Spirituality without Structure

Nimue Brown

This is not a book I consciously set out to write. What happened is that some years ago I spent a lot of time reading about other religions as part of my research for ‘When a Pagan Prays’. It was a book that took a long time to write – and as I’d been quiet for ages – my lovely publisher, Trevor Greenfield, asked if I’d consider doing a small book. Moon Books publishes a Pagan Portals Series — lots of short and punchy introductions to niche areas of Paganism. Would I like to do one?

As soon as the offer was on the table, it was evident to me what to do with it. All manner of things had been occurring to me with regards to the nature of religion, and what it takes to have a meaningful personal practice. From the research for ‘When a Pagan Prays,’ Spirituality without Structure was unexpectedly hatched. It was significantly influenced by Alain du Botton’s ‘Religion for Atheists’. I’m not an atheist, but the questions he raised about the social and psychological function of religions prompted me to start considering how we might construct spiritual practice to serve human needs, and to questions the needs which established religions serve.

Here’s an excerpt to give you a bit of a flavour for the project. This is a book people either love because they find it challenging, or hate for exactly the same reason.

“As human beings we seem to find strong leadership enticing. We like it when someone else takes the risks, makes the decision, solves the problems and tells us what to do. Religions can be very good at matching those who wish to graze quietly with those who wish to be shepherds. It is also worth remembering that you can just as easily match those who do not want to make much effort with the kind of shepherd who runs a very lucrative abattoir.

It is important to know yourself. Are you looking for comfort, a sense of security, some rules to follow, a nice plan for the afterlife and a routine? If so, then stay with regular religions and structures. If, on the other hand, you want spiritual experiences and to find your own answers, are not afraid to take risks, face setbacks and ask a lot of questions, then doing as you are told is never going to satisfy you.”

This book is all about breaking out and doing it for yourself. I’ll admit I have an agenda here. I think that there is much to be troubled by in people who want power over other people, and over other aspects of the natural world. I believe the desire for power is driven by fear and that it is inherently destructive. I also believe that we do best when we seek harmony, tolerance and collaboration, and when we respect each other as equals. As soon as you try to control another person, you diminish them, and yourself. The structure of religion is so often about control. There are too many issues around whom has the right to make whom do what. The right to punish, to exile, own and to devalue can all be tied up in religious thinking too, and these are destructive influences across the globe. I’m much more interested in the power to control the self, and the self-discipline that is all about what happens inside an individual.

The trouble with having no structure or system – as is so often the case for independent modern Pagans – is ascertaining what you might replace that with. Figuring everything out from scratch is rewarding, and a profound journey in its own right, but you may have to start by working out what to work out in the first place and this can lead to a great deal of wheel re-invention.

It is possible to learn a lot from the history and diversity of religion; Pagan and non-Pagan alike. We can learn without subscribing to any one system, drawing inspiration without abdicating personal power. I’m not suggesting a ‘pick-and-mix’ attitude to spirituality, but a process of stepping back to examine what religion is and does. We can learn from the areas of overlap and commonality. We can learn from the places of difference and conflict. I’ve gathered together much of what I’ve learned from reading about different religions and listening to a great many people. This is not the whole story. It’s not even the tip of one.

The drive for spirituality in humans and the history of religion are two vast topics that it would probably take lifetimes to understand. However, the attempt is always worth it and I hope this provides a useful jumping off point.

Nimue Brown is the author of a number of Druid and Pagan titles also published by Moon Books.


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