Religious Spirituality: a sliding scale

This is from a mini-essay I wrote to an atheist community, in the hopes of eliciting some discussion on the shallowness and depth of believers. It borrows heavily from the talks of Pak Subuh.

The Islamic tradition details four levels of religious experience: the lowermost is “shari’at”, where one accepts the revealed truth of a religion and its rules and regulations. This is the faith that most people hold: it is based wholly on acceptance of inherited truths. In this faith, it is enough to say the words and do the motions and then go on with your day. When people of this level speak about faith or reality, their language sounds like a ‘code’ to the outsider, they tend to bend all arguments to their narrowing viewpoint, and they come off as either pompous, batty or ambiguous— this is because they have not yet made the accepted truths their own, and so are unable to translate their faith into the present moment, be it in a dialogue or argument or some lackadaisical pedestrian philosophizing. Again: these are the most common type of believers. Disparaging religion for their sake is like denouncing bluegrass because country radio sucks.

The second level is called “tarekat”—this is where a believer begins to think: “Okay, I say what I should say, and do what I should do—but why? What is the meaning behind these words and morals?” This type of believer is not necessarily more ‘open minded’ than the preceding, but they are more deep minded about their beliefs. Most pastors and ministers fit into this tier. When speaking of matters of faith they will often have anecdotes to share, and will be able to communicate the subtleties of their creedo more or less smartly and with varying degrees of panache. However, communication will break down once the topic of direct experience is broached. They are still restrained to the traditional belief system, and won’t be able to comfortably walk into atheistic territory with you because they must stay close to their central tenants to make sense of things. Disparaging religion for their sake is like denouncing Apple based solely on their closed iOS platform—that is, most of their beliefs are based on a “design philosophy” that allows this and disallows that—and if they don’t jive with you, it’s more or less a matter of personal taste, not essential reality.

Now here is where things get interesting. The third level of religious devotion is called, in Islam, the “hakekat”. This means reality. You will find these persons rarely, but you will find them even among atheists. These are the ones for whom beliefs and statements are tertiary, where actual reality is central. They shine with an ‘inner light’—because they live by example: they know that teaching is the biggest lie, that everyone needs to come to terms with the terms of life on their own.

There is a fourth level, but that doesn’t really apply to normal people. We could say this fourth level is there—“ma’rifat” by name—as the sort of Ideal to be attained. It means an at-one-ment (to pilfer a shimmering jewel from Dan Brown) with the spiritual process. These are the prophets: they are a statistical improbability.

About Benjamin

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5 responses to “Religious Spirituality: a sliding scale

  • Jim

    This is a very good article. I agree with most of your points. I presume that you can’t dialog or argue with a hakekat because a hakekat won’t dialog or argue with *you*.

    Can you give any examples of a hakekat? I’m not entirely able to wrap my head around it.

    • benartboy

      It’s been pointed out that this description is rather simplistic, especially in detailing the dialogue that occurs between different ‘types’ of believers. That being said, I would opine that someone with a living relationship with the Reality or the Divine, or whatever concept best suits our needs, would put less stock in statements about Truth, and constantly refer to their own experience, for anecdotal evidence about the practical and the subpractical aspects of being a Human.

      I’ve taken these concepts from the talks of Pak Subuh Sumohadiwidjojo, founder of the spritual organization of Subud. Subud’s essential practice is a spontaneous, individually-prompted experience called the latihan, in which there is no leader, no doctrine or ritual. Over the years that I’ve been practicing it, I’ve experienced many things which are beyond words, except to say that I’m always surprised and almost always left feeling clear and clean afterwards.

      I think that religion has sprung up from such personal experiences, and that over time it is constantly degraded into a system of outer action, promises and consequences that can obscure the very necessary process of a person becoming who they truly are, and learning through their own testing of life how to compose themselves. To be, in a word, a grownup.

  • Aliman

    What do we say to the atheist who says that none of the three levels make any sense because there is nothing in external reality which conforms to anything called spiritual? In other words, the word “spiritual” has no meaning. In order to be real, and to have meaning, something must be able to be empirically verified in an independent and objective sense.


    • benartboy

      That’s the rub, Aliman.

      To further that line of inquiry, how did “spirituality” arise in the first place? Is it a trick of language, a sort of mental/imaginative feedback having to do with faulty wires in the mind?

  • Jim

    Well, I’m an atheist, and I do think the word “Spiritual” has a place in our lives. I believe that the essense of “being human” is that our reach exceeds our grasp. We somehow instictively know that there is more to understand than what we currently understand. How do we know that? I don’t know, we just do.

    Spirituality, then, is how we decide to fill that gap. Mind you, my definition is entirely my own, and is entirely secular. But it seems to work. Many people (most people?) fill the gap with magic. It’s pyramid power, or resonating crystals, or a mystical force, or God. The more reverent or pretentious fill it with G-d.

    I fill it with science and wonder and curiosity. The rainbow is just as beautiful after learning about prismatic refraction of light. In fact it’s even more beautiful.

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