Much has been written about the statement ‘I’m spiritual but not religious’. This statement is not uncommon in today’s world and suggests a strong preference for personal choice or maybe even a fear of religious commitment. Often, this self-description is seen as a reflection of the individualism that is pervasive in Western society. But, I wonder if this explanation helps us to really understand the cultural roots of such claims.
In a highly mobile and connected world, individuals increasingly encounter different religions, cultural practices and alternative philosophies. It is no real surprise that people choose to explore truths that may not appear at first glance to sit easily within the beliefs, practices and principles of the religion that they already know. In this sense, it may be pragmatic to simply describe oneself as spiritual.
The phrase ‘perennial philosophy’ refers to the idea that there is a core of shared wisdom in all religions that is independent of culture. It was first coined in the 16th Century by the Renaissance humanist and Catholic bishop Agostino Stenco. This philosophy was made famous by the English writer Aldous Huxley who argued that there is significant agreement within various religious philosophies.
Aldous Huxley was the grandson of the naturalist Thomas Henry Huxley otherwise known as ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’. He earned this nickname because of his ferocious championing of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and science education in general while also combatting what he saw as extreme forms of religious tradition. Incidentally, Thomas Henry Huxley coined the phrase ‘agnosticism’ in 1889 to differentiate between claims that were either empirically knowable or not.
In 1932, Aldous published his most famous novel ‘Brave New World’, which described a frightening dystopian future where all supernatural-based religion was replaced by a utilitarian science restrictively focused on the ideals of community, identity and stability. Sadly, in this brave new world, science has lost its spirit of genuine discovery. On a somewhat positive note, the traditional ills have been conquered: war, disease, anxiety and suffering. But, the cost is great, The result is a society where people enjoy shallow pleasures but do not read, write, think, love or govern themselves.
There are many commentators in the modern age that view ‘Brave New World’ as prophetic. Just like the people of an imagined dystopian future, it could be argued that we have already lost the ability to see the ways in which we have been diminished by modern culture. Curiously, Aldous Huxley grew much less intolerant concerning religion when he realised the awful implications of living in a materialist world. As a result of this painful erosion of his scepticism, he became passionately interested in mysticism and published ‘The Perennial Philosophy’ in 1945.
In many ways, ‘The Perennial Philosophy’ helped to foster a global spirituality that sought to balance Western culture’s love of progress, technology and the nation-state with the insights of a universal wisdom. Huxley advocated for a culture of contemplation to counteract the incessant noise from the rise of a technocratic progressiveness. Strangely and sadly, his desire for mysticism relied on psychedelic drugs. Yet, popular culture embraced Huxley’s views on mysticism in the 1960s.
A global spirituality is not without its challenges. It is no simple thing to unite mystical approaches that have grown within diverse traditions. Coherence, consistency and cohesion have to be jettisoned in favour of convenience. So too are the truth claims that support mysticism. All of this can lead to relativism in the absence of any authoritative structure to unite people. Furthermore, any new spiritual movement risks alienating the traditions from which it has grown. Intolerance can increase rather than decrease. The pure I-Thou mysticism of the Abrahamic faiths, which foster devotional encounters with the eternal God also suggest that a self-centred approach to mysticism is extremely limited.
In a complex world that is often hostile to traditional faith, one can avoid possible conflict by labelling oneself as ‘spiritual but not religious’. But for Christians, the order and natural laws that operate in the universe are expressions of God and point to a rational Creator and lawgiver. The regular behaviour of natural phenomena discovered by science harmonises well with the biblical view of God’s providential sustenance. It is this comprehensive view of reality that grounds the Christian mystical experience.
The Catholic faith is not an exclusionary club that denies the truth of other religions. On the contrary, the Catholic faith offers a powerfully coherent and robustly consistent approach to understanding reality. Having said all that, my love for the Church is not naive. I am wary of clericalism and distrustful of the insular tendencies and bureaucratic culture that may have played a role in various scandals. Regardless of my concerns, it is beyond question that the Catholic church offers an incredibly diverse range of intellectual and spiritual treasures.
This can be seen through the Church’s respect for scientific discoveries and its ability to integrate truths found in other intellectual specialisms. Its approach to inter-religious dialogue, its concern for the natural environment, its charitable work, its educational drive, its healthcare philosophy and its deeply ingrained care for the poor are deeply compelling.
Within Catholicism, there is no such thing as a ‘purist’. There is simply no one way of being Catholic. There are about ten thousand known saints, thousands of prayers, hymns and songs, a great diversity of religious orders as well as the highly esteemed saints known as Doctors of the Church. This list includes both contemplative mystics and intellectual giants.
With this breadth and depth of religious tradition, no two Catholics can be the same. While we centre our faith in God on the three pillars of the Bible, Church Tradition and the Teaching of the Church, we all bring our unique gifts and interests to our faith.
Catholic educators taught me that life is about the head, the hands and the heart. This is a path to wisdom that now guides my intellectual and spiritual explorations as well as my daily life. I have always had a keen interest in science and nature so it’s probably no surprise that I profoundly respect and value the nature beliefs, relational spiritualities and wisdom of the world’s religions. For curious Catholic pilgrims like me, it is helpful to fully comprehend that all truths reach fulfilment in the light of the Gospels.
As Catholics, we are free to respect, admire, befriend, share knowledge with and love people of all religions and none. We all walk the path of life and it’s good to help each other along the way. We can each aspire to be Good Samaritans. Yet, amidst the complexity of life, my thoughts sometimes turn to the fears expressed by Aldous Huxley, his novel ‘Brave New World’ and his later work on a perennial philosophy.