Encyclopedia of World Problems - Archived Information

Status message

You are currently in UIA's online document archive. These pages are no longer maintained. To search the full archive click here.

The Encyclopedia is currently undergoing redevelopment !

3.9 Acknowledgement of mythico-spiritual dimensions

There are some domains and initiatives that explicitly recognize the value of some form of spiritual experience and its development.

1. Self-sacrifice and inner transformation

Some active traditions stress the limited value of techniques of meditation and prayer when these are used solely as a means of providing periodic "trips" for relaxation and stress control or as a means of affirming status in the life of a community engaging in such practices. Whilst thrilling experiences of ecstasy may relieve the drabness of daily life, they are viewed by some as a distorted understanding of the spiritual life. "Real spiritual life is about loss of self, sacrifice, inner transformation and change. It involves a radical alteration of attitude which affects every element in our lives, even the apparently most earthy and trivial." (Cyprian Smith, 1987).

Meditation and other techniques may simply provide subtle means of avoiding any such process of personal transformation by massaging the ego in aesthetically satisfactory ways that reinforce the current self-image. From this perspective, religious or spiritual experiences are of a different order than the enthralling experiences that can be induced in a variety of ways.

1. Conversion and rebirth

Much importance is attached, especially within Christian charismatic movements, to the process of conversion and rebirth. It is believed that such conversion can sweep people into a new relation with God, acquitted of their past, and with the acquisition of a direct and unmediated kind of assurance. Such entry into the "kingdom of God" is not a casual affair for those undergoing it. It involves a radical confrontation with God, and it seems impossible that it could happen without a profound self-examination and a penetrating self-knowledge. (William Abraham, Logic of Evangelism, 1989).

2. Spiritual guidance and direction

In many religious traditions, special recognition continues to be accorded to spiritual mentors, guides, gurus or masters. However, within the Christian tradition, which has so significantly influenced the international community, the practice of spiritual guidance peaked in the 14th and 15th centuries. Following the Council of Trent (1545-63), the Catholic practice of soul care narrowed in focus to become primarily concerned with decisions about religious vocations. Spiritual guides increasingly took as their primary role the guardianship of orthodoxy, with the avoidance of heresy and dubious forms of mysticism as their major preoccupation.

In contrast to this authoritarian position, Protestant churches used the term "shepherding", implying love and concern. Individual spiritual guidance also came to be de-emphasized in favour of mutual admonition and collective guidance. The necessity of spiritual direction was also questioned by Catholic authors as being useful only when the individual, who is living the life of the Christian community to its fullest extent possible, becomes aware of God's special call to perfection.

The assumption in this tradition appears to be that such people would become associated with one of the many religious orders (or their lay equivalents). Spiritual guidance is then defined by the discipline or rule of the particular order chosen, with little adaptation to individual needs and sensitivities. Individual guidance is not available to the many, other than as part of communal religious practice under priestly guidance. For the general population, this situation has encouraged the shift of emphasis from the cure of souls within a religious context to a cure of minds within a psychotherapeutic context. (David Benner, Psychotherapy and the Spiritual Quest, 1988).

3. Spiritual disciplines

From 1933, the world's most distinguished specialists in fields relating to psychology, religion and cultural anthropology meet annually for many years, under the auspices of the Eranos Foundation, "Toward the task of encompassing and assimilating the world's wealth of poetic and religious visions, modes and dreams of life, and readings of the mystery of death". In one of the publications arising from this enterprise, on Spiritual Disciplines (1985), the editor Mircea Eliade writes: "For the members of Eranos, this exceptional interest in spiritual disciplines and mystical techniques arises from the fact that they are documents capable of revealing a dimension of human existence that has been almost forgotten, or completely distorted, in modern societies. All these spiritual disciplines and mystical techniques are of inestimable value because they represent conquests of the human spirit that have been neglected or denied in the course of recent Western history, but that have lost neither their greatness nor their usefulness. The problems that now arises - and that will present itself with even more dramatic urgency to scholars of the coming generation - is this: How are means to be found to recover all that is still recoverable in the spiritual history of humanity? And this for two reasons:

(a) Western man cannot continue to live on for an indefinite period in separation from an important part of himself, the part constituted by the fragments of a spiritual history of which he cannot decipher the meaning and message.

(b) Sooner or later, our dialogue with the "others" - the representatives of traditional, Asiatic, and "primitive" cultures - must begin to take place not in today's empirical and utilitarian language (which can approach only realities classifiable as social, economic, political, sanitary, etc) but in a cultural language capable of expressing human realities and spiritual values.

Such a dialogue is inevitable; it is part of the ineluctable course of History. It would be tragically naive to suppose that it can continue indefinitely on the mental level on which it is conducted today."

4. Personal relevance of myth

There is increasing recognition of the continuing value of myth in articulating human experience (Campbell, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space). Earlier hopes that the sciences, especially the social sciences, might provide new solutions for old problems are increasingly questioned. The old myths have been replaced by new myths as a response to the continuing encounter with the mystery of life. The new scientific responses to the mysteries of human being are recognized as much myth as the old religious responses. (Benner, David, 1988)

5. Channelled guidance

In many sectors of society, and notably in industrialized countries, there is increasing response to forms of spiritual guidance received through "channels", mediums or under other kinds of trance conditions (including shamans). This interest builds on the traditional role of such sensitives in relating to the mythical world of the gods and the spirits. In the modernized forms of such myths, these now include extraterrestrial entities. Through tapes and books, such guidance (whatever its quality) is now reaching a much wider audience. Sources of this kind, as in the past, are consulted to cast light on major life decisions, which may include political and investment decisions by the leadership of major institutions. Many are influenced in their understanding of human development and its future direction by the patterns of information presented under such conditions.

6. Divination

There is a phenomenal interest in all cultures in various forms of divination, ranging from astrology to even more ancient techniques, including geomancy. Much use is made of such techniques to determine the auspicious conditions favouring key stages in the life process and the configuration of circumstances appropriate to future human development. These techniques are used at all levels of society, often on a daily basis. They are recognized to have been important to the leaders of the largest countries (notably the USA and India) faced with key decisions in international relations as well as to the design and location of business corporation headquarters (Hong Kong). The use of such techniques is intimately intertwined with a mythical understanding of the forces influencing human development.

7. Belief in the devil

There is a surprising resurgence of belief in the devil. Although this belief has been important to the Christian religion, in recent years it seems to have been stimulated by fundamentalism, whether Christian or Islamic. For example, in a special issue on the question (20 December 1990), the Nouvel Observateur, an influential French weekly, reports that 37 percent of French people (50 percent of young people) believe in the devil, compared with 46 per cent of Italians. For France, this is twice the number in 1968. One in ten there claim to have the impression of having been under the influence of the devil at some time. The concern of fundamentalists has in part been a response to the increasing activity of sects and cults. Whilst many of these have quite different, and even opposing preoccupations, some do indeed claim quite openly to engage in devil worship, to the point that black masses and other rituals are documented on television. Both Christian and Islamic authorities of a fundamentalist orientation frequently make reference to the ways in which the devil or Satan is embodied in, or manipulating, those who oppose that perspective. In the media this is most visible in the Middle East, with the Islamic labelling of the USA (or its President) as Satan.

8. Encyclopedia of spirituality.

Interest in spirituality is currently justifying the production of a 25-volume Encyclopedic History of the Religious Quest under the general heading of World Spirituality and under the general editorship of Ewert Cousins. One or more volumes each cover the major traditions.

9. Psychological well-being

Although many psychologists have viewed spirituality in a reductionistic manner, there are a number of significant exceptions. These include: the analytical psychology of Carl Jung and his followers; the we-psychology of Fritz Kunkel; the existential psychology of Soren Kierkegaard, John Finch, and Adrian van Kaam; the contemplative psychology of Gerald May and William McNamara; psychosynthesis, as developed by Robert Assagioli and his followers; and the logotherapy of Viktor Frankl.

10. Spiritual dimension of health

A past Director-General of the World Health Organization proposed that the question of the "spiritual dimension" in health be discussed by the WHO Executive Board (73rd session, EB 73/15, October 1983). In his preparatory note he indicated that all the meanings of spiritual have one common denominator: "They infer a phenomenon that is not material in nature but belongs to the realm of ideas that have arisen in the minds of human beings, particularly ennobling ideas." And by shaping people's action and ways of life, such philosophical, religious, moral or political ideas have had a profound influence on the physical, mental and social well-being of the people concerned.

The text notes the impact of the spiritual dimension but skilfully avoids discussion of any form of non-material human development in the proposed Strategy for Health for All. It seems that the WHO interest in the "spiritual" was temporary and solely due to the personal commitment of the African Director-General of the time (also noted for his success in achieving greater acknowledgement of the related issue of the role of traditional healing methods).

11. Personal spiritual quests

A Catholic writer, commenting on the general unrest and disquiet among religious people today, detects two main desires as coming to the surface, especially among the younger generation. The first is political and social, focusing on the desire for freedom and a more just and equitable society. "The second is more inward and personal. It is the desire to learn about the human heart, its inner depths and recesses. Within the Church it manifests itself as a desire to learn more about prayer and meditation, about different levels of consciousness and awareness....This knowledge and understanding about what human beings are, what lies in the deeper levels of the human heart, ought to be found in the Church, for it is religion, above all, which seeks to touch the central core of human nature.

But people who turn to priests and spiritual directors for this kind of help are often disappointed...Jung points out, very pertinently, that in the eyes of official religion the human psyche, with all its hidden folds and dark declivities, has no real existence of its own; for the priest the psyche or soul is just something to be fitted into a dogmatic or liturgical framework.

This does not satisfy the modern seeker, who wants above all to be understood for what he really is, to be brought to the realization and acceptance of what really does lie in the innermost depths of his mind, regardless of whether this fits in with official church dogma or not....It is no use my being told that I am 'redeemed' by Christ, if my actual experience is one of alienation, darkness and self-division...

That is why so many turn to the psychiatrist rather than the priest. It is also why so many turn to Buddhist, Hindu and Sufi teachers; they believe -- often rightly -- that they will find in them a profound and detailed science of the inner life of the mind, a sureness of touch in practical guidance and training, which is rarely equalled within the Christian fold." (Cyprian Smith, The Way of Paradox, 1987).

12. Inter-faith gatherings of spiritual leaders

In the 1980s the increasing concern of spiritual leaders for the condition of society resulted in a number of initiatives in which the relation between spirituality and the problems of society were explored. These have culminated in the instauration of a series of meetings with parliamentary leaders. The first was in Oxford in 1988 (Vittachi, 1989); the second in Moscow in 1990.

13. Political acknowledgement of power of religion

The 1980s have also forced public authorities to accord greater recognition to the importance that people attach to religion at least, if not to spirituality. This is most dramatically evident in the rise of religious fundamentalism (whether Christian, Islamic or Hindu) and its effect on politics and policy options. Who would have believed that an issue of blasphemy would have the international repercussions of the Rushdie affair ? Who can deny that "holy wars" are as much a factor of the present as they were of the past?