It doesn’t work and might drive you crazy: More on DIY spirituality

mikecogh, Flickr

Anyone who acts as their own lawyer has a fool for a client, as the old saying goes. We all know this, but somehow someone who serves as their own priest, spiritual father, confessor, or guru is wise?

If you want to get fit and in shape, you see a physical trainer, maybe a dietician. If you want to get your accounts in order and plan for the future, you see a financial advisor. If you want to get the most out of your sporting endeavors, you see a coach. If you want to get past psychological trauma you’ve suffered, you see a counselor or therapist. If you want to get proficient on the French horn or cello, you see a music teacher.

Why is it that we have little trouble realizing that we need experts in many areas of our lives and have humility so reflexive we don’t even think it’s humility? We just ask for direction, guidance, encouragement, and instruction, admitting by the very request that we are deficient and need help. No problem. But tell someone that they need same sort help for their soul, and people take umbrage.

Still, isn’t this obvious? No frontier is so unknown as the sweeping plains and crooked valleys of the human heart. Act as your own cartographer, your own trailblazer, and you might end up finding some new vistas and wonders, sure. But you’re more likely to go in circles and end up lost after making very little real progress.

Believers in largely ritual-less forms of Christianity, for instance, have trouble establishing a healthy sense of self, according to Danish philosopher Matias Møl Dalsgaard of Aarhus University. Rather than getting direction from tradition (including the church calendar, regular periods of fasting and feasting, the discipline of hourly prayer, the counsel of a spiritual father, etc.), the lone Christian is left to work out the faith on their own. It’s liberating on the one hand — no rules! — but it’s also an unmanageable burden, and many buckle under the weight.

Maybe more suggestive of the risks, a recent study found that people who identify as spiritual but not religious — read: untethered from regular, ritualized expressions of faith — are more likely to suffer mental illness. Trying to hack your own path through the tangle of the heart is liable to drive you crazy.

But there’s no point trying to do it on your own. DIY spirituality promises freedom but delivers futility. Others have walked the way before. Others can see into your life from different vantages. Others can give perspective, counsel, encouragement, even rebukes. But a spiritual life that denies access to others gains no such benefits.

Spiritually speaking, we’re often like the stereotypical man driving around lost, refusing to ask for directions, unable to see that our pride only evidences the desperate need we really have. Or in the more frightening picture offered by journalist Mark Vernon, we’re like participants in an extreme sport who take neither safety precautions nor seek coaching.

This is not a blanket defense of religion or all traditions. Not all institutional expressions of the faith are equal. It’s to some people’s credit that they leave some churches. But that only underscores the importance of finding a spiritual home where flourishing is possible.

About Joel J. Miller

I'm the author of Lifted by Angels, a look at angels through the eyes of the early church. Click here for more about me or subscribe to my RSS here.

  • http://www.doughibbard.com Doug Hibbard

    I look at this and wonder about how many of us who are pastors in the independent church traditions do this to ourselves, as well. Good thoughts.

    • Joel J. Miller

      I think it’s something to be wary of for certain.

  • Kelt Locke

    Forgive me for being blunt, but I have difficulty accepting two premises found at the beginning of the article. I believe our culture already has gone way too far in relying on experts and in ceding our autonomy to them. So, the argument that we should likewise have an expert in the area of spirituality does not persuade. More basically, I believe we deny the importance of spiritual growth when we lump it in the same category as self-improvement projects.

    However, my quibbles do not deny the importance of being within a congregation of people seeking to know and submit themselves to God. Indeed, I believe we human beings find God by truly loving each other.

    • Joel J. Miller

      I’ll buy that. If you look at modern spirituality, there is much that is driven by basic self-improvement. Hence the overlap.

      I would add that this post is part of a larger project of mine that is consonant with your second graf. The church as a community of self-giving, mutually submissive love is something very foreign to much of our modern experience of the faith.

  • cken

    I commend Mr. Miller for finding such a benign way of saying most people are stupid sheep who need to be told what to do and think. I agree, most people don’t have the intellectual capacity or the will power to develop their own spirituality. The really sad part is most churches do nothing to help one grow spirituality. If you ask one of our theologically trained leaders a “spiritual” question the response you get is some vapid cliche the leader has been indoctrinated to give by said theologians. Yes, the seeking of truth, spiritual growth, and the maturation of the soul takes a great deal of time and work to do it on your own. However, you will get none of those things from organized Christian religions; so you are no worse off trying it on your own. You can’t have an intellectual theological discussion within organized Christian religions because you cannot deviate from their trite man-made dogma. I know that sounds overly dramatic, but try asking your religious leader how to develop or grow your faith in God. The likely answer will include things like pray, read the Bible, fast, or go to church; none of which are of any practical useable value. The actual translation of those answers is the more you become brainwashed the more faith you will have. Better yet ask, what is God, and see how many useless cliched answers you get in response, none of which answer the question.
    I don’t making comments like these, because I am a believer. Unfortunately experience over the years has strongly indicated my above comments are more accurate than not.

  • Daniel Lafave

    I shouldn’t even have to point this out, but correlation does not imply causation. The studies findings simply do not support the conclusion that being spiritual but not religion “drive[s] you crazy”. I would hope that this article would be corrected to reflect that.

  • Kenneth

    The study is pure rot as far as showing a causal link between spirituality and mental illness. It is just as likely that people with mental illness or substance abuse problems are drawn more toward a spiritual rather than religious practice.

    Anyone who has ever worked with these folks knows that they are often very deep spiritual seekers, especially once they are coming to grips with their issues in recovery scenarios. They are not people for whom formulaic, standard-issue 9-5 suburban living has ever worked. Bonnie Raitt had an interesting perspective on this. She said “Religion is for people who are afraid of going to Hell. Spirituality is for people who have already been there.”

    Those with more severe disorders like bi-polar or schizophrenia often have delusions, which VERY frequently assume a religious or quasi-religious character. That population is spiritual but not religious almost by default, and will tend to skew results.

    We must consider yet another factor: The shift from religious identity to “nones” is a very recent phenomenon. Many, if not most of the spiritual but not religious folks running around today were raised in families who practice “standard” religions. At least that’s true in the U.S. Some of the damaged folks who made their way to spirituality from religion have a history of abuse in religious settings, so their illness was compounded, if not caused by organized religion. Many others just have negative memories of their times in church or Sunday school or Catholic school because their illnesses made them stand out, and attracted bullying or ridicule.

    Finally, we must consider the fact that ALL serious and accomplished explorers or pioneers in any field of human endeavor are misfits. All of the top scientists, composers, artists, architects, mathematicians, philosophers, prophets, you name it, were misfits. Full to the brim of personality disorders, OCD, autism, depression, alcoholism, even full-blown delusional disorders. They were square pegs who didn’t get that way for lack of trying to fit in the standard round societal holes of their day. They went their own way because it was the only way open to them. People driven to serious exploration are misfits. They live and think outside the box, and often that includes something that puts them outside of the bounds of total mental wellness. Their genius may even be a component of their madness.

    This study “discovered” what has been known forever: That misfits have more dysfunction than average.

  • rumitoid

    “The church as a community of self-giving, mutually submissive love is something very foreign to much of our modern experience of the faith.” And maybe this explains best the motive behind the movement of None. I feel that every human heart primarily craves such a hearth and that its lack ends up forming redoubts of protection which keep it from manifesting, a self-perpetuating cycle.

    Central to recovery in AA is a community of self-giving, being of service. The emphasis is on a spirit of action rather than a system of belief. It is not so much about knowing as it is about being. The soul is more engaged with discovery than with certainty.

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