Saturday 16 July 2022

The dangerous delusion of 'physicsy' spirituality

The idea, now so ingrained as to be habitual and invisible, of regarding spirituality as a kind of physics - as a 'physicsy'  phenomenon - goes back at least to Pythagoras, and has been evident in the Platonic stream of metaphysics, which still pervades most religions and theological systems; and which was carried-over into New Age thinking. 

I was listening to an audio-lecture by Sir George Trevelyan; who is sometimes regarded as the grandfather of the New Age. On the whole; I find GT a likeable character (despite being a Norman*!): on the right lines and on the right side (he was an unconventional Christian, rooted in Steiner). 

But Trevelyan, like many others of counter-cultural spirituality from the 1960s, was convinced that there was an ongoing spiritual awakening afoot: an irresistible raising of the human spiritual state to unprecedented heights. 

It was possible for them to believe this, I think, for at least two reasons. 

Superficially and immediately because there was a developing spiritual-consumer subculture which meant that there was an increasing audience and market for 'Mind, Body and Spirit' books, in which spirituality became assimilated to psychological self-help, feel-good, positive-thinking ideas. 

There was significant, and expanding, mass media coverage; and some official recognition from the bureaucracies. 

This meant that professional New Agers could increasingly make a living and make a name; including securing publication; attracting patronage, grants and subsidies; and also getting a viable audience for lectures, therapy, workshops and merchandise.  

More deeply, it seemed possible that there might be a planetary spiritual awakening because the New Age metaphorical structure of spirituality was one in which individual people were driven by large scale, physics-like powers such as energies, vibrations and frequencies. 

Indeed, reality, including humans, were/ are often described in terms of ultimately being composed of energies, vibrations, frequencies and fields - with our surface appearances and properties as illusory. 

This implied that humans were acted-upon by external influences that could 'raise' their spirituality. Thus a spiritual awakening could be induced by some change and enhancement of the spiritual influences that drove spirituality, consciousness etc. 

Other phsyicsy metaphors were also used; such as a 'rising tide' of consciousness or positive spiritual energy/ vibration/ frequency/ field. And a rising tide implies that all individuals (all 'boats') will be floated, lifted, passively-raised-up...

My main point is that there are ways of talking about spirituality, ways of conceptualizing the causes of spiritual development - whether metaphoric or literal - that almost-irresistibly create a picture of individual human spirituality as primarily passively responsive to large scale influences coming from without the person.  

But this is also the case for many traditional and mainstream religions, including Christianity. For example, there have been, and still are, traditions within Christianity that regard salvation as primarily a group phenomenon; and the Christian life as a 'nation' life - the positive influences being external to the individual - the individual Christian's role being essentially passive: to learn and obey. 

Some discussions of Grace, as the means of salvation, have a strongly physics-like flavour; as if Grace were almost like a space-radiation that bathed the earth, or operated on individual Christians like a field. Thus, Christian revivals are conceptualized in terms of an increased power of Grace coming-down from God, and Christian individuals (around the world) as responding to these enhanced spiritual influence - as if fuelled and energized by increased supplies of Grace. 

It seems to me clear that Christian salvation is (and always has been) primarily a matter between God and each individual Man; but that the individuality of Men has changed through history. 

Men began, in ancient times (just as we began in our own early childhoods) as substantially communal persons - immersed-in the group (especially the family and tribe): in such situations, the individual does not wholly differentiate himself from the group. In such circumstances, spirituality and salvation are substantially groupish, communal - hence externally-determined. 

In such circumstances, physicsy metaphors and concepts are a broadly accurate way of describing the human spiritual condition. Models of spirituality as driven by changes in energy/ vibration/ frequency are pretty accurate as accounts of Man's experience.

But as we ourselves grew-up, and as Mankind developed through history; there was an irreversible increase of detachment of the individual from the group, from the social - until now the primary reality is one of 'alienation', and all kids of groupishness and external determination are become ultimately conscious and chosen. 

In different words, modern man is voluntarily-affiliated where ancient Man (and children, still) are unconsciously-immersed. 

And this means that the physics models of spirituality are no longer valid, but instead misleading and indeed spiritually dangerous. 

Because, in a world where individual conscious choice is actually primary, it is harmful to encourage Men to regard themselves as essentially groupish spiritual beings, and to wait passively for spiritual enhancement to come from external sources. 

As the New Agers found out (or would have discovered, had they been honest and rigorous in their discernments, which very few were since they were in fact primarily leftist and politically-motivated; and only secondarily spiritual**): general spiritual enhancement did not happen.

Instead of a better and more spiritual New Age expanding from the 1980s, there has (especially from the millennium) been the opposite - an ever-more-extreme materialism; with a world ever-more-dominated by totalitarian bureaucracy/ mass media propaganda and manipulation. 

Passivity to external influences now means assimilation to evil.  

*Note: I would, on the whole, regard physicsy spirituality as being characteristic of the Normans; who have a strong tendency to abstraction that comes from their basic mind-set, or innate deficit. (i.e. Physics metaphors are abstractions, when applied to individual Men, or to groups.) Norman nature lacks something personal, to do with the capacity for real love; which deficit, on the one hand, drives them into abstraction (as lacking the full capacity for spontaneous 'animistic' thinking); and on the other hand, also makes then adept at abstraction (fuelled, also, by their higher-than-average IQ/ general intelligence). Consequently, and with Normans occupying so many positions of power and influence, abstract and physics-like spirituality gets imposed on the masses; as being, supposedly, The Truth. 

**Further Note. Some influential New Agers still believe (or, at least, assert)  that we are in the midst of a global spiritual awakening; and - due, presumably, to innate and foundational leftism; as well as 'vested interest' - are able to interpret even the birdemic as evidence in favour! This astonishing situation just goes to show that evidence is always subordinate to metaphysical assumptions.         


ted said...

Totally agree on this post Bruce! In fact, I've heard new agers repeating the you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs idiom often heard by Stalin and other totalitarian leaders. Many "spiritually" minded persons would love to see the whole system collapse and many people suffer in the name of a "higher consciousness" that would somehow manifest from the ashes. Good luck on that one!

Bruce Charlton said...

@ted - I think the whole system probably will collapse - one way or another; but my conviction is that the spiritual outcome will only be good for individuals if their spiritual motivations are good; and that means actively and consciously orientated towards God, affiliated with God and creation, at least open to following Jesus Christ.

Whereas the New Age idea is more people can (and Will) be made good by changes in the spiritual atmosphere; and at most they merely need to consent to having this good "done to them".

Some Christians have a somewhat analogous idea - God will save us if we let him. But so far as I can judge, this is not true any more; or at least it creates the wrong attitude - one of passive waiting.

We absolutely Must take responsibility for our own souls, our salvation. Following Jesus is an active choice, even though he is indeed leading us.

ted said...

Yes, I appreciate that distinction. It's definitely not collectively determined.

Uriel said...

As a hopefully orthodox radtrad Catholic, I hope to pay you now the highest complement I can - that while I disagree with you on practically all the details, nonetheless your words are incredibly insightful and thought-provoking. I never leave your blog without something to think about and dissect.

So. Orthodox Catholocism - as with Eastern Orthodoxy - is particularly distinguished from Protestant and other (if you will allow the term) heretical movements by its particular focus on the COMMUNION OF SAINTS, both in heaven and on earth. To use a physics-y metaphor, the rays of grace all originate from God, but they can also be reflected to ourselves, and others, from the saints on earth and the Saints in Heaven. That is why we ask for intercession and prayer.

Have you considered flipping your understanding of modern man on its head? That is, it is not a process of him growing up, from group consciousness to individual consciousness. In fact I see more group consciousness, especially on those under the slavery of the Spirit of This World, than has been since pagan times. Rather, perhaps the atomization of the individual is not a natural, normal development, but instead an offence, an injury, an attack. His divorce from his natural, normal connections with the land, with the community, with the town or village or hamlet, with his church, with his family both immediate and extended - none of these things are good or normal or "adult", but instead another way to dehumanize him and make him just another fungible cog, an economic agent that can be replaced - or reduced - at the will of the "optimatoi".

Perhaps the channels of grace from the community are not falling away because they are not needed. Perhaps they have been severed because they would otherwise support fallen Man? As is written, "An enemy has done this."

Bruce Charlton said...

@U "Have you considered flipping your understanding of modern man on its head?"

Well, yes - that was how a started out as a Christian, for the first five years or so; and that was how I regarded things when I was an atheist. The 'flipped' understanding is mainstream to the extent that it is almost unconsciously accepted.