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In the memoir Eat, Pray, Love, writer Elizabeth Gilbert gives up her entire way of life to spend a year traveling the world, finding spiritual enlightenment along the way. Julia Roberts, who plays Gilbert’s character in the movie version out this week, apparently found enlightenment of her own through the role, revealing that she has become a practicing Hindu.
As Joan Ball asks in a Guest Voices post, “Is it possible to live a life of deep, transformational faith without dropping everything and hitting the road?”
In your tradition, what is the aim of the spiritual journey?
A few Westerners are waking up to discover that having it all isn’t.
In the eighteenth century men fantasized that if we conquered poverty and provided free education, then men would be happy. Millions have been lifted into what would have been considered staggering comfort by the standards of George Washington’s day, but we are not happier. In the nineteenth century, we were promised that if we just talked about sex more our problems would vanish. We did and they didn’t. In the twentieth century, politicians of all sorts promised that if we followed their ideas then Utopia would come soon, but it hasn’t.
The most obvious fact that is routinely ignored is that external change cannot make you happy. A saint can make something noble of a life in the gulags, but a miserable man cannot manage joy in Disneyland. We ignore this fact for the same reason our overweight nation buys into weight loss fads.
Diet and exercise work, but they require hard work and spiritual change. We have to admit that we have been gluttons and soft before can achieve permanent progress. Marketing companies are happy to tell us there is a short cut that will avoid this unpleasantness, but they simply tell lies for our money. We let them lie to us, because we prefer a comfortable delusion to the truth.
You cannot educate, cultivate, or cure the wicked man, but you also cannot help a dull man. The wicked tyrant can twist anything to evil in an endless quest for power, but the boring consumer can ignore anything good in his insatiable lust for entertainment.
Of course there are problems that demand external solutions. A starving man needs food not inner healing, but our biggest problems are internal. The hungry in body with whole souls are better off than the sated in the flesh with shattered spirits.
Many of us are hopeless, because we are broken inside, and our society offers only something else to do externally: go on a trip, a retreat, or a quest. We can drown out our internal brokenness for a time with business, we can drown it in drugs, legal or illegal, but our souls keep demanding something more.
We are, therefore, being treated to a spate of films and books telling us how to deepen our life. This would be encouraging if we were not getting our spiritual advice from the most dysfunctional part of society while sitting in a garish multiplex eating overpriced food.
But you can no more achieve enlightenment by watching an actress pretend to get it, than you can get in shape by watching Rocky.
Our problem is that we need something painful and profound, but are offered only a quick fix. Most measures of happiness assume it is better to be a contented pig than a discounted Socrates.
The problem for the contented pig is boredom and against boredom the sty has no defense. The animal can root and rut, but the ruin of his day is that he rooted and rutted the day before and the day before that.
Nor will consuming religious products help us. If our problems are internal, then merely changing on the outside will not improve us. You cannot make a saint by putting a corpse in sackcloth. You cannot make a sage by sending the intellectually lazy to school.
Put a Frederick Douglass in chains and he will still learn virtue. No master can keep him from learning to read. Give most of us the Internet and we will waste our time watching You Tubes of chimps or babies.
You cannot make a slave of Frederick Douglass, but you cannot free a multimedia drone.
The answer, more thoughtful Hollywood films will tell us, is not in buying product but in “being true to ourselves” or looking “within.” It should be a warning when advice echoes that given by the facile Polonius to his son in Hamlet.
For most of us, looking inside for our solution risks spiritual implosion. We don’t have much except fragments of Star Trek optimism, Joss Whedon cynicism, and some Twilight level romanticism. Go read Ecclesiastes: everything we have inside is vanity.
The answers are painfully fragmented when we look within. They are almost there in shattered images of truth, but these images distort as well as reveal. We need an external good to come within and change us internally.
We need a soul transplant and there is no drive-in that will sell it to us with sanctity on the side. The process will be painful and prolonged.
We need to change ontologically. We must pass from brokenness to restoration. All of us are separated from our highest desires and confused about how to fulfill our deepest wishes. Skeptics tell us to settle: that this is all there is. Charlatans offer to sell us a religion.
Reality says the skeptic’s answer is too small and the religious huckster’s too cheap. We need to be changed and start over and this comes at a great cost. Ideally, God would come and remodel us and we could be born again.
What would this look like?
Imagine if God would come within and remodel us. Consider the benefit if God, who knows our needs and not our wants, would leave us a book helping us find the pat solution. Reflect on the hope that would come if we could be born again and start over spiritually.
Such an answer would begin in pain, as painful as any instrument of torture, but end in life. It would be capable of transforming hardened criminals and enlivening the dullest human being.
It must come to us freely. We cannot trust anyone who would sell us salvation. It should force us to confront our assumptions and make us change. If there is saving to be done, we will need the power to do it and all but fools know it cannot come from within.
We need a Savior for our souls, a chance to change, the liberty to choose to change, and the power to work out that change.