Spiritual Exceptionalism

Perhaps you have heard of “American exceptionalism.” There is the perception (true or false) that Americans view international relations as though everybody else is expected to live according to one set of rules, but they can follow a different set of rules. For instance, they have nuclear weapons but they want to keep those same weapons out of the hands of certain other countries.

Such a perspective, on the face of it, smells of hypocrisy. But do we do something similar with our spirituality? Do we treat spiritual issues as though an entirely different set of rules apply to them; a set of rules we would never apply to any other area of life?

I’d like to introduce the concept of “Spiritual Exceptionalism.” This phrase describes the trend I’ve observed wherein people believe that for matters of a “spiritual” nature somehow the normal rules of human thought and behavior don’t apply. There is the “real world” and then there is the “spiritual world” and how one relates to the two are fundamentally different. Let me illustrate with some examples.

Examples

I recall conversations with a couple of friends of mine (different conversations but similar beliefs / themes) in which these two gentlemen elaborated, at great length and with great clarity and passion, how it is inaccurate to claim there is only one way that the world “really is” because it’s just a matter of perspective. By way of example with the one fellow I pointed to a van that we could both see from where we were sitting. He was very adamant that if I thought the van was blue and he thought it was green, then it was actually blue for me and actually green for him. Nothing about colour blindness or anything like that. I kept insisting that one of the two of us must be incorrect, but he denied it. Both of those gentlemen were deeply steeped in Eastern mysticism, Karmic ideologies and the like, which seems conducive to this kind of thinking.

One of those friends is an engineer, and I considered how easily he could walk from our lunch conversation in which he claimed there is no such thing as a way the world “really is” and then go back to his office and engage in the field of Engineering which included writing reports in which he explains to his customers how the world “really is,” at least with respect to the compressors our company worked on. In the field of Engineering, it would seem, there is some kind of objective truth, but when we are discussing matters of spirituality, somehow the same rules don’t apply.

Here’s another example from the news. According to spiritual exceptionalism, a woman can be an ordained minister in a church without believing in God. This very concept is, of course, utter nonsense. Folks like this (she isn’t the first to pull this stunt) make this absurdity work by actively redefining all the words that describe the core concepts upon which the Church is defined – including the meaning of the word “God” – until they are able to affirm the statement of faith (in one sense) while utterly denying what it actually means. Can you imagine a lawyer actively redefining the words in the written law? How long would he last in that job? Such a lawyer would get fired, but some people seem more than willing to let the minister do exactly the same thing with regard to spiritual matters without fear of dismissal.

I read a couple of very enlightening books recently called “Toxic Charity” and “When Helping Hurts.” Both books describe the fact that many of our charitable efforts, which are intended to make life better for other people, actually end up making things much worse. The authors of these books describe many reasons for this, but one of the key reasons is the total lack of attention that is given to actual, quantifiable, measurable results. There seems to be this idea that questioning a charitable organization – demanding some kind of verifiable results – is somehow inappropriate, rude or “unspiritual.” Such demands for verifiable results may be appropriate in the business world when people are seeking investment capital, but giving money to charity is somehow supposed to operate by a different set of rules. The authors strongly suggested that we need to start applying business-type thinking to our charities – we need to start demanding to see results – or else many charities will continue hurting those they are intending to help.

We demand evidence to believe new scientific theories, but spiritual matters are to be believed “on faith.” How often have you heard people say that “God told me…?” And how often have you seen somebody stand up and say (perhaps more politely), “prove it!” This certainly has not been my experience. Instead, when people in churches stand up to declare some kind of spiritual truth, especially something that God allegedly revealed to them, the expectation seems to be that those in earshot will celebrate the revelation instead of daring to question the veracity. It’s like they’ve never read 1 John 4:1.

And I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve heard Christians from both the pews and the pulpit proudly declare, “I don’t know” when asked some critical question about God in particular or more generally some troubling aspect of the world we live in. Following the “I don’t know” is some pious declaration that their faith is not based on “human reasoning” (as they stare down their nose) or they punt the question over to the “mysteries of God.” When addressing the question of why there is so much evil and suffering in the world one preacher I saw began his sermon on that subject, but included a powerpoint slide with the words “I DON’T KNOW” in very large font, spoke of the mysteries of God and proceeded to talk about something else entirely.

If you met with a doctor about some unpleasant symptoms you were experiencing, and the doctor proudly declared “I DON’T KNOW” with a pious smile, would you feel comforted? Even if a doctor must confess ignorance with respect to your diagnosis, a good doctor will at least follow up that confession of ignorance with something along the lines of “… but I’ll do my best to find out.” Such further investigation seems utterly absent from spiritual matters where ignorance is somehow understood to be a badge of honour.

[Incidentally, I have a book coming out soon on the question of why God allows – even requires! – a world with suffering. I may not know the answer with absolute certainty, but at least I’m willing to take an honest crack at the subject.]

Other examples could be provided, but hopefully I’ve illustrated my point.

Reflections

Is what I’ve described a problem? Should the spiritual realm be treated more or less the same as every other domain of human thought? Should we expect evidence, apply reason, approach spirituality with some trace of rationality and logic? Or is spirituality some kind of parallel universe where the expectations of our day-to-day living simply don’t apply?

To answer this question I have to go back to the previously mentioned books, “Toxic Charity” and “When Helping Hurts.” The mindset of spiritual exceptionalism has led to a wide range of very “spiritual” charities springing up that intend to make the world a better place, but end up exacerbating various problems. This example illustrates that spirituality is not some distinct, alternate, parallel reality, but is intimately tied to our present world and we have been built to think, really think, about such matters. For the most part the way we think of spiritual matters is not fundamentally different from how we think about anything else. Indeed, if we mess up our thinking with respect to spiritual matters it will produce some very dire consequences in our physical world.

But perhaps the best illustration of the intimate connection between the spiritual and the physical is the fact that God himself “stepped into” our humanity in the person of Jesus. He ate with us. He walked with us. He reasoned with us. He taught us. He spoke in our language. And if you read the words of Jesus in the New Testament they are (for the most part) very down-to-earth, practical and common-sense. His educational parables used everyday experiences (e.g. casting seed into a field) to illustrate spiritual realities, which is only possible if the two realities are not utterly distinct and lacking any conceptual overlap.

It seems unavoidable that we need to approach our spirituality with much the same “rules of thought” that we apply to our everyday lives and interactions with others. Would we question a politician making grandiose promises for after the election? Then we ought to question (with equal vigor) the preacher making grandiose promises for after this life.

Would we question the entrepreneur presenting an investment opportunity? Then we ought to question (with equal vigor) the young man or woman raising funds for a missions trip.

Do we insist that there are (at least some) objective truths about reality when it comes to the field of Engineering? Science? Mathematics? Are there truths about which a person can be horribly wrong and ill-informed, and the consequences of such error can be catastrophic? Then we must acknowledge that there are (at least some) objective truths about spiritual matters and a person can be horribly wrong on those facts. And, similarly, there are consequences to such errors.

Spirituality is not some out-there alternate reality with a completely different set of rules of logic, where there is no objective reality, and about which we can believe whatever we want. And the sooner we acknowledge this, and acknowledge the centrality of the spiritual realities in the human experience, the better off we will be, in this world and the next.

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