Tag Archives: Religion and Spirituality

It is almost two years ago that I started this blog, and I started, with deliberate intent, with Feuerbach. Referring to his Philosophy of the Future, I articulated my conviction that philosophy should come out of the ivory tower and concern itself with the global problems that face us humans and our fellow earthlings. Mentioning the common prejudice about Feuerbach of writing religion off in a simplistic manner, I suggested to come back to that topic some other time. Now is that time. And there are two reasons for it. One is the confusion, around the world, on so-called ‘islamic’ terrorism. The wars for self-rule of certain islamic groups are mistaken by many as a direct expression of their religion, which in its turn is understood in an essentialist manner. The other reason is that we discussed, recently, in our Africana philosophy reading group, Faith of our Fathers, by Mumia Abu Jamal. In this book, the writer researches the history of spiritual life of those who were taken as slaves from Africa to the Americas and their descendants. In so doing he takes a Feuerbachian approach to religion – seeing it as something constructed by humans to give expression to their desires in an idealized and transcendentalized way.

Feuerbach critiqued Christian religion as it was prominent in his day from a humanist and a socialist perspective. This we see when he wrote in lecture XXX of his Lectures on the Essence of Religion: ‘Christians call it blasphemous or inhuman to deny the existence of a hereafter and so deprive the unfortunate, the wretched of this earth, of their one consolation, the hope of a better world to come. Herein, they still believe, lies the moral significance of the hereafter, its unity with the divine; for without a hereafter there would be no retribution, no justice, no reparation in heaven for the misery of those who suffer on earth, or at least of those who suffer through no fault of their own.’ The hope for a better life after this one for the poor and the oppressed is a false lead in the eyes of Feuerbach, for it detours the belief in the possibility of a good life here and now, which is what people actually desire. Not riches and luxury, but just the necessities to live a human life, necessities which are withheld from many. In such a situation, where religion detracts the poor from their normal desires, Feuerbach sees ‘atheism [as] positive and affirmative; it gives back to nature and mankind the dignity of which theism has despoiled them; it restores life to nature and mankind, which theism had drained of their best powers.’

In the work of Abu Jamal, we see a different outcome, however, of a similar critique of religion. He describes how the slaves of African descent in the Americas, who were forced or enticed to convert to Christianity, saw it as inauthentic. To them it was the religion of their cruel white owners, who used it as a means to subdue them not only corporally and emotionally, but also spiritually. Still, Abu Jamal describes, those who did convert, made their own variety of it, as well as they rediscovered/invented their own versions of islam. Characteristic of these new, African-American religions is that they intimately connect the concepts of spiritual release and this-worldly freedom. Religious speech of freedom and salvation in heaven for the slave was just a means to cover up and justify cruelty. So the new religions of the slaves and their descendants combine worship with engagement for change towards a more just society. This goes also for small initiatives like the ‘natural’ religion of John Africa, which combines a love for nature with a rejection of industrial capitalism. Just one citation of this little known prophet: ‘You see, air is the necessity of God, but pollution is the accessory of civilization ’cause industry is an excess of life.’

When Abu Jamal writes that ‘no religious system exists in a vacuum [as it is] by its very nature, a carrier of culture’ we are reminded of the ideas of Feuerbach. And also in his words that ‘spiritual projections of what is seen as the greatest conceivable good become culturally crystallized as heaven, while most horrific visions find expressions as Hell’. Still there is a – slight, but significant – difference. Feuerbach was convinced that established religion would – in modern times – better be replaced by a humanistic and engaged philosophy. So that the human race could come of age and take responsibility for its own desires and their projections. Abu Jamal, who wrote his book in the isolation of his prison cell sees religions as cultural creations, but as creations that answer to the injustices of the world. He would not want to know better than the ‘poor’, who create and invent these religions, but recognizes the many different expressions the longing for deepest notions of the good must take – these expressions are ways of taking responsibility.

Now I have to return to my point about ‘islamic’ terrorism – and will show how the above analyses can help to fight confusion. The quotation marks not only aim to signify that terrorism that claims to be religious shows inauthenticity – like the false Christianity of the slave masters. They also indicate that we should not understand ‘islam’ as an unambiguous signifier. There are many (greatly differing) islamic traditions, like there are many versions of Christianity, Buddhism, etcetera. According to our writers, religions are not only cultural carriers, and therefore adapted to different localities and ethnicities – they are also creations and projections of human beings trying to express their desire for the highest good. It doesn’t make sense to debunk them as ‘unenlightened’ projections. It helps to see them as elements in the struggle of human beings to express their longing for a real freedom and a real good life. As difficult as it is to create, together, a world with that kind of freedom and goodness, one can as well maintain that the object of our longing is transcendent, promised by the One who is beyond our world. This should not mean that human beings should honestly maintain that the realization of that object can be postponed to the beyond. It should still be done here and now. Making war can not be part of the effort, therefore, for destroying happiness and peace in actual lives is creating parts of hell here and now.

Today I was busy writing a book review for the magazine of the European Society for the study of Science and Theology. This is my favorite society, whose conferences I have visited for about ten years now – although I am neither a theologian nor a scientist. What I like about this network is the fact that most of its members are at home in more than one discipline, which reduces ivory tower discussions, and something which lies below that fact: that the meetings aim at addressing real issues, instead of playing only academic games. With real issues I mean not so much practical ones, concerning needs and problems – they mostly are very theoretical – but they adress fundamental questions concerning human knowledge of and relation to the world. Taking into account that a great deal of humanity is in some sense religious and also under the influence of the scientific worldview garantuees that the society is engaging in debates that matter.

The book I was reviewing, The Cosmic Breath by Amos Yong, is within this category: written by a (pentecostal) theologian with Asiatic background, who tries out the possibility of a dialogue between Buddhism and Christianity in relation to modern science (actually he calls this a trialogue). I will not repeat my review here, but will focus on a point of concern in one of the concluding chapters of the book, on ‘spirit and environment’. The point that, where he describes a possible spiritual approach within the Christian tradition with regards to the environment, he refers to thoughts (as taken up by theologian Marthinus Daneel) that were developed in African Christian churches, in their own dialogue with traditional African religion. Obviously Christian theology in its classical Western version lacks something, when confronted with the problem of our relation to the environment. From African traditions it lends a more fruitful view of nature as a spiritual realm.

But let me first put Yong’s search for a spiritual environmental ethics into perspective: as the book’s theme is the spiritual concern of the two mentioned religious traditions, it focuses on how they can lead its adherents to an attitude of healing the world (in Christian terms) or of reducing the suffering of sentient beings (in Buddhist terms). In my own little book on ‘understanding spirituality’, I call spirituality trying to seek and maintain an orientation of conscious awareness, which makes it an anthropological factor between experiencing and acting. Between the phenomenal and the ethical. I think Amos Yong does a very relevant thing in searching for a spiritual foundation for ethics – since the way we experience the world, and the way we orient ourselves toward it in connection with that experience, informs the way we will act morally. When we see the world as a vale of tears from which we need to escape, we will develop a different kind of morality than when we see it as an originally good place, which we need to maintain and repair.

The special ecological theology Yong discusses in the mentioned chapter leads to an orientation which takes into account ‘that the Spirit’s presence and activity is directed against the “destroyer of the world”. This is manifest first in the Spirit’s bringing to awareness our ecological sinfulness and complicity with the destructive wizardry at work through the realm of the human, whether that be in our excessive consumption of natural resources, ignoring land husbandry laws, unrestricted tree-felling, blatant promotion of soil erosion, acts of pollution, over-fishing, over-hunting, etc.’ Practically it leads from awareness (confession and repentance) to ritual expulsion of evil, followed by ritual tree-planting and possibly other acts which heal the wounds we brought to the environment.

A discussion of environmental ethics in such overtly religious terms might irritate a lot of people. It might irritate for mystifying our relation to nature. It might irritate also because of the difficulties in engaging with traditional indigenous thought and practice in a (post)colonial epistemological situation. It might irritate for not addressing enough the political and economic factors which are at work in creating ecological disaster. What is of importance to take from it, though, is precisely the expression ‘ecological sinfulness’. The old word ‘sin’ indicates not only a morally wrong act, but an act which is a transgression of an order which was there ‘before’ humanity. ‘Before’ is not meant chronologically, but in the way grammar is prior to speech, or law to acting. The religious outlook on things implies that there is a cosmological grammar, a (natural) law that humans did not make, but find. This makes trying to understand it and orient ourselves to it not a matter of choice – since transgressing it (which we do also when we fail to understand it) will get us some punishment (also when we were not aware of it) – like climate trouble or an ugly and unhomely environment. This view can be linked with a Derridian understanding of responsibility: we are not only responsible for our acts, and not only for what we understand – but also for what we don’t understand. Something/someone is addressing us, and we should try to hear. 

The link to Esssat’s this year’s conference:

My review of Amos Yong, The Cosmic Breath. Spirit and Nature in the Christianity-Buddhism-Science Trialogue, will appear in Esssat News and Reviews 24:1 (March 2014).

My approach to spirituality and my thoughts on Derrida and responsibility can be found in my (Dutch) books Spiritualiteit begrijpen (2007) and Geesten (2011) respectively. See the links in the sidebar.

My dictionary from the eighties doesn’t mention it, but nowadays the primary reference of ‘ecstasy’  is to a little pill, a so-called ‘recreative drug’. It is still common knowledge, though, why the pill bears this name. The reason being that  ‘ecstasy’ secondarily refers to a psychic state, also called rapture: experiencing profound passion. At the root of these modern meanings however are less well-remembered ancient ones.  For the ancient Greeks the literal meaning of ‘ekstasis’, and it’s root ‘stasis’ must have resonated in the non-literal one. While they used ekstasis for either a failing of the mental faculties (being out of one’s mind) or a situation of being deeply moved, it could also mean the removal of one’s body or one’s gaze. ‘Stasis’ meant either standing up (physically as well as politically), or a stable situation.

Between present day and ancient use of the concept, ‘ecstasy’ has mostly signified a state of religious exaltation (for which the Greeks had another word: ‘enthousiasmos’), supposed to be reached by mystics after long periods of fasting and praying. In academic literature the concept of ecstasy consequently is mostly found in religious studies. Like in a ground-breaking work from 1971 by I.M. Lewis, Ecstatic Religion. A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possesion, which had later revised editions and is still considered a classic in it’s field. Its explicit aim is to criticize the opposition between ‘possession religions’ and ‘shamanism’, which was common among anthropologists in those days. ‘Shamanism’ being restricted to describe spirituality among the tribes from Siberia (who used the term ‘shaman’  in the first place). The opposition would be that in one case humans are ‘taken over’ temporarily by spirits or gods, and in the other they (that is, the shamans) reach for the realm of the spiritual by making celestial voyages.

Lewis not only broadens the use of ‘shamanism’ to indicate ‘a general, cross-cultural phenomenon based on the shaman’s mastery of spirits and the practice of this art with the aid of spirits’, but also implicitly defies the distinction between ‘great world religions’ and ‘tribal’ or ‘indigenous’ religions. For that distinction lies behind the one mentioned above, between shamanist and possession religions. The ‘great’ religions, especially Judaism, Christianity and Islam, have always defined themselves over against ‘pagan’ religion by claiming that their believers do not claim to be able to influence their God. They can pray, or beg, or complain, but they can only await humbly whether God will hear their prayers – would they see it otherwise, it is said, they would believe in ‘magic’: the manipulation of matters in the spiritual realm by men. Thus, they adhere, in spiritual matters, to the ‘top-down’ (the possession or incarnation) model, over against the ‘bottom-up’ (the ‘shamanistic’) model.

Lewis’ definition takes another focus altogether, comparing (from his sociological point of view) all kinds of ‘ecstatic’ phenomena, using data from research amongst ‘indigenous’ peoples all over the world, but also from the Judeo-Christian tradition. To mention just one well-known case from the latter: the revelation Saint Paul received on the road to Damascus. It is not important, says Lewis, to ask whether a person in contact with the spiritual is moving up, or whether a spirit (may it even be God’s Spirit) is moving down, is incarnating – since both manners of expression use spatial metaphors to describe a process which is not happening in normal space or time. As concepts are always metaphorical, transferring meaning from some local experience to a wider realm, their metaphorical character is not the point. Lewis wants to lose these metaphors for the distinction they implicitly make between true and false religion, or high and low spirituality – distinctions which are not fit to build sociological descriptions or explanations of religious phenomena with.

The ancient metaphor of ‘ecstasy’ – and this is my own, philosophical, point, not Lewis’s – could very well be revived in order to understand phenomenologically what takes place in possessed or uplifted states, because of the strange twist in meaning of which it makes use. Where ‘stasis’ conjures up the phenomenon of a person who had been lying down and is now standing up, rising up to take a firm position, ‘ekstasis’ evokes the spiritual situation of a person ‘standing out’ or ‘rising out’ – performing an action impossible in the world perceived by the senses. Still he does/undergoes something which is commonly known to peoples all over the world: going ‘out of one’s mind’ while entering the spiritual realm. Philosophically considered it is an ordinary human experience, albeit extra-ordinary in it’s character of transcending normal action. It happens in all times and places, whether received ‘by Gods grace’, realised through ‘magical practice’, or conjured up by taking a pill. Having said this, however, we have not said anything yet about the reality which is supposed to come over a person while ‘standing out’.

The citation is taken from I.M. Lewis Ecstatic Religion. A Study of Shamanism and Spirit Possession, third edition, Routledge, 2003 [original edition 1971].