Monday, February 26, 2007

Is Spirituality Practical?

Blogfriend Nazar is a long time member of Joshua's Army, and contributes incisive comments that truly enrich the site. He left one last week that I hope he doesn't mind me using as a launching pad to expand the discussion...

Last week , I published a piece on scientific findings that circumsion in males reduces AIDS risk by up to 60 percent.

I gave a very brief background on the origin of circumcision among the Jews and wrote that once again, here's proof that much of what is in the Bible makes practical as well as spiritual sense and that G-d really knew what He was doing...and I ended it with a favorite quote of mine from Yogananda: "Spirituality is useless if it isn't practical"

Nazar left the following comment:

"Spirituality has its benefits, but practicality is not usually one of them. This circumcission story is an unlikely coincidence of old-time religion being compatible with modern science.

I think, if one wants to make a generall analyzation of spirituality's "practicallity", one should also examine staunchly religious folks' opposition to things like the teaching of evolution, stem-cell research, etc. These things are all very practical and have great potential to help people.

And let's not overlook the countless silly rituals that different religions compel their followers to abide by. For example, when Catholics go up to the pulpit for their bread and wine, they are told by the priest that they are eating and drinking the body of Jeses Christ, and they really believe it! It's harmless, but I see no practicality in this.

To give another example, in the Islamic and Christian religions, usury is prohibited. This is one of the reasons why the Muslim world is in the state it is today. In Europe, Jews did most of the business transactions until Christians got over their hang-ups...and became practical.

This isn't intended as a diatribe against religions, but simply to point out that practicality and spirituality aren't usually compatible."

I have a rather different take on this. To me, the practicality Yogananda was talking about was that religion should seek to help us function in the everyday world, rather than focusing so exclusively on the afterlife the `pie in the sky when you die' or the party with the 72 virgins. And thus, spirituality is eminently practical at its best!

To that end, I find that what's in the Torah generally makes common sense when translated into every day terms as a blueprint, if you will, for humans to live together.

The examples Nazar cites (evolution, stem cell research) are not Biblically prohibited per se, but because of they involve acts that symbolize, on the one hand, the denial of G-d as Creator and in the other, the idea of using a human life as a commodity.

In any event, again, common sense rears its ugly head - evolution as given by Darwin is an unproven theory with a lot of holes in it, and EMBRYONIC stem cell research has proven to be an unstable chimera. The great strides in stem cell research have come from ADULT stem cells, like umbilical chord cells.

The other example Nazar gave, that of usury is likewise interesting. Unlike Islam, where any collection of interest is haram, usury in the Judeo-Christian tradition is loosely defined as excessive interest, but it is not forbidden as such.

The reason that Jews were prominent in money lending in medieval times was not because they were more `practical' but because in many parts of Europe they were prohibited from owning and farming land and were kept out of many professions and they concentrated on banking, lending, trade and small business. Also, as `middlemen' they were denied legal protection in many cases, and debts owed to them could be conveniently erased if they were killed or expelled, as happened frequently.

An interesting point in passing; while expelling Jews and confiscating their wealth was certainly lucrative in the short term, it was ultimately highly impractical, in that it eliminated a whole class of people who were experienced inbusiness and finance and generated wealth that could be taxed. A classic example of this is the gradual but pronounced economic decline of Spain after 1492 and the economic rise of the Netherlands, England, and ultimately America, which is where many of those Jews eventually relocated...yet another example where the more ethical and spiritual course was also the more practical!

Now, as to `silly rituals' - hey, everyone's entitled. But how do any of us KNOW they're silly? For centuries, people washed themselves after elimination without knowing precisely why (bacteria were not even remotely thought of until the 18th century) but they realized that it kept them healthier.

Perhaps the Catholic practice of taking in the essence of Christ at communion serves a spiritual purpose of reminding them that they are G-d's children and to be mindful of it.Regular attendance at Mass no doubt does the same focus imperfect humans on the Divine Law and aid them in treating their fellow humans accordingly.

In the Jewish tradition, the idea of the kippa (ritual skullcap) tzit tzit (small fringes worn on the garments of religious Jews)and daily prayers have the same remind Jews of G-d's presence in everyday life.

One man's silly is another man's salvation!

The only problem with that comes, as we've seen in our modern age, when one faith feels it has to conquer and dominate all others by whatever means...but then I would likewise consider that a policy (at best) of non-spiritual short term gain and long term impracticality.


Anonymous said...

FF, it seems that you and me rather differ on our interpretations of religion and its purpose in life.

You said that "religion should seek to help us function in the everyday world, rather than focusing on the afterlife...". The way I see it, religion does just the opposite. It attempts to alleviate some of the pain we endure in our waking hours every day by focusing us on the future, the greener grass on the other side, if you will. Life is filled with pain and suffering. Religion helps people deal with it, and overcome it sometimes. I'm not reitirating the tired "opiate of the masses" cliche, on the contrary, I think that this is a positive aspect of religion.

As for the Torah, and pretty much every other spiritual book, you will always find universal truths that can provide a sound moral foundation for harmony with oneself and one's neighbors. You can also find evil. After all, doesn't the Old Testament tell us that homosexuality is an "abomination"? You don't have to be a fan of gays, but that does seem rather over-the-top to me.

I don't know enough about evolution to argue the fine points with you right now, but I can tell you three things about it right now. 1) It's based solely on empirical evidence.
2) Virtually every biologist agrees with it.
3) It's a far better explanation of how things came to be than the Biblical narrative.

Going back to the usury example, during the Middle Ages, the Church was very strict on being "fair" in business dealings. Something that actually hindered economic growth and was very impractical. Mistreating Jews and driving them out, as Christians once did, was indeed "impractical"(also inhumane and about a hundred other synonyms), but this goes back to my original point: If the Christian institutions, which derived their decisions from the Scriptures, were practical, they wouldn't depend on Jews to do the money-lending in the first place.

As for the rituals, if they serve to remind people of the existence of a higher being, than they are purely symbolic, but that doesn't mean they are practical. The wily Greeks and the mighty Roman armies of old believed that if they sacrificed just one more prized goat, just one more perfectly crafted ship, victory would be theirs. These rituals may have reminded them of divine prescense(at least the ones they believed in), but that doesn't make it practical.

One last thing. I suspect that when people washed themselves after certain bodily functions, they did it for the sake of "cleansing their souls", and because it made them smell better. Not that it would've made much of a difference in those days, just sayin. This would be another rare case of spirituality coinciding with biological necessity.

Anonymous said...

Spirituality is practical. There are two actions in works here and they are belief(action of the heart) and acting upon the belief by doing the actions which the belief has obligated. If one only believes and doesn't act upon the belief this person is negating their belief. Acting upon the belief increases spirituality.

Let's take an example from Islam:

In Islam there are five daily prayers prescribed and they are labeled "obligatory". By doing them one can achieve spirituality but what is termed "spirituality" is described with words in Islam through Arabic – "Iman"(Belief – my mistranslation) and "Taqwa"(Steadfastness or to be able to abstain from wrong doing ie.sin). Iman goes up and down(we sin) and steadfastness increases by doing obligatory actions of Islam(prayer, fasting, charity, etc..). Islam is unique in the sense it's a verb as well as a noun. To be a complete Muslim you should be doing Islam otherwise you have only entered the fold of Islam by making the testimony of faith: "There is non worthy to worship except Allah( and Muhammad( is his final prophet".

This life is a test and the ultimate truth is there is a God and we have to do what he has ordained for us through his prophets which he has sent in the course of human life on this planet.

Freedom Fighter said...

Hello, Nazar - You start out with a bit of a false premise, if you don't mind me saying so. What I ACTUALLY said, in my interpetation of YOgananda was 'religion should SEEK to help us function in the everyday world, rather than FOCUSING SO EXCLUSIVELY on the afterlife.'

That's very different from saying that it should be exclusively an everyday thing, which is what I feel you're implying.

I won't get into the homosexuality as abomination argument with you, since I know how you feel. I will merely say that from the standpoint of strengthening the building block of society, the family, homosexuality is indeed counterproductive, and it's no coincidence that every major civilization that has fallen has embraced widespread homosexuality destigmatizing and `normalizing' it.

That isn't to say that I believe homosexuals should be persecuted,but I certainly don't agree that they should have special rights, be recognized as a persecuted group or have their choice be legitimized or celebrated in society as `just another lifestyle' in any way.

Lastly, as to those rituals...they do serve a psychic purpose beyond merely reminding us of G-d's presence. Think of it as plugging into the switchboard. Again, without innate faith, the experience of the power of prayer or the personal experience of G-d intervening in your life, I understand that this is something you would have difficulty accepting at face value, and that's fine.

Salaam Aliekum, Anonymous!
I see with have a Sufi or an Ismaili here on the board, and most welcome.

It is truly a pity that more Muslims have not advanced to the point of sublimating jihad as Holy War against non-believers to embrace the idea of utilizing that energy as spiritual growth and tolerance for all mankind.