Why True and False Don’t Matter in Spirituality
Religion and spirituality are full of a lot of crazy shit.
Chakras, energy, spontaneous healing, angels, chariots of fire, mountains moving, worldwide floods, people coming back to life after death, etc. Much of this is scientifically impossible or highly-unlikely from a rational perspective.
If you are reading this you probably part of a relatively secular society that values empiricism, fact, truth, and reason when it comes to understanding the supernatural.
If you understand the above examples as being argued to be literally and objectively true in a measurable way, it makes sense to call bullshit. In this context, it makes sense for there to be a tension between the results of critical thinking and spiritual ideas.
Given this conflict, it’s easy to see why an ever increasing number of people are throwing away religion and spirituality altogether. The fastest growing religion in the world today is “No Religion.”
I spent some time in the secular camp during my college days. It seemed obvious to me that there was no Man in the Sky that cried when I self-pleasured. I was repelled by any concept that seemed in the same vein as the evangelical Christian God I had rejected.
But then I took an anthropology course entitled “Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion.”
On day one we had a discussion around the question: Do you have to throw rationality away in order to embrace the sacred? Do you have to just blindly “have faith”?
Though there was much deliberation and tension between the students of wildly different faiths in the class, surprisingly, by the end of the hour, we all agreed on an answer: No.
Like art, religion and spirituality have an entirely different measuring stick than rationality. It doesn’t matter if it is true. It only matters if it is effective.
If meditation calms you, if praying dries your tears, if playing in a drum circle makes you feel whole, then it’s “true”. Like the arts, spirituality plays by an intuitive, creative, humanistic rulebook -- not a scientific one.
It doesn’t matter if chakras are glands in your body or something your mind creates through the power of suggestion. It only matters that they help lead you to a deeper level of personal growth and experience.
As Karen Armstrong eloquently argues in her book A Case for God, science was never meant to comingle with religion. It was only when Western scientists of the Enlightenment period started using “God” as a fill-in for any gaps in their findings that the two began to mingle in the same space.
This has lead to the unfortunate present state of affairs where some people read religious texts literally. Some have even gone so far as to write political policy based off of myths designed to describe the interior world of the heart and mind.
But this was never what it was meant for.
The real purpose of religion and spirituality is not to explain the natural world or to insist there are invisible forces in it that science cannot yet explain. The purpose is to give humanity something to hold on to when life sucks, to give color and meaning, to give potent symbols that help us understand our interior world.
For example, the value of the story of Christ's Passion is not “2,000 years ago, a nice man was tortured to death and came back to life.” The value isn’t even “he died for your sins so you can go to heaven when you die if you’re baptized.”
The value of a religious story is in using it as a metaphor you can use to help you understand the suffering in your own life. It’s a way to come to terms with the elements of life that are torturing you to death even though you’re a nice person. It’s a promise that you too can “come back to life” from the things that “kill” you.
Will there be scars from the ordeal? Yes. But it will make you stronger than you ever thought possible (perhaps even divine.) Just as Easter season comes around each year, heartbreaking experiences will happen again and again in your life, but always you can rise.
From that lens, does it really matter if there is historical documentation outside the Bible that the nice man from 2,000 years ago was tortured to death? No.
Does this story, and the rituals that bring it to life every year, make suffering and life more meaningful for the people willing to engage with it on a deep, personal level? Yes.
This life-enhancing power is not exclusive to religious stories. You can also see this in non-religious tales, such as Lord of the Rings, Cinderella, or Gilgamesh.
However, because our society has kept them separate from science, there is no need for them to be scientifically true in order to be inspiring. There are no hobbits and there is no Mordor but we can all relate to the seemingly endless suffering Frodo had to endure to destroy the ring.
When our internal experience is reflected in stories and myths, our pain seems universal and therefore more meaningful. Telling these stories over and over, sometimes through ritual and sometimes not, helps us recognize on a deep level that everyone knows pain. They help us realize, consciously or unconsciously, that we are not alone.
The practices and rituals of religion and spirituality are designed to give wordless recognition of the messy experiences of human life, such as grief, forgiveness, mystery, and countless more. Each tradition is just one more answer to the question of how to live a good life and die with grace.
You can claim a world of myth and magic and miracles and still be a smart, rational person. Don’t let an unhelpful application of rationality keep you from the profound nourishment that the illogical realm of myth can offer.
Stay curious and let your own experience be your laboratory. If a spiritual concept lands in your lap you are unsure of, try it for yourself. Sometimes these rituals and ideas are like musical scores: They don’t mean much when written on a page but are fabulously beautiful when experienced as embodied experience.
Go to that drum circle. Try some sacred sex. Sit for a deep meditation. And see what is true for you.
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