No one really decides what the next frontiers of science, technology, art, or thought will be. Some breakthrough happens, maybe in a garage, maybe in someone’s head, and it builds from that small space until it takes over the world. Of course, it doesn’t always happen that way. Innovation can come out of traditional institutions, and the world is littered with small-scale broken dreams. Regardless of the source of change, though, no consortium of human affairs gets together across the world (or even within a single community) to decide exactly what’s going to change from year to year. Change is all there is, and somehow, with more or less enthusiasm, we adapt.
This is not to say that animals don’t adapt to their environments. They do. However, nowhere in the animal kingdom do we see dramatic change at the scale and pace that we find among human beings. Think of how much the human house has evolved in the last thousand years. It’s difficult to point to a similar magnitude of innovation in, let’s say, the domiciles of squirrels. And, for humans, the change we must adapt to is often self-created. Which brings us to a revelation about the human experience:
Humans, more than any other species, build on what came before.
Image by Anke Sundermeier from Pixabay
It took thousands of years for us to mature to the level of written language. For hundreds of years, such knowledge was limited to a privileged elite. Now it’s a basic skill taught in kindergarten. It took hundreds more years for us to evolve equipment to discover and prove the existence of atoms. Now every U.S. middle schooler learns about them in science. The elderly among us might remember how long it took them to learn how to use a computer, some still don’t use one very readily, and yet we all watch, bemused, as the youngest among us navigate mobile devices with ease.
However, one area where we humans haven’t been so great at building on what came before is in our approach to spirituality. We don’t cling to the telegraph as our only means of distance communication. We embrace the newest in streaming entertainment technology. When we consume a book these days, it’s rarely in a format made from trees. Yet, in spirituality, an area where our imagination has the most room to take flight, change is still regarded with suspicion: putting the burden on spiritual and religious works that are a thousand years old or more to completely define our spiritual lives today.
We focus on re-interpretation when we could benefit most from revision: from looking at our universe again with fresh eyes and allowing our spirituality to adjust accordingly. This is not to say that the wisdom in those hallowed texts is in any way useless. The nature of building on what came before is that “what came before” acts as the bedrock of advancement. We’re using our spiritual legacy to hold us back. The challenge is to let it take us forward.
Spiritual innovation exists, of course. It’s impossible to shut down growth and change completely. But it’s usually pushed to the fringes of mainstream thought by our own fear and the entrenchment of established institutions. Unfortunately, this sometimes makes spiritual growth for the individual far more uncomfortable and scary than it needs to be.
Spirituality is often felt on a personal, embodied level, yet we live in a scientific climate where the solitary experience holds no value. A finding must be testable, repeatable, and evident in lab conditions to have any worth at all. If there isn’t a scientific study to back up what we’ve witnessed, we must be imagining it, or worse, we’re delusional.
But with spiritual growth, nothing is more informing, influential, or important to our development than our own personal journey. Without the backing of the secular community, though, when we do have a spiritual experience, or even when we are just seeking one, we turn to religious groups for validation. And if we don’t align with the traditions we’ve been raised in (as was the case with me) we tend to do one of three things; find another one, walk our own spiritual path, or abandon the enterprise altogether. If we choose to continue our spiritual exploration alone, we may retreat into the self, feeling like our spiritual experience is a dirty secret we can’t talk about openly.
This is hardly unique to our particular place in time. For centuries, wars have been fought and people murdered as ‘heretics’ for the very act of deviating from the doctrine of a mainstream faith. It still happens today in some places, I’m sure.
Perhaps this violent history, however remote from our present experience, has made many of us uncomfortable with discussions of personal faith, rendering us reluctant to wade into the uncertain waters of spiritual development.
For many people, that is what spirituality remains today; a choice between a mainstream faith that represents outward practice and social inclusion or an internally vibrant, numinous life one feels compelled to hide from public view. This is not true everywhere, nor for everyone, of course, but still common enough.
Yet spirituality could be so much more.
Let’s challenge this dilemma a little bit with a thought experiment.
What if we imagined different religions and faith traditions as a series of maps? To develop this analogy, let’s use the United States as a model since I live here, and I imagine many of you reading this do as well. On the most physical, concrete level, the United States is a geographic landmass. Of course, the United States is also a concept and a set of ideas, but just to keep things as simple as possible, let’s focus on the geographic aspect of the United States. If we want to drive cross-country, the map that will be most useful to us is a road map: an atlas. But what if we’re not taking a road trip? What if there’s a storm coming? We might want to look at a weather map. There are plenty of other maps too. Depending on what we need to know, we might consult a map that shows population density, elevation, or a map that shows the different growing zones across the country.
Is the weather map the “right” view of the United States and the road map “wrong”? The question is a bit ludicrous, right? If we need to know where to drive, we use the road map; if we’re interested in the weather, we look at the weather map.
If we can have all these dramatically different true views of the United States, how much more so with the divine?
How could one map ever completely capture everything there is to know about the United States? More importantly, would we even want that? Imagine what such a map would be like. How much overload would that be for our systems? We wouldn’t even be able to look at it, not to mention get anything useful from it.
If it would be impossible to have a complete, comprehensive understanding of the United States, a place we all know is real, how much more so with the divine?
We need different maps because our souls need different things.
The limiting belief, where we let the tradition of our past hold us back, is in thinking “in order for my map to be right, yours must be wrong.”
It’s easy to understand how we’ve been caught in such a trap. We have grown up under a rational and scientific paradigm that treats everything like math. If 2+2 = 4 then 2+2 cannot equal 3, or 5, or 6. But, the future of spirituality could be a blossoming understanding that connecting with the divine is, simply put, not like math.
We may have had an entire lifetime of counter-conditioning, but what if we simply allowed ourselves to let that belief go? How liberating would that be? Our own spirituality could really take flight because we no longer need to be concerned about whether or not our faith tradition is “right.” Our faith can be about what is in our hearts and on our own maps. What would spirituality be like if we allowed ourselves to believe that all the maps are true? Instead of merely accepting that other people have different beliefs, our hearts could open to the beauty of this idea;
Isn’t it amazing that we can have completely different maps of the same thing and all get exactly what we need?