If you asked a group of people about their experiences of spirituality and their beliefs, you’d quickly discover that people who maintain regular spiritual practices and strive to integrate the wisdom lived from those practices with their daily lives tend to believe wide variety different things. While there may be shared values, like compassion and respect, what one person believes from another can be quite different.
In Christianity, great writers over the centuries have debated the importance of beliefs and dogma. In my opinion, this has been a weakness in Christianity. But such debates are not unique to Christianity. There are various schools of Buddhism, different sects in Hinduism, and varied branches of Islam. In all of these great traditions, there is a wide variety of beliefs. Yet, there are also people living deeply spiritual lives who espouse beliefs which seem to contract others.
The history of Western culture, dating back to ancient Greek philosophers, has focused on the importance of having the correct way of thinking or right idea. In time, Western development in logic, mathematics, and science was based on these philosophical foundations. In religion, philosophical systems based on correct ideas and logic translated into dogma.
A famous Roman Catholic writer from the 19th Century, John Henry Newman, (for whom Roman Catholic university campus centers are named) offered a very important insight into the importance of “correct beliefs” and spirituality. He explained that the experience of faith and spirituality may be based on what he called notional assent. Notional assent simply means that you intellectually agree with the idea or dogma. Newman saw this as one level of spiritual and religious experience. But he also described something he called real assent. Real assent is when you affirm something as true because you have experienced it in a deep way. The affirmation is based on something deeply experienced at a heart and soul level.
Newman wrote about these concepts in his book called Grammar of Assent published in 1870. Today, 140 years later, with the growing interest in spirituality, we can see how significant his insight really is. What draws people to focusing on the spiritual dimension of life is their heart-felt experience of something they find to be real and true. The experience is personal and subjective. It’s from this experience that beliefs about the ultimate nature of life may be based. Their validity is based in personal spiritual experience.
This focus on the role of experience is something very pronounced in the history of religion in the United States. The Pilgrims and Puritans who established the New England colonies in the 1600s valued an inner experience which would manifest itself in one’s behavior. For the Puritans, church membership was based on the inner experience of God. That inner experience would cause one to live in a positive way.
Today, people are drawn to learn about spirituality because of their inner experience. In today’s culture, deep spiritual experience is no longer related to church membership. Instead, people explore spirituality in a wide variety of ways.
Basing what we affirm to be true on own personal experience is a hallmark of what is called post-modern culture. Post-modern culture is based on the understanding of truth and validity which flows from personal experience rather than a set of preconceived ideas and norms. Religious institutions often views post-modern culture as a threat because religious institutions are based on sets of preconceived ideas and norms, including dogma or a belief of specific sources of truth, like viewing the Bible is the only source of truth. A post-modern view affirms that multiple truths can exist simultaneously and are based on one’s perspective. Translated into physics, post-modernism is much like Einstein’s theory of relativity. (Based the theory of relativity, scientists can understand levels of variability in the universe, like time which is measured differently on Earth than on other planets or that light is both a particle and a wave.)
As a spiritual director, I’ve worked with some people who experienced conflict when their spiritual experience didn’t match the dogma they were taught from their religious background. Perhaps, it’s worth considering that spiritual experience doesn’t need to fit into categories proscribed by dogma or other kinds of “right ideas.” My approach to such conflicts is relatively simple: continue to explore the spiritual experience by engaging in sound spiritual practices. Talk through the experience of inner conflict with others, like a spiritual director, teacher, or elder – someone who has more experience than you do in regard to spiritual practices and experiences. In the process of your own growth, carefully consider what needs to change: your experience or your dogma. But remember John Newman: the important aspect of spirituality is real assent. Trust the validity of your experience as a source of what it true for you.
© 2010, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.