Alan Watts, who is quoted in this blog frequently, wrote an autobiography entitled In My Own Way. In it he discusses how he both did things his own way and also got in his own way. (He was always very clever with a turn of a phrase.)

That each person must find his or her own spiritual path seems to me to be undoubtedly true – but, just as with other trips, making one’s way down the path is more fruitful if others have left signs and markings along the way.  It is the signs and markings along the path that define progress – if we as a species let each person flounder along and learn everything “the hard way” we would still be living in trees at the mercy of whatever predator happened by.  And, the idea that we must each find our own way is inconsistent with the thousands of books published (seemingly) weekly on the subject of spiritual growth.  No, most people who are “spiritual” do not really believe that each of us must sink or swim in the ocean of beliefs – that “each person must find his or her own path” is usually used simply as a defense against anything that even remotely resembles analysis or discussion.

That every idea holds a kernel of truth is also most likely correct – as far as it goes.  The statement “my grandmother was President of the United States” also holds some truth – namely, that “my grandmother was.”  But separating the wheat from the chaff regarding ideas which are essentially bogus is time consuming – if we stop and look at every idea from every writer (including yours truly) without a method of sifting through them, we will easily spend our entire lives mired in a mound of chaff.  Filters such as the quality of the publisher, the credentials of the author and published reviews are some of the ways that we used to narrow the search for worthwhile reading material. With the advent of electronic publishing, most of these middlemen are removed from the process, which makes it difficult to know what is worth your time and what isn’t. So we tend toward getting recommendations from friends (or the 21st century replacement for friends: social media).

The trouble with this is that we usually hang out with people we already agree with. So we must be careful that we don’t become incestuous in our search for spiritual truth – only reading and studying ideas with which we already know we agree.  The best way that I know to formulate and define beliefs is to study ideas which are foreign to us – since it is by contrast that our beliefs begin to crystallize.  But it is also important to avoid turning a particular belief into a straw man by studying only the worst versions of the competing beliefs.

Time is also an excellent sieve through which to pass an idea.  If an idea or work has lasted some number of years (how many depends on the circumstances), then it most likely has some useful spiritual content.  You may violently disagree with it, but it is unlikely to be a waste of time to study it.

For example, if one is interested in learning about Roman Catholic theology, it is more fruitful to read the works of Aquinas, St. John of the Cross, or to read The Cloud of Unknowing than it is to read something that was just published this year.  Not that a current work is necessarily bad – but in a world where our time is limited, it is better to go to the original sources.

This is why I usually quote from original sources; I actually hope that you will find an idea that intrigues you and follow up by reading some of the originals. These works stand the test of time and the sieve of experience for a reason.

As I’ve said elsewhere, my purpose in writing these short essays is to help people to realize that there is a whole history of thoughtful, relevant and God-inspired works that are not taught in most churches.