Readers of these blogs and my website will find ample evidence that the Pope could have been referring to me--should he be aware of my existence, that is! I have routinely encouraged folks to find what works for them, to trust their intuition when considering various spiritual paths, and to use their own experience as a way to judge the personal worth of any of them.
As I’ve written these things, though, I’ve been aware of at least an edge of uneasiness. We humans have proven beyond a shadow of any doubt that we are capable of self-deception in the name of the spiritual. Is anything that feels intuitively right or helpful to someone certain to be good? What checks exist to keep any of us from veering off center?
I think these questions bring us right up against a messy reality. There really are no guarantees, whether one leans toward relativism or toward orthodoxy. An inherent tension exists and always will between freedom and security, and it is apparent just about anywhere one looks in the human experience...we delight in the freedom to eat what tastes good, while needing to attend to the health implications of those choices...as parents, we seek to allow our children the freedom to explore while protecting them from harm...we train for careers that provide financial stability, but hope to feel inspired by them and to have a rich personal life at the same time....and politically, we attempt to balance individual freedoms against the needs of the larger community.
Spiritually, there has always been a tension between the need for a personally relevant and engaging spirituality and the benefits to be gained from rich spiritual traditions. Errors have occurred at the extreme ends of both sides of this continuum. Some have gone against the teachings of their faith when they felt personally led by God to engage in genocide and to murder homosexuals or those performing abortions. On the other end, religious institutions have codified slavery and acts of torture and murder themselves, and have used their influence to amass wealth and power.
Of course, those of us closer to the middle of this continuum err as well. Many have allowed their spirituality to become emaciated while outwardly adhering to the trappings of their faith, while others give only lip service to a search for an active personal spirituality while in reality challenging themselves not at all.
There really are no guarantees. In traditional psychology, there is recognition of the tension between the unbridled impulses of our Id and the rule-based requirements of our Superego. Mature humans develop a structure to mediate between the two: the ego. While these terms are not used very often these days--and in spiritual circles the word ego has taken on a decidedly different meaning--they do speak to the fact that it is our responsibility to know ourselves well and to maintain a dynamic harmony between structure and freedom. This responsibility extends into all areas of our lives, including the spiritual.
If a choice needs to be made, I will obviously come down on the side of freedom. I find disturbing, for example, the ‘soft intimidation’ that censures or marginalizes priests who advocate liberal views, such as the ordination of women or liberation theology. I assume most Catholics would support the Pope on any view, as long as he provides a sound rationale.
The free exchange of ideas does not strike me as dangerous to, but essential for, a vibrant spirituality. I believe most of us can be trusted not go traipsing off the path of sanity into the brambles of spiritual extremism; I suspect that those who have this tendency will either gravitate toward religions that keep them in check, or will find justification for their zealotry elsewhere.
I am not, however, suggesting a blanket, anything goes approach to the spiritual quest. A mature spirituality is hard work, and we would do well to institute some safeguards that will serve to keep ours robust and sane. To that end, we must question ourselves and allow ourselves to be challenged by others. It is, of course, wise to talk with those we trust about our beliefs and our doubts. However, we also need to seek out those with whom we disagree, and truly listen to their point of view, allowing ours to deepen and perhaps shift a bit in the process. We must challenge ourselves should we ever find our beliefs at odds with established spiritual guidelines, and we would do well to actively seek the wisdom of several traditions, honestly grappling with what fits and what doesn’t--and asking ourselves why.
Living with integrity is a demanding endeavor, and self-deception is always a possibility. The best we can do, I think, is to work toward making self-deception less likely. I believe most of us have an innate righting mechanism that can assist us in recognizing when we’ve veered off the path and help us get back on it. But it is our responsibility to listen to these cues and to use them to return to center.
Life is messy, and being a mature, responsible human being is a challenge indeed. There’s simply no escaping that, wherever we come down on the question of relativism or orthodoxy. It is our obligation to guard against extremism, blind obedience, sloppy thinking, and plain ol’ laziness as we seek a rich and meaningful spirituality that will allow us to give something back to this world of ours.
May your spirituality be rich, fulfilling, and balanced. And a thank-you to Pope Benedict XVI for prodding me to explore this issue.
*Pope's Softer Approach Surprises Many Theologians, by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Morning Edition, April 15, 2008