Against Spirituality

The Specter of Psychology and its Theological Vicissitudes

From someone who has spent an entire college education in a Catholic seminary, following the Augustinian tradition, one of the most repeated words is that of being able to live a spiritual life. It means a life of prayer, contemplation and to construct a spirituality based on a reflection of God’s plan to oneself. We could define spirituality as a form of devotion and discipline, aimed at making any person live a fruitful and faithful life in grace. However, what I find rather difficult in spirituality is how susceptible it is to naively engage with popular fads in psychology, while at the same time condemn the greed of to-day’s technological society. Outside of Christianity, spirituality is sought after as a discipline and a technique of meditation, seen as a counteraction against to-day’s demands and busy lifestyle. It is more popularly associated with new age theosophy and the burgeoning popularity of guided meditative techniques, yoga, oriental medicine, and so on. There is a great market among young people for a less ritualistic and less theologically dogmatic religion that gives the same spiritual benefits. Its current usage is usually tied with a rejection of religious dogmatism and an acceptance of its metaphysical elements that promise a balanced life away from the stress of to-day’s society.

In a Christian (and I can say Catholic) sense, spirituality can be seen as a response to to-day’s fads, given that the words has only seen popular use among Christian of the present generation. At this point, it is necessary to introduce the dichotomy between spirituality and religion and that Christian spirituality must be seen as a response to that growing trend as part of the failure to realize its own ideals and succumb to the ethos presented by popular psychological fads. Let us look into how Christian spirituality is defined apropos of spirituality in general

Spirituality gets traced back to the letters of Paul in which he uses the word pneuma to signal a life in alignment with God’s spirit. Christian spirituality presumes through God’s grace, a human desire and capacity for growing in union with the triune God.[1]

One can immediately see how new age cosmology is at play like how being one with the harmony of the cosmos is replaced with the “growing in union with the triune God.” The only fundamental difference is that while new age spirituality emphasizes the individual effort of a person to attain union with nature, Christian spirituality is an emphasis on one’s alignment with grace. In one of the most divisive debates in Christianity (as divisive as Arianism) i.e. between the Pelagians and the supporters of Augustine, grace, sin, and the nature of free-will were highly contested; the pelagians had a the most optimistic psychology, emphasizing the effort of a believer to attain salvation by himself, making them one of the most ascetic groups during the 5th century, gaining the admiration of a lot of observers including Augustine himself. Hence, even with one of the most optimistic psychology, the effect was of a strict spiritual discipline; Augustinianism on the other hand has a totally pessimistic psychology to the point of being misanthropic. In order to reject the Manichaean dualistic ontology, Augustine emphasized that beings (and subsequently human beings) are created with a fundamental lack in their being, a privation boni as an inevitable consequence of creation. Humanity has a lack that made it possible for him to seek God or choose evil; embodied and capable of liberum arbitrium (translates literally to “freedom to choose” or “free choice of the will” instead of free-will). The post-lapsus made man a being fully identified in the crossroads of good and evil eternally condemned to free difficult choices unless he lives under grace. Here is where Augustine fully employs the dichotomy between libertas (freedom) and liberum arbitrium (free choice of the will) as the pinnacle of human life where freedom is gained through the self-abandonment of free will to the good. Through its surrender to grace, man accepts the incapability to save himself because of the lack it inherently has.[2] Anti-pelagianism entailed a fatalistic psychology, grounded on the importance of the fall and the transfer of Adam’s sin to all men who although individually created by God is inevitably born in the world of sin. This debate is so divisive that although both Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches condemn pelagian teachings only Catholic theology went far with Augustine’s theology of grace and fully integrating it into the doctrinal body of the church (Orthodox Christians do not believe in original sin and have a doctrine of grace radically different from Augustine). The psychological consequence of Augustine’s theology of graced in Catholic and Protestant theology is the fundamental role of inherent guilt and sinfulness of man in the face of God, requiring total surrender to grace. From the downright pessimistic psychology of Augustine emerged his spirituality based on eternally internal turths, expressed in a famous quotation from De Libero Arbitrio: Noli foras ire, in te redi in interiore homine habitat veritas (do not go out, truth lies on the interior man).

Truth lies internally when we search for it from within our heart and discover that it is the one that connects us with God. With Augustine, we see something that resembled a spirituality in the modern sense of the term, but we nonetheless have a picture of two strands of spirituality that present itself to all religious seekers: one, the new age spirituality currently trending on the market; second, Christian spirituality based on the union with God and the attainment of proper spiritual discipline for the salvation of souls. Both options are seen as disciplines, emphasizing prayer life and constant meditation to aid the person in making wise decisions in life as well as being faithful to the a certain set of values. The unsettling fact with both new age spirituality and a Christian response is that both new ageism and Christianity agree on the goal of spirituality as a union with God or the cosmos. I claim—on the accusation of being presumptuous—that Christianity and Judaism are two religions of the book that does not engage with spirituality or does not contain a spiritual tradition or has gone against the attempt of making a spiritual practice out of its religious beliefs.

 

Job: the Proto-Critique of Ideology

Current theoretical works have seen a ray of light in the Book of Job and its uncomfortable place within the body of work of the late Hebraic prophets of the Old Testament. The interesting point raised by contemporary theorists (of whom Slavoj Žižek is included in countless citations) is how the narrative of Job is radically different from other stories of the Old Testament. Instead of the picture of Job as a patient sufferer open to the might of God, the Job we read is that of a cynic who refused all attempts to interpret his predicament to a religio-spiritual values. The discourses of the three friends can be described as a defense of Yahweh’s omnipotence, justice, and wisdom, three pillars upon which Jewish theology is grounded and form the standard stereotype of Hebraic imagination as a having an angry God. In all of these discourses, Job can be read as retorting strongly against their suggestions, giving absurd reasons and violent replies; for example in a reply to Zophar, Job said

Anyone becomes a laughing-stock to his friends if he cries to God and expects an answer. People laugh at anyone who has integrity and is upright. Add insult to injury,’ think the prosperous, ‘strike the fellow now that he is staggering! And yet the tents of brigands are left in peace: those who provoke God dwell secure and so does anyone who makes a god of his fist! (Job 12: 4-6 NJB).

One can imagine this simply as a rant of desperation and utter madness; however, instead of accepting Job’s faith as an exemplar of the faithful (as can be seen later in the gospels where Jesus would make countless statements about exemplary men and women), Yahweh instead enters into a show of force akin to anyone who only wants to make a show, while at the same time unconfident about oneself. What is different in the Book of Job aside from Yahweh’s exhibitionism and Job’s cynicism is the role of the devil at the beginning of the book. Unlike the usual portrayal of Satan as the horned one, tempting Jesus or Eve with wisdom, food and all the fine pleasures of life, the devil in the Book of Job acts as the jester. Here the full conversation deserves full quotation.

One day when the sons of God came to attend on Yahweh, among them came Satan. So Yahweh said to Satan, ‘Where have you been?’ ‘Prowling about on earth,’ he answered, ‘roaming around there.’ So Yahweh asked him, ‘Did you pay any attention to my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth: a sound and honest man who fears God and shuns evil.’ ‘Yes,’ Satan said, ‘but Job is not God-fearing for nothing, is he? Have you not put a wall round him and his house and all his domain? You have blessed all he undertakes, and his flocks throng the countryside. But stretch out your hand and lay a finger on his possessions: then, I warrant you, he will curse you to your face.  ‘Very well,’ Yahweh said to Satan, ‘all he has is in your power. But keep your hands off his person.’ So Satan left the presence of Yahweh. (Job 1: 6-12 NJB)

Instead of a person being tempted, it was Yahweh who was tempted. The whole scenario looked like a royal court where the jester would make absurd observations that would give him a lot of ridicule from the court but sets the plot progression of the whole story. Take for example three of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai movies notably Kagemusha (1980), Ran (1985), and Seven Samurai (1954), in all three films, the fool knows more than the other characters the absurdity of any pre-determined set of values that most of the characters have. For example, Kikuchyo, from Seven Samurai, acted more like a samurai than the samurais themselves (who for the most part are ronin, masterless samurai), going on suicidal missions and at one part of the film rouse the villagers when defeat was almost certain. Kyoami acts as the stereotypical jester in Ran (since the film is an indirect adaptation of King Lear), making absurd comments about Lord Ichimonji’s attempts at wise administration of his feudal domain (like giving his sons de facto rule over the castles) blind at his own ruthless seizure of power. The role of the jester coincides with the Lacanian lesion of the big Other’s ignorance, provoking through sarcastic remarks the leader’s body, making him show his nakedness to everyone.

In the case of the devil in the Book of Job, his temptation of Yahweh is a word of provocation, arguing with him about Job’s faith; perhaps, the devil knows that Job would nonetheless keep his faith even with everything taken away from him. The discourse between Yahweh and the devil is not about Job as such, but about Yahweh’s relation to Job. In the end, the result is one of the strangest exchanges between Yahweh and anyone. While everyone from the previous books of the Old Testament saw Yahweh in his absolute omnipotence and wisdom (e.g. the wrestling match with Jacob, the burning bush, the discourse between Yahweh and Moses in Mount Sinai, the discourses on the Books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy and so on); the dialogue between Yahweh and Job is different. Here, we see God not as the wise figure that Freud would later on label as the figurehead of the primal father, but here he sounds like a nagger, telling Job about how he is absent when everything was created. In the face of Job, God acts like the Filipino politician who had to print his names on every corner and every government project just to announce that he is working and that the trust and faith of his constituents is not put into waste.[3] By nagging at Job, Yahweh is fully shown in his impotence; but to save the big Other’s ignorance, Job replies to Yahweh:

I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be hindered. I have dealt with things that I do not understand things too wonderful for me which I cannot know. I had heard of you by word of mouth but now my eye has seen you. Therefore, I disown what I said and repent in dust and ashes. (Job 42: 2-6 NAB)

The end of the book does not describe what happened to Job after this event only that he was reinstated to his former position of wealth and influence. However, it is certain that Job did not ascend to some higher form of spiritual understanding or an attainment of greater wisdom. Rather, Job’s final answer to Yahweh cannot be a final affirmation of God’s omnipotence, but simply Job affirming that between him and God is an irreconcilable distance. Here Slavoj Žižek reads the relation between Job and Yahweh as that of the knowledge of the big Other’s non-existence and that his show of force to Job shows his impotence to the faithful Job. Apropos of Chesterton’s comment from Orthodoxy, God in his monologue appears as an atheist, since he himself does not believe in himself and requires the hapless other to recognize his own power. Job’s answer to God should be read as a fetishistic disavowal, an “I know precisely well but…” It is not Job who is engaging a proto-critique of ideology, it is the text that engages in a critique of (spiritual) ideology, showing the vanity of wisdom and spirituality and at the same time that vulgar denial is insufficient in giving an alternative.

In to-day’s discussion, one always finds the sporadic comments about religious devotees and how Filipino religious devotions have laudable devotions to certain religious traditions, but lacked the capacity to transform them into a spirituality that would give them the proper way of life. Sociologists debate about the characteristic of Filipino devotees and are often stuck with dichotomies or a syncretism between Christian baptism and a repressed paganism. One should here take the fetishistic disavowal to its theoretical limit; consider the common Tagalog truism Nasa Diyos ang awa, nasa tao ang gawa (in God there is mercy, in man there is action), the believer has the unwavering belief in God’s capacity for mercy, but it is supplemented by man’s action. In relation, consider the Jesuit axiom of believing that your success is independent of God…but nonetheless work as if everything depends on God.[4] At this point, spirituality as seen as a body of spiritual and faith based disciplines is rendered irrelevant.

 

The Commune of God is with you, and with thy Spirit!

The conflict between naïve universality (i.e. when everything is united in one consiciousness) which forms around the concept of Nirvana—the liberation from suffering—and the Christian universality—that of inherent conflict, a universality of struggle with the commune of believers—is best demonstrated in the final two episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion, forming the film version The End of Evangelion (1997). In the famous final sequences of the film when Third Impact was initiated by the mysterious organization SEELE (comparable to the Illuminati), as starting point of the “Human Instrumentality Project” ( a sci-fi expression for Nirvana and the universalization of human consciousness into one), Shinki Ikari, the series main protagonist who is undoubtedly an Oedipal subject deprived by the father, was given a choice by Rei Ayanami (who by that time was completely united with Adam and Lilith) either to end everything and reduce annihilate everything to end all the pain of existence or endure the pain through a rejection of instrumentality. One has to remember that the intention of instrumentality was to artificially generate mankind’s final evolutionary moment through the unification of everyone within a single being; to achieve that a sacrificial lamb must be slain in the “ego of Eva-01,” Shinji’s evangelion unit. With Rei/Adam/Lilith, only through Shinji’s decision can instrumentality be successful. He chose to endure the pain of consciousness, after a long dialogue between him and Rei, recounting every painful and pleasurable memory; his refusal of instrumentality forms around the dialogue where he is fully immersed in instrumentality (Shinji and Rei floating around the primordial soup), given a choice either to accept it and experience the suffering of consciousness.

Shinji: I don’t know where to find happiness.

Rei: So, you only find happiness in your dreams.

S: Then, this is not reality, this world where no one exists.

R: No, it’s only a dream.

S: Then, I don’t exist here either.

R: This convenient fabrication is your attempt to change reality.

S: is that wrong?

R: You were using fantasy to escape reality.

S: why can’t I dream that I’m alone?

R: That is not a dream. That’s a substitute for reality.

S: But where is my reality?

R: It is at the end of your dream.[5]

When Shinji makes his final decision to endure everything, he was given assurance that everyone would eventually return to their former selves as long as their consciousness is capable of reclaiming themselves. Instrumentality was denied and the film ends with Shinki choking Asuka Langley, with no explanations as to why.

What was denied is instrumentality is a naïve version of universality that everything in the end will unite in a single consciousness, ending all suffering and reach the apex of human evolution. This goal is where occidental and oriental cosmologies converge; both Gnosticism and Buddhism aim at the unification of humanity within the one (which provoked Elaine Pagels to conclude that Gnosticism and Buddhism shared a common ground and even influenced a few gnostic groups). Shinji’s “no” can be seen as a refusal to end the pain; the psychoanalytical lesson here is that Shinji tries go beyond the pleasure principle, fully accepting pain as part of any pleasure seeking activity. In the end, everything does not return to normal and the Earth is reduced in a sea of LCL (the primordial soup), with Rei/Adam/Lilith gigantic body in ruins overwhelming the background. We can describe him as occupying the same place as Job by the end of the Book of Job. Both Job and Shinji witnessed the big Other in its purity—to the point of being too close to it. However, Shinji and Job diverge when it comes to reacting to the show omnipotence. While Job distanced himself from the belief in the other, fetishistically disavowing it and is rewarded for keeping the image, Shinji makes a radical choice by refusing to believe in the other. He fully realizes the non-existence of the big Other and that what we have on Earth is the hopes and dreams of everybody the capacity to realize them despite the enduring the pain of desire. The film engages in a critique of spirituality by showing Shinji’s obstinate attitude towards his superiors, refusing to pilot Eva-01, denying his part in a bigger plan for humanity. Furthermore, through such obstinate attitude, he was able to avert SEELE’s plan to initiate instrumentality. It was this group through their obsession to force the evolution of man through a spiritual sublimation through the unification of all beings into one that we get into the gist of the film’s criticism of spirituality.

There is a small boundary between the burgeoning popularity of exotic spiritual practices and the interests of big businesses. William Davies points out how at a 2014 meeting of the World Economic Forum, aside from the usual attendees (billionaires, bankers, corporation big shots etc.) a Buddhist monk was one of the guests, offering meditative and relaxation techniques. Furthermore, the forum was filled with discussions on mindfulness, where twenty five sessions were about mindfulness and holistic wellness.[6] The big business interest in various spiritual traditions made a large demand for oriental gurus and certified yoga instructors. The appeal of oriental spirituality and syncretic versions of Christianity can be related to the demand by big business companies to have a dynamic workplace ethic. It is necessary to point out that both Christian and Oriental “spiritualties” are two sides of the same coin, providing an individualist trickle down spirituality—improve oneself through this and that and everything follows—; its egotistical element is retained and a banal cosmo-theology in place.

I propose no alternative here and I will not attempt to come up with a “materialist spirituality” to supplement a dialectical materialist theory. With a rejection of spirituality, I am emphasizing the communal aspect that bound Christians in its early days. What they have is not a system of spirituality, but a theology of militant anticipation of the parousia. When Paul tells the church at Ephesus to put on the armor of God, loins girded in truth, the breastplate of righteousness and so on[7], Paul is not telling the Christians at Ephesus that they can already have a cake and eat it; rather, the recourse to martial metaphors is Paul’s reminder that the faith entails a struggle far more difficulty that philosophical and religious ones. Without being nostalgic, to-day’s religious atmosphere has the wonderment at what lies beyond knowledge and the seeming inherent unity of all things. However, one must maintain that the very failure to understand what is out there is inherent in the object being grasped. The Lacanian lesson of the Book of Job and Neon Genesis Evangelion is that when we are face to face with the traumatic real of what is in front of us, realizing how it is void of all value, we either keep appearances and go on or create another reality outside of what has been fetishized. When Christianity only had an appeal with slaves, women, the illiterate and others who are marginalized by the (multi-cultural avant la lettre) Empire, it never kept appearances; instead, their writings were preoccupied with an anticipation of the end, the apocalypse of Imperial domination. The legacy left by the Early Christians is that they left a memory of militancy and communal living. In our neoliberal age, when communal living means exercising identity politics, perhaps, only the religious militant gesture (without being fundamentalist) can provide a proper theoretical stance against to-day’s ideological struggles.

 

[1] Colleen M. Griffith, “Catholic Spirituality in Practice,” C21 Resources (Spring 2009): 1.

[2] Augustine’s debates with Pelagianism spans over a great number of his major writings, sermons, and letters; to start, De Libero Arbitrio (On the Free Choice of the Will), De Natura et Gratia (On Nature and Grace), etc. for a comprehensive source see Anti-Pelagian Writings, ed Philipp Schaff (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Ethreal Library, 1886)

[3] However, there are cases when politicians have to blame government bureaucracy to escape the blame from their constituents. For example, in one of the cities of Metro Manila, numerous word works, causing heavy traffic, bore the signs “DPWH [Department of Public Works and Highways] project NOT the City of _____ so that public blame would fall on the bureaucracy of the DPWH and not the City officials who are elected.

[4] Slavoj Zizek, On Belief (London: Routledge, 2002) p. 125.

[5] I am quoting from the English subtitles of the Japanese original.

[6] William Davies, The Happiness Industry: How Government and Big Business Sold us Well Being (London: Verso, 2015), pp. 1-3.

[7] Cf. Eph 6: 13-17.

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Against Spirituality

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