If asked about my religion, I humorously answer that I am a “Space-age Taoist, Black Sheep Catholic, Perennial Philosophy Pantheist, Dharma Bum.” In other words I am a spiritual mutt.
In the Western tradition there is a sense that one should belong to one religion – to adhere to more than one belief system is seen as a lack of seriousness. Underlying this conviction is the belief that there is one true religion. And behind this belief a belief that religion can give us facts about the supernatural. If it were correct that there is only one true religion — if we could actually know facts about the supernatural — then adhering to more than one belief system would imply a lack of seriousness. But the very statement “facts about the supernatural” should probably make a person giggle.
One might well ask then, why believe there is any truth in religion at all. To this, I would answer that my own spiritual quest led me to something of great value. This “thing” of great value is not an idea, though it has a cognitive aspect, but a whole different way of experiencing and of living life in the light of that experience. No religion provided me with facts about this experience or a map to get me there. But the various religions, each in their own way, provided testimony and helpful practices and hints. Below I’ll tell a little of that story.
As an aside: when I use the word “religion” in this piece, I will be referring to the outward and social aspect of spiritual traditions — the beliefs, rituals, community practices, etc. When I use the word “spiritual” I will be referring to the inner and individual aspects, most particularly spiritual experience. Ideally these two aspects should be interrelated: spirituality should inform religion and direct it toward its true end; religion should provide structure and support for spiritual practice. Unfortunately, I think this ideal is seldom present anymore.
A Brief Spiritual Autobiography
I was raised in a Catholic family, attended Catholic school for eight years, was even an altar boy for a while. My devotion from early on, however, was the natural world. I grew up in a house on the banks of the Mississippi River in a small northern town. My parents forced me to go to their church, but increasingly the outdoors was my true church, the place of sacred communion. By the time I was thirteen, I had come to the conviction that whatever the idea of God meant, it must include and indeed be a part of this world. The humanized and transcendent God — whether in the form of the father or the son — left me cold. Yet for all that, there was a beauty in the Catholic liturgy and the architecture and arts of its churches that seeped into my young soul and informed my sense of what the spiritual could mean. This is the “Black Sheep Catholic” part of my religion.
Around this time, while on a trip to the city, I visited a bookstore run by an old beatnik. There, I picked up a book intriguingly titled The Secret Oral Teachings of Tibetan Buddhist Sects by Alexandra David-Neel. I opened the book at random and the first sentence I read spoke of a teacher saying to his students, “do not believe anything I say until you have experienced it for yourself.” Wow! That impressed me. Here was a religion that instead of asking people to blindly believe, asked them to doubt; rather than saying “we have the answer you don’t,” said “you need to find the answer for yourself.” So different from Catholicism. Here was the beginning of the Dharma Bum part of my religion.
In the spirit of the Tibetan master of David-Neel’s book, I have not accepted any teaching until I experienced it myself. Buddhism, particularly Zen Buddhism, carried me a long way, but there was an aspect of my experience that it could not quite satisfy. The image of the seated Buddha has always seemed very beautiful to me, but it also represents a kind of stasis or finality and a turning away from the world. Again, this didn’t quite settle with my love of the world.
As I came to know more about the Taoist contribution to Zen, I found that it alone of the world religions seemed to truly embrace Nature and to find supreme value there. Taoism has been called the “Watercourse Way,” and it speaks to my soul in somewhat the way the Mississippi had spoken to it when I sat on its banks as a child. In the end, much as I had come to love Buddha, my affection for old Lao Tse and Chuang Tse was even greater. Thus the Space-age Taoism part. I say “space-age” because I have found a need to reinterpret the ancient text of Taoism in light of the modern world. But that is a topic for a future day.
Perennial Philosophy Pantheism
As an eclectic, I am open to what all the spiritual traditions have to offer. I do have one strong conviction, though: whatever is meant by the idea of the Divine, it is not something separate or transcendent from this world, but something immanent and within it. The belief that God is immanent in the world is often called Pantheism. Buddhism, Taoism, and the Hinduism of the Upanishads are all pantheistic in this sense.
Pantheism has also been defined as the belief that Nature and God are basically the same. The World Pantheist Movement, an organization that has much in common with our Spiritual Naturalist Society, regards Nature and God as identical. That is one way to understand Pantheism. For me, the term “God,” or as I prefer the term “Tao,” stands not only for the natural world that can be studied by science, but includes the mystery of ultimate origins: for example, why this Universe, that purportedly begins with the “Big Bang,” is able to produce such things as scientists who are able to study it.
I stated above that Taoism, Buddhism and Hinduism in general are pantheistic, and I might add that Judaism, Christianity and Islam are not. The God of these religions, at least in their mainstream understanding, is considered transcendent from the world. Yet each of these religions have inner traditions that are pantheistic. These traditions, such as various forms of mysticism in Judaism and Christianity, and Sufism in Islam, are always in danger of being seen as heresies. Yet we also find the truly pantheistic sentiment “the Kingdom of Heaven is within you,” boldly stated in the New Testament.
The belief that all the world’s religions in their inner teachings are informed by a common spiritual experience has been called the perennial wisdom or perennial philosophy. This term is perhaps most commonly associated with Aldous Huxley who wrote a book titled The Perennial Philosophy.
The term also applies to a rather diverse group of theologians and thinkers that includes Rene Guenon, Frithjof Schuon, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Titus Burckhardt and Marco Pallis. With the exception of Pallis, these are not writers I would recommend to a spiritual naturalist, as they tend to be a little hostile to naturalism (as it was understood in their time). But they are writers who often express deep insights into the universal aspects of spirituality.
The writer and translator, Stephen Mitchell, is a particularly good example of a living proponent of the perennial wisdom. His two collections The Contemplative Heart: an Anthology of Sacred Poetry and The Contemplative Mind: an Anthology of Sacred Prose aptly express its essence.
Pantheism provides the union of two mysteries: the cosmological mystery that is explored by science and the mystery of Being that is enjoined by inward contemplation. The virtues and knowledge necessary for that journey inward are what the traditions united by the Perennial Philosophy have collected and maintained.
If, as the perennial philosophy suggest, spirituality is ultimately about an experience and not about facts, then it makes sense to find out what all the different traditions have to say about this experience. This, I think, is adequate justification for eclecticism.
Being a spiritual eclectic, however, can have its pitfalls. It can easily devolve into a mere grazing in the spiritual marketplace. But if one comes to the “spiritual marketplace” with a sincere longing — a commitment strong enough to penetrate the superficial — then the eclecticism of perennial philosophy show us the wisdom that people throughout the world and the ages have attained. And help us to join them in that attainment.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.