Following the Path

Photo by Fran McColman

Photo by Fran McColman

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.

Why Trappists Make Great Spiritual Guides
Do You Need a Spiritual Teacher?
Emptiness and Non-Attachment
Five Things Christian Contemplatives can learn from Buddhists
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Danielle Castronis

    I agree with you wholeheartedly. I would add that one important reason why so many are in a way “forced ” to choose their spirituality outside of the traditions is because of the contribution of science. The evidence points to a cosmology that predates the beginning of religion. What does it mean to be human on this planet in the 21st century? we have discovered that the fabric of life itself is a process that started 13 billion years ago, and keeps evolving in time. What does that mean?

    In defense of this generation, I would argue that even though it is plagued by narcissism, it does not want to ignore the contribution of science, and is concerned with the future of the planet. With the exception of a few (like Thomas Keating…) the traditions seem mute on the question of the environment, climate change….

    Given our human capacity to be self-conscious, can we ignore the fact that we are a part of an evolving Universe? without a deep time consciousness, can we know who we are?

    To evolve our moral values ( and they have to catch up with our technological capacities) we need to frame our life within the biggest possible perspective available to us at this present time. We need to let God out of the box.

    I agree with you: depth (meditation) and perspective (contemplation) are key.

    • Carl McColman

      Thanks — and I love your use of depth and perspective as a way of understanding the distinctions between meditation and contemplation.

  • jacthehat

    nothing fosters dualism it is already there within us – I meet it in every moment in my society an invitation to split. It seems to me that for most it being divided and divisive is a comfort a stone in the shoe that is a known quantity and very good for manipulating and allowing cherry picking to get so fudged it cannot be perceived – I find my society to be really scared and vilifying of anyone who is less divided yet easy – So I dont quite see why you think positive action leads to dualism, for me it only clarifies that it is there ready and waiting for an opportunity to be revealed. And yes I am quite happy to meditate and shut up about it as I have no power to deal with anyone elses dualistic tendencies.

    • Carl McColman

      Your last sentence basically encapsulates my point. It’s not that advocating for meditative practice causes dualistic or oppositional consciousness, but that it can bring it to the surface, and even the most dedicated practitioner can all too easily get caught up in it. But obviously I believe in advocating for meditation, or else I wouldn’t be writing about it.

  • Peter Byl

    Thanks for your post. Would it be correct to say that the difference between mindfulness meditation and contemplative prayer is that contemplative prayer is mindfulness meditation (eg, maranatha meditation) but with the added difference that it also has the intention of being with or seeking God who is after all in the present? I would also like to hear your comments on salvation vs therapy.

    • Carl McColman

      I think your way of distinguishing mindfulness and contemplative is on the mark. As for salvation and therapy, I’ll see if I can get to that in the next few days. Thanks for the suggestion.

  • Charly Morgan

    I am happy to once again be reading your blog. Today’s post is especially meaningful to me as centering

    prayer 20 some years ago changed (and is still changing) my life. I have found that Holy Spirit nudges me when/if to share… along with my own practice.

  • Shemeam (@Shemeam)

    Either we believe that we are in control of our life, or we believe that there is a power greater than ourselves (God).

    We are either human beings trying to be spiritual (narcissistic) or spiritual beings trying to be human.

    Jesus taught only the latter, surely.

    If we follow His first commandment completely (as commanded!!) then there is no need for religion. But it perhaps would be impossible to impart the great teachings without religion?