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3.8 Mythical, religious and spiritual biases

1. Religious experience

A large-scale survey of religious experience as a subjective phenomenon was conducted through the Religious Experience Research Unit at Manchester College (Oxford). The unit was founded by Sir Alister Hardy in 1969. The results of the first ten years of this work covering 3,000 responses have been published (Hardy, 1979). In 1974 a national survey was made of people reporting a mystic experience in the USA resulting in some 1,500 responses indicating that over 30 per cent of Americans had such experiences (Greely and McCready). Building on Hardy's work, two national surveys were conducted in the UK. These also indicated that over 30 per cent of the population had such experiences (Hay 1978, 1982).

The author notes: "I doubt very much that religion is about to die out. The awareness out of which it grows is too widespread for that. More dangerous, because more likely, is that it may continue to be isolated from the mainstream of modern life. Human realities which are absolutely ignored tend, as Freud has pointed out, to return in bizarre and fanatical forms....We need to attend more openly to our religious awareness, so that at the very least its constructiveness and creativity can be used for the benefit of the species."

The characteristic religious experience, at least within Christianity, is that of being absolutely dependent on God (Schleiermacher, Friedrich. The Christian Faith). The value of any religion, especially Christianity, is its success in evoking this experience. While in these terms the human condition is made clear to man by the presence of God, in those of Paul Tillich such recognition of God is always in some sense a function of human striving. Unfortunately, as indicated by Rudolf Otto (The Idea of the Holy, 1950): "So far from keeping the non-rational element in religion alive in the heart of the religious experience, orthodox Christianity manifestly failed to recognize its value, and by this failure gave the idea of God a one-sidedly intellectualistic and rationalistic interpretation."

Within the Christian religions, emphasis appears to be allocated primarily to the one-step process of "conversion", although there is nothing uniquely Christian about the language of conversion and new birth. Despite some recognition of people of greater spiritual "depth", there is much vagueness concerning the process by which this was achieved and whether it can be replicated to any degree by others. Mystical experience of any kind is treated as extraordinary, if not totally suspect. This attitude is however increasingly questioned in charismatic religious movements. In the eyes of many, the credibility of established religions is eroded by the seeming lack of relationship between advancement within them and the increase, if any, in spiritual development of the individuals concerned.

Although religions such as Christianity have rather successfully eliminated the experience of the numinous or the holy, it is reported as breaking through at odd times and in particular circumstances. It is characterized by "mysterium tremendum" and a mixture of elements of awe, dread, wonder and fascination: "beyond our apprehension and comprehension, not only because our knowledge has certain irremovable limits, but because in it we come upon something inherently 'wholly other', whose kind and character are incommensurable with our own and before which we therefore recoil in a wonder that strikes us chill and numb." (Otto, 1950).

2. Spiritual development

"It is perhaps no accident that within those movements whose energies are directed towards the saving both of our ravaged earth, and of ourselves, there is a revival of awareness of the importance of spirituality. This revival is occurring independently of the uneasiness of the churches. Although as yet unfocused and without direction, it is none the less insistent. It is also fortified by the newest ideas within a science visibly approaching insights undreamed of at the beginning of this century. It is as though the extremity of our conditions evokes an instinctual response from within those forces of life which are concerned with survival....However undefined or unarticulated, the experience of what has been called the spirit appears a fact of our existence which lends to us the sense of a power within and about us which is not tangible, but ever present. However we name it, it is the source of our deepest responses to life....At the heart of the mystery of creation there appears to lie an ambiguity, a doubleness, a dialectic whose resolution is at once the justification of the old and the affirmation of the new. For humanity the irresistible path towards self-knowledge is the path towards God. Our viability as a species depends on our acknowledgement of an answerability to what is more than ourselves and yet lies within us as that which we are about to know." (Lorna Marsden, The Guardian)

It is surprising to note that few established religions appear to give much emphasis to "spiritual development", especially within the western religious traditions. Religions tend to emphasize moral and ethical development and religious worship, but accord little attention to development of the experiential dimension -- other than as an important private concern. "There seems to be a tendency on the part of the WCC, perhaps Protestants in general, in certain traditions at least, to think of spirituality primarily in terms of worship. Worship is perhaps taken in a broad sense of prayer, devotion, eucharist, celebration, community-at-prayer. The word worship is not used as frequently in my Roman Catholic tradition, but we would in any case not equate it with spirituality. Before Vatican II we probably spoke more of the spiritual than of spirituality. And spiritual life did tend to focus more on spiritual exercises, devotions, prayer life, personal or communal. After Vatican II, however, we spoke more readily of spirituality, meaning the whole of our life as it was shot through with faith...Spirituality embraces one's ministry and service, one's relationships, one's personal and communal prayer life, one's approach to the political and social environment, in short one's life-style...Spirituality then is incarnational, daily, integrated. To be authentic it must have dimensions of combat, of search, of retreat, of renewal, of discernment, of personal growth, of ecumenicity, etc..." (Joan Puls, Vital Ecumenical Concerns, 1986).

Although religion can claim to be vitally concerned with human development and attaches great value to the experiential dimension, its relationship to spiritual development remains unclear. Thus in reviewing the significance of "human development", the World Council of Churches notes: "...More than ever before, we find it difficult to articulate our understanding of the development concept and consequently to decide on the patterns of participation in the development process. In the past few years there have been many conscious efforts to give human development a conceptual clarity that it lacked, but the relation between concept and reality seems to become more diffused and more evasive. The uncertainties and ambiguities resulting from this situation are made more pronounced because of the few certainties that cannot be evaded: that after two decades of efforts to remove poverty and reduce inequality there are today more people in the grips of dire poverty and the gap between the rich and the poor has widened...In the quest for development, we find ourselves caught in a pensive mood, raising many questions and finding few answers." (World Council of Churches, 1975).

For many the question of spiritual development is not a matter divorced from the social and environmental crises of the times. The failure to develop those dimensions of human potential then directly inhibits possibilities of responding appropriately and insightfully to those crises. In the words of George Steiner: "What I affirm is the intuition that where God's presence is no longer a tenable supposition and where His absence is no longer a felt, indeed overwhelming weight, certain dimensions of thought and creativity are no longer attainable...The density of God's absence, the edge of presence in that absence, is no empty dialectical twist. The phenomenology is elementary: it is like the recession from us of one whom we have loved or sought to love or of one before whom we have dwelt in fear. The distancing is, then, charged with the pressures of a nearness out of reach, of a remembrance torn at the edges. It is the absent "thereness", in the death-camps, in the laying waste of a grimed planet, which is articulate in the master-texts of our age." (Real Presences, 1989).

The more obvious problems of poverty, pollution, exploitation of resources and conflict then serve as metaphors indicative of the impoverished, polluted, exploitative, and conflictual forms of human development which currently predominate.