The Magic Well

Everyone believes in some form of evolution or another. Our own personal growth and development from infant to adult is undeniable and those of us who have been adults long enough can hopefully discern stages of psychological, intellectual and spiritual maturity through our twenties, thirties, forties and beyond. At the same time we can identify developmental stages in the people around us as well as in the history of the species.

Putting the question of the Darwinian origin and evolution of species to one side, it is cleat that we all have an implicit or explicit “theory of evolution” when it comes to human consciousness. We generally associate it with certain belief systems: what you believe reflects and announces your position in the hierarchy of human evolution. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, people tend to write this story in such a way that their own belief system is at the top of the heap.

For atheists, religion is a superstition that belongs to our primitive past, an early evolutionary adaptation that mature modern human beings should really outgrow (as Richard Dawkins’ reminds us in his most recent atheist manifesto Outgrowing God: A Beginner’s Guide), whereas for adult religious converts the opposite is true – they clearly feel that they have outgrown their atheism (compare C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy for example). There are countless conversion and de-conversion stories where the protagonists emphatically affirm their conviction that they have passed from unreality to reality, from falsehood into truth, regardless of which direction they happen to be travelling in.

Although atheists often protest that their atheism is not itself a belief system but merely the absence of belief, in most cases the “a” in atheism indicates a transcendent as well as a negative relationship to theism. In other words, “I know about theism but I see through it. I see your theism and I raise it to atheism.” A recent book by Richard Kearney, Anatheism: Returning to God after God, has introduced a term which goes one better: “I see your atheism and I raise it to anatheism”.

How long before some smart alec retaliates with “ananatheism”? (I saw that one coming. I have “anananatheism” up my sleeve). In the end it’s the same problem I had in my primary school spelling test when it came to “banana”: I didn’t know when to stop!

In my own personal “spiritual evolution” I can discern several stages. I would like to be able to say that as a child I started off as a naive religious believer (Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy included) but my parents brought me up as a strict atheist. (It should go without saying that Christmas was generally rubbish). But if I had, the story would unfold like this:

  1. Naive Christian
  2. Atheist
  3. Spiritual but not Religious
  4. Classical Theist
  5. Christian

Most of my life I have been spiritual but not religious (SBNR). In my case, this meant that I was an adherent of the Perennial Philosophy, seeing the same universal truths variously expressed in different religious and philosophical traditions. Aldous Huxley’s famous book The Perennial Philosophy popularised this approach, as did the so-called Transpersonalists from C.G. Jung to Ken Wilber. Some use derogatory labels, like “New Age” or “Mysticism”, neither of which I have a problem with.

Sophisticated SBNR people think that they are more sophisticated than religious people and so put themselves at the top of the spiritual evolutionary tree. I certainly thought like that. It took some real humility and even humiliation to finally give up my spiritual aloofness and commit to an established religion. Which is not to say that I think “religious” is necessarily better than “spiritual”, just that for me, I couldn’t see a way forward without a serious religious commitment.

I actually used to think that I knew what Christianity was, and that I could simply accept or reject it. When I consciously decided to accept it, and get baptised and confirmed, I thought I knew what it was that I was accepting. But every time I reread the New Testament, every time I go to church, I see something I hadn’t seen before. It seems that the mystery of faith is like a magic well. Even if you occasionally touch bottom, the water just keeps on coming.