What Kind of Truth is Spiritual Truth?

Why Spirituality is Overstretched


Modern spirituality often seems threatened by truth. Spirituality remains one of our greatest sources of hope, strength, and meaning; but many of us are also increasingly skeptical that spiritual teachings can be true in any real sense. As different religions continue to advance contradictory claims, and as scientific study continues to disprove beliefs that seem foundational to many religions, this skepticism only intensifies.

Spiritual people navigate this uneasy environment in many ways. Some favor traditional beliefs and practices, not caring what scientific and logical evidence might suggest about them. These belief systems may be very helpful, but they can also be very difficult for people with modern, skeptical sensibilities to accept.

Other practitioners support their own perspectives with findings from scientific disciplines such as neuroscience. This perhaps feels reassuring, but it also risks diluting spirituality’s essential mysteries into purely physical (for example chemical) terms; and it’s often unconvincing, as spiritual people with strong agendas cherry-pick scientific results to support prior beliefs. In any case, the sense of living haunted by scientific knowledge persists, since that knowledge continues to advance independent of, and often contrary to, our own optimistic depictions of it.

Finally, a great many modern spiritual teachings have no coherent approach to truth, but simply follow wherever expediency dictates: drawing on the authority of “ancient” religious teachings, referencing tidbits from the physical sciences, and filling in the gaps with perspectives from self-help psychology.

Many modern spiritual practitioners live with the worry that spirituality itself may be basically false.

In sum, spirituality’s uneasy relationship to truth leads to sloppy, contorted spiritual thought and practice. Even more seriously, it burdens modern practitioners with the worry that spirituality itself may be basically false, or simply a folk-wisdom precursor to “real” truths that will eventually be drawn from astrophysics, neuroscience, or similarly cold and clinical areas of study.

How Did We Get Here?

How did spirituality arrive at this point? Common sense supplies some of the simplest-seeming answers. For example, a religion’s claims are more compelling when everyone you know believes them — which is no longer true in our diverse world. Similarly, in the West at least, spiritual perspectives are no longer politically enforced, allowing for open questioning and nonbelief. Finally, science has emerged as not only a competing but a superior method to answer formerly religious questions like “How old is the Universe?” and “How was the Earth created?”

It’s not that spirituality is becoming obsolete, but that we are struggling under an obsolete definition of spirituality.

In my view, though, these historical developments don’t threaten “spirituality” itself, but an outdated notion of it. In other words, it’s not that spirituality is becoming obsolete, but that we are struggling under an obsolete definition of spirituality.

Spirituality is Overstretched

Human knowledge spans a vast array of subjects, from poetry to economics to molecular biology, which are commonly organized into broad, overarching areas of knowledge. Each area of knowledge contains multiple disciplines, all of which share basic similarities in methodology and subject matter. As a quick and incomplete outline:

  • The formal sciences include disciplines like mathematics and statistics that study abstract systems of logic. People advance knowledge in these disciplines by developing logically from first principles, such as mathematical axioms like “A + B = B + A”.
  • The natural sciences contain disciplines such as physics, chemistry, and biology. These disciplines propose scientific models to describe the physical, observable universe; they then test these models empirically, meaning in a way that is directly observable by the senses. For example, astronomers develop models of the cosmos, which they then test empirically using telescopes and other types of observation equipment.
  • The social sciences include fields like economics, political science, and psychology, which study human behavior using analytic methods from the natural sciences. Social scientists produce testable models of human behavior, and evaluate these models with empirical evidence (such as voter poll results, GDP growth charts, or stress hormone measurements).
  • The humanities contain disciplines like poetry, literature, and history that study human nature and human culture through a critical orsubjective lens — meaning that they allow individual feelings and experiences to be discussed and presented as truth. For example, the humanities can discuss the statement “Shakespeare was a genius,” even though Shakespeare’s genius is not empirical: you can’t see it anywhere in the physical world, but must feel it subjectively for yourself.
Spirituality is routinely called upon to comment on all other fields of study.

Religion and spirituality fit, ostensibly, in the humanities. However, spirituality is routinely called upon to comment on allother fields of study, particularly the social sciences and the natural sciences.

To see this, imagine the range of things people often believe spirituality can do. Here’s a partial list, ranked from what I think is most to least sensible:

  • Provide hope and relief to suffering people.
  • Attune people to otherwise hidden aspects of consciousness.
  • Organize society around comprehensive moral and ethical guidelines.
  • Connect people to normally unobservable entities and planes of existence.
  • Cure mental illnesses such as depression and schizophrenia.
  • Heal physical illnesses, through prayer or through alternative spiritual systems of medicine.
  • Explain history, such as why a particular nation rose and fell when it did.
  • Enable miracles such as human flight and immortality.
  • Predict what occurs after death.
  • Describe how matter is structured (for example, as four basic elements).
  • Explain the origin of Earth, humanity, and the cosmos, and how they will end.

In other words: Spirituality is being asked to do too much. There are “spiritual perspectives” on questions that properly belong to virtually every other area of knowledge, from paleontology to particle physics. The result is almost uniformly damaging to the credibility of spirituality on any question.

Imagine if any other area of study were called on to cover a similar range. Imagine if, for example, political science were asked to produce a viable cure for malignant tumors, an alternative account of the origin of the universe, and a detailed description of the afterlife. Political science would come to seem hopelessly overstretched, and we might be inclined to doubt anything it had to say — even in areas it properly studies, such as the causes of civil unrest.

Spirituality Has a Limited Toolkit

Spirituality is overstretched because the tools with which it generates knowledge do not fit every situation or need.

Spirituality is overstretched because the tools with which it generates knowledge do not fit every situation or need.

Returning to our political science example: political scientists would not struggle to find a cancer cure simply because the project is ambitious and time-consuming. Rather, political science as a discipline completely lacks the methodological tools that such a project would require to have any hope of succeeding. Political science studies human behavior as it relates to power, using tools such as statistics and various kinds of historical analysis. It is completely unequipped to study physiological phenomena occurring inside the human body. Nothing in the political science vocabulary (“the balance of power,” “realism versus liberalism,” and so on) has any meaning at all in the search for a cancer cure. That would be a social science moonlighting as a natural science: A sure recipe for failure.

Spirituality is in exactly this position in a number of areas. For example, how can spirituality hope to comment on the physical structure of the cosmos? The tools required to meaningfully engage in such a discussion include thousands of extremely complex physical equations modelling the properties of astrological bodies, as well as millions of empirical observations supporting those models. Spirituality has none of these tools — nor should it.

What is Spiritual Truth?

We need to define the spiritual field of study.

To restore credibility to the study of spirituality, I think we need to define the spiritual field of study. The overall question is as follows:

What truth can and should spirituality reveal?

Four related questions follow from this broad question:

  1. What is the aim of spiritual study? (What is the purpose of learning spiritual truths?)
  2. What is the nature of spiritual knowledge? (Are spiritual truths scientific, logical, or subjective by nature, or something else?)
  3. How can we judge the truth of spiritual knowledge? (What should lead us to accept spiritual statements as true: If they are scientifically accurate, logically rigorous, or subjectively convincing, or is there some other criterion?)
  4. What tools should we bring to spirituality? (What methods can we use to engage in the process of exploring spiritual truth?)

I’ll present my own perspective in the next article, and subsequent articles will further explore it. For now, I hope I’ve established the risks of continuing to expect spirituality to cross all possible boundaries of knowledge, and the opportunity to understand spirituality in a way that highlights and celebrates what it truly is.

Thanks for reading!