My first year in university is drawing to a close. Still a few more weeks of reading and writing to go, but in my mind I am already appraising the year, and looking forward to the next. On a personal level, it went very well. I have still managed to work, travel up to Amsterdam, take care of the house (albeit not as good as I would like to), be there for my children and get good grades. It has been very challenging at times for my family and for me, but in retrospect it went better than I had expected.
There are a lot of facts and theories in my head that were not there a year ago. But these are not insights. In the last few weeks I realised there is one particular insight this year has brought me. It is an intellectual insight; yet, I recognise it also has bearing on my own spirituality.
The development of philosophy and religion in the Christian West has ever emphasized that the spirit, and the spiritual, is paramount. It was defined in opposition with the ritual, embodied side of religion. Paul, in the New Testament, could be seen as a starting point of this, with the complicated distinction and meaning the words “Flesh” and “Spirit” have for him. I find this is a paradox: precisely in the very religion where God became Man, did this complete shift towards the spiritual take place.
Even though material manifestations of religion were still very important in the European Middle Ages, there already was a inordinate emphasis on faith. During the Reformation, this emphasis on the spirit became even greater, and it permeated the western line of thought in countless small, but influential ways. This way of thinking led to the appraisal of the living tradition of Judaism as a dead religion, with meaningless ritual law and practice. Although many different events led to the Shoah, this line of thought – even if inadvertently – certainly facilitated the othering of the Jews. It also disqualified folk religion and spirituality, and the countless ways people are finding meaning in this world.
Even in the field of Religious Studies itself, this bias has been present. Only relatively recently have scholars recognised this: it resulted in this so-called Material turn and more attention to embodied ritual and religious objects (that can have their own agency).
This insight was something I had never come across in my years of reading about religion and religious history casually. I could not have, because I was so steeped in this point of view myself. I had such a hard time believing, because I thought believing and religious experience should just happen on its own, in the spirit.Yet, when I just focused on my intuition of the sacred in this world, and cultivated this practice, I sensed a thin, but tangible connection with the numinous.
There is still a lot of doubt. I’m not sure. Are these ritual acts and attributions of meaning my way of fooling myself there is more to this world? Or are they creating the space in which the numinous can reach me? Do I have to choose? Can I honour the Lady of the Waters, the Lord of the Woods, put fruit out for the landwights, study Kabbalah and still pop in to a church to light a candle at Mary’s feet? I cannot, I will not choose, which seems problematic from the spiritual point of view, and extremely problematic from a doctrinal point of view. Yet it does not feel particularly difficult to me. It is all about connection – and I experience it in the church, in the encountering of new ideas and in the woods by the river; and especially in my garden. It would be inauthentic to make a choice, because that would mean I would have to deny a part of me and my history. It will be exciting to see where allowing myself to pursue all intuition will take me. At the very least, I am blessed to have had the chance to confront my own blind spot this year.