Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Inter-Spirituality Issues

Originally posted on July 25, 2010

I read a column by Eileen Flynn  recently about the problem of interspirituality. A recent book by Stephen Prothero, God is Not One, challenges the idea of unity in religion, and of course he’s right on one level, but mistaken on another level. It has to do with levels of abstraction, essence. And what is the abstract essence is a matter of historical interpretation. Some people think that certain key mythic elements are ultimate truths, more so than other elements, which may then be viewed as more peripheral. Other interpreters may reverse this weighting of importance. An example of this latter is a book by the Dalai Lama recently published, with the title,  Toward a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World’s Religions Can Come Together.

It seems to me to reflect the archetypes driving the interpreter. Without spelling it out this way, some may feel a complex mix of attitudes, such as, for example:  “Our world-view and religion seems more true and compelling, has more virtue to it than other religions. Ours is true and theirs is false. It would be a profound denial of this sense of not just allegiance, but belief in the full package as we see it, to dilute it with seeking common denominators with other religions. That most or all religions can be viewed as having a moral core of love, for example, is a misunderstanding of the nature of love. God loves only those who love Him in the proper way, and not those who do not.” Of course, these may represent mainly unconscious attitudes, but they can be inferred fairly from other behaviors and statements.

I’m a bit more sensitive to the problematic tendencies for some who uphold their religion with greater ferocity , in part because I’ve been reading some history recently about the intense intolerance for heresy or deviance among different types of Christians in the 12th through the 17th centuries in Europe and America.

However, there is an increasing movement that represent the opposite world-view, one that values more the need to get beyond differences in beliefs and make the most of areas of common feeling, identity, and concern. People motivated by this archetype vary: Some interpret their own religion in a more liberal fashion, able to be open to other faiths. Others tend to be more eclectic, syncretistic—and that suggests that the idea of finding common denominators and bridging differences is a virtue rather than a vice. This more inclusive trend can be seen   in the Bahai faith, and also various recent trends. (Indeed, there was even a hint of this as far back as the early Renaissance! I’ve been reading about a late 15th century character: Pico della Mirandola. He was a brilliant young scholar, but he, too, was a product of his era and though he drew on Jewish sources for integrating Kabbalah into Christianity, sought to prove the superiority of Christianity and had difficulty appreciating that any Jew might find his arguments unconvincing. Were they just being stubborn? Interestingly, there are many today who are blind to the sheer implausibility of certain ideas that they find to be unquestionably true, and are thus puzzled by those who don’t buy the elegance of the extensive rationalizations that are based on these questionable assumptions.)

At any rate, Prothero has a fair point: I would agree that it takes a lot of intellectual energy to get past those assumption differences and find common ground. Yet I think we’re in a time of a score or more different paradigm shifts, deep changes in basic sets of assumptions. This is cultural as well as intellectual. It’s even rather interesting: Some folks act is we’re past the era when it was right and proper to dispute to the point of active warfare about religious doctrine; and other folks still live within that framework. Ken Wilber, a contemporary philosopher, explains this by noting that in fact we live in a world in which several different levels of types of religion or world-view are operating, and the interfaces of groups of such sub-cultures or world-views often generate friction or even warfare.

One way to evaluate different philosophies is to imagine what political point they’re making, or who their opposition is. In the case of Prothero’s work, the opposition include those who blur distinctions and don’t get on with really learning about different religions. In this sense, he’s an advocate of religious “literacy.” One problem in learning about another religion—or even one’s own—is that the truth is that there are often a number of themes about which people who claim to be affiliated with that religion vary—degrees of piety, political duty, militancy, need to promote unity, contempt for others within the religion who are either “too much” or “too little” on certain of these variables, associations with other ethnic roots, literal versus allegorical interpretation, traditional versus modern interpretations, selection regarding which doctrines are more important and which less so, needs to accommodate to other congregations and authorities in other regions, countries, and so forth. Therefore, in becoming religiously “literate,” the student must struggle to appreciate the various ranges regarding what a religion is said to “believes.” (It’s not unlikely to hear a person say, “Yes, I’m a ____, but I don’t believe some of the things they say you’re supposed to believe.)

This spread of value differences are very important. My own hunch is that the more liberal in many different religions may find they have more in common with each other than with the more conservative attitudes of their co-religionists, and that there is a gradual trend towards seeking a more refined global reconciliation than wallowing in the illusions of being “right.”

To the degree that any group feels stigmatized, persecuted, or discounted, there is also an interesting reaction, so the group that feels more polarized builds on the inter-group tension, while the sub-group that blurs these distinctions tends to lose in the race to be strong, to promote unity or the survival of the “religion.” So I think the pendulum will swing back and forth for a while. My own bias is towards exploring and supporting groping efforts towards inter-spirituality, but also to acknowledge that merely affirming positive platitudes may not be sufficient.

2 Responses to “Inter-Spirituality Issues”

  • Ron Krumpos says:

    Orthodox, institutional religions are quite different, but their mystics have much in common. A quote from the chapter “Mystic Viewpoints” in my e-book at on comparative mysticism:

    Ritual and Symbols. The inner meanings of the scriptures, the spiritual teachings of the prophets and those personal searchings which can lead to divine union were often given lesser importance than outward rituals, symbolism and ceremony in many institutional religions. Observances, reading scriptures, prescribed acts, and following orthodox beliefs cannot replace your personal dedication, contemplation, activities, and direct experience. Preaching is too seldom teaching. For true mystics, every day is a holy day. Divine revelation is here and now, not limited to their sacred scriptures.

    Conflicts in Conventional Religion. “What’s in a Word?” outlined some primary differences between religions and within each faith. The many divisions in large religions disagreed, sometimes bitterly. The succession of authority, interpretations of scriptures, doctrines, organization, terminology, and other disputes have often caused resentment. The customs, worship, practices, and behavior within the mainstream of religions frequently conflicted. Many leaders of any religion had only united when confronted by someone outside their faith, or by agnostics or atheists. Few mystics have believed divine oneness is exclusive to their religion or is restricted to any people.

    Note: This is just a consensus to indicate some differences between the approaches of mystics and that of their institutional religion. These statements do not represent all schools of mysticism or every division of faith. Whether mystical experiences vary in their cultural context, or are similar for all true mystics, is less important than that they transform each one’s sense of being to a transpersonal outlook on all life.

  • […] those elements in all religions that speak to the same psychological and communal-ethical spirit. (This builds on a blog of July 25 last year, no. 38). The term I think was coined by Bro. Wayne Teasdale. There are whole organizations now aimed at […]

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