The Four Pillars of Spiritual Living
I was in a Bible study the other day (still can’t believe I’m saying that), and the pastor mentioned the four methods of spiritual living—intellectual, experiential, social, and institutional. I’ve got the intellectual side, I think, since it was reason, not faith, that brought me to where I am today. This seems opposite of how most would approach belief, which is through experience, intuition, or a series of hunches. And I’m finally starting to integrate the institutional part (going to Church, etc), something I long rejected, from poorly constructed notions of what “The Church” was about. The social part I’ve always been pretty OK at. But I could be better and am getting better.
My deficiency is the experiential side, soundly enough. I’ve never had a mystical experience, never been pulled into states of overpowering awe by a nature walk or admiring Monet; never struck into spiritual stillness by the sight of a cardinal, a moose, or a hermit crab. (Maybe all of this has something to do with needing a new pair of glasses.) I think I’ve had glimpses, here and there—oh, I’ve certainly had glimpses, especially in music; feelings of unity and excitement with, and about, what is. But never anything permanent. Enlightenment—that’s what I’ve been missing out on! But I’ve also not been seeking enlightenment. Since for most of my life, as a religious skeptic, I had no reason to be open to the mystery, since, for most of my life, I’d been working against it in so many ways, like a panicked sailor fisherman throwing water out of his boat, I couldn’t stand the thought of being consumed by holiness. But now that I’m opening to it, sometimes trying to trap it, things are starting to happen I can’t explain. I could be hallucinating, sure. But I think it’d be odd for a person, otherwise healthy, to develop frontal lope epilepsy in his late twenties for no reason other than a slow shift toward spiritual sentiment. So, I’m working on that, the experimental side. I’ve taken up praying a lot. It’s been nice for me.
As for developing these four pillars of a spiritual life? I think they all need equal attention. Maybe not all at once, but sooner or later your faith could begin to wobble without any one. We might think of making an analogy of a table, but these pillars are about more than standing upright. Really, you use these legs to leap.
The intellectual side is what I see lacking most in the general scene. Why aren’t more believers in God taught the arguments for God, aside “The Bible says so”? Some are, but many clump their faith in compartment separate from reason, and they shouldn’t have to. If I’d been better equipped with rational and philosophical arguments for the existence of God (along with the scientific evidence), when I was young, I might not have never needed to rediscover my faith when I was old. So let the people have Leibniz, Aquinas, and Lonergan, I say. And let them have all the contemporaries, as well.
Ultimately, I think we have to start with the question, does God exist? Because if the answer is yes, the next question, then, is what does that mean? On the other hand, if the answer is no, then, honestly, who cares? What does anything matter? Because if God doesn’t exist, then nothing can matter–we might as well be cannibals or congressmen. And we might as well not pick up after our dog, while we’re at it. Now, not many people like when you put it like that, but the conclusions of atheism are, in fact, nihilism. (Whether or not an atheist arrives there, is another story for another time.)
So, let’s say God does exists. Great. I think that’s wonderful. Because now we can ask, what does that mean? Since, if we can establish monotheism (I think we can) we should then figure what the implications (if any) of monotheism are. OK, maybe we don’t have to—we could, if we wanted, just get back to pulling dog hair out of the couch. But I think we should, because it’d be funny to say God exists, and then do nothing to discern what He wants us to do with our lives, even though that’s how many people operate: they subscribe to divinity in some degree, but put it so far in the back of their mind, that their belief doesn’t play any key role in their daily decision making. This is sort of a shame. We believe in God, but we seek not to know who He is, nor what He wants us to do.
Most people say they believe in God, and most people say they feel they were born for a reason.
Side Note: I read a interesting (sure, that’s the word) article on CNN from an atheist mom who said she doesn’t want her kids believing in God, because belief in God confers the (according to her) counterfeit notion that every person is special, and that such a belief leads to narcissism. This was an outstanding display of a decrepit understanding of what is divine. Not only does it rebel against science, which has shown believers to be more mentally stable, better functioning in society, and happier as a whole than non-believers, but denies our humanity, as well—that we are special, not only as a species, but as individuals. It also misconstrues the idea of what it means to be special—that is, it replaces the notion of special through a religious point of view, with special through a secular point of view. Nowhere in my readings of The Bible does the idea of people being special—that is, being made in the image of God—have anything to do with my being better than anyone else. My being special doesn’t negate your being special, etc, nor does that make me any more special than you. My being special means we’re all special, equally, because of where we come from—God. When properly understood, her assertion undermines her conclusion entirely. In other words, she’s mistaken, and may God have mercy on her soul.
But divine attributes can be established. We can, in fact, gather at least some idea of who (or more relatively, what) God is—many of which attributes can be obtained through the same arguments that demonstrate the existence of the divine itself—all-powerful, omniscient, personal, etc. The argument from contingency, for example, not only points to a single, ineffable creator, but also compels us to believe that creator to be immaterial, unchanging, eternal, and self-explained, as well as the attributes listened previously. (People who sometimes ask why the explanation from contingency must be God instead of “the universe”, don’t understand the argument from contingency, and that what must necessarily follow from the premises, is something which must, at some eventual point, have an explanation of its existence through itself, which defies any naturalistic explanation as a cause.) Again, I’m not making the argument, just reminding people that the argument exists.
So, if we’re put here (and sustained here) by God, and God is personal, all-powerful, all-loving, omniscient, has freedom of will, etc, what does that say about us? It says, I would think, that we should probably try to get to know Him better, even if only a little bit, at first. (Certainly you’ve had worse first dates than one with God.) And I think for every person the way to God—and especially the way to loving God—is different.
Study scripture, but not at the expense of studying science and philosophy. The biggest (and most pernicious) myth in the modern era is that science and God are at odds. I admit science and some religions are (occasionally) at odds, but never science and God. If God exists, and God created all of everything–all truth and knowledge–than be as rational as you can. Figure out how God did it, and figure out why God did it, and figure out what YOU are supposed to do with it. Approach spirituality from all viewpoints.
But also get out of your own head, at some point, and meditate. Won’t you, please? Pray to ask God for a sign or a shake when you need, but also pray to give thanks and praise, as much as you can. The experiential side is what I’m working on, and have been working on a lot these couple of years. It’s still my shortest pillar, but developing this pillar has restored my soul.
The social side? Make sure you keep up with your giving, and remember that all of it, however much, however little, is going toward something. Tip well, bring water to the thirty, food to the poor, and don’t forget to feed your cat. You don’t have to relieve yourself of everything you own–Jesus, as we know, advised against extreme asceticism, just like his friend in heaven The Buddha did. But both were very much was fond of charity, as well. This reminds me, because at Bible study the subject of taxes came up, whether they should be higher or lower. My response was that, even though I have an opinion on taxes (believe me), I didn’t think this topic was especially relevant, because I’m not sure Jesus (or Buddha, if we’re still bringing him into this) would be all that impressed with how benevolent one person is, with another person’s money. Taxes, and whatever your opinion may be of them, doesn’t excuse you from charity work. Not on God’s watch.
Now what about the institutional side? I said I was weakest on the experiential side, but I’m newest to the institutional side. I’m going to church, now, and regularly. (Regularly in the traditional sense, of at least once per week. Not regularly in the modern sense of once every six weeks, from what I’m told.) I also do Bible Study twice per week, and our family squeezes in to whatever other community happenings we can. Roan, our oldest, just did in his first Nativity Pageant. He was third or fourth cow.
For the institutional side, it’s fairly easy to go to church, I think, but maybe you can sneak in a little of the social side there, as well? I’m only thinking out loud. But certainly there’s no reason you couldn’t, and probably every reason you could, practice two, three, maybe even all four pillars at once. The only pillars I see as potentially problematic when executing in tandem are the intellectual and experiential side, since one requires thinking, and the other requires, well, not thinking, or at least not the same line of thinking. But you could approach their combination creatively, I’m sure, in some way. And if you do, I’d love to hear about it.