The word psychology is derived from the Greek – psyche is breath, soul, mind. So, it should be rational that psychology, as a scientific pursuit, would have something to contribute to our thoughts on spirituality.
It is true that psychology and psychiatry have hardly covered themselves in glory in this regard, with an excessive focus on animals (behaviourism), physicality (mind as brain) and materialist guesses about the nature of reality that became a dogmatic blunt instrument for such a ling time.
Generally speaking, psychologists have not been informed by the reports on out of body experiences, so they do not, openly at least, go all in on our non-material dimensions. But they have been moving toward a greater sense openness toward spirituality as at least a valid and valuable experience, even if the foundation of it remains disputed or uncertain.
I read popular books on psychology. These are works by serious and respected researchers. They are written for the interested non-academic reader, so they are accessible and entertaining while maintaining intellectual rigor. My reading follows no plan or logic – if I come across a book that sounds interesting, I buy it and read it.
For the past few decades, I have had a professional focus on management and organisational psychology. This is what started to stir my curiosity about a psychologically validated sense of morality. This stemmed from thinking on how to treat employees well and manage organisations effectively. There was a focus on maintaining a viable business – keeping good staff meant keeping them happy. That meant promoting psychological maturity and self-awareness.
In essence, psychologically healthy people made the most productive workers. That meant ensuring that managers were up to the task. Okay, I can hear some readers tittering. I didn’t say we have ended up with psychologically healthy organisations. The research points to their value – and things are improving in many areas.
I have an interest in Diversity, Inclusion, Equity and Belonging. This is usually about how to address exclusion and discrimination in organisations. The psychological research is strong and going in the same direction as other areas of research focused on organisations.
In the past decade I can count the books I have read on what we’d normally call traditionalspirituality on two hands. Most of these have been academic inquiries into Gnosticism and early Christian thought. That’s been a problem area for me, and one I wanted to settle.
Gnostic and early Christian thought reflected their times – what was known and what was believed then. We have moved on a lot in the past 1600 odd years. Why should we rely on ideas at least 1600 years old to instruct us? Can we now not mine what is known and believed now, and develop ideas about how things are from a spiritual perspective?
In part this is an issue of authority and the source of knowledge. The term Gnostic should be a clue – in contrast with asserted dogma. Experience trumps dogma, lore and tradition.
Do we know enough now to develop a decent spiritual theory?
I think so. I have mentioned in the early essays in this series the two sources I esteem – selected ‘communicated’ writings and accounts of sojourners out of the body. These sources are direct experience based and are not coloured by adherence to any tradition. They are ‘scientific’ in their perspective. By that I mean they are founded upon disciplined rational inquiry.
I have had multiple non-ordinary experiences that leave me in no doubt that standard religious and scientific narratives are insufficient. Dogma rejects experience that challenges its certainty. The formation of the Christian church crafted a dogma that was designed to exclude non-conforming experience. The Gnostic way of knowing (as imperfect and chaotic as it was) posed a threat to conformity and order.
I happen to suspect that the positive qualities of Christianity needed conformity and order to flourish on a societal level. There were evils that benefitted from the same – but that’s how it goes – cooperation and competition spring from the same soil. So, I am not arguing for a wholesale end to conformity and order – just the evolution of discernment that helps us see the good plants and the weeds and know which to reduce.
Because what I am arguing for is contemporary knowledge there is a lot of work to be done to discover it and assess it. The lead up to the Council of Nicaea was around 300 years of a free for all – full of exploration and innovation. We can look upon Christianity now as a well settled, even moribund, faith. If we heed the New Testament, we can be fooled into imagining it was orderly and structured from the start.
That near 3 centuries of passionate exploration and inquiry has been almost eradicated from the history of the faith. And yet this was probably the most exciting period as a few seminal ideas became the trigger for an explosion of inquiry and experimentation we now know best as Gnosticism. I suspect we really have no idea what happened – because, like now, formal records were not kept, and groups formed and split as ideas were explored.
Now, as I write this in 2022, we are in a similar situation. The old established ways are found wanting. Inquiry and experimentation abound. There’s a lot happening – in pockets – and nobody has a comprehensive overview.
If you went looking for a fully formed modern spirituality that owed nothing evident to the past, you’d not find it. It doesn’t exist as a ‘ready to eat’ product. A lot of people are part of developing it. The content is there to develop an early version – but not a mature one.
I suppose this may be an issue for those who want to find something settled and sure. There are efforts at hybridising the old and new ways with varying degrees of success – mostly not much – from my perspective. I tried doing that for over 30 years, and the best I could do was to validate some of the things I learned and believed while tossing out considerably more.
Quite simply, you have to work at a contemporary spirituality. What seems certain is that we exist independent of out physical bodies unconditionally. What we call ‘Love’ seems to be the foundation of a moral code.
It has been argued that we need God for morality. To be blunt, religions have been long on the dogma but short on the practice. So, no, we don’t.
As communal creatures, we humans in physical form are naturally disposed to want to live in mutually beneficial harmony with others in our community. Problems arise when we create sub-groups that exclude those who do not meet our criteria. This becomes a risk when our communities become large enough to splinter into sub-groups. The story of human civilization has been an evolutionary drama about how we expand our sense of inclusion. That is still going on. However, it is easier now to find a large sub-group with membership benefits that make further inclusion unattractive. We can all find points where we can quit and be content with where we are.
This is similar to the early Christian challenge to ‘love thy neighbour’ – sorted by making that neighbour a member of the sub-group we belong to, or a member of a sub-group we do not belong to. Does it mean love only those who are like us, or all people? The principle seems simple, but what and why we choose is not. Self-awareness, psychological health, and psychological maturity are the variable factors.
Morality is built into our biology and psychology. It can be run through a religious system for want of another explanation – but it is not dependent upon it. Myth became the explanatory system for experience-based knowledge. It used metaphor because what we call rational thought hadn’t evolved – our ancestors didn’t have our science – just their intelligence and experience – a different way of knowing.
There are compelling experiments showing that animals have a sense of right and wrong – fair and unfair. We don’t need a conception of the divine to activate a moral sense. That does not mean that a conception of the divine is not a good and valid thing to have – or that what is moral is not finally dependent upon the nature of the divine. It may be that a moral force permeates our reality from a divine source.
My argument is only that a belief in, or concept of, God is not necessary for moral values. They seem hardwired into our reality. I am making no comment on their nature or source – that’s for future rational inquiry.
The other aspect of moral conduct that we struggle to comprehend is the extent to which we can exploit ecosystems. That’s a whole separate conversation. Here I want only to acknowledge it is a component of our moral thought and conduct – and one that has a rational and scientific foundation. It is not a matter for dogma or gods. A passage in a book granting humans the right to plunder cannot be a foundation for moral conduct or thought. And yet we seem to have made it so.
Conceptions of the divine
I have never liked atheistic materialism as a way of thinking. Just because Christian theology makes no sense doesn’t mean you toss out the whole idea of the divine.
Contemporary thought about consciousness being the foundation of reality is sympathetic to mystical thought that regards the divine as beyond imagination and description. To the extent that theism concerns an imagined and described deity, it has no rational merit.
Early efforts to characterise large forces/ideas using metaphors to describe a quality of consciousness, rather than an abstract ideas, have left us a legacy of confusion. The Greek goddess Themis has been converted into our idea of Justice. Even now the image of justice being a blindfolded woman carrying scales and sword can be seen outside courts. But no lawyer or judge would believe there is a literal goddess.
Themis means order and may be connected to the Egyptian goddess Maat. Order is no simple notion, despite some passion for the simplistic political dream of law and order. Justice, as an aspect of order is a massive idea by itself. Consider the effort our society invests in the idea and ideals – and how often they appear to be thwarted. Maat has a cosmic dimension to her. On one level we could be talking physics, on another life systems, on another at a species level – and so on down through the cultural level to the individual.
Order or Justice, or Love, are mere fragments of a vast complex conception – as a form of consciousness which can be expressed via metaphor and symbol or as a set of rational ideas. But with vast ideas we need to condense our representation into something manageable. The idea of Justice serves, like Love, as a neat encapsulation of an idea beyond description. We cannot with confidence assert that these words are not representations of the divine – especially if we assert that consciousness underpins all reality.
But we can ask whether an image of Themis is a better representation. It triggers, via metaphor and symbolism, a more complex array of responses. The word Justice activates our rational awareness – but that is not the exclusive form of awareness we use. People do not sacrifice their lives for a solely rational ideal.
The point I am making is that while we must reform our notions of the divine and deity – gods and goddesses etc – we are not under any rational pressure to discard them. Transition to new language may be necessary, however. Thomas Campbell deals with this extensively in My Big Toe.
Direct experience and competent rational reporting make it clear that the idea that we exist independent of our physical bodies is sound. This alone opens a vast potential to reimagine what we know. There is allied evidence that what we call Love is an essential quality of our vaster consciousness of our being.
These 2 ideas alone constitute the ground to radically re-imagine being human – in physical form and beyond it. This is not a departure from the religious and spiritual ways of the past – because both ideas are fundamental. What is a departure is how we know.
Pretty much since The Enlightenment secular rational thought has been evolving. The scientific method is its present expression. If we lay aside the dogmas of materialism and theism, we have access to ideas that are corrosive of the dogmas. Those ideas are beginning to affirm the core of ancient spirituality, but they are updated to employ the best knowledge we now have – beyond reliance on myth, metaphor and symbols and the dogmas that have encrusted them.
Contemporary psychology and neuroscience provide experience and evidence-based guidance for understanding our behaviour and values. This is work in progress, but it offers us a sounder basis for just and loving action than any religious dogma can.
The so-called Gnostic Gospels were of value because, when they were written, they expressed the best experiences and thought of the inquirers and explorers of the day. Over 1600 years on we must heed what the best inquirers and explorers of this day are telling us.
There is always a lag between experience and the formation of knowledge based on it. Sometimes that is because of a devotion to rigorous thought. But, as Thomas Kuhn asserted in his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, dogma infests science as well.
We are naturally disposed to being dogmatic and relying on lore and tradition. There is always a tension between that habit and new thinking and experience. For me, religions represent the worst, but not the sole, manifestation of that negative impulse to impede change and growth. Authority based on lore and dogma is easier to gain and assert than that based on experience and rigorously acquired knowledge. This isn’t what spirituality is about, rather it’s about the evolution of understanding who and what we are.