04/14/2006 03:34 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Seven Spiritual Paths (Part 1)

In a recent post on the future of God, I offered the possibility that God would remain relevant outside organized religion. Regular church attendance has been steadily dropping in every developed country, a long-standing trend. But spiritual yearning is still strong. The vast majority of Americans believe in God, the soul, the existence of an afterlife, etc.

Whatever the rise and fall of organized belief, the "will to believe," as William James called it, motivates seekers in every era, including our own time of secularism and doubt. Can spirituality still bring about an inner revolution? The key terms that people use in spiritual matters--God, soul, heaven, hell, and spirit itself--vary in meanaing, not just from faith to faith but from person to person. In reality there is no single path and no single spiritual profile that fits everyone. There are many ways to describe how a person fits spirit into everyday life, but it seems fair to say that spiritual seeking generally takes seven forms.

Each of these seven paths speaks to a different impulse in each of us. Some people are strongly dominated by one kind of impulse, while for others the drive to find God is not so clear-cut. Yet it's important to realize that the way you try to find God will fit your approach to reality in general, meaning that your personal values, personality, goals, and psychological tendencies are crucial. Since that fact isn't recognized in organized religion, we find a tremendous opening for new insights here.

Now on to the seven paths themselves. It will require a separate post for each one, the subject seems important enough to warrant more than a thumbnail sketch.

Path # 1 Seeking Safety, Security, Protection

God is tied to human needs, and our most basic need is to feel safe. Religion flourishes during insecure times when people feel the stress of danger and chaos. Because Nature presents its own dangers, in the form of floods, drought, storms, famine, etc., looking to a higher power for protection has been an age-old path. Millions of people today live on the edge of survival, and the God they pray to is a divine parent who can make bad things go away or prevent them from happening. going to heaven is seen as a return home, an end to physical struggle, a lifting of life's crushing burdens.

But a protective Father or Mother isn't just for the downtrodden or for children. Many people, if they are diagnosed with a serious life-threatening illness, find themselves praying to God to save them. Actual physical salvation becomes crucial, not salvation of the soul. A protective God also deflects or defeats enemies. He is invoked to keep the nation safe and to win wars.

The validity of such a God has been very strong despite two obvious problems. First, an all-powerful Father could be seen as the cause of disasters. Doesn't He bring the flood as well as end it?

Second, and more importantly to modern people, Nature operates by physical laws, so as science continues to rationally explain natural phenomena, there is decreased need for a metaphysical escape clause. We can prevent floods and cure disease; there is no need to invoke a Father God to do these things for us.

Millions of believers have fallen away from this version of God, feeling independent enough to do without Him. But millions more are insecure and lead lives in which some kind of fear and anxiety prevails. For them, the problems with God the protector must be overlooked or solved metaphysically. Thus when God doesn't intervene to bring victory in war or safety from the flood, the blame must lie with us, not Him. We have sinned, usually in some unseen, mysterious way. People who don't feel that God sees them are constantly searching their lives for blemishes and guilty actions to explain this divine absence.

Path #1 seems to focus more on sin than any other path. It's also the most physical path, in that food, shelter, protection from disease, and material want are key issues. Good is defined as being safe; evil is defined as being in physical danger. Sadly, this may turn out to be the only path that the vast majority of people ever follow, or even learn about. Evangelical religion, with its emphasis on sin and salvation, adheres close to the protective, all-powerful God with his many whims and arbitrary actions.

Path #1 attracts many people in every major religion, yet every path has its built-in contradictions, and once a believer begins to focus on them, spiritual uncertainty results. This isn't a bad thing, since the next stage of growth opens up only when an earlier stage no longer works. In the case of Path #1, people move on when certain paradoxes prove too strong:

--God is supposed to be almighty, yet He rarely if ever intervenes in the world.
--Worshipping God fervently doesn't necessarily earn His favor or bring any protection at all.
--Many non-believers lead perfectly safe and happy lives without a concept of sin and guilt.
--A protective God is easier to fear than to love, particularly if you believe that personal crises are a sign of divine disfavor. People grow tired of such a God and begin to wonder if there is another deity more sympathetic to human needs.

The next path that opens up answers these contradictions and reveals an alternative spiritual way for the seeker. (To be continued)