The news that self-help guru James Arthur Ray has been found guilty of three counts of negligent homicide brings to an end (of sorts) a saga that began with three deaths and numerous injuries at an October, 2009, sweat lodge ceremony outside Sedona, Arizona. Since I’ve written a handful of articles and half a book about Sedona, and some of the people I wrote about have been indirectly affected by the event, I thought it fitting to comment on it here.
The term “self-help” seems pretty meaningless in this context, since those paying hundreds or thousands of dollars to Ray for spiritual guidance are clearly seeking help outside themselves; but that’s the term that’s used for the kind of product Ray offers. (The other term used in this context, “New Age,” is even more meaningless.)
One of the things that has emerged from these events is a new level of scrutiny onto an industry that is unregulated and that some consider to be “out of control.” Some of this scrutiny isn’t particularly helpful — that’s the kind that is eager to use the events to demonize any forms of unorthodox spiritual practices. This is what I would call “spiritual heterophobia” — a fear and loathing of all things different and unconventional, especially exotic practices sought and found in the East, in Native traditions, or in heterodox western traditions.
But some of it is helpful, and the emergence of groups like SEEK (Self-Help Empowerment through Education and Knowledge), which aim to provide support without ulterior motives (such as an “anti-cult” policing agenda), is a good development. Some degree of regulation of the self-help industry makes sense as well, if at least the kind of self-regulation that other professions have through licensing, credentialing, shared principles of conduct, and so on. That they haven’t done that yet is a bad enough sign.
What’s more helpful is education. While courses in world religions are widely available for those who want a comparative survey of the world’s major religious traditions, courses in popular religion and spirituality, or “spiritual culture,” aren’t widespread. They should be, and they should provide a wide range of perspectives including the sociological, anthropological, historical, and philosophical/ theological.
One of the virtues of the term “spiritual culture” is that it’s more suitable for capturing the range of philosophical and ethico-aesthetic styles of a diverse and pluralistic world than are terms like “religion” or “morality.” “Religion” is too often thought of as a kind of box, to be filled in with a term like “Christian,” “Muslim,” “Hindu,” or “Jew”; while “morality” is too often tethered to “religion” in ways that obfuscate its sources and motivations. “Philosophy,” meanwhile, just doesn’t mean much to a lot of people. (I’m speaking of the North American, especially U.S., context here.)
An analogy may be helpful. Film critics, at least the better ones, are expected to respectfully adjudicate the virtues of movies their readers might want to see, and to do it in a way that’s informed by some knowledge of film history and even (hopefully) a little film theory. The same with restaurant critics, who should be expected to know about cuisine, along with a little basic nutritional science. By the same token, “spiritual culture critics” might be expected to comment in an informed way about the options available to spiritual “seekers” today — while generally following the critics’ rule of common respect: criticize the dish, not the chef.
The spectrum of religious, spiritual, and therapeutic practices provides a continuum of options for contemporary seekers and strugglers (which most of us are, consciously or otherwise, at some point in our lives). As we push further into a post-secular and post-traditional world society, we need to develop a coherent general wisdom around what these things are and how they can be approached with critical sympathy.
Hat tip to The Wild Hunt.