Carl McColman: Following the Path


I think a lot about the trend toward more and more people identifying themselves as "spiritual but not religious." I know this polarizes a lot of people - some churchgoers, even liberal ones like UCC Minister Lillian Daniel, dismiss this kind of spirituality as symptomatic of our culture of narcissism; while other folks, like Rabbi Rami Shapiro, see it as a positive sign: a sign of being (in Rabbi Rami's words) "spiritually independent." Here's another way to look at it: some folks blame the SBNRs for being selfish and unwilling to commit, while others blame the religious organizations that they have left behind, as being too rigidly institutional, hopelessly out of touch with the realities of today's world, and therefore deserving of their fate.

I suppose I'd like to find a different perspective, with less finger-pointing and more insight into how we can foster shared values in our increasingly fragmented and individualistic society. I suppose pretty much everybody can agree that the era of "Christendom" which began in the fourth century - where, in places like Europe and North America, Christianity has enjoyed a privileged place as the dominant religion within the culture - is pretty much over. Ours is not only a multi-cultural society, but also an increasingly religiously pluralistic one as well. Given this trend, no wonder many people eschew religious affiliation even while seeking to maintain some sort of spiritual identity. Why limit yourself? Why be pigeonholed?

I believe that everyone, regardless of creed (or lack thereof), can benefit from the psychological and health benefits of a mindfulness meditation practice. For those who believe in God, this has the added benefit of being a forum for fostering contemplative prayer - which is not the same thing as mindfulness meditation, but which can easily be fostered as a "joint practice" for theists who meditate. Meanwhile, as I mentioned on this blog recently, churches that are successfully engaging young adults often are doing so by promoting spiritual practices like meditation and contemplative prayer. So, for me, it seems a very simple calculus: it would be good for our society to foster a widespread practice of meditation.

Unfortunately, the biggest foes of this are found within the ranks of culturally conservative Christians. Conservative Protestants and Evangelicals reject contemplation because they see it as too Catholic a practice; while conservative Christians across the denominational spectrum reject meditation because of its ties to the spirituality of eastern philosophies like Buddhism or Vedanta.

Which means that, those of us who find meaning and value in practices such as mindfulness meditation (a secular practice that does not require any kind of creedal assent) and contemplative prayer (which is very much a Christian practice, although could be adapted to other theistic traditions) have two challenges: first, to advocate for mindfulness to all people, and secondly, to make the case to culturally conservative Christians that contemplation really is an authentically Christian practice.

Meanwhile, it also makes sense for practitioners of meditation from different traditions to form friendships, learn from one another, and meditate together when possible: even though this kind of interspiritual activity is precisely what upsets the culturally conservative Christians.

Of course, in response to the idea of "advocating" for meditation, it might make more sense to simply shut up and just keep meditating. I'm being facetious, but not entirely. The challenge of advocating for a practice that is not universally accepted is that it could easily lead to contentiousness and plenty of dualistic discourse. Which hardly serves the larger function of meditation! So there is something to be said: that the best way to help create a truly meditative society is, well, to meditate.

One other issue: there certainly is some concern that mindfulness meditation can represent an unhealthy trend of secularization within religion: a trend that threatens to turn venerable wisdom traditions like contemplative Christianity or Tibetan Buddhism into nothing more than religious forms of therapy. After all, religion seeks salvation or enlightenment, whereas therapy seeks control and mastery. It's something to ponder, but I'll save that conversation for another day.

Taken with permission from Carl's blog.