Love and Will

A loving person will participate in and enjoy, give and receive, love in the form of storge, philia and eros, that is, affection, friendship and romantic love.

A moral person will act according to the moral demands of care vs harm, fairness vs cheating, authority vs subversion, loyalty vs betrayal, sanctity vs desecration and liberty vs oppression.

A moral, loving person, particularly one sensitive to the vital energy and force of love and will, would be perfectly justified in considering themselves “spiritual” as a token of their moral and loving nature. In a census, if they happen not to have any determinate religious faith, they would probably tick the box marked SBNR, that is, spiritual but not religious.

But what is “religious” exactly? According to non-religious people, a religious person is someone who assents to and abides by the particular set of predetermined rules and propositions established by some or other organised religion, who joins in their rituals and festivals and who perhaps engages in some of the recommended spiritual practices.

This is how it looks from the outside. For some people, how it looks is basically how it is.

However, a genuinely religious person, one with a living faith, which is to say, one who lives, moves, and has their being in the presence of the numinous and the holy, is something else besides.

A spiritual but not religious person, whatever their purported spiritual beliefs, will value human love and will (including love and will directed towards the non-human). The love of plants and animals, and of nature in general, is not just a casual aside, of course. It is precisely this love and sense of moral obligation which prompts SBNRs to consider themselves “spiritual” in the first place, since it transcends the merely human. Love of the natural world distinguishes them from the “un-spiritual” masses, who only seem to care for themselves and other humans like them.

Consequently, the implicit spirituality of SBNRs will in most cases find its explicit expression in some form of nature religion, whether neo-pagan, animistic, pan-indigenous, or New Age.

This is not something that can or should be sneered at or taken lightly. It provides a genuine spiritual core of meaning, purpose, kindness, love, compassion and good will towards all sentient beings, itself clearly a powerful force for good in the world.

But it is not religious. A religious person is oriented not towards human love and will, but towards divine love and will, love of God and obedience to God.

As C.S. Lewis argued, and as I have argued elsewhere (eg. in Hollywood Love Confusion), there is a love above and beyond storge, philia and eros. This is the love of God, agape. Similarly, there is a moral foundation above and beyond the six described by Jonathan Haidt (in The Righteous Mind). This is obedience vs rebellion.

The Bible, for example, can be read as one long, sustained meditation, over many centuries, on the activity of the love of God on a portion of humanity and of that portion of humanity’s obedience vs rebellion against it. The alignment of human love and will to the divine love and will are the sole or primary focus of the religious, who therefore says, with the Shema Yisrael, “love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your might”, and with the Pater Noster, “Thy will be done”.

The three human loves and the six moral foundations listed above are, for the religious, contained within the one transcendent rule of the love of God and obedience to God. Human love and will are not ignored or discarded, but taken up in a holy embrace.

Moral, loving people, spiritual, sensitive, intelligent, educated though they may be, cannot understand this. It takes faith. And it seems that people either have it or they don’t.

Which is why it is much easier to answer negatively to the question, “are you religious?” than to the question, “are you spiritual?” Ideological reasons aside (apart from militant atheists and scientific materialists basically) everyone likes to think of themselves as spiritual to some degree. Everyone feels the pull of love and good will. But everyone also knows, deep down, that the mysterious category of the holy is the exclusive preserve of religious experience. The love of God and the will of God are alien concepts to the non-religious, even distasteful ones. So it’s easy to say “no”.

The leap of faith is a leap too far for most people, especially for modern, post-Enlightenment, post-Christian people, even if they do encounter the numinous, in powerful psychedelic experiences for example. But it has ever been thus:

“And when they agreed not among themselves, they departed, after that Paul had spoken one word, Well spake the Holy Ghost by Esaias the prophet unto our fathers,

Saying, Go unto this people, and say, Hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and not perceive:

For the heart of this people is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes have they closed; lest they should see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and should be converted, and I should heal them.”

Acts 28: 25-27