Spiritual Maturity ≠ Religious Belief
Margaret Placentra Johnston
This is a brief introduction to Margaret Placentra Johnston's "Faith Beyond Belief." Learn more about at FaithBeyondBelief-book.com.
Northern Virginia Ethical Society
Empirical studies by various academic theorists, and the writings of some highly spiritual people describing their own paths, have all illustrated a similar process by which people grow toward spiritual maturity. Their writings can be unofficially categorized as spiritual development theory. Distinct stages can be listed, but we do not use these stages to judge individuals because no person exists fully in any given stage. But just as we cannot accurately test whether a person is optimistic or pessimistic, because no one is one hundred percent in either camp, we still allow the concept of optimism versus pessimism to teach us something useful about the human condition. So, too with spiritual development; we can allow the concept to teach us something useful. It is certainly helpful to know which way is forward, and how we can avoid being swayed by influences that would hold us back.
To make a very complex topic as short as possible, the spiritual path takes a person from literal belief in dogma as handed down by religious authorities, through a period of questioning in which the person develops personal authority but may disaffiliate from religion, and toward a paradoxical position where the person may reengage with spirituality, or faith, or religion. But re-engagement is through commitment to values of inclusivity, as opposed to dogmatic beliefs and rules that separate people from each other. Spiritual maturity involves developing a sense of connection with everyone and everything in the universe, as opposed to mainly considering oneself a member of this or that church, political party, or nation. Moving through these stages takes a combination of favorable life circumstances and no small amount of courage. It requires moving beyond what theorist Paul Ricoeur called "taboo and refuge" the "corrupt parts" of religion. This is the need for rules to keep ones behavior in line and comforting answers about what happens after death.
Though they won't tell you this in plain words, the "god" of those at the uppermost spiritual stages is more a metaphor than an actual being. So why dont they come right out and say so? One reason is the belief among those "in the know," that knowledge about the spiritual stages is best kept from the general public. There is concern that without that judgmental God of fear and the threat of punishment, people will just go out and rampantly sin.
But Humanism can prove that this is not the case. Humanists are often people who have traversed at least some part of the spiritual path in that they have questioned traditional religion and moved beyond it. And many (but obviously, not all) are sufficiently self-governing that they don't need fear and the threat of punishment to keep their behavior in line. Instead, Humanists are often internally governed more by principle than by rules. Without pre-determined rules from a specific religion, Humanists often have to think more deeply about what constitutes ethical behavior. They can recognize circumstances where the more superficial rules may not suffice, and may be forced to develop a deeper sense of morality than traditional religionists merely following the rules.
So what is meant by spirituality if it is not dependent upon supernatural beliefs? One definition of the word "spirit" involves (a) "The vital principle or animating force within living beings." And (b) "incorporeal consciousness." Well, we all have (a) obviously. And (b) is there whether we acknowledge it or not.
Have you ever just had a hunch something was going to happen, and it did? Have you ever felt something was just right for you to do even if it didn't make the most logical sense and you went ahead with it and it turned out fine? Well, where did those notions come from? Not from your body. Not from the nerve cells and synapses in your brain, right? What is it that is looking out from your eyes? That is your spirit. The "incorporeal" part of your being.
So what makes one person spiritual and another not? Rather than belief in improbable supernatural beings and the need for reassurance about what happens after bodily death, spirituality is about the ability to recognize that part of ourselves which is more than the sum of our cells. That is, we have something inside that keeps us from going out and just rampantly sinning when we dont believe in a judgmental God of punishment. That "something" is our spirit or spirituality. The more we can rely on that "something," the more strongly developed it is, the more spiritual we are regardless of what we believe about God.
One thing that marks a more spiritual being is that he wants to access that which links him to others, like his general humanity and spirituality, not that which separates him, like strict literal beliefs or even strict literal non-belief. The traditional religious institutions see their mission as keeping people from sinning, and to do this they propagate the primacy of their particular belief system about our origins, life after death, and about the religious source of our morality. This mission, however, robs us of one thing that can unite all humans our spirituality.
In other words, humanist spirituality says we don't have to relinquish an important part of our humanity just because we can't accept the literal stories about how we got here on Earth and where we are going next. Being able to give up such beliefs, in favor of accepting life's paradoxes and questions is another trait that develops as we progress farther along the spiritual path.