Friday, July 12, 2019

New Age nonsense and the “spiritual dimension”

Westerners are today shy of admitting how often magic trumps logic in their thinking. But the trauma of war lays bare essential human truths. Public discourse during the Great War – in books, newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, letters, manifestos and almanacswas merely the visible expression of fear, anxiety, horror, rage and grief. After 1918 magic was no longer just an emanation from the cosmos, but something inside the self, closer to the unconscious and subconscious states around which psychology and psychiatry would build new ways of understanding how people survive. — From the conclusion to Malcolm Gaskill’s review, “Ministry of Apparitions,” of Owen Davies’ book, A Supernatural War: Magic, Divination and Faith during the First World War (Oxford University Press, 2019), in the London Review of Books, Vol. 41 No. 13, 4 July 2019. 

For an entertaining critique of New Age magical thinking and affectations, the episode “Quickie Nirvana” from The Rockford Files provides sufficient material to mull over, especially for those of us who lived through this period in the 1970s. I should note that, unlike some cultural critics, I do not equate New Age stuff with the countercultural currents that surfaced in the mid-1950s with the Beats and continued into the 1960s with hippies and others (e.g., some of the New Left), even if New Age solipsism and narcissism appeared at the margins of these movements. See, for example, Keith Melville, Communes in the Counter Culture: Origins, Theories, Styles of Life (Morrow Quill, 1972), and Timothy Miller, The 60s Communes: Hippies and Beyond (Syracuse University Press, 1999).
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The following snippet is from a recent Los Angeles Times article by Jessica Roy, “How millennials replaced religion with astrology and crystals.” It prompted a few thoughts from yours truly, some of which our regular readers may have come across in slightly different form in prior posts over the years.
I love myself.
I am beautiful.

It was an unseasonably chilly night for June in Los Angeles. About three dozen people, mostly women in their 20s and 30s, were spending their Friday evening lying on yoga mats on the back patio of a shop a few blocks from Hollywood Forever Cemetery and the Paramount Pictures lot. Attendees had been invited to bring whatever they needed to make the space cozy: Blankets. Pillows. Crystals.
I am powerful.

Ana Lilia was leading them in affirmations, closing out a 90-minute breath-work session celebrating the summer solstice.
I am a bright light.
I am ready to be seen.

Most days, Lilia works with individual clients. In the evenings, she teaches classes or puts on events, such as the solstice gathering. She first got into breath-work four years ago and started taking classes to become a teacher six months later. If you’ve never done it before, it’s a mix of breathing exercises and guided meditations meant to relax you and help connect with your thoughts — a cross between the last 10 minutes of a yoga class [such classes are often simply āsana(s) or ‘posture(s),’ which is but one small and preliminary part of Patañjali’s Yoga as elaborated in his Yoga Sūtra (3rd to 4th century CE; usually read in conjunction with its indispensable commentary, Vyāsa’s Bhāsya); it is also known as the ‘Eight-Limbed Yoga,’ although most of these ‘limbs’ are often missing from classes on yoga in this country] and a therapy session that takes place entirely in your head. 

She’s one of a growing number of young people — largely millennials, though the trend extends to younger Gen Xers, now cresting 40, and down to Gen Z, the oldest of whom are freshly minted college grads — who have turned away from traditional organized religion and are embracing more spiritual beliefs and practices like tarot, astrology, meditation, energy healing and crystals. And no, they don’t particularly care if you think it’s ‘woo-woo’ or weird. Most millennials claim to not take any of it too seriously themselves. They dabble, they find what they like, they take what works for them and leave the rest. Evoking consternation from buttoned-up outsiders is far from a drawback — it’s a fringe benefit. ‘I know this work is weird,’ Lilia said of her breath-work practice. ‘But it makes me feel better and that’s why I keep doing it.’ [emphasis added]

The cause behind the spiritual shift is a combination of factors. In more than a dozen interviews for this story with people ranging in age from 18 to their early 40s, a common theme emerged: They were raised with one set of religious beliefs — Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist — but as they became adults, they felt that faith didn’t completely represent who they were or what they believed. Millennials increasingly identify as “nones” when asked about their religious affiliation, according to a 2017 Pew survey: They are atheist or agnostic, or say they are ‘spiritual but not religious.’
But yes-or-no survey questions don’t tell the whole story, says Diane Winston, the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at the Annenberg School for Communication at USC. Just about every society throughout human history has developed traditions and practices. That’s not a coincidence, she said: ‘People are inherently religious or spiritual.’” [….]
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Most of this strikes me as the latest iteration of New Age nonsense (exacerbated by wholesale commodification). I sympathize with those who are genuinely in search of something spiritually meaningful in their lives or who cannot make sense of their anxieties and suffering (and find the New Age variation on instant gratification as providing some relief or escape), yet there’s far more truth and wisdom found in many of the traditional religions of their parents and ancestors than in astrology, tarot, “energy healing,” and crystals (although we might find evidence of self-fulfilling prophecy and the placebo effect at work here). Religious worldviews are what people make of them and we need not give up our critical faculties or dispositional skepticism in the religious or spiritual quest or life. In examining traditional religions, people often, as we say, see what they want to see. Moreover, and relatedly, we should also keep in mind the Scholastic dictum (translated from Latin): “whatever is received, is received according to the capacity of the recipient,” a capacity more often than not decisively shaped by such psychological phenomena as willful ignorance, self-deception, denial, and wishful thinking. This provides us with at least two reasons why even among avowed religious adherents we find widespread neglect of what John Cottingham defines as the “spiritual dimension,”1 incarnate, for instance, in therapies of desire, in self-examination, meditation, the technique of prosoche, and sundry “spiritual exercises,” all of which are capable of transforming character (metanoia, a change of heart, or a transformation of self) so as to render us more loving, more compassionate, more forgiving, more understanding, more virtuous, perhaps even a bit wise; at the very least, less egocentric or self-centered. This “spiritual dimension” can be found in one way or another and in varying degrees outside traditional religions as well: in some philosophical worldviews, the arts, and even, I would argue—provided it is properly understood and practiced—psychoanalysis. 

The common thread here entails a commitment to what Cottingham terms, the “primacy of praxis” (which, as a thesis, ‘is … perfectly susceptible to being examined and supported by philosophical argument’), meaning it dialectically transcends orthodoxy: correct belief, dogma, doctrine, or creed, all of which is subject to error, fallibility and revision given that it is the product of human hearts and minds, however divinely inspired.2 This is how and why we can make sense of the following admonition from Hilary Putnam: “’Is our own way of life right or wrong?’ is a silly question, although it isn’t silly to ask if this or that particular feature of our way of life is right or wrong, and ‘Is our view of the world right or wrong?’ is a silly question, although it isn’t silly to ask if this or that particular belief is right or wrong.” Put differently, our religious and nonreligious worldviews and traditions provide us, among other things, with a personal and collective orientation or “way of life” (including, at the very least, a moral compass and ethics) that contributes to our cultural—personal and collective—sense of identity. This way of life is grounded in grand narratives, shaped in part by myths that serve to make connections between the cosmos, our natural world (including nonhuman animals) and possibly non-natural world(s) (possible and ‘spiritual’ worlds, for instance), and history. These narratives speak to such questions as the meaning of life and death and the meaning or logic of rituals, symbols, and the more modest mythic stories (for both children and their charges) we’ve inherited from cultural traditions. As part of the overarching worldviews, such narratives express and articulate the fundamental values of our respective communities so as to affirm their most important values perhaps even an “ultimate value.”

Finally, and however pivotal to our sense of identity and existential bearings, such (structural) worldviews are invariably modified in myriad ways at the level of the individual person, providing for a unique construal or interpretation that may or may not cohere with other values, beliefs, and practices of any particular individual in our time and place. This idiosyncratic—in a non-pejorative sense—worldview in the life an individual person is what we will call a “lifeworld,” which by definition does not perfectly coincide with the normative (dogmatic, creedal, systematic, etc.) pictures of worldviews painted by those with religious or intellectual authority, in other words, the “official” worldview of any particular religion or philosophy, in which case the lifeworld reveals a worldview now comparatively crude, radically simplified, ideological in essence, or perhaps even fairly sophisticated, psychologically and philosophically speaking.3 At bottom, however, we should have at least prima facie or presumptive evidence suggesting that the individual and the corresponding groups he or she belongs to, publicly subscribe to these worldviews and thus are bound to sincerely endeavor to live in accordance with the ethical and spiritual strictures, values, and purposes that distinguish these qua worldviews, at least some of which partially overlap with other worldviews (of course even those without any worldview adherence or semblance of a lifeworld, in so far as they’ve reached the age of reason and are of sound mind and body, are no less morally and legally responsible and accountable agents). 

The remainder of Putnam’s remark has the following implications: we can, indeed should strive to make rational or reasonable and ethical assessments of particular beliefs or practices within our worldviews, as Martha C. Nussbaum did in Sex and Social Justice (1999) and both Mohandas K. Gandhi and a B.R. Ambedkar did in their respectively unique if not inimitable ways with regard to several well-known but morally odious beliefs and practices within Hinduism. Such properly motivated evaluations and critiques can be made from vantage points both within and outside of worldviews (presumably members of the latter class have taken the trouble to deeply acquaint themselves with the worldview in question). A fundamental assumption here should be the belief that no worldview, religious or not, should countenance in theory or practice the violation of basic moral principles and ethical values and precepts (of course precisely what those are or might be is in an open yet no less urgent question, although conceptions of human dignity, human rights instruments, as well as criminal law provide us with some guidance here). One by-product or spillover effect of this critical enterprise, it is hoped, will be the “de-tribalization” of Westerners (Ninian Smart), including, and once and for all, the relinquishing imperialist and post-imperialist dreams and designs or simply global political and economic domination.

With regard to another facet of this critical obligation or task, we might assess, for example, the potential or capacity of a particular worldview to rationally, ethically, and creatively respond to various conspicuous issues and problems in our contemporary (and future) world: be it nationalism; uneven or unfettered technological development; public health and general welfare; various kinds of violence; ecological deterioration and devastation; the respect for basic human rights: civil, political, economic, social and cultural; the commodification of values; global distributive justice; the awakening and exercise of functions and capacities believed essential to human flourishing or eudaimonia, and so forth and so on. This serves to remind us that, at bottom, our traditions and worldviews are the repositories of our normative conceptions of the Good or the good life, and only a clear and deep understanding of such conceptions will enable us to find the necessary evaluative ethical and spiritual criteria essential to critically assessing elements with these worldviews (and ideologies derived therefrom) in the interests of our shared humanity or individual and collective welfare, well-being, and human happiness, fulfillment or flourishing. 

Again, our worldviews, and by extension our lifeworlds, are (or should) not in the first instance be about defensive apologias, self-sufficient dogmas, hermetic doctrines, or orthodoxy, but about ways of life: orthopraxis, thus they are first and foremost about “ways of life” in the widest if not deepest sense (particularly insofar as they involve questions of personal and group forms of identity that acknowledge our common humanity, questions that provide ‘answers’ or frameworks for answering basic questions of existential meaning), with richly normative consequences for personal and collective conduct.

1. See John Cottingham, The Spiritual Dimension: Religion, Philosophy and Human Value (Cambridge University Press, 2005). See too John Haldane’s essay, “On the very idea of spiritual values” in Anthony O’Hear, ed., Philosophy, the Good, the True and the Beautiful (Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement: 47) (Cambridge University Press, 2000), and Jonardon Ganeri and Clare Carlisle, eds., Philosophy as Therapeia (Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement: 66) (Cambridge University Press, 2010).
2. Here is perhaps another reason for the primacy of praxis: insofar as dogma, creeds, and theologies presuppose or assume a metaphysics, these are unavoidably perspectival and relative, at any rate, it impossible for us to determine if any one such picture is absolutely true, that is, true to the exclusion of the truth(s) of other such pictures: 
“To affirm that there can be several different systems all giving us, at the same time, varying and yet legitimate ‘true’ metaphysical descriptions of the world does not … necessarily entail that there are many realities, that nothing is absolutely real, or, put less dramatically, that there is no such thing as a single, context neutral description or account of the world, that is, as the world really is. It only means that no metaphysical description of it can be outside every possible conceptual framework, but Reality itself is. Nor does it follow that any assertions about this ‘real’ or ‘true’ world beyond all conceptual frameworks, are nonsense. We need not accept a very different solution, such as that offered by Kant—that there is a world in which there exists the ‘thing-in-itself,’ but that we can never directly know this world. Indian classical philosophy, since it is always connected with religion, must and does believe with complete assurance in the possibility of human beings actually attaining to a perfect knowledge of Reality—a ‘scientia intuitiva’ that leads to the Divine or the Absolute Truth. [I think the previous sentence needs qualification, if only because of Lokāyata/Cārvāka, although perhaps Professor Iyer would exclude from the class of ‘Indian classical philosophy.’] The conceptual frameworks we build in the realm of rational thought are not useless just because they cannot describe Ultimate Reality. Serious examination of, reflection on, these explanatory and interpretive schemes, their differences and overlaps, are crucial to expanding and deepening our understanding of reality, even if these conceptual frameworks (any or all possible combinations and collections of them) cannot bring us the Absolute Truth. If nothing else, they enable us to understand the relativity of conceptual truths and structures, and make us see what Pascal meant when he said that the highest function of reason is to show us the limitations of reason.” Nandini Iyer, “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” in Knut A. Jacobsen, ed., Theory and Practice of Yoga: Essays in Honour of Gerald James Larson (Brill: 2005): 123.
 3. Compare the following from my late teacher and friend, Ninian Smart: “Do we, when it comes to the crunch, really have a systematic worldview? We have an amalgam of beliefs, which we may publicly characterize in a certain way. I may say that I am an Episcopalian, but how much of my real worldview [what I term here a ‘lifeworld’] corresponds to the more or less ‘official’ worldview which tells me nothing directly about cricket, being Scottish, having a certain scepticism about nationalism, thinking there is life on other worlds, shelving the problem of evil, or other matters. Our values and beliefs are more like a collage than a Canaletto [cf. Lévi-Strauss’s use of the term ‘bricolage’]. They do not even have consistency of perspective.”


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