Everybody Breathes

Evidence-Based Spirituality — Part 4 of 10

As we’ve seen, especially in the West, we have a nasty habit, when we discover a new basis for truth, of overthrowing everything from the previous paradigms. When Christianity appeared it overthrew paganism, and when scientism appeared it overthrew Christianity, etc. etc. Instead of coming at our task that way, I’d prefer to look at religions from the point of view that they are giving us a great deal of our starting material in our search for an ‘evidence-enriched spirituality’, in the form of “Bud-Offs” (see previous post). They are precious for that reason — and they may be precious for others too of course.

“But,” I hear you say, “the religion we know best in the West is Christianity. And where are the Bud-Offs from Christianity? How does Christianity help evidentially? Has it not been notoriously evidence-shy?”

Well I’ll answer the more of this ‘evidence-shy’ idea in a couple of posts’ time, but the truth is that not all religions do necessarily produce Bud-Offs, and that Bud-Offs in general often require some contact with the idea of ‘secularism’. The degree of “exclusivity” of the religion, that is, the degree to which it claims to be in some sense the only valid spiritual way (which is variable for different religions) may well have a lot to do with whether it buds off or not. Some religions are always going to be more amenable to evidentiality than others, and in Christianity we do often have a very “exclusivist” religion. It just so happens — or maybe it’s not coincidence at all — that science in the West often faces anti-science thinking on a religious level, when it comes to what has been the province of religion.

But still, nothing is absolutely black/white here. For example, Glenn Morris used to mention, and not only he, that the Eastern Orthodox Christian practice of Hesychasm, a breathing-prayer method used by monks, has a similarity to the kinds of breathing techniques from Yoga and Chi Kung that he made use of for spiritual purposes. That puts those Hesychast techniques into a certain testable territory which will immediately perk the ears of the cross-cultural scientist. If Yoga and Chi Kung can be tested, Hesychasm can — that is, if it is supposed to have some definable results. Now some Christians object to this, saying that Hesychasm is orientated specifically towards Christian practice only, like any form of Christian prayer, and is not “universal”; it is about being filled with Christ and none other. So it can’t resemble yoga and is not a Bud-Off. (And those people are usually the same ones who claim that Christians shouldn’t practice yoga either, since it is Hindu and not Christian, etc. In other words they don’t believe in Bud-Offs at all.)

But I would argue that Hesychasm is already operating as a Bud-Off to a certain limited extent. Western Catholics are taking it up, even though it hasn’t been anything to do with their tradition for many centuries, and they are being very influenced by their Orthodox cousins in the process. They are going on retreats to learn it too, I believe, so it starts to sound like a testable technique. (And equally, some believe it is being enormously dumbed-down in the process; on this I’m not qualified to comment.)

It’s a fact that not all Christian theologians currently believe wholly in ‘strong exclusivity’, as one might call it, anyhow — that is, in the idea that the historical Jesus Christ was the only saviour for the whole of mankind, and the rest of mankind has got to jolly well like it. (For example, Paul Knitter is advocating quite a complete remission of exclusivism, not exactly with the Pope’s blessing, but anyhow.) Moreover, we now have Christian Wiccans and Christian Druids, say. What if they should start picking up Hesychasm, trying it alongside pranayama or something? What if, sooner or later, a non-Christian picks the technique up? There are Bud-Off events going on here. We can’t speculate too much, but these things do happen. I could certainly see Christians being interested in scientific research as to whether Hesychasm ‘works’, anyhow. Someone might even cotton onto it as a way to win converts — scientifically proven Christianity! (Christianity often has a good relationship with science in non-spiritual areas, after all, when no-one’s treading on any toes. Remember Gregor Mendel?)

Those situations can produce cultural paradoxes — it’s possible we could one day see Christian authorities claiming that “Druidic Hesychasm is not real Hesychasm”, just as many Jewish authorities now claim “Hermetic Kabbalah is not real Kabbalah”. There seems little question that Kabbalistic techniques did bud off from mystical Judaism into Hermetics somehow, so why should similar things not happen again? In any case, the relationship between testable spirituality and Christianity, for example, is by no means always and necessarily going to be an antagonistic one.

True, cloistered Western Christian orders have no Bud-Off techniques I know of — you must be a full member to participate, and you see yourself as participating in an exclusive truth to a great extent I would think, and one that is certainly not trying to be ‘scientific’. But that doesn’t mean there is no spiritual result, either, and therefore some respect for the practices (despite any and all scandals and puncturings) is still in order. Michael Murphy (1993) gives adequate evidence of high Catholic spiritual achievement, in case you assume it is all fake because you happen not to believe (or like) it yourself. :)

But a major point here, which we’ll return to next time, is that Christianity is in many respects not really typical of religions. I’ve mentioned that the dismissivist/exclusivist aspects of it may have helped to sell it, which from the scientific point of view is rather unfortunate. But that in turn has resulted in dismissal of “all religions” by some people (who ought to know better) on the ground that “all religions” must be similar to Christianity in these respects — a peculiar mistake if you happen not to believe in Christianity, as most of those who make such statements do not, but one that results from not seeing much of the complexity of the religious milieu. More of that next post.

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