might lie in understanding ourselves. It might be time to make that leap. Some of the strains we’re living through now might reveal themselves to be the birth pangs of a transformation to something much better.
The physical world has now been well-mapped. But all too often, our inner terrains remain unexplored. This could well be the next great frontier.