Sunday, January 02, 2011

A Spirituality of Being – II

Believing, Belonging, Being


In my own experience and from my studies and observations, the development of spiritual life follows a decided pattern. It begins with the word-driven, security conscious social constructions of beliefs. This believing stage of spiritual life is focused on ideological conformity and the incessant affirmation of religious constructions which everyone involved knows at some level are constructions. Consider the perceived needs of creedal churches to rehearse them every worship service following the sermon and preceding the communion. Loyalty oaths always bespeak an insecurity in those requiring their recitations and those who acquiesce to the same. Those who know their co-religionists are loyal feel no need to force them to prove it.

Belief-defined spirituality almost inevitably demands the willful suspension of truthfulness and candor with oneself as the necessary sacrifice demanded by these constructed idols. A good example is the frequent use of faith assertions beginning with “I know that….” when in fact the most that can be said about the remainder of any such assertions is that one is willing to assert belief in them. In return for the sacrifice of honesty with oneself, the blessing conferred by socially constructed systems is a mutual affirmation of that constructed belief system (which thus affords it an appearance of credibility), tribal acceptance of the believer conditional upon ongoing affirmation and the resulting cognitive consonance flowing from this confabulation.

This devil’s bargain reveals the very core of this initial stage in spiritual development: believing is based in the very human function of judging and separation. By definition it requires discriminating acceptable beliefs from those which are rejected - along with the human beings who hold such beliefs. As such, belonging is always conditional in belief-based spirituality.

The second stage of spiritual life often arises when constructed systems of believing begin to prove too much of a liability to maintain in any semblance of good faith. For many this occurs when one leaves or is forced outside their bubbles of constructed reality. There is often a dawning realization that one’s belief system, with its claims to universality and exclusivity, simply cannot be maintained in good faith in the face of the disconfirming other who, also in good faith, offers a competing system of belief. For most, this is often a painful awakening. The cognitive dissonance that arises here often draws entire understandings of reality into question which can readily result in cynical doubts about whether anything can be believed anymore.

For some people, what remains after beliefs come into doubt is a value of community which provides a means for ongoing connectedness to valued others. This is the belonging stage. It is more than possible to remain loyal to others even as the beliefs which ostensibly drew a community together initially come to be held tentatively at best. Roman Catholic priest and sociologist Andrew Greeley puts this well when he explains how Catholics remain in their parishes long after they have stopped buying paternalistic dictates about birth control and immaculate conceptions – “They like being Catholic.”

Belonging points towards the universality which many religious traditions assert as their birthright if not their very nature. It speaks to something larger than tenuous socially constructed beliefs as the glue which holds groups of people together. It is at heart a valuing of the human beings involved which form the backbone of healthy communities. Indeed, unlike a belief-driven spirituality based in judging, belonging flows from the function of creation, both the divine source of all that lives as well as the human participation in that creative impulse in all its senses: biological, intellectual, aesthetic, socio-cultural and spiritual.

The weakness in this second stage of spiritual life is the very human tendency to tie belonging to its first stage, believing. To the degree that belonging is made conditional upon a belief system or behavioral code, it flows from the judging function of the believing stage and reflects a truncated, tribal way of being community – clearly defined borders, strong sense of us v. them with us always constructed in positive terms and them inevitably cast in terms of darkness. To the degree that belonging is unconditional, flowing from one’s status as a human being and fellow creation of G-d bearing the divine image, it bespeaks a catholic spirit of universality which lies at the heart of all world religions in their most developed forms.

The spiritual life to which Suzanne Guthrie points here reflects the third stage of spiritual life – being. Guthrie speaks of a Divine beyond words, a G-d in whom belonging is not only presumed but trustworthy. In Jesus’ famous response to the woman with the issue of blood found in Matthew’s Gospel, it was actually her existential trust (Gr., pistis) – not her faith (i.e., beliefs) - which made her whole. Not only is faith a poor translation of the Greek, it also readily reveals the agenda of a belief-based spirituality which would translate it as such.

For those who have reached the third stage of spiritual life, being as the focus of one’s spiritual life means the trusting awareness of a Divine which is beyond words, which lies at the other end of the iconic window, which pervades all that is yet remains Nothingness. This is the Divine being out of which all that is has arisen. It is the Divine to which all will return. And it is the Divine which, in between those two points of creaturely existence, is always, inescapably present. This is a G-d worth trusting with one’s whole life.

As Guthrie notes, for a spirituality of being it is precisely this apophatic starting point that provides the grounding one needs to perceive G-d in all that exists. It is the recognition of G-d in the deep silence punctuated by only flickering votives in a darkened church, in the aloneness with one’s quieted mind in meditation, in one’s reflective walk around the glass-smooth lake in the neighborhood park that allows G-d to be seen in all that exists. But it is also that silent presence that comes to life in the snoring of the intoxicated, homeless veteran on the city bus, in the crying of the baby in the back of the sanctuary as she is rocked by her young migrant mother, in the joy shared among clinking glasses of wine at the celebration of a rite of passage. It is that presence that erupts into a reddish brown lunar eclipse on a blue-white cold December solstice and manifests itself in layers of gray and lavender clouds on a horizon punctuated with circling gray and white sea birds at the setting of the final sun of the outgoing year and decade.

When one begins grounded in the trustworthy, silent presence of the G-d who is both source and destination of all that is, it’s not too hard to understand the ecstatic (itself a word meaning to flow out of a nailed own stasis) vision of Francis of Assisi and many of his kind who see the Divine everywhere they look. And it is not too hard to understand Francis’ simple, perhaps even simplistic, understanding of evangelism: “Preach the Gospels at all times. Use words when necessary.” Francis knew implicitly that words often prove inimical to spirit. It’s a major reason that most Franciscan spirituality is image driven, from the Stations of the Cross to the Nativity Scene. It’s also why in the weeks upon end he would spend in a cave at La Verne alone in silence with the Divine, Francis would begin his prayerful meditations with the simple recognition “My G_d and my all.”

I feel the need to add a qualification to this rambling meditation as I conclude here. Spiritual life and spiritual development is never a zero sum game. It’s not a matter of words v. images, of believing v. belonging, of being v. belonging and believing. All of these are aspects of a healthy spiritual life. Indeed, of what value would the recognition of G-d’s presence in darkness and silence prove if one never engages the other through words, images and relatedness enough to reflect upon that presence?

Like the many developmental systems of folks like Lawrence Kohlberg, James Fowler and Ken Wilber, being as the third and, I observe, highest stage of spirituality emerges from a life journey during which believing and belonging as the ultimate concerns have been fully engaged and ultimately transcended. As such, a spirituality of being subsumes and includes within itself a valuation of believing and belonging, each in their proper places. As Guthrie notes, an apophatic spirituality of being “acknowledges the restraints of human perceptions of space and time.” The major difference is its starting place in trust v. security and an unconditional and irrevocable belonging of the soul to the Divine. Saint Augustine of Hippo perhaps said it best: “Our souls are restless until they find their rest in thee.”

I thank Suzanne Guthrie for her very rich and provocative column. I also thank my readers who have waded through my latest (though undoubtedly not my last) attempt to sort out my own spirituality. And I offer these musing fully aware of the irony of a blog entry which sees words as problematic at best while relying on the same to convey these ideas to those who might read them. In turn, your words on the thoughts presented here are welcomed.


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.
Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

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