Romantic spirituality

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Photography: Jorge Royan, Argentina

Religion and supernatural ideas in general have proved remarkably durable across the totality of global society. The elevation of scientism and human reasoning which began over 300 years ago has far from disinclined us to the unreasonable. The particle physicist may still attend evensong, the neurophysicist continue to ponder an afterlife, and the philosopher forever cogitate on transcendent abodes of mind. So reason appears to have its limits in the face of our more intuitive inclinations.

Human reason does of course have limits in any case; it’s always constrained by the cranial organ we possess as a species of Great Ape. There’s a tendency to regard reason as limitless, at least in theory, and we readily grant faith in those few intellectual giants who occasionally appear in the world. We may come to regard them almost as demigods, taking their every utterance as somehow sacrosanct and inarguable – until the next appears, and perhaps reveals the firsts’ feet of clay.

And yet religious and supernatural beliefs have this durability that, as history has shown, eludes the products of reasoning itself. There’s something immutable in our species’ desire to hold to ideas of the transcendent, as if we sense the limits of reason. Our notions of spiritual dimensions barely lend themselves to any detailed examination; they’re largely allusions to a metaphysical beyond that remain susceptible only to retention as opaque, frequently vacillating and wish-laden beliefs.

So what is it that inclines us to these unprovable notions, these rather clouded and at times hesitant bundles of unreason? Perhaps we can say that we fall in love with them as projective ideas – the heaven that awaits us, or the nirvana we seek one day to possess. Adopting beliefs such as these is highly seductive to us as spiritual materialists; they’re quite easy to relate lovingly to as we form relationships with our imagined futures, romanticising our becoming selves in the process.

Now of course, huge emotional solace can be granted as a result of our adherence to these beliefs. This is not insignificant, despite the objections of anti-theists who, sardonically dismissing those unable to substantiate their beliefs evidentially, miss the point. To them, it’s as if subjectivity is utterly illusory and has no pragmatic value; whereas to the believer, their subjective world is largely paramount. William James writes eloquently on this in his great work The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Continuing with this theme, we might say the ardent materialist can be romantically diminished – at least as regards much of their inner world. Such an allegation may not disturb them in the least; they may even take pride in agreeing. Yet simultaneously they fail to acknowledge within a romantic attachment to their own self-entity, their own love of themselves beyond the measurable flesh and bone. Ask them to describe the self they believe in, and a hesitancy appears – so is that too ineffable?

It seems then, that we all have romantic attachments to things that, whilst they remain indescribable, we find difficulty in relinquishing. Whether it be an unwavering cleaving to our present self-construct, or more projective ideas about the future of our immortal self, these are all notions we cling to and lovingly identify with. There’s a need to believe in something beyond the mind and matter – a super-construct of a heaven, a transcendent psychical realm, or an enduring, changeless self.

Whilst much of this readiness to believe is harmful, elements of it can serve an important purpose. Not only does it provide some with the emotional solace already spoken of, it may also create a conduit for higher understandings. The problem is in distinguishing what may prove a healthy faith, from pernicious and misplaced beliefs. In the end, it comes down to instinct and intuition; we feel a gut reaction that grants sufficient faith so as to allow the leap towards ground as yet unseen.

We can always play safe of course, demanding verifications as to what lies ahead before proceeding. And sometimes this is wise, particularly so in matters of the material world where empirical proofs may exist. But in the world of subjectivity, there simply are no such proofs. In the subjective world, the unknown is just that, and there can be no evidence beyond hearsay. So faith is the only option if we want to explore this speculative unknown, and we come back to our intuitive inclinations.

This means being more liberal with our romantic indulgencies. I don’t argue for a love of the spiritual, because for me the word is meaningless. The spiritual is generally considered as an immaterial counterpart to, or issuance of, a substantive self. And yet the self is not substantive; it’s no more than a narrative construct; it is already immaterial and issued beyond the body, existing only and ever as a recurrent idea. So the romantic indulgence I advocate is to befriend this same understanding.

It’s to have faith that we ourselves must go beyond idea and narration to understand the true ground of our being. Contemplatively exploring the mind and senses, we fall out of love with selfhood, and into loving only the presence of being. We embrace this possibility not as any romantic spirituality, but instead as a lover of knowledge. We come to know that the dualistic play of self and otherness are but entrancements, the romance of self-love but fakery, and in such knowledge find well-being.