It might not be particularly surprising to hear a person claim they experienced a spiritual awakening at a religious conference. A newcomer attending a Buddhist conference might experience a taste of Buddha-mind. A Christian might attend a Christian conference and have an experience of Christ awakening in their heart; the pagan a mystical union with nature; a Muslim the overwhelming glory of Allah; a bhakti yogi the awakening of kundalini in the spine, and so on. Newcomers to a religious tradition occasionally have initiatory spiritual experiences, and long-time believers from time-to-time experience a revelatory deepening of practice. This is one of the things that keeps religions going—the experience of the numinous. Traditionally, we expect such experiences to occur within the container of a particular tradition, a particular belief system, or a particular practice.
The spiritual awakening I had in 2009 was not confined to any particular containing tradition, and yet, it was decidedly religious in character. It instilled in me a deep love and appreciation for religion, in clear distinction to the sometimes vague “spirituality” that seems to be in vogue these days. This paradoxical awakening happened at a religious conference that boasted not one faith, but dozens—all of them, in fact.
In 2009, I attended the Parliament of World Religions in Melbourne, Australia, a gathering of the faith traditions of planet Earth. The stated aims of this gathering included listening, dialogue, and collaboration in meeting the great challenges facing our planet: war, poverty, and environmental devastation. Perhaps a surprise for those who hold the myth that religions are somehow at odds with each other, the Parliament is not only peaceful, but a model for constructive dialog across divergent worldviews. No one is there to proselytize, to convert, or to prove their tradition’s superiority; rather, they come to share, to listen, to become enriched by difference and celebrate diversity, and above all, to find common ground in the great work of healing our suffering world.
Across a span of five days I attended diverse spiritual practices, educational religious and cultural talks, academic paper presentations, panel discussions, music and dance performances, art exhibits, and ethnic meals. I learned about traditions I did not know even existed. I also learned just how much I did not know about some of the most prominent traditions—Islam in particular. I was guided through a nature meditation by an Australian Aborigine, listened to a Catholic priest and Buddhist monk discuss the points of intersections in their faith, and sat riveted as an evangelic biologist and traditional rabbi debated the nature of creation. I was overwhelmed by images, sounds, art and music, ideas, conversations with strangers, and for lack of a better word – worldviews. Every day, I passed through a dozen different worldviews. My imagination on fire, reconfiguring the human and the divine—first one way, and then another. It was thrilling and dizzying and exhausting, but it was also deeply nourishing food for the soul.
When one is assaulted by such abundance, such diversity, it can be hard to make sense of it in the moment. It may be tempting to close down and insist on experiencing all of it through the old, entrenched worldview with which one entered the field. To some degree, of course, this is inevitable. And on the other hand, to open fully—to let each and every one of those worlds live and breathe— threatens to overwhelm, like an immersion in the infinite. I remember a few momenta when from the chaotic abundance, a unifying moment emerged. The immense and multi-dimensional threads underlying it all came together in a startling moment of clarity: Ah this! This is the all of it!—All real, all true, even in its contradictions, so incredibly beautiful!
There were several moments when I caught a glimpse of this numinous thing I allude to but can never fully describe with words. Towards the end of the conference, I paused in the middle of the convention center, and looked out at the thousands of diverse souls around me. And I saw something: pervading the crowd, hovering in the air above, a living aura of luminescence, like divine light: the ecstasy of the shamans and the merciful grace of the holy spirit, the love-making of Shiva and Shakti creating the universe anew. It was the love of Christ, and the joy of bhakti, unceasing creativity and ancient wisdom. It was the pure and empty void of Buddhism. It was extremely simple, palpable—just one thing—and it was incredibly, endlessly, and unfathomably complex in its manifestations.
And I saw that each of us at that conference and each tradition throughout history had seen this thing—each in unique manifestation, each with unique consequence—the source from which the stories spring; the heart of the world; the kernel of truth in all religions, no matter how contradictory their earthly trappings.
In the end I feel helpless but to describe it with the words that my early Christian upbringing gave me. I saw in that moment the glory of creation; the love and the light of God. And in the next breath, I recall the words of the Russian composer and mystic, Alexander Scriabin:
The ardor of the instant gives birth to eternity,
Lights the depths of space,
Infinity Breathes with Worlds.
Religious Pluralism as an Image of God
As I reflect on this experience, six years older and wiser, I am far more agnostic about such matters, but also ardently and perhaps strangely pro-religious. I am hesitant to guess about what it all means, what ineffable reality might lie beyond the play of phenomena in human experience and psychology. But there are things that I cannot deny: that vision of beauty, of goodness, of integration was among the most important moments of my life. For all its sins and failings, I have seen what religion can be: the container for humans to experience the divine. And even if we conceive of that divine as something wholly inside of us, it is nevertheless a path to the best within us. Religion is as much a part of our humanity as art or music, science or math, economics or family. It is part and parcel of what we are.
And yet I remain steadfastly resistant—perhaps even obstinate— to the notion that I am supposed to pick just one. Many would criticize this as a form of spiritual immaturity, and I admit that is a fair criticism. I recall the story of the man who dug a hundred holes for water and never found it, whereas if he had just committed to one hole and kept digging, the water would have emerged. There’s definitely something to this story: that the fruits of spiritual commitment are born after a long and committed walk down a particular path. But for the remainder of this paper, I am going to explore a different interpretation: that engagement with religious pluralism can be seen as a spiritual path and practice in itself.
To be clear, I offer this premise as something distinct from the “spiritual but not religious” outlook that is gaining popularity in contemporary American culture. I am resistant to this notion because to me, a spirituality that rejects religion outright seems to be rejecting specificity. “Spiritual but not religious” seems to me almost a loss of the ground, a retreat to abstraction, like saying one likes stories but not sentences; music but not melodies. No doubt such a retreat is often engendered by a spiritual wounding from overbearing and abusive religious institutions—and in that regard I am deeply sympathetic. But religion itself, on the whole, is beyond any institution, or even the sum of institutions. It is culture, art and story, practice and fantasy. Religion is among the great collective creations of humanity. So when I speak of engaged pluralism as spiritual path and practice, I mean it as a decidedly religious form of spirituality.
Carl Gustav Jung was the psychologist of his generation most prone to engage in matters spiritual and religious. Jung was fascinated by the powerful effect of religious experience, and the way religious images and symbols appeared and worked in the psyche. But, as a loyal follower of Immanuel Kant, the luminary philosopher who questioned the human ability to directly perceive ultimate reality, Jung remained cautious in in his explorations of religious metaphysics. Rather than emphasize the nature of God per se, he explored the workings of the “god-image”—that is, the particular image and story that contained the notion of the divine within the human psyche. Such images were diverse, showing up in different ways in different cultures, and, Jung posited, they were capable of evolution as humanity became more conscious.
As Jungian Analyst Murray Stein (2014) explains it, “None of these [images], however, are full expressions of the Ground of Being, of Divinity itself. They are humanly generated images based upon emotionally convincing numinous experiences, and the mythopoetic and theological imagination” (p. 18). By focusing on the psychological god-image, Jung was not denying the existence of a genuine divinity. In fact, he was quite fascinated by divinity. Nevertheless, he believed the role of psychology was to look at the images that expressed or contained the divine, rather than speculate on theological matters beyond the psyche. These psychologically meaningful images contain and express a divinity that humanity’s present state of consciousness may be ill-equipped to apprehend fully. If God is beyond us, the god-images tell us where we are.
Stein’s description of “humanly generated images based on emotionally convincing numinous experiences,” suggests how my experience of the Parliament as recounted above might constitute a “god-image” in the Jungian sense. Rudolf Otto (1958) coined the term “numinosity” to describe the irreducible experience of the sacred or holy. Certainly, my experience was both profoundly numinous and emotionally convincing. And though the experience was complex and laden with meanings, I can still call it a manifest psychic image, because it appeared to my consciousness as an integrated totality, a unity of meaning with manifold aspects. To press forward with an additional gloss of interpretation of that particular vision of unity, I would say that it fits with two potential “god-images” that I find meaningful: God as Artist, and God as Emergence. I will proceed to take up each of these images in turn.
Pluralism as Creation Image
On par with my early Christian upbringing, my adolescent image of God was powerfully influenced by the writing of creativity guru Julia Cameron. She introduced me to the notion that engagement with human creativity is essentially a spiritual experience. I was sixteen when I first read The Artists Way (1992) in which Cameron posits: “We routinely refer to God as the creator but seldom see creator as the literal term for artist” (p. 18). Cameron bases much of her approach to cultivating creativity on the premise that every creative act is essentially a participation in the ongoing work of the Great Creator. “We are ourselves creations. And we, in turn, are meant to continue creativity by being creative ourselves.… Creativity is God’s gift to us. Using our Creativity is our gift back to God” (p. 19). This is in many ways a radical departure from the more orthodox image of creator-god I received in my childhood. Sitting in the church pews as a boy, “creator” seemed to mean “owner” or “ruler.” But Cameron offered me a different image of God: a creative artist, creating the universe itself as an infinite act of love and joy. So when I speak of the image of God the “creator” now, it is this more expansive conception to which I refer.
When I imagine this God, who revels in creativity, I see quite clearly that one worldview, one religion, would never be enough. Such a God would surely delight in manifold religions, infinite worlds, with divinity inhabiting each but confined to none. Male or female, immanent or transcendent, mono or poly, rational or ecstatic, formed or formless—all polarities derived from a common source of infinite complexity, beyond the comprehension of the human mind, but offering us a thousand glimpses to the numinous beyond.
This god-image is the progenitor of religious diversity, both the source of our religions, and the outcome of them. And so to engage actively with the religious totality, to experience multiple traditions and images and worlds, in itself becomes an act of worship. I walk the path of the creator God by delighting in countless containers that have been made to hold the divine. Each one expands my awareness of the source; I do not have to choose, only to engage each unique manifestation with an honest heart.
Pluralism as Emergence
The second god image—a related if perhaps more secular account—involves seeing religious pluralism in an evolutionary perspective. Mythologist Patrick Mahaffey (2014) offers a philosophical definition of pluralism as “a theoretical perspective that accepts the validity of differing worldviews and that proposes how they can coexist without threatening one another” (p. 21). He ties the project of pluralism to the larger problem of post-modernity: “the recognition that no single narrative or theory, either religious or secular, can adequately understand the complexity of human lives and cultures” (p. 22). This marks a move toward epistemic humility on the one hand, with a good faith attempt at integration and harmony through discourse on the other. The negative aspects of religion— fundamentalism, intolerance, undifferentiated and uncritical thinking—are supplanted at the outset by an integrative project that honors the particular, celebrates the diverse, and seeks greater harmony for the greater good.
So how does interreligious civic discourse become a numinous image of God? I cannot say that it must become so, only that I experienced it in that way—that in seeing these people come together from all around the world, sharing and listening; honoring the specificity of tradition and also celebrating the diversity of forms; overcoming differences in the name of the common good—this was humanity at its best. And in seeing humanity at its best, I caught a glimpse of the numinous, the divine at work amidst the chaos and confusion of our world. This divinity is not given, like the image of the creator-god. Rather it emerges in the course of history, human progress, and the evolution of consciousness. It is similar to what Hegel imagined in his Phenomenology of Spirit (1807/1977), but not so conceptually constrained or culturally defined. Where Hegel saw a linear line of progress, here emerges a sphere—and perhaps even that is too simple a model.
I find it helpful to view this process in the light of complexity theory, whereby scientists have begun to measure the phenomenon of order emerging from chaos. According to computer scientist Melanie Mitchell (2009), a complex system can be defined as “a system in which larger networks of components with no central control and simple rules of operation give rise to complex collective behavior, sophisticated information processing, and adaptation via learning or evolution” (p. 13). In short we see something emerge from its constituent parts that is very much more than the sum of those parts, and in such a way that looking at the parts themselves could never predict the behavior of the whole. Common examples of complex systems include insect colonies, weather patterns, economies, and the human brain. Throughout the world of academia there is growing interest in connections between complexity science and human sociocultural systems in general, making it a topic of interest to anthropologists, and thus to the study of religion.
This emergent order from chaos evokes the image of creation ex nihilo, something emerges where before there was nothing. When I saw in my mind’s eye that holy luminescence over the Parliament, it was an image of divinity emerging from the chaos of the mundane. Whether or not this divinity exists “objectively” as a timeless state beyond our human world is almost beside the point. We do not yet know what the divine is; rather, we watch it emerge as the best within us and between us. The images and stories contained in the religious traditions of the world are now no longer in conflict. They come together; they differentiate and integrate. Something beautiful emerges from nothing. A world of peace, compassion, and prosperity is born from an ethos of fundamental respect for each other’s stories and experiences. We do not need to know the ultimate answers or demand metaphysical certainties: the injunction is only to listen with an open heart. In this image, we are witnessing the birth of God in the soul of humanity.
An Agnostic’s Lament
I understand my identifcation as an agnostic not as a failure to choose so much as an acknowledgment of human limitation in a vast and complex universe. It can, in fact, be a principled position—even a spiritual one. The divine is manifold and mysterious, and ultimately beyond human langauge and cognition. In the face of uncertainty, the stories and philosophies we create, like our art, music, and literature, are a celebration of our humanity. To honor many stories is an aknowledgement of the great, often confusing cosmic context within which humanity makes its way.
I often feel alone in this perspective. There is a natural pressure from social groups to conform, and to hold out can mean experiencing loneliness. Religious folks gently pressure me to commit to a single tradition, while the “spiritual but not religious” crowd often use “religion” as if it were a slur. Even worse, the millitant atheists and scientific materialists seem to see only religion’s shadow, and want to strike it from the Earth altogether. I am sympathetic to all these perspectives; I appreciate them. But each seems to my eyes a singular facet of a greater truth, and to go over entirely into one of these worldviews feels like a collapse of the totality into a mere aspect of itself. Ironically, my inclusive agnostic stance often leaves me on the outside, gazing into the cosmos alone.
This is all the more reason that interfaith gatherings such as the Parliament awaken such inspiration in me: the greater context of divergent beliefs becomes manifest. The myriad forms fall into harmony, and yet that harmony could not exist without the myriad forms. In those moments a palpable common humanity emerges, and I remember what it means to be alive on this planet, and what it means to be human. In this place, agnosticism is not a stance of doubt, but a deep declaration of reverence for that from which all names arise.
Bowers, F. (1996). Scriabin: A Biography, Vol. 2. New York, NY: Dover.
Cameron, J. (1992). The Complete Artist’s Way. New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.
Hegel, G.W.F. (1977). The Phenomenology of Spirit, Revised ed. Edition. Findlay, J.N. (ed). Miller, A.V. (trans). New York, NY: Oxford University Press. (Original published in 1807)
Mahaffey, P. (2014). Evolving God-Images. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse LLC
Mitchell, M. (2009). Complexity: A Guided Tour. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Otto, R. (1958). The Idea of the Holy. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Stein, M. (2014). Minding the Self: Jungian meditations on contemporary spirituality. London, England and New York, NY: Routledge.
Jonathan Erickson is a writer and life coach based in the Portland, OR, area. He holds a master’s degree in somatic depth psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute, where he is now writing a doctoral dissertation on the neuroscience of imagination. Jonathan is a lifelong animal lover who completed his Ph.D. fieldwork at Pacifica Graduate Institute by researching human-elephant relationships in Cambodia.