I am reading the chapter on transcendence in Linda Mercadante’s Belief Without Borders. One part of the spiritual but not religious (SBNR) view of transcendence concerns what they reject from Judaism and Christianity. That was the theme of my previous post. But what are their positive theological beliefs?
She says that some have characterized the SBNR understanding as pantheistic (everything is God). She rejects this on the ground that pantheists would worship nature more than the SBNR. They see a spiritually helpful side of nature, but stop well short of worship.
At first this confused me because Western philosophical pantheism of the Stoics or Spinoza did not necessarily mean nature worship. But it turns out that Mercadante is thinking of Hinduism. I guess that is more relevant in this case than Western philosophy. (See below where she calls monism a view that I would have called pantheism.)
On the surface some Hinduism looks polytheistic or animistic. But Hindu thought (or one version of it) says that particular gods all manifest the One. Nature looks like a bunch of things and processes. But this is an illusion. Sensory data that seems to show a multifaceted, pluralistic world gives us a false impression. In reality everything is one. Mercadante will argue that many of the SBNR believe this, however they have skipped most of the polytheistic and animistic manifestations that crop up in popular Hinduism. There may be some “tree hugging”, but this is not really any kind of worship.
Others have characterized the SBNR as Gnostic. But ancient Gnosticism had an elitist element that does not sit well with American ideals. Some of the SBNR that she interviewed expressed views that seem Gnostic (a hierarchy of divine emanations), but the secret knowledge revealed only to a few does not work for American individualists who want to do their own thing.
I wonder about this. There are gurus. There are psychics and channelers connected with this kind of spirituality. So I am not convinced that there is no analogy to Gnosticism here.
An idea that popped up in many of her interviews is that God is evolving with us. God is maturing. God is identified with a kind of universal consciousness. And as consciousness evolves, God evolves.
But the one positive understanding of God that she found widespread in the SBNR is monism. Monism is a belief that seems close to monotheism, but departs from the monotheism of the Abrahamic religions. Monotheism says there is only one God. Monism says all reality is one and often identifies this oneness with the divine. The practical meaning of this is that a monist can say “I am god.” with a straight face. This means that I am a part of the one reality that is divine. A monotheist will not say that because she sees herself in an external relationship with the divine, such as the relationship between creator and creature. For the monotheist God may permeate all creation, but is not identical with it.
Sometimes this monism gets taken up and accommodated in modern Christianity. Mercadante tells of attending an Episcipalian retreat center in the Midwest (emphasized to show that it was not in California, I guess). For an hour-long session people entered a circular meditation room, took off their shoes, covered their street clothes with brown robes, and participated in chants. The hour ended with the affirmantion, “We are all God.”
This “God” was usually seen as an impersonal force or energy. Sometimes this was loosely connected with a popular notion of what modern physics says about energy. It is everywhere and it consists of particles or waves that you can’t see. So it sort of fits with the idea that the reality we see and sense is all an illusion.
I guess what bugs me most about idea, which I admit I have been running into even in the church since the ’70s, is the lack of scientific, historical, or theological rigor. There is a lot of pseudo-science, history-that-never-happened (like from the History Channel), and theological straw men involved.
A particular pet peeve of mine is the loose way the idea of evolution gets used. Some of the interviewees talked about some people being more evolved than others. They applied the idea of evolution to their personal self-actualization. But the truth is that evolution takes eras, millions of years. None of us has time to evolve individually or even as a society.
Of course, if you combine evolution with the idea of reincarnation, I guess you could posit evolution over thousands of lifetimes. But evolution is a scientific theory based on rigorous observation. Reincarnation is something else. If you believe in a doctrine on other grounds, it is fine to speculate how it might fit with an evolutionary world-view. Christians and Jews should do that too. But first, you need to understand that evolution leads to many dead-ends and happens over really long periods of time.
So far Mercadante is trying hard to give the SBNR a fair hearing. She is being very patient, although she occasionally will point out that they may misunderstand traditional religion.
She is being more patient with them than I am being. But I should point out that, as a pastor, I have had to deal with New Age thinking or Post-Christian thinking. I have had to point out that the biblical heritage differs from it. This has often met with resistance from folks convinced that all religions are the same. So it is not a theoretical issue for me.
(A few years ago I was co-leading an adult study with a female United Methodist pastor. One of her members said something half seriously about what she was going to do when she was reincarnated in her next life. My colleague very calmly and with a smile said, “ You know we don’t believe that, right?” I very much admired this way of responding.)