As our world becomes more interconnected, one of the greatest benefits is that various spiritual traditions are sharing their wisdom with each other. More so than any dis-membering of outdated institutions, I believe this re-membering of the diversely-and-Divinely-inspired human family is why so many of us are turning toward cultivating our own individual spirituality. We’re now all much more aware of beliefs and practices from other times and places – it’s only natural we’d be inclined to question what we’ve taken for granted, and to seek what resonates most strongly with our personal journey.
We want to consider all our options and try them on, and we find there can be huge range in what fits. Thus, more and more of us are exploring many different kinds of beliefs and practices, developing an eclectic spirituality.
This can be exciting, but also overwhelming. While we venture down many spiritual paths, most of us still need some kind of home to come back to. With so many directions to go, how does one hold a center? For an example of how I find my center, stay tuned to this current Articles of Faith series, where I explore the three main pillars of my own eclectic spirituality: Mystic Spirituality, Celtic Spirituality, and Christian Spirituality. For more on finding your own center, I recommend checking out Simple Structure for your Spirituality– Part 1: Exercises for Spiritual Clarity.
For now, let’s focus on a related question: What does it look like to stay open to different perspectives on the Divine, even while holding a center, and respectfully appreciating the gamut of wisdom?
In other words, how do we navigate having an eclectic spirituality?
In the spirit of eclecticism, we’ll answer this question by examining a tradition we’re all part of in the U.S. but rarely think of as spiritual, plus beliefs and practices of three sets of traditions relatively few of us are part of:
Islamic spirituality, and
The infinitely diverse category of Nature-based, ancestral spiritualities (yes, we will address cultural appropriation here!)
Let’s follow these paths and see where they go!
You may be asking, “‘Scientific spirituality?!’ Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?!” Not at all – in fact science and spirituality compliment, shape, and merge with each other all the time in many wonderful ways! But how? How can science possibly inform our perspective on the Divine?
It’s actually a common, modern misperception to think of science merely as a tool for exerting certainty and control over the world. The scientific method was originally designed as a way of learning about things through wonder and humility:
we’re supposed to start with a question,
then admit that, despite any assumptions we may have, we probably don’t know the full answer,
then set out with an open mind to see what we discover, testing, observing, and interpreting all along the way.
This method of rigorous inquisitiveness was a breakthrough system of thought at the time of its invention, helping catalyze the Scientific Revolution, and it can continue to help shake us out of intellectual stubbornness. However, as science has learned more and more over the centuries, we scientifically-minded people now often succumb to hubris and flip the script: we sometimes assume we already know the answers to all the important questions, and at a certain point stop asking them. This is antithetical to the spirit of discovery, and unfortunately shows that science at its most closed-minded can fall into the same kind of rigid dogmatism it’s helped us leave behind.
But science at its best reminds us that for every question answered, more are opened for the asking. It reminds us that reality will always exceed our minds' reach, which in turn should always exceed what we think we grasp. It reminds us of the beautiful truth that life is a restless, relentless quest of curiosity – not mastery – in a mind-bogglingly amazing universe. And spirituality at its best reminds us of the same thing!
The juiciest questions science keeps running into – about the deeper nature of reality – are the most important ones, the ones that propagate outward into new frontiers of knowledge, and the ones that spirituality has already long been asking. This is a recipe not for antagonism, but partnership. So may we believe in and practice intrepid curiosity, both wildly spiritual and scientifically methodical.
We can also find scientific spirituality in the recognition of linear progress. Most ancestral and Buddhist spiritualities, among others, have focused primarily on the cyclical nature of time, paying attention to what remains relatively constant over the years or centuries. But science has helped humanity realize the linear nature of time as well: many phenomena build on each other over time, never to be repeated, and the universe evolves inexorably. We see this reality in the expansion of the cosmos, the successive geological epochs of the Earth, the ever-growing complexity of life, and the improvement in human living standards and technology over time. We knew little of these reality-defining processes before science.
This linear progress perspective reminds us of many important things. We are each unique, finite beings who deserve the most out of the one precious life we have. We are not necessarily beholden to repeat the actions of those who came before us – we can learn from the past, anticipate the future, and prevent catastrophes. We need to care for our world lest we damage it beyond repair. We all need to internalize these beautiful truths now more than ever, for the sake of our own spiritualities and the sake of our planet.
Does science hold the full beautiful truth? That’s up for interpretation, and as you’ll see in this Articles of Faith series, I have my own view. Whatever the case, in our eclectic spirituality, we can say, in the spirit of science, “Sapere aude. Dare to know.”
In another set of posts, we explore the helpful structure that the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism can provide for anyone's spirituality. But beyond this, how can the Buddhist perspective on the Divine inform our own?
On the question of whether there’s a transcendent reality, beyond the material one we readily perceive, science abstains, Islam points to Allah, and ancestral spiritualities may have all kinds of views. But the Buddhist perspective affirms the existence of a transcendent state of consciousness called Nirvana, or freedom from suffering.
The goal of Buddhism is to help every being in the difficult task of reaching Nirvana. Until we get there, we are all caught in the cycle of Samsara: when we die, our ever-changing Souls reincarnate in a new mortal being rather than in Nirvana, and we continue to experience suffering. This repeats unless and until we achieve Moksha (enlightenment or liberation), which is primarily done by consistently treating all beings with care and dignity, per the Noble Eightfold Path. This is what it means to improve one’s Karma, and the more beings are engaging in this, the closer we all get to Nirvana.
There is such beautiful truth in this perspective! Regardless of what one believes about linear time, God, or Nirvana, our bodies – both while we’re dead and alive – are indeed continuously recycled by the Earth, our matter circulated all over the planet by waters, winds, and sedimentation, to be quite literally “reincarnated” in all manner of other beings. It may also be true – albeit more controversial – that our Souls themselves are as mutable as our bodies, making them gifts belonging to and shared with all, rather than somehow “owned” by us as individuals. In any case, from this point of view, when we treat other beings well or badly, in a very real sense we treat ourselves the same. Thus it only makes sense to practice the four ways of the Brahmavihara: with loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity.
Does this encapsulate the full beautiful truth? That’s up to each of us, and as you’ll see in this Articles of Faith series, I have my own perspective. Whatever the case, in our eclectic spirituality, we can join Buddhists in saying, “May all beings have happiness and the cause of happiness. May they be free of suffering and the cause of suffering.”
What about Islam ancestral spiritualities? What does it look like to stay open to and respectfully appreciate them?
Stay tuned for Part 2!
In the meantime I offer some reflection questions:
How have you been opening to wonder, humility, and the restless, relentless quest of curiosity?
How have you been integrating science into your spirituality?
How have you been practicing loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity?
How have you been integrating Buddhist perspective into your spirituality?
How have you been contemplating the transcendent?
Image credits: #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8 - Devin Bard