Monday, April 23, 2007

on spiritual journeys

let's get spiritual

Having watched Monster’s Ball the other night, during which I couldn’t help but marvel at Halle Berry’s magnificence, I’ve found her cropping up on TV and on the net wherever I look, as often happens. I was disappointed on reading, though that she’s a very spiritual type. Alarm bells. Almost can’t be helped though, living in America, and it’s not as if I’m contemplating romance or anything. Sorry Halle.

So what is a spiritual type? A secularist like me might say, someone who believes in supernatural beings, but I strongly suspect that for spiritual types this wouldn’t do at all. Too neutral, tending towards negative. No, a spiritual type believes in a rich vibrant world beyond the confines of the merely rational and narrowly scientific.

A spiritual type is a person of soul, of depth, someone in touch with the elemental mysteries of being, even if she can’t express it adequately. It’s essentially inexpressible, ineffable, but you know when you’re in the presence of a truly spiritual being, just as you know and can feel the aridity of a person devoid of spirituality.

Unfortunately this sort of talk is just so much self-serving bumf. We’ve all met religion-obsessed people who are narrow-minded, bigoted, unimaginative and self-centred in the extreme. Of course they can be described as unspiritual, but that’s only because those who like to use the term naturally associate it with positive qualities. To be spiritual is to believe in supernatural beings and to be kind, open-hearted, giving and all the rest of it. With the implication that it’s because they believe in supernatural beings that they have these positive qualities. It’s hard to avoid circularity in these attributions. Real spirituality has a warm glow to it, a warm glow caused by spiritual feelings which are warm, and spiritual.

Not that such circularity bothers most spiritual types. The fact that spirituality can’t be effectively defined outside of the belief in supernatural beings won’t stop the employment of the term as a club for beating up on ‘narrow secularism’.

Today, on the news, I heard that someone had embarked ‘on a spiritual journey’. That someone was Scott Rush, the unfortunate Australian who was originally sentenced to life imprisonment in Indonesia for heroin trafficking. On appeal, his sentence was changed to death by firing squad.

The news reminded me of the documentary on Van Nguyen, executed in 2005 by the Singaporean government for drug trafficking. He too was described as a changed man by the time of his death, principally because of a late turn to religion, presumably of the Christian variety. One Catholic commentator crowed at the time that ‘Van Nguyen died a repentant sinner and in a state of grace.’

Of course it’s hardly surprising that people turn to the supernatural when in such desperate straits, and it might seem churlish not to respect their soi-disant spiritual journeys to the feet of deities, but I can’t help my own gut feeling, which is one of extreme irritation and, dare I say, a modicum of contempt. The fact that these people are very likely sincere in their conversions doesn’t sweeten the taste in my mouth one bit.

In Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained, a very useful attempt is made to explain the attractions of, and indeed the ‘naturalness’ of, religious belief. An essential element of the entities believed in by the religious is that they are intensely interested in our lives. They’re aware of every hair on our heads, to quote from the film 21 grams. And they know whether we’ve been bad or good, they’ve weighed our lives in eternal scales of justice, their judgment is ultimately the only one that matters. How this could be so, the mechanics of such divine knowledge, these are matters of little importance to believers, as much anthropological field-work has shown. Sufficient that there is a will to believe, or simply a belief, for it’s not willed for the most part, but simply accepted. Taken for granted.

Why? What purpose does this belief serve? And why do some escape the net of belief? And where does science fit into all this? All will be revealed, or at least explored, in future posts.



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