Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Responsibility for Spiritual Journey

Originally posted on May 6, 2014

I’ll be giving a talk in mid-May, 2014, on the topic of Taking Personal Responsibility for Your Spiritual Journey. (This will be for our local club in Sun City Georgetown Texas, Spirituality Anonymous.) Dare we realize that we do have the freedom to find our way to the Divine in our lives? Indeed, perhaps we are living in a time where freedom becomes perhaps, obligation, or duty, or potential!

The first point to be made, then, is that we have learned enough about psychology, transpersonal psychology, and comparative religions to even talk about the idea of taking responsibility. In the olden days you just obeyed, acquiesced, submitted, tried to play the game. Your elders, or those designated by your elders to be higher authorities, knew better. Also, the belief system of your parents and extended family was the only game in town, or so it seemed. It was hard to imagine how anyone could believe differently. They must be perverse, maybe even wicked. Certainly, the difference between you and other-believers was not insignificant. There were some religions that you could tolerate, others that were less tolerable, though you tried. Others still were beyond the circle of what was morally needed to tolerate—it was okay not to tolerate them. In that category were the weird—and it was okay to try to enlighten them, send missions; and the wicked—and it was okay to kill them before they killed you.

That was then, and, unfortunately, for many, still is now. But not us. But where we’re headed is even weirder: Can people consciously choose their own spiritual path? Can it be done responsibly? Is it responsible to reject the conclusion of great masses of highly educated theologians who agree that we should believe thus and so? Is it not shockingly rebellious, impudent, to dare to question these?

Well, not so much, considering that equally great numbers of highly educated theologians agree that we should believe that other thus and so. And more, there are other great masses of highly reputable, sincere, good theologians of whole other religions, and there are yet other great numbers of clearly thoughtful and moral philosophical types that are non-theist! The mind reels!

This is new. Comparative religion is, and it presents us with a new challenge of overchoice. In the olden days, vocationally, you went into whatever your dad or mom did. Not much choice. Then you went for a range of jobs that was appropriate for your class. Occasional stories happened of people going above or below their class. But westerners did not become shamans! That just didn’t happen. And then it began to happen!

More weird is that comparative religion expanded to include shamanism and indigenous religion. No longer was it caught up with permutations of Christianity, or Western Religion, or even Eastern major religions. Whoa! And coming up the side are new religions, new syntheses, and the beginning of the notion that it would not be unthinkable to make your own synthesis. Not that many dared do this.

Meanwhile it became okay to drift away into no church, no religion. In fact, people did unconsciously take on more or less devoutly the religion of the West—consumerism, selfishness, materialism, competitiveness, vicarious life through television, self-aggrandizement (narcissism), etc. This also offered a subtle message that there was nothing special to strive for nor achieve.

In that case—and it’s quite subtle and pervasive—taking responsibility is a non-issue. Response to what? So we’ve got a dulled basic motivation, culturally, and a plethora of what we may choose to respond to.

Furthermore, we’re ambivalent about changing our mind. Like that’s a sign of weakness. Having firm convictions” seems like a good thing, whereas it seems weak-minded to change one’s mind. These semantic associations make it harder to experiment and explore. But a spiritual journey intrinsically suggests just this: Changing your mind, at least about some things, is not a weakness at all. It’s an adventure! It makes for the most fascinating literature! What if many of the tens of thousands of biographies written gave just a bit more emphasis to the spiritual journey of the person being written about? What if what made it a journey was that the person changed in rather deep ways, changed attitudes, loyalties.

What if disloyalty wasn’t a deep fault but a natural phenomenon, an intrinsic part of the journeys of life? We begin by being loyal to certain people and attitudes, and then to varying degrees we withdraw our loyalty, or at least our whole-hearted loyalty, because if nothing else we construct something better to be loyal to. Thus children grow up and leave their parents and get married— maybe to a spouse from another tribe or religion or country or total ethnicity—and then what?

Spiritual Privilege

So the second point is that we live in a time and an area where we have spiritual privilege. I consider central Texas, Sun City Georgetown, to be a free community, an outskirts of Austin, an distant cousin to California. It is thus because it’s made up significantly with immigrants from other parts of the world. Lots of Texas is deeply immersed in what they believe to be Truth, and part of that truth is that we are not free to choose among religions. But on the other hand, many also believe in America and that we are free. We might be mistakenly choosing to go to Hell, but it’s good we’re free. But then there is a very small number that feel that it’s actually virtuous to make use of spiritual privilege, to go on the journey, to take conscious responsibility for the journey.

Spiritual privilege is the sense of entitlement to pick and choose, to sample, to think about, to question, to experiment, to do the many things that are unthinkable a century ago. I’m not referring to grossly immoral things, except for the idea that some folks think it’s grossly immoral to play golf on the sabbath. But others sort of assume that it’s a free country and that overlaps somewhat with playing golf, or not going to the right church, or even daring to go to the wrong church, or no church, which in some folks is even worse than going to the wrong church.

And this group enjoys a good deal of spiritual privilege insofar as we have a norm of not collectively condemning sinners for not believing as we do. As a matter of fact, there’s a rather pervasive norm that believes that other people’s beliefs are very likely different and this makes for rather interesting conversations rather than the toleration of evil infections in our midst.

So I’m just building on this and suggesting that we more consciously, explicitly recognize that in addition to enjoying the freedom, we are more or less aware that we’re picking and choosing, letting other people believe what they want, indulgently and good-heartedly and non-patronizingly opening to, listening to, maybe learning from others and their beliefs. This is oddly fun, wallowing in heresy. Come on in, the water’s fine!

It’s playful and it’s serious. It’s playful in that we don’t feel the stakes are high, that what we and others say is provisional. We’re free to change our minds and not feel that we’ll be thought of as weak. It’s serious in that we are in fact constructing our own beliefs. Being in Sun City, we are of a certain age and beyond, and it has not escaped us that we’re going to die! The stakes, that is, are not trivial, thought they are not so pressured as to be unable to tolerate any degree of error. We have the privilege of exploring in the course of our journey.

Indeed, some criteria that are not valued by some are more valued by others. Some like songs, music, and miss the music of a church of their youth or young adulthood. Some like the togetherness of a relatively fixed congregation, above and beyond any concerns for doctrines. Some get off on good leadership, which may be in the intellectual content of the sermons, or more in the personal charisma of a leader who leads. I don’t discount this dynamic!  Opening up our minds to what criteria work for us is part of the journey.

I don’t want to overly privilege my own preference, which involves a relatively tight but also poetically open vision, theology. But those criteria hardly apply for others. Some want a comfortable church that they feel their kids can grow up in, one that offers fellowship in an alienated world, wholesome activities, etc. Some want a church that can entertain and stimulate or receive their own personal melodies, songs, poetry, philosophy.

Often there are mixtures of several criteria. Often part of this all is unconscious. Often part of the criteria that are important are felt to be dis-respected by others and, indeed, repressed by the self. So part of responsibility for the spiritual journey is that it involves discovery, discovery and articulation of what’s important. Sometimes it takes years to re-own and affirm what really works for one’s own soul, especially if that involves values or tastes that are not widely expressed by others.

I thought I’d post this to get the process started. I may say other things, but it occurred to me that this could be posted also on my blog. Your comments are welcome.

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