In my past two articles, I was eager to explore some of the themes of Advent, especially those of interest to the men of this forum. Advent, as we’ve seen, is a season for Judgment, a season for the advent of Truth in our midst, the Truth Who is King and Priest. Today, I’d like to focus on a topic that ties these two themes together; in the phrase “I’m spiritual, but not religious,” the “spiritual” is an inferior and effeminate mockery of religion’s inherent virility.
Of course, we ascribe various meanings to each of these terms in our days, some positive and negative. How am I using them? The more common opinion of the ancients, is that religion is derived from religare, “to bind fast; to fasten,” giving it sometimes the same force of a related term, obligatio (“obligation”). Religion is our “bounden duty,” fastening us together, and to the divine.
“Spirituality,” thus framed as an alternative to religion, is the pretense of making contact with the Transcendent, without all the clear and fixed ideas of what It is, and how we commune with It. This lack of clear ideas allows the basest forms of self-pandering and casual blasphemy to occur.
The Commodification Of “Spirituality”
Take a second, head on over to Google, and search for “Philosophy.” When I do it, the first three results—two of which are paid advertisements—are for a line of “skin care” products. Of course, nobody needs these for “skin care;” they are just pretexts for separating money from foolish women.
I first became aware of them a few years ago at Christmastime, funnily enough, when I came to visit my family for the holidays. Showering in my parents’ bathroom, I saw that my mother had these things all over, in the shower and on the counters. I very nearly threw them all out.
For you see, these products are insultingly titled after philosophical ideals and virtues, even the specifically theological virtues and Divine Operations, amounting to literal blasphemy. The products are named such things as “hope,” “miracle worker,” “living grace” and “unconditional love,” all with trite, infuriating messages written on the containers.
If you find that their products are not suffusing your soul with the theological virtues as well as you would like, have no fear: they also make a facial firming serum called “When Hope is not Enough.” It’s sure to get you through some tough times.
Irreligious “Spirituality” Is Simply A Mirror Of Our Superficial Selves
This company’s foundress describes her business as the result of an “epiphany” which she had on Christmas Day—in the desert near my home in Arizona, funnily enough (it only occurred to me to use these products as an illustration of my point this past weekend, and the coincidences sure are piling up). Her epiphany came, when she realized that she was the only one “serious” about her concubinage to a man who had better things to do than hike with her on Christmas Day.
But this sad moment was turned to joy when she looked up and saw a rainbow! “Something in me completely shifted, as if I had a healing,” she told an LA Times reporter, who further added that “she is in a new phase of her life—one that emphasizes inner, not outer beauty. She refuses to join a gym or diet.” Need I say more?
There are two possibilities, here. On the one hand, this woman may actually be so pitiable as to think that she received a “religious healing,” which inspired her to become an even worse version of herself, eating more and exercising less, and to “focus on inner beauty” by selling blasphemous products with a literally skin-deep purpose. On the other hand, she may simply understand how easy it is to bilk other women with this kind of nonsense… in which case, she’s right.
Certainly my mother and my aunts, who all describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious,” love her products. And what is the message? “Don’t do anything hard to improve yourself; affirm yourself as you are… but DO spend money on my product, because it provides what is missing from your life.”
Even when the “spiritual but not religious” approach has not been reduced to a marketing gimmick, it is still a narcissistic bit of flim-flam. When I first went to college (a few years before I became a monk), a girl I took out asked me why I “limited myself” to just one religion, rather than picking and choosing the things I liked best from all of them. Picking from all of them would be more “open minded,” she explained. I told her that nothing was less open-minded than destroying the integrity of a culture’s religious practices, reassembling the ones you already liked into a new, personal mish-mash. An open-minded person would allow a religious tradition to impact him as it is, not hack away at it until only a reflection of his preconceived notions remained.
Moreover, I told her that religion was about Truth, and involved many fine distinctions in the exposition of momentous questions; it was impossible to preserve such integrity of thought with a buffet-style approach. Her statement implied that spirituality is simply a collection of practices designed to produce a feeling or state of mind, to entertain or to flatter one’s self. I told her that a person who approached the divine in this was simply worshipping himself, rather than rising above himself by contact with what is higher than himself.
Her reply was that if I could only hear myself, I would see how my narrow religious views had already given me a very judgmental attitude; it was not my place to tell other people which spiritual ideas and practices were right, they had to find what was “true” for them.
Liberalism Applied To The Supernatural Is Inherently Effeminate
A man should not cheapen himself by submitting to such an hypocritical and self-refuting concept—to preach an intolerant tolerance. My “spirituality” was wrong because I thought some people’s “spirituality” was wrong! This is the same philosophy held by leftists on political matters – tolerance for me, but not for thee. Hey, you hateful, judgmental asshole! Didn’t anyone teach you not to pass judgment? Though our Lord does warn people in the Gospels not to judge the state of another man’s soul, or his real worth, it is quite clear that the Lord believed in judging the objective morality of acts and ideas. Rational discrimination—good judgment—is the basis of right action.
The result of political leftism is thus to offer a justification for whatever people happen to want at present, by wrapping it in the high-minded ideas of tolerance and freedom… while providing a justification for vilifying unpopular ideas, by associating them with the ideas of intolerance and totalitarianism. But it should be obvious that this aggressive “tolerance” is itself a totalitarian ideology that uses “freedom” and “oppression” as mere buzzwords. It is an incoherent system devoid of any positive substance, and God help you if such persons are in charge of creating and enforcing the “principles” of your society.
Likewise, the “spiritual, but not religious” approach provides justification for spiritual masturbation, and for bad-mouthing religion, under pretense of similarly high-minded ideas. It provides easy slogans that feign virtue and wisdom (like “meat is murder” for veganism, or “two wrongs don’t make a right” against the death penalty) but fears to arrive at the clarity of natural religion (which can explain why we don’t incarcerate lions, and why we do punish criminals), because this clarity dispels the ambiguity they require in order to turn liberty into license.
But a serious man will search for the coherent system of truths, that holds the moral and spiritual life together; his religious practices will have the expression and practice of these truths for their aim. There is a legitimate way in which serious religion transcends finite concepts… but this is because it transcends them as the shadows of a more brilliant Truth, not because it finds them false in the first place.
If any men on this site are interested in developing their spiritual sides, I would exhort them to keep this in mind. If you think of the spiritual life as an emotional experience, or a set of practices focused on you, your “personality,” your aspirations, I encourage you to reconsider. The way of men has always sought a more authentic spirituality, in the excellence whereof loftier ideals shine forth, such as Truth, clarity, ascesis, sacrifice, reverence, and duty. God grant us to progress in these, during this holy season.