“I want my spirituality to be based on my experience, not someone else’s dogma.”
I hear this a lot. Ironically, so many people seem to espouse this idea — that personal spiritual experience matters more than abstract religious dogma — that it has practically become a “dogma” in its own right!
For many, mysticism is important because it implies an experiential spirituality — it’s not something you learn from a book, but it’s a reality that we live, in our own heart and minds and bodies.
I am broadly sympathetic to this concern for a lived, embodied spirituality. Why should I believe something about God, or morality, or the key to living a good life, if it has no immediate relationship to my own life? Just because somebody 20 or 200 or 2000 years ago had some sort of mountaintop experience, does it necessarily follow that the key to my spiritual well-being lies in my willingness to conform my life to their ideas?
For most of us, it simply doesn’t make sense. We live in a world that is shaped by the scientific method, which is an approach to knowledge based on — you got it — experience. Perhaps a better word here would be experiment — both for science and for spirituality. If you tell me that God exists, or that Jesus is the only way to salvation, or that baptism and communion are necessary for my eternal soul’s health, I’m going to naturally want to see some evidence. I need to know that an experimental practice of the spiritual life confirms the principles (read: dogmas) that I am told I “should” obey.
So far, so good. But where I begin to get a little antsy is when someone decides that experience is not only more important than dogma — but that dogma actually doesn’t matter at all. Or, worse, that dogma is dangerous and bad.
Let’s look at this using science as an analogy. We all know that the scientific method is necessary for science: you have to prove your hypothesis using verifiable, repeatable experimentation. But science also depends on the research — the experimentation — of generations of scientists who have gone before us. Every generation does not need to decide for itself whether or not the earth really revolves around the sun (or vice versa). That’s a matter of record. It doesn’t need to be re-proven every five years, as if it had an expired certification that needs to be renewed. No, unless (and until) someone comes along and performs new experiments that show an entirely new way of seeing things, in the meantime the scientific community accepts the proven knowledge of those who have gone before.
Dare I say it? The established truths of science are taught, and accepted, as matters of faith. We could even say that they are scientific dogmas.
So just as it would be counterproductive for every new generation to reject the dogmas of science, I believe the people engaged in contemplative or mystical spirituality should have a similar respect for the existing dogma of religion.
Now, this will make some people splutter, so let’s look at this carefully. “But,” some will object, “science can trust its dogma precisely because of empirical knowledge and experimentation. With religion and spirituality, no such foundation exists!” Therefore, or so the thinking goes, it’s fair to reject religious dogma. But I think this is an unfortunate mistake, that arises when we confuse the scientific method (which works great for science but is not so helpful for documenting mystical or spiritual experience) with the appropriate ways of establishing spiritual truth.
Spiritual truth can never be tidily measured by external instruments. Spirituality happens on the inside, so it is always subject to personal interpretation. We discover spiritual truths not by scientific experimentation, but by the application of spiritual wisdom — wisdom that looks for how beauty, and truth, and goodness, and poetry, and insight, and inspiration are present (or not) in the principles that we accept.
Take the teachings of Jesus, for example. He instructed his followers to do some pretty amazing things: to love their neighbors and even their enemies; to be lavish with forgiveness, to share wealth with those who have no ability to repay, to make healing and generosity and compassion that marks of a life well lived. You cannot scientifically “measure” the “results” of any of these teachings. And yet, these teachings carry the power to inspire us, to ring true in our hearts, to show us glimpses of a goodness and beauty that seems far deeper and higher and more real than the ordinary “truth” or mundane existence. Furthermore, generation after generation has ratified these teachings as true in their lives as well.
In other words, the “experiment” of these spiritual teachings has been verified repeatedly. To the point where these teachings become as foundational to spirituality as “the earth revolves around the sun” is foundational to science. That’s what makes these teachings “dogmas” — not that they are merely abstract principles from long ago, but that they are spiritual principles that have stood the test of time.
These principles are worthy of us putting our faith in them. But perhaps you have already seen one crucial difference between scientific “dogma” and spiritual wisdom. The foundational truths of science do not need to be reverified in every new generation. But in a way, the foundational truths of spirituality do need to be repeated, generation after generation. Why? Not because that’s what it takes to “prove” them — but because that’s what it takes to live them.
Now, someone might point out that in science, sometimes old “dogmas” have to be overthrown, especially when new evidence comes to light that helps us to see things in an entirely new way. The book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions explores this foundational principle: that the “dogmas” of science are not immutable, and it is very possible that new knowledge, new evidence, new experimentation can radically altar what we know — and believe — to be true. All this is so. Some might point to this mercurial nature of scientific knowledge as evidence for why we are not obligated to accept religious dogma. But I see it in a slightly different way. Religious dogma is like scientific dogma: it can be adapted and even overthrown as our overall knowledge nad wisdom increases. But until then, it’s wise to accept it, even if only as a “working hypothesis.”
I know that many people in our day have rejected a variety of dogmas that really do seem to be long overdue for dismantling: the idea that homosexuality is a sin, or that women are inferior to men, or that slavery and war can be permitted, or that religions outside of one’s own must necessarily be “demonic.” Yes, these ideas, espoused as unquestionable dogmas for many centuries, are outmoded and frankly repugnant.
But if we decide that rejecting some dogmas mean that it’s therefore appropriate to reject all dogma, I believe we will be throwing out the perennial baby with the dogmatic bathwater. Those of us who take spirituality — and mysticism — seriously need to find a way to approach dogma — all dogma — in a manner that affirms truth, allows for the emergence of new wisdom, and creates the space where we can affirm both.
This article is built around the idea of how do mysticism and faith relate to each other? To me, this question is a question about the relationship between dogma and experience. We put faith in the wisdom we receive from our ancestors, and we seek mystical understanding through our own experimental, embodied spirituality.
I believe that faith and mysticism need each other. At their best, they coexist in a kind of creative tension. Mysticism, the experimental dimension of spirituality, invites every person, every generation, to embody timeless truths and perennial wisdom in a new way, new for each generation. Faith, meanwhile, invites us to embrace the wisdom of the past, not to be enslaved by it but to build a foundation on which the spiritual exploration of our time can take place.
Yes, sometimes old dogmas need to be retired — or deconstructed. When we have a vibrant mystical/experimental approach to faith, we can more easily discern, as a community, what teachings that worked in the past no longer are helpful today. Meanwhile, however, mysticism needs faith in the perennial wisdom of the past so that every generation is not stuck re-inventing the “mystical wheel.” We do not need to be arguing over whether forgiveness is spiritually important, or that humility liberates us, or that silence is the portal to transrational knowledge. We’ve got solid “evidence” (spiritually speaking) that our ancestors knew all of these centuries ago. To the extent that we allow ourselves to place faith in the good wisdom of the past, we become empowered to address the really important issues of our time: what is a mystical approach to care for the environment? To supporting transgender persons? To developing economic models that are fair and sustainable? To dismantling systems of privilege and power?
When Christians argue over the right way to baptize, or the true meaning of communion, or some other such doctrine, we are in effect trying to reinvent the spiritual wheel. Instead, we need to be carefully reflecting on how to sort out the teachings of the past that truly matter — and put our faith in them — while trusting an experimental, mystical approach to faith today, that in turn will help us to discern when faith is something that nutures us — or when a dogma needs to be abandoned.
These are big spiritual issues and they touch on significant problems in religious institutions and the human desire for certainty and control that often undermines our own spiritual best instincts. They won’t be neatly sorted out in the next few years (or decades). But the purpose of this article is much humbler. I simply want people who are drawn to mysticism to keep an open mind about dogma and doctrine. Yes, maybe some of it needs to be dismantled — but much of it remains valuable. For mystics, faith is not a dirty word: it’s an invitation to allow our spiritual exploration today to stand on the shoulders of the giants who came before us.