Today I would like to talk about spiritual community. In particular, its role and function, how it relates to its environment and society, and those aspects of spiritual community that set it apart from traditional religion or organized religious institutions.
Lately my wife and I have been organizing a new kind of local group, even for Spiritual Naturalism. We are calling it the First Temple of Spiritual Naturalism, Houston. With these plans in mind, my wife and I were talking recently about the difference between a religion and what we hope to be – a spiritual community. In many ways, this question applies to what we are trying to form nationally and internationally in the Spiritual Naturalist Society as well.
Of course, there is great overlap, as most spiritual communities are a part of a religion, and all religions deal in part with spirituality. Additionally, these terms are fuzzy and have different interpretations. But, generally speaking, religious institutions tend to be hierarchical, they have authoritative doctrines and figures, and they tend to act as an organism to affect their surroundings.
Spirituality is often seen as more of an individual endeavor and often inward focused, cultivating a certain life and character through our practice. But this doesn’t mean those engaged in similar spiritual practices have some mandate or requirement to isolate themselves as lone wolves. Indeed, a healthy part of any spiritual practice should be engagement in a spiritual community. This is why one of the three jewels of Buddhism, for example, is the Sangha (spiritual community). Not only does the sharing aid in education, but many rituals themselves are communal in nature.
A spiritual community is a group of practitioners who gather to support one another in their practice, bounce thoughts and ideas off of one another, give compassion and moral support, and generally share our journey. As mentioned, these ‘lines’ get very blurry. Spiritual communities in organized religions certainly perform this function, and most spiritual communities eventually have to outline what it is they believe and practice, and so on. But the key here is mainly in emphasis.
Certain people in a spiritual community may come to be looked at as leaders or guides within it. But this is often simply a logistical matter, such as who brings the candles and reserves a room, etc. Another reason this happens is because, in any diverse community, there is likely to be variance in experience and education level within a practice. There are also natural differences in personality types which form dynamics within the community. As such, there may arise certain ‘go to’ people, and this is fine – it’s how new people can know who might be able to help them and how long timers may know how they can best be of service.
But, essentially, in a spiritual community (at least the kind we are trying to form), there are no ‘authority figures’ on Truth. There are also no ‘enforced doctrines’ of what followers must or should believe. Rather, any listings of principles is more like a report of what most individuals in the community already practice – so that others may know who they are dealing with when they meet us, and whether they might find kindred here. This kind of summary of our thought and practice is very different than a top-down dictate in flavor. There are no excommunications or thought police in a healthy spiritual community. Those who are too incompatible with a group will naturally find their way where they need to be over time.
Our diversity, globalism, and internet communications have attracted us to these more distributed and grassroots approaches. This may explain such things as attractions to the home-church model in many Christian communities, which are seen as more like the early Christian church before its institutionalization under Emperor Constantine. This may also explain some of the recent attraction to the “spiritual but not religious” terminology. How can we best help to facilitate these vectors for our mutual well being?
It seems to me that the notion of ethics as a top-down authoritarian rule-based system needs to be discarded. Rather, enlightened philosophies recognize that ethics is a natural and healthy part of individual human well-being.
Second, we need to focus less on beliefs (something both supernaturalists and naturalists tend to do). None of our beliefs or suspicions about the ultimate truths of existence are very likely to be on base anyway. We are, after all, simply primates who only recently learned how to wear clothes. Instead of waving flags based on this or that set of “opinions about stuff”, we should turn our attention toward practice. What practices do we engage in? How do we live? What can we know through experience to be helpful to human flourishing, equanimity, compassion, mindfulness, wisdom, virtue, and happiness?
We need to stop thinking about religion or spirituality as being about claim-making. In other words, we needn’t think of spirituality as a source of facts about the world. Rather, we can get our facts about Nature from those who put in the hard work of observing and measuring it. What’s more important to spirituality is how we view those facts – how we frame them and place them within our value system, and the effects of that on our lives.
Practice then becomes our focus; that being the cultivation of a life in which flourishing is made possible through development of certain character traits, value systems, deep perspectives, and responses. This is how we achieve the call of many ancient Greek philosophers, who told us the way to make one wealthy is not to add to their riches, but to subtract from their desires. This is how we escape the need for certain external conditions (which are not in our control) in order to have happiness.
With such a focus, the role and purpose of a spiritual community is no longer clouded and confused. It needn’t seek out other substitutes for genuine spirituality to fill the void. Often politics plays this role when spiritual practice is not rich and understood. But politics (noble though it can be) is a poor substitute for spirituality.
Spiritual communities play a vital role in the larger society. They are a go-to place for rejuvenation and renewal. They are a moral high ground and can be an authentic source of universal wisdom and values. But when a spiritual community becomes political, this costs a group its position as a spiritual refuge and its authenticity as a source of universal wisdom and values. They become seen as partisan power-seekers – just another faction on the political playing field.
Consider how Christians in America are now seen by many as having nothing to offer other than constant drumming on “Guns, Gays, and Abortion”. This is much to the chagrin of more liberal Christians who would prefer their religion be known for the compassionate teachings of Jesus and those who try to live by them. Yet, this kind of political engagement has cost Christianity much of its moral respect in America. Similarly, even “Engaged Buddhism” is now presenting the same difficulties to its tradition.
There must be someone in society who is there to support, promote, and inculcate values of compassion, wisdom, good-will, and virtue who are respected across broad communities. Without legitimate sources of support for these shared values, there is no foundation on which all of the various opposing sides can come together to live in peace and work productively together in a civilization.
While many religious organizations often focus on evangelism and some on political action, spiritual communities gather, not to change others, but to help one another in changing themselves. Spiritual community is not a force of similar believers organizing to evangelize and control their world – but rather, a means of practitioners supporting one another in their practice.
But this inward focus should not be narcissistic. Rather, it is a recognition of ‘what we most control’ (ourselves and the kind of people we will become). This is why it is important that there be non-political non-partisan ‘places of refuge’ – sacred spaces. These sacred spaces allow us to focus on the fundamental values in their most essential sense, before the bickering begins about how they should or shouldn’t apply in various ‘issues du jour’. Thus, the spiritual community trusts practitioners to turn to those values once they are ‘out in the world’ as self-determined agents in society.
This is how common ground is fertilized between factions within a society. This is how Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was able to appeal to the common values of his society that reached the hearts of those across racial lines, for example. But for that common ground to exist requires the kinds of sacred spaces that will be respected by all as wellsprings for them. This is what we have lost as so many of our religious institutions have become politicized.
Action in the world, then comes from the natural result of citizens operating in the world, who have been fortified by that spiritual practice and spiritual community, which inculcated more profound values. The goal of a spiritual community is to help transform the natural soul of the people such that political action from these communities as a political organization is not necessary – the people will be wholesome, and will therefore act wholesomely as citizens, promoting virtuous policies themselves. More importantly, they will not dehumanize one another when differences arise as to how to get there, because they will recognize the universal goodness within one another. This can only be nourished in sacred spaces of refuge and support in personal practice – what spiritual community is all about.
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.