On Writing That Is Far Less Religious, Way More Spiritual

May 30, 2019 § 10 Comments


tom larsonBy Thomas Larson

In my long and ongoing study of the memoir and what the form means for writers who want to capture their religious or spiritual experience, I keep coming back to an inescapable truth about the history of what we think of as spiritual literature.

This truth has two parts: first, that from 400 to 1948, there are only four primarily personal religious autobiographies whose authors intensify the passion of their religious conversion, which feels as close to verifiably authentic as each can make it in the writer’s prose: the confessions of Augustine, Tolstoy, Thérèse of Lisieux, and Thomas Merton.

And second, considering the 1500-year gap between Augustine and Merton, leaving out for the moment Tolstoy and Thérèse who are late 1800s, other writers were either censored by the church as dogmatically unsuitable or by the individual author as nakedly over-personal. Yes, during this time, there’s The Cloud of Unknowing and St. John of the Cross, famous Christian tracts. But these testaments are wholly mystical (without the “I”) or wholly prescriptive (with the “I” as Everyman). Neither explores the unsteady, vulnerable self, de rigueur to memoir.

Something happened 70 years ago that accounts for a change in how we view the landscape of liminal writing. Authors moved from nonpersonal expression of religious community to personal expression of unchurched experience, trading religious authority for personal authority. The religious text—an ordained, mythic, creation story, written or inspired by a God with enough moral injunctions to make a courtesan blush—gave way to, perhaps birthed, the spiritual text—a self-creation story, an inquiry about how the self has been spiritualized. The latter required one to have lived and to have written a book with consummate literary value, daring and eloquent, bemused by or surrendering to purpose.

Removed from the religious text was the author’s loyalty or faith in its founding principles: primal sin, priestly clubbishness, resurrection and salvation through Christ. Once the fundamentalist injunctions lost their molten, magnetic core, the writer was free to use the artistic forms of personal narrative and meditative essay as new ways to engage her enigmatic moments of the inexplicable or the numinous.

With Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, a spring Jonquil emerges: the spiritual author pushes away from the idea that the writer is reflecting what has already happened in her religious/spiritual experience and pushes toward enacting that experience through the writing itself. Yes, one goes on a quest, walks El Camino in Spain, or fasts for enlightenment at the Abbey of Gethsemani. But the real quest for the writer is the writing, the endurance of mind it takes to produce, sustain, and communicate the deepest of insights. If the writing of the book becomes a spiritual quest as well, then the evocation of spirit becomes an aesthetic pursuit.

spirtiwriterThus, the appeal of spirituality in our time is less expressive of an allegiance to a faith and more expressive of a learned, adaptive behavior, often away from faith and toward a restoration of ambiguity, a treasuring of doubt. What else is art but enacting our existential enigmas when, as is often the case, meaning dictated by institutions and “patented wisdom” is as out of touch with the times as a landline.

I don’t think “spiritual but not religious” (no one says the opposite, religious but not spiritual) means to replace “religious” mysteries with New Age hocus-pocus: See, for example, the missionary guidance of spiritual dog-walking or spiritual tidying-up (each subject with its author-and-book brand). Spirituality is not about settling down, is not about institutionalization, and is not a do-over of religious meetinghouses and commodities—refurbished warehouses as Zendos, catechistic travel books about the Vatican.

The spiritual is supposed to engage our lost selves, not our found ones. That for every authentic memoir about the inner life of the wounded, scarred postmodern pilgrim, there are one hundred how-to guides by professionalized self-seekers is part and parcel of what’s been unleashed by the abandonment of religion in the millennial era. I am highly suspect of this rush to codify the New Age into bullet-points.

If there are other ways to explore the mysteries of the self, of chance, of dreams, of alternate spatial and temporal dimensions, of mortality—and these pursuits are outside traditional churches, their communities and texts—then the question is invited: How do we search? The operable verb here is to explore. I often wonder how people can explore anything about themselves and the dark intractability of their lives, in a post-religious world, without an expressive means (writing, art, sculpture, video, film, dance, music), let alone communicate to others what they may and may not have discovered.

I think critics have pressed art and the artist to sit too close to representation. Though it may, art does not represent experience, not primarily. Art enacts experience. And, preferentially, not the experience of the past but of the present—action painting, live video, improvised music, the author writing the self into surprising being. All these explorations to me are what I would call part of a spiritual aesthetic. Because these voyages into the unknown are based on no ageless canon or chiseled commandments but, rather, materialize in the artist something he or she had no idea was there—because it wasn’t there, until the artist invented it.
___

Thomas Larson is the author of Spirituality and the Writer: A Personal Inquiry, Swallow Press, 2019.

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§ 10 Responses to On Writing That Is Far Less Religious, Way More Spiritual

  • Brad Osborne says:

    Profound, articulate, and enlightening. Everything I look for in reading material. Thank you!

  • philipparees says:

    Could not be more pertinent to just such a memoir struggling to get born! After a book that was the by-product of such personal experience failed to arouse much interest. The product versus the process of discovery- now writing the latter and it is much harder.

    This piece is very affirming.

  • mosesguvheya says:

    Great writing Sir On 30 May 2019 13:20, “BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog” wrote:

    > Guest Blogger posted: “By Thomas Larson In my long and ongoing study of > the memoir and what the form means for writers who want to capture their > religious or spiritual experience, I keep coming back to an inescapable > truth about the history of what we think of as spiritual lit” >

  • SurjotKaur says:

    Thank you, Thomas, for this exquisite piece. I appreciate the breadth of historical context you share, and I like your insight “Art enacts experience.” Thank you for giving us all permission to surprise ourselves again, to create the experience of awe within.

  • hczerwiec says:

    What a thoughtful, lovely piece!

  • bearcee says:

    Well done, a spiritual meditation in its own right. I, too, like the idea that “Art enacts experience.” I’m just sending off a collection of essays to be published in the fall, entitled “Wandering, Not Lost.” Very much in the way of what you’re talking about. Thank you for your piece.

  • jholowaty says:

    Thank you. I feel like you put words to my experience blogging. It’s been a tiring path to self-discovery. I’d only say, I didn’t feel I needed to step outside institutional religion (Catholicism, in my case) to do it. I felt I could be both religious and spiritual. Again, thank you! 🙂

  • Cameron Dezen Hammon says:

    I love this so much. As a writer with a forthcoming memoir about “religious and romantic obsession,” I’m thrilled to see this piece and will share it widely. I believe there is a new canon of spiritual memoir that includes Mary Karr (Lit is a fantastic example of this genre), Maggie Nelson, Faith Adiele, Richard Rodriguez, and others. Glad to have found this essay. Thank you.

  • Curt deiz says:

    Science and the Bible: Cosmos and Creator

    By Mark Eastman, M.D.

    They have been called the two greatest questions that face mankind: Does God exist, and if He does, what is His nature? Since the time of the ancient Greek philosophers, the answer to these questions have been sought by examining the nature of the universe and its life forms.

    The Cosmos

    When Albert Einstein published the first of his relativity theories in 1905, he shocked the physics community with a staggering new view of space, time, matter and energy. Though he did not know it at the time, his theories provide dramatic insights into the attributes of the Creator of the cosmos.

    Among other things, what Einstein’s theories revealed was that the flow of time and the structure of space were relative to the velocity, mass and acceleration of the observers. That is, their observed values were not fixed: they were relative.

    For thousands of years, scientists and philosophers believed that time was nothing more than an abstract notion, conceived in the minds of men, and used to describe the change seen in the physical world. Time, it was believed, was not a thing, it was a mental contrivance. Einstein showed that this was wrong. Time, Einstein showed, was “plastic.” That is, it is a physical property of the universe, and that the observed rate that time flows depends on the physical conditions present at the measuring device.

    Several years after Einstein’s theories were published, astronomer Willem de Sitter found a mathematical error in Einstein’s equations. When corrected, he found a startling mathematical prediction buried within his equations: The universe was finite! Space-time, matter, and energy had a beginning.

    In his book, It’s About Time, popular author and physicist Paul Davies remarks on this incredible discovery.

    Modern scientific cosmology in the most ambitious enterprise of all to
    emerge from Einstein’s work. When scientists began to explore the
    implications of Einstein’s time for the universe as a whole, they made
    one of the most important discoveries in the history of human thought:
    that time, and hence all physical reality, must have had a definite origin
    in the past. If time is flexible and mutable, as Einstein demonstrated, then
    tt is possible for time to come into existence, and also to pass away again;
    there can be a beginning and an end of time. (Paul Davies, It’s About Time,
    Touchstone Books/Simon and Schuster, 1995, pg. 17.)

    The Skeptic

    I recently had an opportunity to speak on the origin of life at a major public university in Southern California. In attendance were a number of professors who are self-described agnostics. During the question period, one of the professors admitted that the evidence is compelling that the universe was indeed finite. He said that while he could not believe in God (because he couldn’t see Him, or study Him scientifically) he said he did believe that someday scientists would discover a law that would explain the origin and order of the universe and its life forms.

    After pointing out that he had just expressed faith, the belief in things unseen, but hoped for, I asked him if he believed that the laws of physics, which work in our space-time domain, also had a beginning. He was forced to concede that they did because they would have no place to act before the space-time domain existed.

    The final blow came when I asked him if he then believed that some “law” of physics could explain the origin of the laws of physics! He saw the point: The laws of physics cannot be the cause of the laws of physics! The cause of the universe and its laws must be independent of the space-time domain, exactly as the Bible claimed 3,500 years earlier!

    Apostle Paul’s statement regarding the attributes of God being discerned by an examination of the nature of the universe is quite staggering, considering the state of scientific knowledge in the first century A.D. At that time it was commonly believed that the universe was eternal. In the face of that commonly held bias, the Bible clearly taught that the universe was finite, and the Creator is independent of time and space, exactly as 20th century cosmology suggests.

    In the Beginning God created the heavens and the earth… Genesis 1:1
    …God, (v.9) who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not
    according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace
    which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began.
    2 Timothy 1:8-9

    …in hope of eternal life which God, who cannot lie, promised before
    time began. Titus 1:2

    The finiteness of space-time not only points to a Creator who is independent of the cosmos, but it also gives us insight into the minimum resume of such a Being.

    The Uncaused Cause

    In my discussion with the agnostic professors, I asked them to give me the caveat, for the sake of my next argument, that God did indeed exist. They agreed. I then asked them what would be the minimum “resume” of such a Being. Remarkably, they were quite insightful in their deductions. They quickly recognized that such a Being would not only have to be independent of space-time, but must also be incredibly powerful, incredibly intelligent and able to act unencumbered, simultaneously inside and outside the time domain. Remarkably, without recognizing it, they had described the resume of the Creator as revealed in the Biblical text!

    Among other things, the law of cause and effect asserts that a cause is always greater than its effect. Applied to the cosmos it means that the Creator must be more powerful than all the energy stored in all the stars in all the galaxies in the entire universe. Physicists believe that there are at least 10 exp80 particles in the universe. Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2 indicates that the energy stored in the mass of the universe is equal to the mass times the speed of light squared! From this perspective, the Creator must be an all-powerful, omnipotent Being. This very attribute is credited to God throughout the Bible’s text.

    Ah Lord GOD! Behold, thou hast made the heaven and the earth by thy
    great power and stretched out arm, and there is nothing too hard for
    thee. Jeremiah 32:17

    Behold, I am the LORD, the God of all flesh: is there anything too hard
    for me? Jeremiah 32:27

    In my discussion with the professors even they admitted that all the chemists, molecular biologists and physicists in the world combined have been unable to create a DNA molecule from raw elements: hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, phosphorus, etc. Moreover, molecular biologists admit that living cells are metabolic machines which are vastly more complicated than any machine made by mankind. They agreed in principle that the nature of these cellular “machines” would require a Being possessing unfathomable intelligence. Such a Being would be, from our limited perspective, an all-knowing, omniscient Creator. Throughout the Bible’s text God is described in such terms. For example, in Jeremiah 1:5, God’s omniscience is illustrated in his foreknowledge of the prophet even before he was born:

    Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; Before you were born I
    sanctified you; I ordained you a prophet to the nations. Jeremiah 1:5

    The infinite knowledge of God is proclaimed in 1 John 3:20 and in Psalm 147:5:

    For if our heart condemn us, God is greater than our heart, and knows
    all things 1 John 3:20

    Great is our Lord, and mighty in power; his understanding is infinite.
    Psalm 147:5

    Finally, if our space-time domain is the direct creation of God, then once he created the cosmos, in order to organize and uphold the galaxies, solar systems and its life forms, the Creator must be able to act simultaneously, inside and outside the space time domain. This attribute we call omnipresence. This too is an attribute that is ascribed to God throughout the Bible’s text.

    Am I a God near at hand,” says the LORD,”And not a God afar off? Can
    anyone hide himself in secret places, So I shall not see him?” says the
    LORD; “Do I not fill heaven and earth?” says the LORD. Jeremiah 23:23-24

    For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in
    the midst of them. Matthew 18:20

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