The modern world, perhaps surprised, is witnessing a redeployment of the religious and spiritual phenomenon.
Yet many – like the anthropologist Anthony Wallace (1966) – predicted the end of religion only 50 years ago: ‘Beliefs in supernatural forces, peculiar to religion, are doomed to disappear in the face of the spread of scientific knowledge’.
As the historian Peter Harrison (2017) reminds us, science has not made man’s trade with divinity disappear. The United States symbolizes this situation perfectly, being on the one hand the most technically advanced society in the world, and at the same time one of the Western countries where religiosity is the most important. As the British sociologist David Martin (2011) explains in his book The Future of Christianity, ‘there is no correlation between the degree of scientific advancement of a country and the influence of religious beliefs and practices’.
It is clear that the age of the rational, the statistical and the factual has not dissolved the human yearning for the divine, for transcendence, for spiritual energies or for any other name representing a higher dimension, a creative and benevolent intelligence or a project of supreme realization.
Consciousness occupies a central place in this relationship between man and god. Three approaches depict the movements of this intimate relationship of the self to the transcendent:
- spiritualities of conservation, in which the self submits, in a positive sense, to the divine project
- spiritualities of augmentation, in which the self is enriched by divinity
- spiritualities of transformation, through which the ego dissolves and a spiritual consciousness emerges
Preserving, increasing, transforming: this is a choice to be made at the level of consciousness.
These dispositions of the consciousness do not necessarily define in absolute terms the scope of a religion or a particular spiritual current. Rather, they represent human tendencies, which therefore sometimes coexist within the same path, and even within a single individual.
While conservation spiritualities do not touch consciousness in the sense of a divinizing development, augmentation spiritualities expressly seek to make it evolve. However, this does not mean an essential change in the intrinsic nature of consciousness, but rather an expansion of its scope, abilities and sensitivity.
Transformational spiritualities, on the other hand, envisage a total renewal of consciousness. This orientation is based on the following elements:
- there is a higher reality
- the human being is not the fruit of this reality, whose existence he has forgotten
- for all that, he carries the seed of it
- through a process of transformation that he has to carry out during his life, the spiritual seed can unfold, generating a whole new consciousness.
Madeleine Scopello (2016) deciphers this situation through her study of Gnosticism – a transformative spiritual current from the beginning of the era -: “although entangled in a body of flesh, man possesses a spark of knowledge coming from the transcendent god: if he is able to revive this luminous parcel by freeing himself from the oblivion in which he has been plunged, man will free himself from the hold of the demiurge and will recover his divine origins.”
The divinity here is also internalized, but unlike the spiritualities of augmentation it is not associated with being. There is a human consciousness and a spiritual consciousness to be developed in parallel.
Thus, it is not a question of the blossoming of consciousness, nor of self-realisation, but of a growth of the spiritual dimension, dissociated from the individual. And this emergence of a new consciousness, far from sublimating the ego, generally involves its dissolution.
This point is the central marker that differentiates the spiritualities of augmentation from those of transformation. From an enriched, extrapolated, awakened, spiritualised self, we move to a reduction of the self, a withdrawal, a surrender, sometimes even evoked as a death of the self.
There is therefore a death to be lived during existence, and this specific death is the necessary transformation that leads to divine life. This spiritual posture is present in currents from all the great traditions, which are, however, distinguished by a set of characteristics linked to these traditions.
In a hadith from the Islamic tradition we find the words: “Die before death comes to you”. Many Sufi shaykhs teach these principles; Emir Abd El Kader initiated the conduct of the ‘two deaths’, referring to the spiritual death that must precede the natural death.
Michel Chodkiewicz (1998) analyses the four deaths of the Sufi – white, black, red and green – as stages representing “practices that aim to extinguish spiritual lusts as well as carnal concupiscences”.
In Hinduism and Buddhism, the concept of “Nirvana” appears. This word is not synonymous with a state of permanent enjoyment of consciousness, a form of heavenly ecstasy, as it has often been translated in the West. This Sanskrit word means “extinction”. This corresponds to the practice of extinguishing the flame of consciousness while still alive. In the Sutta Nipata, a collection of ancient Buddhist sutras, it says: “Where there is nothing, where nothing can be grasped, that is the ultimate island. I call it Nirvana. The complete extinction of the rottenness of death. It is through the nothingness of consciousness, its total cessation, that death is defeated.
For his part, Lao Tzu explains in the Tao Te King that ‘He who dies without ceasing to exist gains immortality’.
The Kabbalah also draws attention to this process. As one of its contemporary commentators (Michael Laitman, 2010) puts it: ‘The deactivation of our egoism is the beginning of our ascent of the spiritual ladder’.
It is in this voluntary death to the movements of the ‘me’ consciousness – which is not the death of the individual – that the new life points. Divinity is a state that is acquired during life and is not to be expected after death. This is what the Gospel of Philip, an apocryphal Christian text from the 2nd century, discovered in 1945, wants to convey: “Those who say that they will first die and then rise again are mistaken. If they do not receive the resurrection of their life first, and if they die, they will receive nothing.
These spiritualities of renewal are established in all religious traditions. Sometimes they even predate them. They are generally organized around the central corpus of these traditions, while adding to it a set of other texts and oral teachings, delivering more complete and sometimes complex cosmogonic and anthropological notions. Initiations, as a double process of transformation – death of the ego / rebirth of the spiritual – are implemented. Initiations in which the individual is responsible for his or her own spiritual becoming. There is therefore no real higher authority, other than the spiritual seed in the being, which is the seed that delivers divine knowledge.
These approaches do not regard the world as created by a god of perfection; otherwise it would bear the characteristics of such a god. It is a corrupted creation. In this sense, there is a desire not to be part of the world’s duration. It is not so much a rejection, nor a flight – although some semantics might make it so – but rather a deep aspiration to return to the perfect original world, a return made possible through a saving knowledge contained in the divine seed.
This is expressed in the Tripartite Treatise (a Coptic apocryphon of Valentinian thought): ‘In them indeed is deposited the seed of the promise… This promise involved their instruction and their return to what they were from the beginning, of which they possess a drop so that they may return to it’.
In a hermetic approach – what is above is like what is below – the view of the world is the same as the view of being. Man is not the fruit of divine creation. He is therefore not the object of the primary interest. However, he is not condemned nor rejected. It is through him that spiritual becoming can be accomplished, by his personal oblation in the service of the “spark of light” (The Book of Secrets of John, 2nd century).
This effacement of the self and the world in favor of the spiritual dimension can lead to misunderstandings, both on the part of those who follow these spiritual approaches and who might adopt a form of self-denial and a refusal of the world, and on the part of their contemporaries who might interpret these practices as a form of devaluation and desocialization.