Spirituality Fuzziness and The God Within

A year ago I wrote a post about the in-vogue-but-fraught-with-ambiguity self-identification "Spiritual but not religious." My main criticism of this category is that it's so broad as to lack any specific meaning, and people who ID this way usually do not seem focused on adding clarity. Instead, they enjoy the ambiguity that seemingly absolves them from forming clear beliefs (even if a belief is "I don't know if God exists").

But there's another problem with "spiritual but not religious" and its New Age influence: it tends to devolve into a kind of self-worship. A great example is the GQ interview with John Edwards' mistress Rielle Hunter. Here's Hanna Rosin’s take on religion of the self: 

… I read Rielle’s interview and immediately thought of many yoga teachers I’ve met, the acolytes of Marianne Williamson and other devotees of what they call “Eastern” religion. The blossoming New Age/Buddhism lite that populates yoga classes talks about the toxic nature of the Western “ego” (you know, we work too hard, we value ourselves above others, etc.) But then it replaces this ego with something like a supreme inner deity residing in all of us whose dictates can never be ignored … you call it silly but to Rielle it’s so profound—divine, even.

Ross Douthat, who found the Rosin post, says it calls to mind this passage from Chesterton:

Of all conceivable forms of enlightenment the worst is what these people call the Inner Light. Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the god within. Any one who knows any body knows how it would work; any one who knows any one from the Higher Thought Centre knows how it does work. That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones. Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light; let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street, but not the god within.

22 comments on “Spirituality Fuzziness and The God Within
  • Like any set of spiritual beliefs placed in the wrong hands, New Age “theory” is problematic because it allows people to jump directly to the conclusions they want to reach without having to reason their way to them. When you can ascribe everything you are and do to some abstract divine order, you’re never wrong because you really don’t have any agency – it’s just the universe unfolding as it’s supposed to.

    What’s interesting is that as a philosophy a lot of the New Age stuff is internally incoherent. On the one hand it preaches free will and self determination in creating the life you want for yourself, but on the other it says that there is a cosmic order that we’re all a part of and can’t control. As Rielle demonstrates, this allows you to essentially do whatever makes you feel good without having to feel guilty if other people are hurt by it. That’s a dangerous combination.

  • This really brings to mind some of the advice offered in David Foster Wallace’s Commencement Speech at Kenyon College. I’m sure you’ve read it before, but it certainly seems relevant, especially when presented with the quote from Chesterton:

    “And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation”

  • “By declaring that man is responsible and must actualize the potential meaning of his life, I wish to stress that the true meaning of life is to be discovered in the world rather than within man or his own psyche, as though it were a closed system. I have termed this constitutive characteristic “the self-transcendence of human existence.” It denotes the fact that being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself–be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself–by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love–the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”
    — Viktor E. Frankl (Man’s Search for Meaning)

    A truly fabulous and moving read, I highly recommend it.

    While I am a Christian, I do hesitate to call my self ‘religious.’ Why? Because the modern connotation of religion (and arguably ancient see James 1:27) is defined by what you do, and not what you believe. Christianity however is completely about faith, not about what you do, because nothing we do can bring us closer to a perfectly just God.
    If self-worship is the most-horrible, then would self-deference to a worthy being would be the best? Just some side thoughts.

    Best, Jeff

  • I don’t have a problem with self-worship on the face of it. Ayn Rand argues elevating yourself as the highest moral ideal. I agree with her that we should all strive for that. But, in my experience, New Age types often have a thinly-masked narcissism.

  • aren’t you describing the situation where someone may have fallen into the self worship without having worked on eliminating the ego? that’s why those go hand in hand. with ego still intact, you see the world as you want to see it instead of how it truly is. as ego is minimized, you start to see how you are connected to everything else. then the love/worship of the self becomes the love/worship of everyone.

  • I couldn’t bear to read the GQ interview with Rielle Hunter. The less I know about the vapid contents of her mind, such as it is, the better.

    But I feel the same way about the infinitely more interesting mind of G.K. Chesterson, “the eccentric prince of paradox” indeed.

    This is the man who wrote:

    “One can meet an assertion with argument; but healthy bigotry is the only way in which one can meet a tendency. I am told that the Japanese method of wrestling consists not of suddenly pressing, but of suddenly giving way. This is one of my many reasons for disliking the Japanese civilization. To use surrender as a weapon is the very worst spirit of the East.”

    “In short, the rational human faith must armor itself with prejudice in an age of prejudices, just as it armoured itself with logic in an age of logic.”

    I’m pleased that the dubious Douhat seems to find spiritual sustenance in the confused words of such a “practical mystic” and unrepentant racist– it reaffirms my faith that Douhat and the Republican Party will never ever win the working class and save the ‘American Dream’.

    After all, this is a man who apparently can’t think of anything that doesn’t “put him in mind” of a passage from Chesterton, who is certainly not someone I would want to use as a reference point for, well, everything.

    Chesterson couldn’t knot his own tie or reliably navigate his way to a destination, often forgetting just where he was going, and it’s easy to see why.

    If I believed in Hell as a physical location, I’d say he was finally homeward bound.

    Glenn’s quote from David Foster Wallace, “The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation”, would serve very well as an eloquent solipsist’s credo.

    Wallace says this kind of freedom has much to recommend it, but I dispute that.

    Alone at the center of all creation is a place I wouldn’t want to be.

    I always imagined it was where Satan and William F. Buckley, Jr would find themselves in the end.;-)

  • Respectfully, while I enjoy her books, Rand’s philosophy is paper-thin. It lacks any substantive moral component and completely overlooks the role that luck plays in social outcomes.

  • I find building a proper moral and ethical structure for living to be very difficult and confusing, and I have done a poor job of it. But I consider my position more honest than New Age belief, because understanding that you have poorly defined beliefs is a few steps above confident faith in poorly defined beliefs.

    On the other hand, Hanna Rosin and the professed New Age spiritualists I know are not inclined to start or support a holy war. In that respect I would rather deal with them than a religious fanatic.

  • There is no coherent “set of spiritual beliefs” that falls under the rubric “New Age”, any more than there is such a thing as New Age “theory”.

    Lawyer Mike argues against himself by jumping directly to the a priori conclusion that these things exist.

    To talk about this “New Age stuff” as a philosophy is a false presumption, so any conclusions derived from this false premise must necessarily be false themselves.

    The corrosive ontological infection of the public discourse we call “New Age” is too disorganized, too “incoherent”, to be spoken of as a monolithic entity– as if it were some metastasized cancer on the body politic (satisfying as the metaphor might be stylistically to half-assed philosophers or some other imprudent jurist).

    Ironically, Mike’s argument is itself internally incoherent, and every bit as fuzzily conceived as the various approaches presented by the New Age complex.

    There is no “it” there (in New Ageism) to preach about free will and self determination like Schopenhauer, no “it” there to say anything about a cosmic order like the ultimatist Meister Eckhart.

    An unprejudiced interlocutor might discern similarities between the various appeals to our supposed “inner deities”, but that’s as far as he can get with a logical analysis or comparison of these not-so-profound profundities.

  • The critique of the inner light is off base, at least in terms of the Quaker use of the term. In Quakerism, the concept of inner light is used primarily as a vehicle to recognize and respect others (and not to worship yourself).

  • To the above comment, “God as light” is an ubiquitous image throughout Christianity, as GK would know, but the Inner Light of Christianity is the light of *God*, and not of the self. And this light is of course worshipped in all that is God’s, which is found equally in others as it is in the self.

    Anyways, I agree with both you and Ross on this. “Spiritual but not religious” is always well-meaning, but sadly is also far too often vacuous and muddy-headed and ultimately solipsitic. Too many cries of “my own, my own, my own”. Spirituality proper is the most basic response and personal orientation to that existential question of being. That response better include other people- the outside world- just as much as one’s own private conscious world, or you’re just stuck navel-gazing.

    I think this whole “spiritual but not religious” trend is just a response to perceived ills of modernity (with it the decline of traditional religion). But it’s still a modern response, with many of the same presumptions, philosophies, premises, etc. The materialism, the abstract individualism, the consumerism, that whole feeling that the world’s about *me* and *my* progress- all that gets carried into sloppy New Age spirituality, even if it supposes to negate it.

    And many of the people I know who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”, people I respect, *do* find problems with modernity, but also seem to have accepted modernity’s rejection of not only traditional doctrinal faiths, but also of any bold, worldview shaping ideas of objective truth in the world.

    I’d argue that to defeat the spiritual ills of modernity, you’d be better off adopting a pre-modern spirituality.

  • I see the debate and comments veering off to near pointlessness. If it’s a simple question of the Light being inside or outside, the underlying philosophy is quite simple. When you close your eyes and see inside you, the light is inner. And when you are in the middle of the material world, the light is outer.

    It’s the same light that sparkles. When you want to see yourself, you just direct it inside. No big deal. Call it God or providence, inner voice or whatever. I choose God because it’s short, just three letters and is damn convenient.

  • I understand that Ben. But when we debate it, let’s give it a finite sense, a mental dimension.

    If we define mind as a stream of thought, then even God and Science has share a similar gene – both originating from the mind. One has its root in faith, the other being amenable to empirical research, both calling for intensive mental application. While Science sought to define light, faith sought to define darkness as absence of light and yet darkness is as real as light.

    No confusion here. Now it’s only a question whether it’s inside or outside.

  • Let’s examine this idea of the “spiritual but not religious” identity somehow devolving into self-worship in the ‘light’ of Chesterson’s own words.

    He says:

    “Now, if I were to say that Christianity came into the world specially to destroy the doctrine of the Inner Light, that would be an exaggeration. But it would be very much nearer to the truth.”


    “Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards, but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine captain.”

    If one can get past the martial spirit of Chesterson’s ‘mere’ Christianity and its adoration of Christ the Conqueror, he finds this:

    “The only fun of being a Christian was that a man was not left alone with the Inner Light, but definitely recognized an outer light… terrible as an army with banners.”

    This adornment of English letters, G.K. Chesterson, who called himself a Christian, is so caught up in the projection of his own egoism and violent aggression that he can’t be at peace in his own skull.

    “Of all conceivable forms of enlightenment the worst is what these people call the Inner Light.”

    According to the scripture from which the Catholic apologist claims to derive his whole philosophy, Jesus Christ himself said, “The kingdom of God is within you.”

    One would think that the luminous brilliance of God would shine as brightly within the mind of his believers as it does without:

    “While I am in the world, I am the light of the world”.

    Chesterson can’t tolerate the light that would illuminate his mind with indwelt Christian charity (love), because then it would be a place that contains what its occupant seems to find impossible to endure, a reflection of the “light of the world.”

    Thus our warlike luminary, the ersatz sun himself, lapses into hysteria.

    I would go with Bernard Levin:

    “The best one can say of Chesterton’s anti-semitism is that it was less vile than Belloc’s; let us leave it at that.”

  • I find this strange attack on Chesterton 1) completely wrongheaded and 2) completely irrelevant.

    If you’re actually familiar with Chesterton and his writing, you should be familiar with the certain way he expressed himself. When Chesterton speaks of Christianity coming “with violence”, he speaks with a certain irony which should be *obvious*, and needs to be taken for granted if you actually want to consider what he’s *saying*. He was a medievalist and had his own romantic fondness for knights and kingdoms and their armies. But he was also an exemplary Christian and to disparage and mock the sincerity of his faith because you don’t like some of the imagery he uses is ridiculous. Give me a break.

    Moreover, as I pointed out, the “inner light” of Christianity- which has always been acknowledged- is utterly different than the “Inner Light” Chesterton criticizes. The very you quote you provided should put an end to this:

    “Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards, but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine captain.”

    So it’s “not only” the inner light. Get it? Let’s leave this be.

  • So, dear confused anonymous person, it’s ok for G.K. Chesterson, to viciously disparage the Quaker doctrine of the Inner Light, but not ok for me to respond to his strange hateful diatribe?

    I’m familiar enough with his writing to know he also frequently expressed reactionary anti-semite views, especially after his conversion to Catholicism, get it?

    Here our “Pangloss of the parish” on the Jews:

    “The point is that we should know where we are; and he would know where he is, which is in a foreign land.”

    “When the Jew in France or in England says he is a good patriot he only means that he is a good citizen, and he would put it more truly if he said he was a good exile…These Jews would not have died with any Christian nation.”

    “No extravagance of hatred merely following on experience of Jews can properly be called a prejudice…These people of the plains have found the Jewish problem exactly as they might have struck oil; because it is there, and not even because they were looking for it.”

    As Adam Gopnik put it in his article in the New Yorker:

    “But he is a difficult writer to defend. Those of us who are used to pressing his writing on friends have the hard job of protecting him from his detractors, who think he was a nasty anti-Semite and medievalizing reactionary, and the still harder one of protecting him from his admirers, who pretend that he was not.”


    “And right around here is where the Jew-hating comes in. A reader with a casual interest in Chesterton’s life may have a reassuring sense, from his fans and friendly biographers, that his anti-Semitism really isn’t all that bad: that there’s not much of it; that he had flushed it out of his system by the mid-twenties…

    Unfortunately, a little reading shows that there’s a lot of it, that it comes all the time, and that the more Chesterton tries to justify it the worse it gets.”

    Just so.

    You, Lucas, say Chesterson’s being ironic when he speaks of Christianity in militaristic terms.

    Would you call his critique of the Decalogue ironic?:

    “The history of the Jews is the only early document known to most Englishmen, and the facts can be judged sufficiently from that. The Ten Commandments which have been found substantially common to mankind were merely military commands; a code of regimental orders, issued to protect a certain ark across a certain desert.”

    Go tell that on the mountain.

    Gopnik expresses it quite well:

    “The insistence that Chesterton’s anti-Semitism needs to be understood “in the context of his time” defines the problem, because his time–from the end of the Great War to the mid-thirties–was the time that led to the extermination of the European Jews. In that context, his jocose stuff is even more sinister than his serious stuff. He claims that he can tolerate Jews in England, but only if they are compelled to wear “Arab” clothing, to show that they are an alien nation. Hitler made a simpler demand for Jewish dress, but the idea was the same.”

    Now John Gross in The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters tells it like it is:

    “His diatribes against usury and corruption were those of a man on the edge of hysteria; his anti-semitism was an illness.”


  • Vince,
    I have been reading Ben’s blog for quite some time. And you always seemed to dwell on the negative. Shake it off! It is not healthy.

    And by the way don’t bring irrelevant topics to the main blog if you can help it. Case in point the discussion is about inner light/ outer light. Not about anti-Semitism.

  • This is important.

    For the scholars out there–

    It’s fair to say that Chesterson’s views on race were “regressive even in his own time.”

    Here’s George Orwell on AntiSemitism In Britain:

    “[L]iterary Jew-baiting… in the hands of Belloc, Chesterton and their followers reached an almost continental level of scurrility… Chesterton’s endless tirades against Jews, which he thrust into stories and essays upon the flimsiest pretexts, never got him into trouble–indeed Chesterton was one of the most generally respected figures in English literary life…”

    And this from Orwell’s Polemic:

    “Thus, his almost mystical belief in the virtues of democracy did not prevent him from admiring Mussolini. Mussolini had destroyed the representative government and the freedom of the press for which Chesterton had struggled so hard at home, but Mussolini was an Italian and had made Italy strong, and that settled the matter.”

    Here is Michael Coren’s rejoinder to Gopnik:

    “The trouble for those of us who love Chesterton’s writing is that the anti-Semitism is not incidental: it rises from the logic of his poetic position. The anti-Semitism is easy to excise from his arguments when it’s explicit. It’s harder to excise the spirit that leads to it — the suspicion of the alien, the extreme localism, the favoring of national instinct over rational argument, the distaste for “parasitic” middlemen, and the preference for the simple organ-grinding music of the folk.”

    Matthew Boudway says in The troubling genius of G.K. Chesterton:

    “It is a mistake to try to defend Chesterton (or Belloc) against the charge of anti-Semitism. Looking back from this side of the Final Solution, as we must, we are bound to find many of Chesterton’s arguments about the Jews — and much of his language about them — suspect or disgraceful. Nor is it any use to try to quarantine our judgment about his attitude toward the Jews from our more general opinion of his merits as a thinker and writer. Anti-Semitism was a part of the package, though never a big part.”

    Ross Douthat comes galloping belatedly to the rescue:

    “This does not excuse Chesterton’s anti-Semitism by any means, but it makes him an odd target, out of all the writers and thinkers of that period, to single out for particular opprobrium. Here I think Gopnik is indulging the chauvinism of hindsight: The assumption that everyone who partook of the attitudes that helped make the Holocaust possible should be judged and condemned on the basis of what we know now, rather than what they knew then.”

    Even Brad DeLong has something to say in Ross Douthat Shoots Himself in the Culture War:

    “Let’s give the microphone to G.K. Chesterton himself, for reading Douthat a reader might think that G.K. Chesterton was opposed to Hitler’s depriving German Jews of their German citizenship, and making them wear yellow stars. But that is not the case…”

    Now Chesterson speaks from on high:

    “[T]he Jewish problem differs from… the gipsy problem in two highly practical respects. First, the Jews already exercise colossal cosmopolitan financial power. And second, the modern societies they live in also grant them vital forms of national political power. Here the vagrant is already as rich as a miser and the vagrant is actually made a mayor…. It is really irrational for anybody to pretend that the
    Jews are only a curious sect of Englishmen, like the Plymouth Brothers or the Seventh Day Baptists, in the face of such a simple fact as the family of Rothschild…. It is in its nature intolerable… that a man admittedly powerful in one nation should be bound to a man equally powerful in another nation, by ties more private and personal even than nationality… the very position is a sort of treason…”

    Well, that’s about as much of Chesterson as I can stomach.

    “[B]ut it is also true that Chesterton’s brand of grotesque, schoolboy anti-semitism is unacceptable in a post-Auschwitz world.”

  • I love these anonymous critics.

    My comment is relevant because Ben makes a Chesterson quote the coda of his post, via G.K.’s devotee Douthat, who makes the ‘impractical mystic’ out to be someone admirable.

    You make me laugh, Bebe.

    What could be more negative than the Chesterson quote?

    I’m standing up for human decency.

  • I agree with all of you, to a point. “Spiritual” is defined differently by each person…often without any depth of understanding of their own belief. Worshipping the “inner self” can easily devolve into ego worship (while we each deny narcissism). But not always…

    One of the best, and most genuine, quotes on inner exploration:
    “Extensive as the ‘external’ world is it hardly bears comparison with the depth-dimensions of our inner being, which does not need even the spaciousness of the universe to be, in itself, almost unlimited. It seems to me, more and more, as though our ordinary consciousness inhabits the apex of a pyramid whose base in us…broadens out to such an extent that the farther we are able to let ourselves down into it, the more completely do we appear to be included in the realities of the earthly and, in the widest sense worldly [universal] existence, which are not dependent on time or space.”
    Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926): German-language poet, acknowledged as one of the greatest of the 20th-century.

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