Having just read The End of Faith by Sam Harris, I am now utterly convinced that spirituality can exist outside of religion. Indeed, we need not be afraid of the term spirituality at all, regardless of New Age connotations. I have been arguing in previous posts, inspired as I have been reading the book, that religion is an arbitrary concept that we would do better to be without. One need not have a system of belief in order to be a better person, or even to experience a mystical dimension.
Religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time. It is the denial – at once full of hope and full of fear – of the vastitude of human ignorance. A kernel of truth lurks at the heart of religion, because spiritual experience, ethical behavior, and strong communities are essential for human happiness. And yet our religious traditions are intellectually defunct and politically ruinous. (from p.221)
Religion is indeed a product of tribal identity formation. It is a product of the culture in which it exists, and develops well beyond the intentions of the people who inspired its unfolding. Beliefs come to obscure the mysterious rather than give it structure. As was said by Eckhart Tolle in A New Earth, and reiterated by Harris, it is identification with beliefs (or mental positions) that is pathological. Tolle calls this ego. Harris sees it as useless and destructive.
What surprises me is that without intention I am finding many books in a row that revolve around the idea of consciousness as being that which is prior to thought. Harris does not go as far as Tolle or Ken Wilber in ascribing an intelligence to consciousness, but he is not far from the idea. He suggests that such thought is not necessary, but to experience consciousness directly requires spiritual practice. Buddhism has done this magnificently without having to resort to systems of belief and objects of worship. It has become a religion, but in essence has very little in common with the major religious traditions of the world (aside from Hinduism, of which it was derived).
What does this say of my Christian heritage? Yesterday I picked up a copy of The Heart of Christianity by Marcus Borg which I plan to re-read at some point. It speaks of a progressive approach, one that is open to change and correction, one that does not hold the Bible as a supreme revelation of God, one that is able to be creative with the concept of God. Is it still worthwhile holding on to Christianity, even in this guise? I am not sure. As I suggested, I do not wish to identify with unrealistic beliefs, and find most of the Christian religion to be a bloated mess. I have no appeal to read or study the Bible, having done so studiously in the past, and even recently purchasing a decent study Bible. Yet authors such as Borg and John Shelby Spong continue to intrigue me. There is still something to Jesus and Christianity that I find mildly appealing. It is not the churches, it is not the superstition. Either I am just not yet ready to kiss the whole thing goodbye, or I am still drawn to it in a mysterious way.