Thursday, March 06, 2008

Spirituality: Flat or Multi-level?

Two basic views of spirituality are developed as the fundamental framework for understanding individual spiritual experience in William James' classic the Varieties of Religious Experience. “The result is two different conceptions of the universe of our experience.” (James, 1902/1982, p. 166) James terms this difference as the difference between the “once-born” individual and the “twice-born” individual.
In the religion of the once-born the world is a sort of rectilinear or one-storied affair, whose accounts are kept in one denomination, whose parts have just the values which naturally they appear to have, and of which a simple algebraic sum of pluses and minuses will give the total worth. Happiness and religious peace consist in living on the plus side of the account. (p. 166)
The “once-born” understanding is a horizontal or “flat” understanding of spirituality. “Flat” meaning that in this view, spirituality is something understood within a single framework of meaning. For example, if one text or teacher says the opposite of another text or teacher, then by necessity there is a contradiction. As a single framework for meaning, literalism is an example of a flat understanding of spirituality, however, a flat understanding need not be literal. A flat understanding can be nuanced or complex, but that nuance or complexity is external and general. The framework doesn't change, from person to person, or as one learns or increases in understanding—everything makes sense within it, or makes no sense at all.

In contrast, in the “twice-born” understanding there is more than one framework. This does not mean that all the frameworks are understood, for that would be a flat understanding, though perhaps categorized or compartmentalized. Rather there is an awareness of at least one more framework, even if it is largely unknown.
In the religion of the twice-born, on the other hand, the world is a double-storied mystery. Peace cannot be reached by the simple addition of pluses and elimination of minuses from life. ... There are two lives, the natural and the spiritual, and we must lose the one before we can participate in the other. (p. 166)
From the “flat” understanding of the “once-born” that James uses to describe this to his audience, the multi-level view of the “twice-born” is the illness of a “sick soul” that requires an individual process of growth or transformation. Yet even after this process these individuals have “drunk too deeply of the cup of bitterness ever to forget its taste, and their redemption is into a universe two stories deep.” (p. 187) This is an example of the incommensurability of these two frameworks for understanding spirituality.

James, W. (1902/1982). The varieties of religious experience: a study in human nature. New York: Penguin.

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