These days it seems that people have plenty of trouble with “religion”, but rather adore the idea of “spirituality.” It pervades the consumerist culture, and one cannot travel the contemporary cultural landscape without encountering it. Businesses promote spirituality in their, one supposes, dispiriting workplaces. Meditation and yoga classes abound. Spiritual therapies offer health and wholeness. Alternative bookstores, scented with the sweet perfume of incense, offer up a stunning display of endless ways of traveling inward or way out beyond the petty self. Explicitly Christian bookstores, good ones, have entire walls devoted to works on spirituality, meditation, contemplation and mysticism. Even the Academy has opened its doors to studying spirituality and education. Perhaps even more surprising, the hard-headed left has recently taken considerable interest in the impelling connection between spirituality and the quest for social justice.
Something is definitely up and needs investigating. Skeptics take note. You will not be able to write “spirituality” off as the pastime of quacks or flat-earth advocates or Ouija board conjurors. In fact, I will argue that a compelling linkage between the postmodern times we inhabit and the explosion of interest in spirituality exists. Our times are very dispiriting. The shadows of the scientific revolution and the enlightenment have grown very long. Materialism does not fill the bottomless pit of yearning. Orthodox religion seems behind the times or too ferociously involved in them. And the atheism pitched by Dawkins and his ilk is so distempered and devoid of depth that we are sent away reeling, hoping to see a rose garden or a gorgeous sunset to aright our gloomy mood. But the dubious certainties of evangelicals offer little consolation in return.
Spirituality speaks to us of other worlds. Throughout the ages, believers in the Great Traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have imagined God as the Invisible animator of the universe. As a great Spirit-being, this mighty force breathed the world into being and animates its continuing presence. Religion offered humankind a ritual container, routinized and localized in space and time, a place where glimpses of the sacred might be attained. But religion often ended up containing the spiritual, and restless Spirit broke free from its container in the early 16th century, fragmenting Christendom and roaming wild over the world ever since.
The rather dispiriting performance of Churches down through the ages only accentuated people’s mistrust of religion. The post-enlightenment world of the 19th and 20th centuries indicated pretty powerfully that Christian churches could not stop the relentless evil that unfolded itself in the bosom of the civilization of Luther and Beethoven. As Max Horkheimer once claimed, both reason and God were eclipsed in the fires of Auschwitz.
Nonetheless, the eclipse of the God who is present with those who suffer did not turn us all into secular humanists. We went off in search of forms of spirituality that would enable us to celebrate the mystery of life that transcends our own limited selves and that would provide us with a “community of inquiry” to orient our way in a confusing world. Indeed, the world did seem to be “postmodern”, in the sense that our world was ineffably pluralistic and religiously multi-lingual. We were increasingly and intensely aware that one not only had to justify one’s faith-claims to other communities of faith, but one also had to live with these communities in a world alert to the power of the natural sciences to ground our way of knowing the world.
There are different spiritualities, and these spiritualities have taken form outside the monotheisms. We are spiritual beings who, once tossed into the world, search for direction, purpose and meaning. When traditional containers fail us, we keep on searching. We long for wholeness and transcendence. Perhaps our deepest spiritual moments are those where we experience unity, or oneness, with the natural world or through deep bonds with others. But there can be little doubt that self-transcendence is the core of spirituality. Without self-transcendence, we are locked into our own narrow worlds, cut off from sources of Spirit. Without self-transcendence, we cannot experience the depth-experience of compassion for and with others. Without self-transcendence, we do not see ourselves as integral parts of the mystery that transcends our limited existence (limited in perception, understanding and time).
The call of Spirit
One of the meanings of “spirit” is that of animating presence. When the animating presence is absent, we speak of deadness, of lifelessness, of inertness. A school lacks school spirit; a community lacks solidarity and vibrant relations of trust. A person seems listless, spiritless as we say. Thus, spirituality is a fundamental reference point for the vital source of our human activity. Spirituality may be nurtured by communities of faith and inquiry, drawing upon wells of wisdom teachings and forms of knowing from the great religious traditions as well as the wonder of the natural and human sciences.
As Elena Lugo says, “Spirituality is the pursuit of meaning, of an intimation of purpose and sense of vital connection to one’s ultimate environment—the dimension of depth in all of life’s endeavours and institutions. In short, spirituality functions as a principle of enlightenment, integration and finality without which our self-reflection, self-realization and self-surrender would become superficial, chaotic and aimless.”
In the Judaic tradition, which has profoundly formed the western mind, Spirit (named Yahweh by the Hebrews) was understood as calling us as human beings to “do justice” in the corrupt world. The story of Moses and the Exodus, though ambivalent for contemporary Palestinians, has been interpreted as paradigmatic for liberation movements of slaves against their masters. Let justice flow down like a river! Translated into contemporary, secular imagery, the ancients recognized that Spirit, if heeded, if listened to, called us to act justly in the world. There is purpose built into the world. To live well is not arbitrary; it is our calling as human beings. We, and all creation, are to flourish; and flourishing cannot happen if orphans and widows and strangers are neglected and mistreated. Let justice flow down like a river!
Multiple meanings of spirituality
Modernity brings a loss of spiritual life. The disenchanted world, as Max Weber so named it, expels spirits from the world. They leave their old haunting grounds and disappear into the dark woods somewhere. The famous article by Lynn White in 1967 on “The historic roots of the ecological crisis” laid the blame for contemporary western society’s degradation of nature at the feet of the Judeo-Christian de-spiriting of nature (that is, God was not in nature, but above it, and counseled his tribe to go into the groves and destroy the idols). Theologians dispute this and offer the caretaker role as counter-narrative. Be that as it may, theology does not necessarily stop the bull dozers from doing their dirty work. Judeo-Christian images of the high god who is not in nature (he may have made it, but he left it to run on its own) certainly smashed one barrier to treating nature as a thing. If it is alive, then one treads lightly, carefully, attentively. If it just a thing, then cut it down! But we can blame the scientific revolution’s treatment of nature as an analytical object for also disenchanting nature (even though some scientists and their astonishing work precipitates a sense of wonder and awe).
It did not help, either, that Christian spirituality (as well as others, like Buddhism), located the “spiritual” in the interior of the person. Since the Protestant Reformation, spirituality had been privatized; with exterior life, be it nature or social life, perceived as devoid of spirituality. Thus, spirituality was set off against the material realm, creating one of the great dualisms, or divides, in western society. The fencing off of the spiritual in the interior of the human being contributed to the disenchantment of the world.
Monasticism certainly may have preserved precious texts and opened up mystical realms to the few. But the light was shone inward, and the outer realm remained in darkness. We can say, I think, that traditional spiritualities were very individualistic. The truly spiritual medieval life was lived in monasteries; this was as true for Tibetan Buddhists as it was for European adepts. Many of today’s “New Age” searchers are, we may also say, in this line of retreat into the inner world, but without the depth achieved in bygone times. The spiritual has often been trivialized in the contemporary spiritual bazaar. This fact interweaves with widespread “religious illiteracy” in our woebegone age.
The search for an integral and inclusive definition
How does one break with dualism? Not easily! We need a more integral and inclusive definition of spirituality. Spirit, conceived of as the call to human flourishing, must infuse all domains of our lives. Here, we can draw upon one of the fundamental sources of spirit, namely, the humanist tradition. What Renaissance humanists and, later, the enlightenment humanists (Kant and others), discovered was that religion often blocked human beings from reaching their fullest potential. Kant spoke of people lingering in immaturity, never freeing themselves from dependency on priests and politicians and masters of every sort. The animating presence towards fullness of being lay within the potential of the human being and the cosmological order itself. Spirit was wooing us to transcend ourselves and experience an expansive opening-up to the world of the suffering other. Opening-up to the suffering of others, the cracking of our cocoons, and interlocking with those who are vulnerable and defenseless, places doing justice and loving mercy at the animating heart of the project to free ourselves from all forms of oppression, religious and other. Spirit is with us, here, in the midst of our suffering and longing. Spirit is here with us, goading us towards depth and fullness.
The sacred cannot be sequestered from the mundane, or the profane. Apprehension of the miraculous must dwell within the ordinary. Those of us who grew up considering the sacred as localized, and cordoned off in the church, must be educated to new forms of awareness. We can open up to Spirit-being in new awareness. Spirit shines through many windows; the world is now our cathedral. The light is shining from Spirit through the cathedral multi-coloured windows. Look up and see. Let the scales fall off from our eyes. Sallie McFague, the feminist eco-theologian, speaks of the world as the “body of God” and the Spirit as its life-giving and maintaining and propelling force.
That is a powerful and attractive metaphor. The sense of awe before the Holy, captured by Rudolf Otto in his work, The idea of the holy, is intensified as scientists take us into worlds of wonder. The psalmist was right to shout that the “heavens declared the glory of God.” They do, even if we post-moderns are reluctant to speak of God. The best we can do is to acknowledge that we are before the mysterious presence that transcends our little selves. Like the romantic poets, we look at rainbows and know we are before the mystery. But Blake does not have to exclude Newton.
Spirit loves flourishing and vitality. Humanists can rightfully insist that spirit dwells within us all, pressing and nudging us towards creating the conditions for human flourishing. Aristotle spoke of eudemonia (well-being and harmony); well-being can be accomplished in the way we craft our social and cultural and economic worlds. They, too, are containers of spirit. They can be spirit-infused; they can also be dispiriting. They can be open to those who are the least among us; they can be closed off, shut tight. Those who think that modernity, or post-modernity for that matter, is one-dimensional and least open to transcendence, a world marked by spiritual poverty and alienation, have got it right. Sociologist Peter Berger thinks of the “modern world as a culture with no windows on the wonders of life.” He too is right. But openness to Spirit can awaken us to a transcendent horizon, the shimmering kingdom of fullness of the not-yet, the depth dimensions possible to perceive in the ordinariness of life, and authentic interiority that eschews triviality and consumerism.
Fostering a culture of awareness
Our cultural evolution as a species with other species has unfolded to a turning point. Our degradation of the earth—who can deny this?–awakens in us its opposite, the growing sense of the interdependence and sacredness of all life, our special human relationship to the earth and the cosmos. This awakening is triggered in part by the world calling to us, but also by spirit impelling us through a dark moment of time. The earlier form of spirituality—Sam Raya calls it “distributive spirituality” (some follow a spiritual path for the sake of others who do not)—needs be replaced by an “interpenetrative model of spirituality”. All are engaged spiritually in all of our actions. All humans have a “divine spark”. This is a lovely metaphor for the Spirit-being is immanent in all of creation and present within us as a spark glinting toward the horizon.
Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at the University of Athabasca. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.