Faith seeking understanding, my personal journey towards a deeper knowledge of and intimacy with God, the cosmos, humanity and myself through thoughts, words and (occasionally) images, is a series of [hopefully] daily reflections I’m writing with the purpose of publishing something on a regular basis for others to read, either here, at joncarllewis.com or among my writings at Medium.com.
I am mindful, today, of my spiritual journey and where I find myself at this time of relative peace in my life. Over the past two weeks I’ve been reading Science and Spiritual Practices by Rupert Sheldrake(1) and (although I’m not sure about his theories on morphic resonance) I have found a lot of resonance between his thoughts in this work and the place I have come to in my own thinking through my own spiritual practices.
You see, I’m on the upswing out of a spiritual depression. After over 50 years of being a Christian, my doubts about God and the afterlife suddenly bubbled over, and I became quite uncertain of the existence of the God of my childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Or that, if God existed, God cared about my personal concerns or what happened to me personally. On good days, I could believe in a God who noticed when a sparrow fell (although God seemed not to do anything to prevent its fall). On bad days, I couldn’t envision a spiritual reality at all.
I call them “good” and “bad” days because of the effect this loss of faith had on my sense of well-being in the world. I didn’t find it at all comfortable to fall philosophically among those who doubt the existence of a personal God or gods. I respect the right to not believe, but belief had been such a huge part of my identity over the course of my life, I wasn’t sure who I was or who I was becoming—or even who I wanted to be—if there were no realm of the spiritual interacting with and enlivening the realm of the material.
Fortunately, I found myself in good company online and in spiritual literature. I am grateful to the nakedpastor, David Hayward, pastor, cartoonist and convener of The Lasting Supper, an online community where people can bring their doubts along with their faith and walk with others who acknowledge their doubts as well. Hayward’s cartoons and the wisdom contained in them gave me permission to explore uncomfortable territory for me and grow more “spiritually independent.”
I am also grateful to Mike McHargue (known as “Science Mike” of The Liturgists) whose personal account in Finding God in the Waves(2) allowed me to find my way back into a faith I can be comfortable with. By following McHargue’s example of focusing on spiritual practice rather than beliefs or intellectual constructs I was able to “break through” and have an experience I can’t quite explain but transformed my faith into something that feels more real. Rather than try to reason my way back to a belief in God, I committed to doing spiritual practices. According to Sheldrake, modern science has shown that “In general, religious and spiritual practices make people happier, healthier, and less depressed. Conversely, not having these practices makes people unhappier, unhealthier, and more depressed.” Sheldrake also concludes: “Militant atheism should come with a health warning.”(3)
I’m not convinced that militant atheism should come with any more of a warning than militant anything else, but the reality for me became an increased sense of connection with something bigger than myself. I’m not sure that I can define that something—or would even want to—but I feel I can “know” something that surrounds and connects us all as individuals, communities, biospheres, even the cosmos through regular spiritual practice. I resonate with the place Sheldrake finds himself when he says: “Some people identify their experience of more-than-human nature with God; others identify it with nature, as opposed to God. Still others (myself included) see God in nature and nature in God, a worldview called panentheism.”(4)
I now plead guilty to that same panentheism (not to be confused with pantheism). And I experience the knowing of it through regular, spiritual practice.
Now, to be honest, I am no monk (I might be a good one someday, but that doesn’t yet make sense for my life at present). Although I regularly participate in the Eucharist, I find the daily offices nearly impossible for me to recite at this point. Although I journal compulsively (which I consider a spiritual discipline), I can’t often seem to settle myself for centering prayer—which I actually enjoy when I do it. I recently committed to spending one hour a day practicing the presence of God. I am able to pull that off several times a week. I manage to read and ponder the gospel of the day from the daily office relatively often.
But it is enough. These practices have strengthened my faith. And, even when I question whether I believe, the practices lead me back to faith. But is there actually a spiritual dimension beyond what biological and material functions on their own can account for? I don’t know.
But what I can say is… actually, Sheldrake says it best:
“For materialists, meditation is nothing but an activity of the brain, and therefore all its efforts are confined to the brain, including the highest states of mystical experience. At first sight this seems plausible. The practice of meditation does indeed change the physiology and activity of the brain and other parts of the body. It also leads to structural changes in the brain tissue. But this does not prove that the experience is confined to the brain. If I look out my window at a tree, specific changes occur in my retina, optic nerves, and in the visual-processing parts of the brain. But these changes in the brain do not prove that the tree is nothing but a product of brain activity. The tree really exists, and it is outside my brain.”(5)
Real or not, I experience that tree. The experience of that tree brings me joy. And that is enough.
(1) Rupert Sheldrake, Science and Spiritual Practices: Transformative Experiences and Their Effects on Our Bodies, Brains, and Health (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2018).
(2) Mike McHargue, Finding God in the Waves: How I Lost My Faith and Found It Again Through Science (Audible Audiobook – Unabridged) (Tantor Audio)
(3) Sheldrake, Science and Spiritual Practices, From Ch. 8: Conclusion: Spiritual Practices in a Secular Age, p. 165
(4) Sheldrake, Science and Spiritual Practices, From Ch. 3: Reconnecting with the More-Than-Human World, pp. 61-62.
(5) Sheldrake, Science and Spiritual Practices, From chapter 1: Meditation and the Nature of Minds, p. 26.
Thank you for your time and attention.
I’d love to know your thoughts on what you’ve read.
Please comment, below, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
May God richly bless you on your journey.