Spirituality and the universal

by Terence MacNamee

Religion comes out of culture, but it stands above culture. It radiates from a particular time and place, but it soon emancipates itself from its origins, formulates a universal message, and imposes itself on other cultures, often changing them in the process. The great religions of the world have founded civilisations that bridged heterogeneous cultures – such civilisations as Christian Europe, or the Islamic world, or the Buddhist world.

Long ago, we in the West fondly assumed that our Christian religion was of universal validity and that eventually it would replace all the others. But the encounter with the others showed us that our religion, too, was a product of culture. If other men had other cultures and civilisations, they could have other religions too.

Spirituality is what turns out to be universal. The spiritual discourses of the different religions seem to complement each other and find common ground. In all cultures men go off into the desert and seek a deeper relationship with the Divine. They report much the same experiences and the same insights. That is because spirituality deals with the ineffable – what is profoundly human but also sacred.

Religion regards culture as something to live with, but also to reform, if need be, and refashion in its own image. Spirituality regards culture as an illusion. Our culture is deeply a part of us, but it does not need to be. If the circumstances of our birth and upbringing were different, we could have been shaped by another culture instead.

The spiritual man seeks to divest himself of culture, even if his culture (or part of it, namely his religion) has lifted him to spirituality, to the edge of the sacred. He throws away the ladder he used to climb to the top of the wall, in Wittgenstein’s image. He goes on alone. He does so without language. He does so without culture.

In the end, it may be that spirituality is the only universal thing we have. Because when man approaches the ultimate ground of the sacred, he does so naked and shorn of every cultural identity with which he once clothed himself. He feels himself to be as nothing before that which is Everything. Only at that stage does he know that he has reached his goal.