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Are you “Spiritual?”

Are you “Spiritual?”

I think the fastest-growing religion in America today is probably “spiritual but not religious.” The continual rise in witchcraft seems to match this trend: with a few unique exceptions, the vast majority of “witches” appear to be progressives that are desperate simply to not appear dead inside. Almost without exception, when asked, they will say that they are “spiritual, but not religious.”

The trend, of course, might arguably have begun with Christian pastors, and with rogue Christian freestyle slam-poets. Many Christians have developed a bizarre taste for railing against organized religion. One can only imagine they believe themselves to be pulling a Blazing Saddles, putting a gun to their own head and saying “don’t make me shoot the prisoner!” to simply bamboozle religious critics into confused and sympathetic paralysis: “you can’t criticize religion because we’re already criticizing ourselves!”

The problem with both groups, who like to say that they are spiritual but not religious, is that “spirituality” actually means something.

I have taken to listening to Christian radio on my drives around town. Mostly, I listen because it is more interesting than the generally repetitive music stations, but every once in a while you get great little gems, like this morning. The Pastor on the radio was talking about the proper interpretation of tone in scripture that people so often get wrong. That by itself was interesting, but towards the end of his oration, he said the following:

If you say, ‘pastor, I always hear the thundering anger,’ then you need to get your ears checked. The problem is with you, not with God. If you say, ‘pastor, I don’t hear anything at all,’ then you’re spiritually dead.

“If you don’t hear God’s voice, then you are spiritually dead.” This is not just a powerful sentiment, but an incredibly useful standard for determining what it means to actually be spiritual.

Now the phrase “spiritually dead” may sound pretty harsh, but is not meant to be a condemnation. As I write this, I myself am — by this definition — spiritually dead. I do not hear or communicate with voices in my head. Rather, it is meant to help avoid platitudinous nonsense, and also to be illuminating and helpful for the religious — regardless of whether or not you are Christian, pagan, or a kind of lineage-cultist like myself. After all, the most definitive book on this subject — which the pastor’s words immediately brought to my mind — most heavily leaned not on Heaven, but primarily on Olympus.

In 1976, the psychologist Julian Jaynes published The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mindwherein he theorized that for most of human history, humans experienced their own volition in the form of auditory hallucinations. Jaynes most heavily cited Homer’s Iliad as evidence of this ancient, non-introspective mentality, in which characters made decisions after receiving dreams from Zeus, or consulting a priest of Apollo. These characters were “spiritual” then in the technical sense, unencumbered by the paralytic introspection of Hamlet (who, interestingly, began his ascent toward action after speaking with a ghost), and empowered by the voices of Gods and spirits.

For a more modern rendition of what it might look like to be “spiritual,” we can look to the infamous Irishman, Stephen:

The obvious implication of this is that most people who say that they are “spiritual” are, in fact, not. They have not conception of what it actually means to be spiritual, other than the vague assumption that it is somehow better and more interesting to be spiritual, but they don’t like the stodgy confines of being “religious.”

In reality, the two are inseparable.

Freud’s great contribution to psychology was the division between the “ego,” the “id,” and the “super-ego.” While much of Freud’s work remains unscientific speculation and armchair theorizing, these concepts are nevertheless useful in understanding bicameral spirituality and communicating with voices, if one desires to be “spiritual.”

The functional importance of the ego is manifested in the fact that normally control over the approaches to motility devolves upon it. Thus in its relation to the id it is like a man on horseback, who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse; with this difference, that the rider tries to do so with his own strength while the ego uses borrowed forces. The analogy may be carried a little further. Often a rider, if he is not to be parted from his horse, is obliged to guide it where it wants to go; so in the same way the ego is in the habit of transforming the id’s will into action as if it were its own.

— Sigmund Freud

Curious parallels to the Plato’s soul-chariot aside, we can see that the id — or bodily desires — and the ego (literally “I”) must negotiate an identity between them on their own. But ultimately, the ego and the id (thumos and epithymia) are not enough to give direction to your life. You need a charioteer, a super-ego, or logos to drive the horses of the Id and the Ego in the right direction. For the purpose of being “spiritual,” it does not matter whether the source of that super-ego voice is your childhood memory of your parents, or God the Father, or Odin, or Zeus, or the spirit of your lineage, or some Jungian conception of everyman.

But the development of this super-ego voice is the product of repetition and exposure. It is the result of becoming so intimately familiar with the character behind your super-ego that your subconscious can tell you what it would say: “you know your father wouldn’t want you to do this.”

Hearing your own voice channeling other people’s thoughts is good, but it is not spiritual. What it is is empathy. The spiritual person doesn’t tell himself: “My father wouldn’t want me to do this.” Instead, he hears, in his father’s own voice: “Don’t do this.” While the empathetic voice is sometimes helpful, it lacks the authority of the spiritual, the solidity of “thou shalt” and “thou shall not.” As such, empathetic contemplation is sometimes easy to rationalize away or simply ignore, in a way that Socrates’ dæmon or the word of God himself is not. Perhaps this is why many people believe that we cannot be good without God.

Religion being a system of faith and worship — in other words, a systematic approach to orienting one’s attention towards the proper sources for a developed super-ego/logos — we may infer that it is impossible to be “spiritual” without being “religious.”

As an aside, this theory has some interesting implications for Nietzsche’s argument about the “death of God.” If he means that we have killed off the heavenly voices that directed us in life, that took the burden of responsibility and anxiety off of our shoulders (as he seems to imply, particularly in his reading of the Greek view of life in The Birth of Tragedy), then his strange formulation not only makes infinitely more sense, but it would imply that he arrived at roughly Jaynes’ conclusion about spirituality and consciousness almost a century before the publication of The Origins of Consciousness. However, Nietzsche’s timing would have been off, perhaps by a couple thousand years, in terms of when the death of God happened.

And not long after this ancient death of God, we were offered a new religion from the Levant, which promised us a rebirth into the spirit from a resurrecting God…

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. I’d argue spirituality is the reward you get for following the christian path, whatever that means. The relationship between spirituality & religion can crudely be compared to that of carrot & stick. In a desperate attempt to regain a congregation, organized religion has chosen to promise the fruits of spirituality, and will therefore refrain from any of that silly nonsense that God has standards. This is why a figure like Jordan Peterson became an intellectual messiah by pointing out that we are missing half of the equation.

    You write that it doesn’t matter whether the super-ego voice comes from your childhood memory of your parents or from “God”. 2 paragraphs later, you write that hearing your “own voice channeling other people’s thoughts” is useful, but doesn’t have the gravitas that the spiritual variant with the biblical “thou shalt” and “thou shall not” offers. I take this to mean that the first variant is super-ego development through earthly parental figures, and the second is that of super-ego development through God the Father.
    I might be misunderstanding something here, and because I don’t want to misrepresent your views. However, this seems to be an inconsistency. For what It’s worth I agree wholeheartedly that the empathetic daddy voice “Don’t do this” is inferior to the spiritual divine decree of “thou shall not”.

    1. RE, your second point, you’re close. Channeling other people’s thoughts isn’t exactly super-ego, at least not to the degree that hearing the voice of Jesus or your long-dead platoon mate would be. It’s kind of a mature manifestation of ego, I suppose? A lot of what I’m writing here is synthesizing speculation, so take it with a dash of salt. (The point about adopting your father’s voice as your super-ego is Freud’s theory of God; when fully integrated, the person does not realize it is their own thoughts, and may even experience the voice as an auditory hallucination. It’s this inability to see the self-authorship of the voice that would distinguish the ego from the super-ego).

      Carrot and stick isn’t a bad crude analogy, in that we tend to dislike “religion.” However, while the confines of a structured system can be uncomfortable, I think a fair bit of our current rejection of religion is more social and faddish than the physical pain of being hit with a stick. Looking back in time, religion was not so much viewed as the source of suffering, but the remedy.

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