It might seem strange to speak of spirituality as toxic. Perhaps you wonder how spiritual paths that we may think of as unquestionably good – for example, our own spiritual path – could ever become so dangerous as to justify such language. There are many routes away from life, but only one that points us dependably toward it.
First and most basically, spirituality moves us away from life whenever it distances us from our bodies. The body anchors the spiritual and the mental, grounding perceptions in sensation, feelings in emotion, thoughts in action, defenses in muscular armor, and beliefs in behavior. Whenever our ties to our body are tenuous, our ties to reality are equally fragile. The body connects us to the truths of our selves, our world and others. Even our connection to the spiritual realities that many people believe exists beyond materiality occurs in and through our bodies. All knowing is at one level body-knowing and all awareness is at one level body-awareness. To be human is to be embodied. So any spirituality that fails to take the body seriously necessarily diminishes our humanity.
Apart from a firm embrace of our bodies, spirituality will always involve an alienation from our emotions, our deepest passions and longings, and our sexuality. Any attempt to gain distance from our bodies will be at the expense of our humanness. The price for this form of avoidance is always high.
One of the ways in which we distance our selves from our bodies is by a retreat to the world of beliefs and thoughts. Religious spiritualities encourage this when they reduce the spiritual journey to holding correct beliefs. In Christianity, the shift from faith as trust to faith as belief was primarily a product of the Enlightenment. The result was a profound shift from the personal/interpersonal to the impersonal. Faith as trust is personal and interpersonal. Trust is always placed in someone or something and our act of trust is an act of leaning into the object of trust with openness and expectant hopefulness. For Christians, trust in God, however, was slowly degraded into trust in certain thoughts about God. If these thoughts were judged to be true, one was judged to have faith. But the object of the faith in this debased expression of faith is, in actuality, thoughts, not God.
Equating faith with beliefs truncates and trivializes spirituality by reducing it to a mental process. Thoughts are, quite simply, a poor substitute for relationship. Some Christians speak much of a personal relationship with God but assume that this is based on holding right beliefs. Is it any wonder that this attempt to reduce Ultimate Mystery to theological propositions so often results in the principal personal relationship being with their own thoughts? Cherishing thoughts about God replaces cherishing God, knowing about the Divine replaces knowing the Divine. Whenever the Wholly Other is thought to be contained in one’s beliefs and opinions Divine transcendence is seriously compromised and personal relationship with Spirit minimized.