Sunday 13 June 2021

Against spiritual methods

It seems that God wants us to strive, while mortals on earth; for higher spiritual states - for greater awareness of God, Jesus Christ, spiritual beings such as angels - and indeed for a greater sense of the aliveness and purpose of God's creation.

This; despite that we cannot (and should not) expect that our efforts will be more than partially and intermittently successful - nonetheless, by them we can know from experience the realities of Heaven. 

Strive - yes - but how? At this point, people come forward with Spiritual Methods - such as rituals, symbols, meditation, channeling, drugs - or whatever. 

The thing about such methods is that they are usually initially somewhat successful. As a person practices the method, he at first gets better results. But then all methods always fail - they lose their power to evoke spiritual states; or else the end-up by being spiritually misleading. 

Three examples. 

Rudolf Steiner prescribed detailed spiritual exercises for his followers, and vast programmes of reading and study; which were methods for learning to discipline and direct thinking into more spiritual channels, within Steiner's revealed metaphysical system. 

A century of experience has clearly demonstrated that these practices/ methods clearly don't work at 'making people more spiritual'. Anthroposophists aren't spiritual in-themselves - they just talk/write about Steiner's spiritual ideas (and meanwhile get passionate about advocating mainstream leftist causes!). 

But the Steiner methods do (unfortunately) seem to have the effect of locking-people into a permanent fixation upon Steiner the man, and every-thing he said and wrote - with a strikingly-obvious conviction of the man's literal infallibility: both as a man, and in all that he said and wrote.

One of Steiner's recent followers was Stanley Messenger; and he described a method by which one would form intense closed-groups who would communally engage in conversations with spiritual beings (e.g. Archangel Michael, the prophet Melchizedek, and Rudolf Steiner himself): not in a trance-medium way, but with a group member imagining the words of the being, and other members engaging in conversation with that member. 

This was devised as a conscious, active and creative type of channeling - as an intended development from the unconscious channeling of traditional 'mediums'. 

But the results were (to my mind) very mundane and un-spiritual - mostly the kind of psychodrama/ group dynamics/ inter-personal stuff, such as usually happens in New Age circles; from what I can tell, the participants did not show any external evidence of being more spiritual. 

Much like the earlier ideas of mediumistic channeling; the 'material' obtained was quasi-objective instruction about the world and predictions about its future, most of which was soon proved to be wrong. 

In a nutshell, much as with Steiner's practices, there were some psychological effects which created what looked like dependence on the group, as well as pleasurable interactions; but nothing to suggests that this was a method for becoming more spiritual. 

A third example is the book Conversations with God by Neale Donald Walsch. In the first of what became a series of such books, the author describes his 'method' for writing to God then listening for a reply which came to him by written dictation. 

Reading through the first volume is an example of what happens with methods in general. At first, the I was surprised to be somewhat impressed; the answers from seem striking and valid; and seemed plausibly divine communications. (You can read this on the free sample from Kindle books.) And for a short while this impression solidified. But only for a short while!

As soon as I got the sense of the author 'trusting the method'; there was a sense of 'God' telling the author just what the author wanted to hear! 

From trusting the method, the author transitioned to 'using' the method. All the later part of this book struck me as boilerplate New Age, progressive, lifestyle, self-realization, self-serving stuff - of exactly the kind one would expect from an aspiring professional 'guru' (rather than from our Heavenly Father, the creator of reality). 

(I note that the first book led to a series of best sellers, with all the usual business of supplementary material, interviews, lectures etc; and that the author seemingly received divine endorsement for 'open' marriage; and has himself had four - some say five - marriages.) 

My point is that there are many methods advocated for spiritual enhancement - and new variations are continually being devised. These usually work at first, but never work for long; and usually end by doing more harm than good as the practitioner learns to trust the method and believe whatever it produces. 

This may suggest that the solution is continually to be changing methods - rather like the 'spiritual seekers' who taste and try every religion, spirituality and technique in an endless series; but decades of experience has shown that this does not work either - and indeed carries exactly the same kind of hazards as trusting in method. 

So what are the implications? That we should be guided by aims, not methods. 

We should pursue our spiritual aims, from our best motivations (of love); and we should never trust the methods by which these aims are pursued; but always retain discernment concerning the effects that 'what we are doing' is actually having upon us. 

We should never let the method itself dictate what counts as true, virtuous or beautiful - but need to retain a direct apprehension of these values. 

There is an almost inevitable transition between learning to trust the method; to unconsciously using the method to generate what we desire. And these unconscious desires are nearly always self-gratifying and hedonic - which is why manipulative power-games and exploitative sexuality are so often a feature of New Age groups and techniques. 

Because methods are false Gods; what may begin well, will end badly. 


William Wildblood said...

This is one of your best and wisest of posts, Bruce. In a field of many! One could transfer your caution against methods to spiritual teachers (in the sense of gurus) in general who also may start off being helpful but usually end up being barriers rather than bridges to greater understanding.

Colin said...

"So what are the implications? That we should be guided by aims, not methods. We should pursue our spiritual aims, from our best motivations (of love); and we should never trust the methods by which these aims are pursued;"

Yes indeed.
It seems your conclusion about how to pursue spiritual aims is also relevant to earthly living - such as caring for family, friends and self. And material sustenance. There are no trustable methods there either - just intuition guided by our best motivation (love). Methods do and must keep changing.

After a lifetimes application to many many methods, they now more seem like the array of phrases that a Jazz saxophonist has at his fingertips that arise somewhat spontaneously and variably in his performance in ever new ways. And continue to be added to.

And anyway, our earthly and spiritual aims seem so entwined. As I awoke this morning I decided to go to an unfamiliar local church. It turned out to be Anglo-Catholic, which I remembered you describing in your Catholic post the other day. It is the first church where I have felt somewhat at home from the 25 I have visited over the last 5 years of becoming a Christian. There was a baptism taking place. I arranged to meet the priest to discuss my baptism. It took two hours on wiki when I got back to even begin to understand what A-C means.

Yet being largely removed of method, also has its challenges and uncertainties...

Epimetheus said...

The Age of the Guru seems to be over. It’s all narcissism and power-tripping now. We’re too corrupt and desperate to be in the limelight. There’s nothing we like doing more than looking down at people, “I am a higher being than you. I am more spiritually advanced. You are below me” etc etc.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William. Thanks. I don't think it was as well written as I would have hoped, but the point is an important one, so I did it anyway! It is very difficult to give up hope of being saved by a method, by following a program (at least, that is what a lot of people seem to ask for: bullet points) - but that is what we have to do.

@Epi - I think the age of the guru probably ended (in the West) several decades ago; but what seems to have replaced it (New Age group sessions, workshops etc) was no better. There does not seem to have been any 'progress' in this area - which suggests that the whole endeavor was/is misguided.

Jonathan said...

I am glad you brought up "Conversations with God". I've been uncertain what to think of it since I read it. You're right that the beginning of the first book seems somewhat convincing, somewhat resonant. The line I really tripped over (not sure whether it was in the original book or a sequel) was "God"'s advice that we eat too much red isn't the real God saying that, of course.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Jonathan - In some unpublished letters of William Arkle he talks positively about reading this book - Arkle picked out the bits he liked and ignored the rest. But I could not do this (me being a less strong and solid soul than Arkle!). Once I had ceased to trust the author's basic motivations, I stopped finding it of value, and began to find it unpleasantly insidious.

This may be one reason why real saints of the past often talked about their own great sin; because they recognize the way in which real contact with God can be corrupted and 'used'.

In a sense, the lesson of this book is that people really can have real contact with God, when their motivations are genuine. But, like most things, this then becomes and experience from-which we need to learn (and therefore a test) - it does not become something we can use for unloving, uncreative purposes - unrelated to eternity.

As I have often said; the problem often comes when we try to convince others of our religious and spiritual experiences. Nearly always they are meant for our personal and private us; and the attempt to make them public, convince others, draw general lessons from them (never mind, get famous and make a living from them!) - is what starts the corruption.

For me one of the big lessons of the modern (which is also the romantic) era of consciousness; is that God's world consists of billions of individual souls, with each of which God has an individual relationship. The plan of salvation is 'bespoke' - not a mass operation.

And therefore we ought not to generalize specifics from our-selves, and when we try it leads to trouble for us. Usually because we are then trying to take-over the process from God, and put our own spin on it.

I am making things sound more difficult and complicated than they really are. But it should be common sense that our (real!) conversation with God is very unlikely to be intended to be made into a best seller, self-help book and discussed on 'Oprah'.

This represents a betrayal of God and of a private conversation intended for our personal help, thus a a turning-against God - hence the evident corruption.