Articles - Alan > Universal What?


Universal What?

I know about universal joints, universal chucks, universal classes, universal agents, universal affirmations, and a couple of other universals.  I know that medieval scholars kept arguing about the status of universals.  But I’m not so sure about universal spirituality.  It has a rather attractive ring to it, but like a bell with a good ring, when you get up close and look into it, you will find that except for the clapper, it’s pretty close to empty; there’s only air there.

I like words and their sounds and meanings, but I know that they are more than objects of interest.  They have to work for their existence.  When they stop working , they get retired to the pages of unabridged dictionaries.

You have to watch them.  They need supervision.  They can carry you away on a merry ride that goes nowhere, if you’re fortunate, or to some dismal destination, if you’re not.  Like horses, you have to pick them well, and know which ones will do the job best.  And like pitchers, you should fill them with the best contents.  Mark Twain said that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.  We ought not to mistake them.

Words are shifty things that may not have the same meaning in one place as in another.  They are like chameleons that change their color with differently colored backgrounds, and they also change in meaning and spelling as they get older.  So should we just give up searching for meaning in words?  No.  Granted that we seldom, if ever, can be entirely sure that we are using a word exactly as another person does, we should still strive to find widely accepted meanings.

Let’s examine universal spirituality.  As you might do with an alarm clock, you can take it apart to see how it runs.  (Of course, you may just end up with a pile of gears and springs and whatnot and never discover what made it run, as many of us probably did in our earlier years.)  Universal, as an adjective, basically has two meanings: (1) related to the universe and (2) found everywhere, applied to all or common to all.  It seems clear that users of the term universal spirituality intend the second meaning, although the first meaning may enter into it.  Spirituality refers to the nature of whatever incorporeal reality there is, especially the higher region of the nonmaterial, and particularly the ultimate, commonly known as God.

So universal spirituality primarily refers to whatever significant orientation toward believed-in nonmaterial reality is shared by all people.  It may be that some people confuse universal spirituality with universal spirit, God, but referring to God by a term that relates to orientation toward God can only result in confusion.  An orientation (literally, facing east) can include belief, attitude, and action.  It these are about whatever one considers ultimate, they constitute religion; but religion has become something of a dirty word lately, so we are inclined to speak of spirituality, especially if we want to stress the non-organizational side of it.

Now the big question is whether there is any such orientation.  Are there any significant commonalities that are everywhere and always found?  One could find trivial ones such as that people ordinarily do whatever they do toward the ultimate in a conscious way, or even that they do it while breathing.  That is why I inserted the word significant.

The most popular candidate for universal common orientation seems to be mysticism.  But scholars are far from agreed that there is any sort of mysticism that is found universally.  Some claim that there are just the particular forms of mysticism or cosmic consciousness found in the various religions.  Of course, it may be that such people as Richard M. Bucke and Aldous Huxley were correct in pointing to mystical experience as the common denominator of religion.  But even if they were correct (and I hope that they were), what about the question of what one does with mystical experience?  On one hand, the traditional view, represented by Evelyn Underhill, says that nobody should attempt to apply mysticism to changing the world; one simply should enjoy mystical experience for its own sake.  To be sure, the mystic should do good in the world, but in a conventional way of working one’s muscles, rather than by any direct application of thought, will, and feeling.  On the other hand, the practice of the presence of God for practical purposes is the heart and soul of New Thought.

I suspect that a truly universal spirituality, on which everyone everywhere could agree, would be pretty puny and uninspiring, not much worth having.

Might it be that advocates of universal spirituality mean something else: not what is universal, but what they would like to be universal?  This approach is only what religionists of many stripes long have employed, regardless of what they have sought to promote.  I suspect that this is what universal spirituality practically comes down to.  How might this universalizing be done?  I see two alternatives.

One alternative is to work ever more effectively to convert the world to New Thought, which is centered on the presence of God in everyone, and, in the process, to cooperate with people of good will who have little or no awareness of New Thought.  But that is what we have been doing for more than a century.  So why associate it with such a vague, ambiguous term as universal spirituality?

What does that add?  Empty bell syndrome?  Selling the sizzle?  The other alternative is to water down New Thought to the point that all sorts of people who do not believe in it (let alone practice it) will be welcomed into the New Thought tent while keeping their old views and perhaps even working to subvert ours.  When I come across references to identifying New Thought with new thought of all sorts (presumably including Marxist materialism, atheistic humanism, and anything else that might claim to be out to improve the world), I suspect that this already is happening, that the non-New Thought camel has its nose under the tent.  If not lovingly ousted now, how long will it be before the camel takes so much room in the tent that there will be no room for New Thought as we have known it?

New Thought need not convert itself to this new incongruous blend.  For better or worse, that blend already exists; it is more or less totally open to everything that is out to transform the world.  That blend is called New Age.  It is a mixed bag of good and bad; some of it, such as channeling has been denounced by New Thought.  I am sure that New Age would be happy to absorb New Thought lock, stock, and barrel.  With or without the term universal spirituality, what people seem to mean by those words is exactly what New Age is about, which is to say practically anything that sounds nice.  To be sure, New Thought will be part of a new age that will include New Age.  If we are wise, New Thought will be the leader of that new age, but not if it becomes part of the sponge that is New Age.  It is essential that New Thought remain itself, for the good of both ourselves and the rest of the world.  To be sure, New Thought has absorbed ideas from various sources; it will continue to do so, and it can be improved by doing so.  But it should do so carefully, critically, with sober reason, as well as with enthusiasm.

World War II posters designed to discourage talk that might reveal ship sailings warned that “loose lips sink ships.”  We can modify that to say that loose thinking, with or without loose lipping—and lapping up incongruities—could sink the good ship New Thought.  Let’s start bailing, and continue the steady growth of New Thought founded on ever more clear, discerning understanding of our uniqueness.  In doing so, we shall be doing our utmost to transform the world one person at a time, but with more and more people doing it at the same time.  Now is the time not to scuttle, submerge, subvert, subordinate, or surrender New Thought, but to save and sustain New Thought as the practice of the presence of God for practical purposes.