Look past the deliquescence of the great monotheisms, and trouble brews.
Most people aren’t so intelligent as Christopher Hitchens nor Sam Harris, nor so brave as either, nor so unyielding in their desire to fashion a life’s creed nakedly free of the barnacles of irrational syllogism.
In this brave new world, one can find oneself both discomfited with the Koran as a manual of moral instruction yet at the same time in fear of a coronation of Reason, understanding that a large share of human life is neither rational nor logical. It is this eternal torsion betwixt Truth and Meaning that leaves critics of the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism wondering if they have not affixed their scabbards too much to Truth and neglected the far more relevant pole of Meaning.
The truth of the matter is that human beings lie about many things large and small, and that these lies are best elucidated by the light of Meaning and not of Truth. Truth excites more rarefied appetites; Meaning sates the soul. Truth teases as an aperitif while Meaning furnishes the main course. Just ask Victor Frankl whether he preferred Meaning or Truth as his engine of psychological survival when everything else was taken away.
People can only rarely build lives whose sole meaning is Truth: apostles of reason worship Socrates because he so narrowly succeeded where the whole world has failed. The great religious teachers speak at least as much about Meaning as Truth lest their followers be only Socratic in number. Jesus was a moral psychologist first; Muhammad would not have transfixed the Arab mind if his teachings were primly reducible to axioms. (Indeed by logic they suffer the most.)
Hence the quest for a truly modern spirituality must incorporate the overwhelming human hunger for Meaning above all else, and not attempt through scientism, positivism, or rationalism to deify Truth alone. People will lie, cheat and steal at relatively the same rates regardless if Darwin or Christ is their master. The issue therefore is to find a rubric of psychological integration (Jungian is a hard term to avoid here) rather than a heuristic of moral purification. Nobody has ever been purified by a moral law but only by having run blindly into one.
What then are the central challenges in fashioning this new global spirituality?
Along with the ultimate focus on Meaning over Truth, we must retain some sense of shame, sanction, or sin that permits gestures of public moral censure. It is not enough – though many would have it so – to develop a spiritual language that possesses no hard edges, no right angles, no orthogonality by which evil in both me and my brother and sister are admonished. Jesus did not speak of the beam in my own eye to obliterate moral comparison.
There must be a language of moral censure developed, particularly in a time of suicide bombing, drone strikes, torture, genital mutilation, honor killings, science-denial, creationism, racism, sexism, abortion, homophobia, and the rampant narcissism of our ever more Pyrrhic technological advances. This does not mean that good people will ever agree on what types of actions deserve what degree of sanction (just interrogate your feelings on reading the prior list), but rather that, most emphatically, there must exist a trans-cultural presumption that a common morality can at the very least be debated.
A facile moral relativism that hides a desire to forever get along with everyone else must eventually hit the concrete. The world is simply too small a place to pretend that we can forever be agnostics as concerns the moral scaffolding of entire cultures or religions. There will come a moment (often termed a flashpoint) when divergent moral assumptions will clang and require existential resolution. Pretending then that two (or ten) separate moral cosmogonies can go on being entirely separate will be of no use. One’s own moral and spiritual worldview, after all, makes very large claims to sovereignty being as it is a worldview.
Along with this sense of a larger, more conversational Law, or Sharia, or Torah, there must be a concomitant celebration of the numinous, the transcendent, and the ecstatic – and preferably one whose fulfillment does not require rigid orthodoxies from the past to explicate. There is no serious reason to doubt that the Sufi mystic experiences something akin to the Christian mystic or the adept of Kabbalah. The nature of the numinous defies an easy reduction to its originating contexts. We must therefore develop a more universal language for respecting its many manifestations throughout the world.
This worship of the numinous may include a rejection of a reductive scientism that confuses narrow literal Truth with larger communal questions of Meaning. The real test of applying a scientific idea – outside of the laboratory within which science will always reign supreme – is whether said scientific idea leads to greater human flourishing, expansion and hope, or whether to a premature contraction of possibilities and a sad limiting of human potential.
Today we see this debate about the implications of science being played out about over global energy supply, organic foods, genetically modified crops, genetic engineering of humans, nuclear power, and a thousand other domains. The answers are by no means obvious. Often times competing claims must be judiciously weighed between similarly disenfranchised constituencies. What’s most clear is that the claim that science always makes an obvious moral contribution, or points to an obvious moral course of action is increasingly questionable. We do not even know “which” science we debate when we debate science, as studies about the global climate or what causes cancer or the efficacy of universal prostate exams shift almost daily in their substance, sourcing and authority.
So we have here a few key themes in fashioning this (likely far more multi-braided) new global spirituality. We must retain a predilection for thought and myth systems that preserve a healthy regard for Meaning and not just Truth in the shaping of human lives. We must develop a more universal and courageous language of common moral censure that can be applied both externally and internally. And we must eschew a narrow scientism that asks more from science than it can ever deliver.
Only by keeping the very best parts of the world’s great religions – and dispensing with the very worst parts – can we hope to salvage a global spirituality that is both humane and relevant.