Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Three Marks of Spiritual/Religious Practice

Kevin Kim makes the somewhat surprising claim that "Not all religions have a soteriology." His well-written post deserves to be engaged, and not merely opposed, but on this this occasion, I have time only for the latter. This is not to say that I don't agree with some of the things that Kim says, but that, as I see it, soteriological intent is essential to anything that could count as a religion. What follows is an excerpt from a long unfinished paper that has been languishing on my hard drive for some time.

The three marks in outline: Perception of the radical deficiency of the human condition both in terms of moral and natural evil, and in terms of ontological defectiveness; belief that there is a Way Out; belief that there is a trans-human reality by contact with which salvation may be achieved.


1. Religious practices arise originally (i.e., when they are not merely appropriated uncritically in social situations under pressure to conform) in response to recurrent experiences of the radical deficiency of the human condition. One cannot be said to be religious unless one perceives this world, the natural and social world of our ordinary waking experience, to be radically defective, as a fundamentally unsatisfactory predicament that cries out for some sort of remedy or solution. This is of course a global, not merely a local perception: it is not as if this or that aspect of the world or someone’s life in the world is unsatisfactory. Whether or not this global perception of deficiency is veridical, it is a necessary feature of the religious attitude, which of course can be described under bracketing of the question of its truth. A religious person, to be such, need not constantly be experiencing the world as fundamentally unsatisfactory; indeed such experiences may be relatively infrequent. But they will come in moments of existential clarity and speak with an authority that trumps the deliverances of ordinary world-absorbed experience. One thinks of Siddartha’s encounter with sickness, old age and death on leaving the safety of the royal compound. The religious person will want to preserve and prolong these moments since they reveal, or seem to reveal, a truth normally hidden. Even when not explicitly feeling the fundamental unsatisfactoriness of the world, the religious person will try to bear it in mind always as indicative of a deeper truth that he dare not, for his own good, lose sight of. This mindfulness will of course be a part of his spiritual practice. Thus the perception of the unsatisfactoriness of the world gives rise to spiritual practices one of which is the maintenance and intensification of this perception.

By radically defective and fundamentally unsatisfactory, I mean that the dis-ease of our condition goes right to the root of it, and so cannot be dealt with by any half-way measures. In particular, no one who is religious could possibly believe that the fundamental malaise of our condition could be alleviated by any sort of human social action no matter how concerted or revolutionary. We need help, and if any truly ameliorative help is to come it must come from elsewhere, from beyond the human-all-too-human. A religious person can and must take action now and again to right wrongs and make piece-meal improvements in the conditions of his own life and those of others; but no religious person could be an activist if an activist is one who believes that humanity has the resources within itself to bring about any such fundamental and lasting improvement in the human condition as the elimination of war. In characterizing our predicament as defective and unsatisfactory, I mean to allude in the first instance to moral and natural evil, but without denying that there is much moral and natural goodness in the world. This life is radically defective (defective from the root up, and not merely in the branches), but not wholly defective. But beyond this there is the ontological deficiency of our condition which will loom large in the ensuing pages. To say that the natural and social world of our ordinary waking experience is ontologically deficient is to say that its very metaphysical structure is fundamentally unsatisfactory. As a material world of time and change, it is devoid of ultimate reality. As Plato puts it, “nothing which is subject to change...has any truth.” (Phaedo St. 83a) The whole of existence is vain, an empty seeming, devoid, in Buddhist jargon, of ‘self-nature.’ This vanity of existence, says Schopenhauer,

...finds expression in the whole way in which things exist; in the infinite nature of Time and Space, as opposed to the finite nature of the individual in both; in the ever-passing present moment as the only moment of actual existence; in the interdependence and relativity of all things; in continual Becoming without ever Being; in constant wishing and never being satisfied... (WL 229)


2. But to be religious it is not enough that one perceive the world and the people in it as radically defective; one must also believe that there is a way out of our predicament. Religious practices have a soteriological point: they aim at finding salvation from the condition in which we find ourselves, and thus they presuppose the possibility of salvation from it. Religious and spiritual practices, in other words, are part of a quest for salvation. Someone who, in accordance with (1), experiences the deficiencies of the human condition, but does not believe in the possibility of salvation from it, is not a religious type but a nihilist. Salvation can of course be interpreted in different ways. It may be interpreted as a mystic realization accessible here and now that, at metaphysical bottom and despite appearances, all is well. Or it may be interpreted as a state at comes after death, or even at the end of history.

3. Perceiving the world to be radically defective, and believing that there is a way of salvation, is still not sufficient to make one religious. A third condition must be satisfied: one must hold that there is a trans-human reality by contact with which salvation is to be achieved. It may be that the contact is brought about by our own efforts; it may be that the contact accrues to us by divine grace alone; or it may be – which is surely more likely – that both are required. In an image somewhere to be found in al-Ghazzali, we must work to position ourselves so as to receive the gusts of divine favor. The positioning is our own doing, but “the wind bloweth where it listeth.” Be this as it may, without a trans-human reality to serve as the focus and locus of salvation, there would be no way to distinguish religion proper from a mere ‘philosophy of life.’ On one reading of Buddhism, it is a philosophy of life. Suppose we agree that all life is suffering, that the cause of suffering is desire and aversion, and that salvation from suffering is to be achieved by conquering desire and aversion through following the Eight-Fold Path. If all goes well, this should land us in Nibbana, a state characterized by the absence of suffering. But absence of suffering is not a relation between the sufferer and a trans-human reality. Thus one hesitates to classify Buddhism interpreted in this way as a religion. Religion, as the etymology of the word suggests, involves an attempt to bind oneself, to yoke oneself, to something absolutely and finally real the yoking to which being for us the summum bonum. Religion seeks salvation by way of a quest for the ultimately real, and not by the merely negative path of the eradication of suffering. The ultimately real can of course be conceived in many ways (as Brahman, as the One of Plotinus, as the God of Aquinas...); but it cannot be conceived as the mere absence of suffering.