“We can, however, live with integrity so long as we seek to uncover our emotional blind spots and challenge assumed beliefs and accepted practices. We can trust the integrity of spiritual communities so long as we search for the places where we have created institutions that have become corrupted by narrow-mindedness and dogmatism or simply havens that collude with our pathology. We can begin to trust our spiritual guides so long as we are willing to challenge teachers who have become inflated by power or blind to their fallibility and so long as we wake up to self-deception.
I use the term “spiritual pathology” to refer to the way in which our emotional wounds and beliefs have the power to influence, shape and distort the way we practice and view our spiritual path. Of particular importance is that we are often blind to this side of our nature, as these wounds live in the unconscious.
Spiritual “pathology” has many faces and unfortunately some of these have become glaringly evident in recent years. No religion is immune to this shadowy tendency, and it would seem the potential for us to engender collective prejudice, hypocrisy, and even sectarian hatred in the name of religion seems limitless. It seems to be a tragic fact of life that when we scratch the surface of religious movements we find beneath all kinds of pathology that have been hidden. Spiritual pathology is therefore both a collective and individual phenomenon. Individually we may be drawn to collective circumstances that unconsciously collude with our pathology. Collectively we may create institutions that have deeply rooted and extremely unhealthy pathology, which has become “normalized” so that we cannot see the extent of this malaise
One could equally say therefore that the spiritual institutions and belief systems we create for ourselves are often a rationalization of our personal neurosis. This is not to say that spirituality per se is always an expression of pathology, but that unfortunately our inner neurosis is powerful and less known to ourselves than we realize. Indeed, it can be so strong that even the most clear sighted and authentic spiritual traditions can become subsumed under its domain. We can so easily place a veneer of spirituality over our personal neurosis, we can easily rationalize away our personal distortions and justify them to the point where we convince both ourselves and others of their validity.
It was Freud and later Erick Fromm who spoke of “neurosis as a private form of religion” and that the power of religious movements and cults is that they give a collective validation to our personal neurosis. Gustav Jung used the term shadow. The shadow, far from being something to be suppressed, contains much of the manure out of which we grow. Failure to face the shadow will have one significant consequence, namely that we will tend to distort our spirituality by our shadow’s particular pathology and, because the shadow is our blind spot, we will be relatively unaware that it does so. For the most part, our shadow is held in the dark by denial and a wish to maintain status quo. It may be, however, that our emotional patterns are deeply rooted and form the very core of our identity. They may be so inaccessible to consciousness that it is virtually impossible to take responsibility for them. They may equally be formed through a survival necessity that requires much understanding before we can willingly change.
Thus, our lack of awareness makes it extremely difficult to see what we are doing. If we were to wear coloured sunglasses all the time we would eventually become used to the tint they give to the world and no longer realize that all colour was distorted. So too our lack of awareness of the shadow blinds us to the ways in which we construct and distort our spiritual beliefs. Sadly when we do this we are living an illusion and using our spirituality to validate.
(Parts taken from Watts, F Rebecca, N & Savage, S: Psychology for Christian Ministry)
I would like to conclude with the words by Macquarrie: “It is the openness, freedom, creativity, the capacity for going beyond any given state in which humans find themselves that make possible self-consciousness and self-criticism, understanding, responsibility, the pursuit of knowledge, the sense of beauty, the quest of the good, the formation of community, the outreach of love and whatever else belongs to the amazing richness of what we call the ‘life of the spirit’. All this is possible through the greatness of God’s grace and through us living within his will”.
(Lartey, EY 2003. In living color: An intercultural approach to pastoral care and counselling).