Spirituality, Belief and Truth

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.

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4 Responses to Spirituality, Belief and Truth

  1. PCBergen says:

    Re: Spirituality, Belief and Truth:
    It seems to me that trying to fit spirituality or personal truth into a dogma is like trying to capture the universe in a jam jar. (Jam used as a verb here!)
    Thanks for this…..
    Pat

  2. sotarduga sitompul says:

    In the Bible , we don’t get spiritual director. How do you get this statement . Do you want to make wordly statement to s[piritual statement?
    tom

  3. Lou says:

    Tom:

    You are correct: the term “spiritual director” is not used in the Bible. But there are many terms used today by Christians which are not in the Bible. For instance, the word “sacrament” isn’t in the Bible even though Christians affirm that the rituals of baptism and communion/breaking of the bread are sacraments.

    In tracing the Biblical roots for spiritual directions, historians look to the relationship between Elijah, the great prophet, and Elisha, the younger prophet who was mentored by Elijah as an example of spiritual direction in the Hebrew scriptures. In the Christian scriptures, John the Baptist is understood to be the first spiritual director because his role was to “prepare the way of the Lord.” One important role of spiritual direction is to assist and support someone as they strive to experience the Holy One more fully in life.

    In early Christian history, from around the first century to the fifth or sixth century, the spiritual director was known by the title of abba or imma, that is, father or mother. These people were viewed as spiritual fathers and mothers to other people. This custom continues within the churches of Eastern Christianity, like the Russian and Greek Orthodox churches.

    In the Western Church, the term spiritual director began to be used over time. It grew up in the monasteries and then, after the Reformation, was incorporated in Protestant traditions with the role of pastor, who was to be preacher and teacher.

    Today, the term spiritual director is used by people of many faiths, both Christian and non-Christian, to designate the role of a person who is a teacher or guide in spiritual matters. The medieval term, soul-friend, is also sometimes used.

    While I myself am Christian, it’s important to note that this blog is not specifically about Christianity nor is it primarily written for Christians. Much of the work I do is from an inter-faith perspective. My focus here is two encourage thought and discussion from an inter-faith perspective.

    Thanks for your comment.

    Lou

  4. Lou says:

    Pat:

    I agree with you on this. The experience of the Divine in our lives is much greater than dogma or statements in a creed.

    Best wishes.

    Lou

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