The limitations of the spiritual approach

As other approaches, spirituality also has its limitations that can be grouped into the same three categories.


Extrinsic limitations

These limitations arise from the association of spirituality with the various religious frameworks within which it may be situated.

Infallibility - if spiritual insights are achieved through personal transformation, the issue for those who have not gone through such a process is how to decide which ones are valid. One possible solution is accepting ‘truth by authority', which means that it is more important who does the saying than what is said. Indeed, religions rely heavily on authority, because the majority of people cannot personally verify spiritual claims. Chosen individuals or scriptures are given a special status (often reinforced by their alleged super-natural source) and their unquestionable acceptance is expected. Considering that spiritual experiences can be interpreted in various ways, ‘truth by authority' can undeniably have a unifying purpose. However, the problem is that the demand to accept unconditionally and unreflectively certain assertions means that they cannot be challenged, which leads to stagnation. It is not surprising then that there are growing discrepancies between religious claims and recognised facts, and also that there are contradictions within religious interpretations, too[5]. Psychologist Csikszentmihalyi is right saying that ‘...a vital new religion may one day arise again. In the meantime, those who seek consolation in existing churches often pay for their peace of mind with a tacit agreement to ignore a great deal of what is known about the way the world works' (1992, p.14).

Dogmatism - although religions must adapt to new circumstances to some extent, most of them are essentially conservative rather than progressive. This is because they rely on the teachings and experience of significant figures inevitably from a distant past (the further from the present and more obscure, the more authority they seem to have). However, not allowing interpretations to evolve can be cripplingly restrictive and misleading.

Moreover, despite being supposedly based on transpersonal insights, religions usually discourage direct experience, for fear that those who have them would not conform to an already established credo. So, in fact, religion in most cases, stalls the development of spiritual knowledge, which leads to an increasing discrepancy: while other aspects of human life have been evolving, official religions rely on anachronistic interpretations from a few thousand years ago. This is regrettable and unnecessary. People still respect old scientists or philosophers and build on their insights and theories (of which many, as for example Pythagoras' theorem, remain valid). However, it would be absurd to consider them absolute authorities and to reject further developments because of them.


Limitations of spirituality as a social practice

Locality - the heightened awareness that enables spiritual insights is typically unstable. So, even those who reach that point, quickly fall back into a socially shared reality and often try to situate the experience within an existing framework. Yet, as long as spirituality is embodied in local traditions, it can hardly claim universality.

Ineffability - even if one maintains the clarity of an experience, the problem remains how to communicate so gained insights. Considering that they are beyond ordinary experiences, something ‘out of this world', they do not fit comfortably with the usual perception of reality. A common language often lacks the words to express them adequately, there is little to connect to, and any attempt to verbalise them may sound shallow or plain weird. This is why analogies or metaphors need to be used, but they can be variously interpreted. Others may choose to understand them in a way to suit their own purposes, which inevitably leads to further distortions. It is not surprising that religious or esoteric texts often stray in attempts to conceptualise spiritual revelations.

The issue of proof - another difficulty with spiritual insights is that they are not publicly verifiable. Nothing solid can be brought back as evidence. An analogy can be made with an explorer who comes across a ‘lost tribe' without bringing any modern gadgets. S/he may try to explain to those people that there is a different world outside, s/he may speak about cities, cars, computers, TV, airplanes, but cannot prove to them that they exist (even if they may occasionally see some strange shiny ‘birds' in the sky). S/he will most likely be considered a mad person, a crank[6]. Not surprisingly, many spiritual people choose obscurity - hence the term esoteric knowledge. Yet, the fact that, by default, it is impossible to provide material evidence for non-material phenomena does not invalidate such knowledge per se. Other approaches are not immune to this problem either. Silver admits that also ‘many of the basic concepts of science cannot be verified either logically or by observation' (1988, p.503). Nevertheless, some ways or criteria that can render spiritual claims at least plausible are still needed.


Intrinsic limitations

Non-testability - one difficulty with this approach is that following the same procedure will not necessarily produce the same results. The content and the quality of experience are to a large extent unpredictable. Even the timing is difficult to determine. For this reason it is hard to separate such insights from wishful thinking, fantasies, superstitions and other products of one's mind. This is why a spiritual path requires a high degree of personal discipline, but discipline, on its own, cannot provide a foolproof guarantee that an experience is genuine. So, although it is meaningless to demand material evidence, any claims need to be checked against recognised scientific findings. They do not need to be reduced to these findings, but they should not contradict them either. Spirituality is not about burning the bridges between the two worlds but making them.

Convolution with other altered states - not all altered states of consciousness lead to valid spiritual insights. Some of these states can be on the other side of the ‘bell curve' (a normal state of mind) - namely madness, hallucinations. Distinguishing between these two opposites may not always be possible within a spiritual framework and needs to be validated by other approaches. For example, if it may not be straightforward to scientifically challenge (self-)destructive ‘messages' from God, they can be dismissed as poor candidates for genuine spiritual experiences by common sense.

Fragmentation - although spiritual insights may contribute to a more holistic view (by interpreting them with reference to the whole), they are usually based on isolated and disconnected pockets of experience. These experiences may yield glimpses of a transcendent realm, but they cannot, on their own, provide a full picture. Reasoning is required to make sense of them. And reasoning is not a part of the experience.

  • [5]. This applies to moral matters as well as factual. Subjecting Job to suffering (and his first wives and offspring to annihilation) simply to win a bet, or ordering the Israelites to destroy other tribes, does not seem compatible with an image of a God that is good.
  • [6]. A similar situation is vividly described in H. G. Wells' story The Country of the Blind.