Mystic Narrative…

In Dispirited one of the claims that I make is regarding the way mysticism is presented. I will get to what I write in the book shortly – but wanted to note that in the talks on the book I have been giving, I have been asked is there is evidence for my assertions re this presentation of mysticism. I thought it was obvious – and part of our common cultural currency, so didn’t feel too worried…

The view I am talking about is the narrative that claims that all faiths are drawing on the same (or variations of the same) Noumenous experience (though they don’t always use Otto’s term), which has been distorted by the institutionalisation of formal religion. But some have always seen through this, to the common experiential core that they believe underpins all faith. These few have known a dangerous truth – which threatens political strucutres and might unite allf aiths  – and so mystics have long been persecuted.

Familiar? [I hope so…  The book contains a longer version, of course]

I did however ensure my view that this is widespread was accurate. It is. for example talks of

The Hidden History of Mysticism runs like a thread through all religions but belongs
to none of them
It is finding a spiritual basis for human unity beyond ‘partisan’ religious divisions
To build bridges to a common understanding of a common human spirituality is the way

This is only one example, of course, but seems to perfectly capture that narrative I was trying to describe. One of the themes in Dispirited is that the ‘partisan’ divisions are exactly what matters: this is how we inch towards actual truth (as opposed to ‘universal’?) – though arguing and  really disagreeing, not disavowing disagreement in the name of some hidden, ineffable, asserted underlying commonality..

SBNR Watch 1: The Hunger Games

[SBNR = Spiritual But Not Religious.. I will be keeping an eye on the use of this phrase  – where I stand on this term is fairly clear.]

In a blog at the Washington Post, an author (Diana Butler Bass) discusses the absence of religion from the recently released film ‘The Hunger Games’ (which I have yet to see), and titles her piece: ‘The Hunger Games: Spiritual But Not Religious’.

She discusses the film’s exploration of sacrificial violence, love, violence and non-violence and such matters (which she notes, rightly, are often themes of theological reflection). Then there is this concluding section which made me wonder – did the author choose the SBNR title? -She writes:

“The Hunger Games” points out that the world envisioned by spiritual leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King is infinitely preferable to a world of “bread and circuses,” where the many are controlled by the very few. The future hangs between these two visions: Will we be Panem or some other sort of world?

No religion in “The Hunger Games”? The story eschews religions that glory in crusades, jihads, nationalism, militarism, and imperialism. In Panem, there is no place for religion that supports injustice. The enslaved neither want nor need such a religion. Banished are religions that celebrate bloodlust. There is too much of that already

She mentions a ‘spiritual world’ – but then she seems to imply that just because the world here envisioned is not drenched in innocent blood and injustice does not mean that it is not a religion – just not a certain  type of religion… Of course, one might argue that such a world is not spiritual at all – and that what the author calls “the hard-earned hope that human beings can create a better world based not in sacrificial violence but in sacrificial love” can be carved out in a world with neither religion nor spirituality…

I will say no more till I actually see the film…


This morning, I was (and I knew it was probably unwise..) at and was reading away – largely interested in how the word ‘enlightenment’ is used in Mind, Body & Spirit (MBS) contexts. This interest derives from my work on Buddhism, and my concern that MBS materials often seem to imply that their usage is equivalent to what Buddhists mean by enlightenment or ‘awakening’. But, as is so often the case online, I was distracted. I was distracted by the line below – the first line at the website (which is largely an advert for a MBS fair/event):

There is a definite change in direction and in the flow of energy around the universe at this time.

This led to two initial thoughts: what do they mean by ‘energy’, and how can they be sure (of this change)? Looking at the organisers, I realise that their use of the term may be linked to their being Reiki ‘healers’. The foundational belief for Reiki is that there is a universal life energy, which is all around us – but actually Reiki has very little to say about what this energy is, and what its characteristics are, and how it can be accounted for, perceived and demonstrated. In looking at the nearest Reiki centre to me at I noticed this phrase:

There is no belief system attached to Reiki so anyone can receive or learn to give a Reiki treatment, the only prerequisite is the desire to be healed.

Now this is interesting! This seems to very much chime with my claims in the book that there is a disavowal of belief in the MBS milieu. If you assert nothing, it would seem that you can side-step the burden of proving anything, and be free to claim anything. Further to this, is there not a fundamental conflict between the belief in the Reiki energy force and the absence of beliefs? While I have written (with Dr Paul Fuller) on the issue of ‘beliefs vs no-beliefs’ in a Buddhist context – at least the Buddhist account seeks to engage with this tension. In MBS it seems a way of evaporating tensions.

If we have no beliefs, it might seem that we inhabit a post-conflict setting of holistic consensus. However, such a setting seems at odds with the substantial implied truth claims of the MBS world – that there is a life energy, that we survive death as spirit, that there are angels, and the like. If we disavow belief – how can we disentangle these claims?

What you will notice at a MBS fair is that there is no attempt to do so – and the (seemingly contradictory) claims of all these practitioners, with all their varied accounts of reality (with differing implied metaphysical models, beings, accounts of personhood, etc.) all sit happily side-by-side – as though all can be true at once.  They cannot. This is part of what truth means – and this is part of my argument (in the first chapter of Dispirited) that the MBS movement presents a threat to our understanding of what truth is – and disengages its audience from the use of intellectual rigour and caution.

Reflections post-NTU..

I have been doing talks about the Dispirited book recently – in places as diverse as Swindon, Oxford, Lund (in Sweden), Cheltenham & yesterday at Nottingham Trent University...

These have all been very interesting, and some of the questions that have been raised are addressed on the FAQ page. However, last night I thought that one particular question really was on to something – which I think is interesting. This is the distinction between the producers  and the consumers of (particularly new-age/Mind-Body-Spirit) spiritual materials/events/workshops. While I would maintain that the consequences (of spirituality) that I propose in the book are applicable to both these groups, it may well be the case that they are applicable in different ways, or to differing extents.

I am hoping to reflect somewhat more on this – and may add to this post, as I think there is probably more to be said..

What is Dispirited about?

The back-cover blurb from the book should give an idea:

When someone tells me that they are “Not religious, but very spiritual”, I want to punch them in the face. Hard…

Dispirited argues that contemporary accounts of spirituality are a dead end for human potential, a threat to intellectual rigour, and opposed to social and political engagement. Rather than accept the “Spiritual, But Not Religious” response as the only alternative to either formal religion or egotistical, shallow consumerism, Dispirited argues for a post-spiritual response to the existential realities of life.

Refusing all inwardness and consolation, David Webster faces down spirituality’s guile in favour of a bleak atheism’s hints of a worthwhile life. Bracing, timely stuff! Peter Manley Scott, University of Manchester

This is as close to a “must read” as it gets, for the religious as well as the spiritual reader, as well as for atheists. Dr. Mikael Askander, Lund University, Sweden

Dr David Webster is Principal Lecturer in Religion, Philosophy and Ethics at the University of Gloucestershire. His main work is in Buddhist thought, and its relationship to Western Philosophy.