Thursday, December 27, 2012

Spear A Jewel

Phil Oliver:

"Spiritual"

I'm still not sure why some atheists have such revulsion for that word. The root just means "breath," as I live and breathe.

Philip Sheldrake:

However, in broad terms “spirituality” stands for lifestyles and practices that embody a vision of how the human spirit can achieve its full potential. In other words, spirituality embraces an aspirational approach to the meaning and conduct of life – we are driven by goals beyond purely material success or physical satisfaction. Nowadays, spirituality is not the preserve of spiritual elites, for example in monasteries, but is presumed to be native to everyone. It is individually-tailored, democratic and eclectic, and offers an alternative source of inner-directed, personal authority in response to a decline of trust in conventional social or religious leaderships.

Matthew Hedstrom:

Spirituality can mean many things, of course, and the language of spirituality is used by traditional religious adherents as well as the religiously unaffiliated. But only the “nones” have made it into a cliché: “spiritual but not religious.”

The history of American spirituality reveals that our commonplace understanding of spirituality—as the individual, experiential dimension of human encounter with the sacred—arose from the clash of American Protestantism with the forces of modern life in the nineteenth century. While religious conservatives fought to stem the tide, giving rise to fundamentalism, religious liberals adapted their faith to modernity, often by discarding orthodoxies in favor of Darwinism, psychology, and comparative religions.

The majority of today’s religious “nones”—those who claim no religion but still embrace spirituality—are engaged in the same task of renovating their faith for a new historical moment. And typically, they draw from this same liberal religious toolkit. Today’s unaffiliated, like the liberals of previous generations, typically shun dogma and creed in favor of a faith that is practical, psychologically attuned, ecumenical—even cosmopolitan—and ethically oriented.

This liberal spirituality, as it has evolved over time, has been deeply entwined with media-oriented consumerism. Of course Americans of all religious varieties have been deeply influenced by consumerism, but media and markets have particularly shaped the religious lives of those without formal institutional or community ties. The religiously unaffiliated might not attend services, but they “do” their religion in many other ways: they watch religion on TV and listen to it on the radio; find inspiration on the web; attend retreats, seminars, workshops, and classes; buy candles and statues, bumper stickers and yoga pants; take spiritually motivated trips; and, perhaps most significantly, buy and read books.

So, perhaps we can say that "spirituality" is the perennial religious impulse, formerly an organic outgrowth of traditional community and kin, now refracted through the prism of individualistic, market-dominated, globalized consumerism. I'm not saying that like it's good or bad; it is what it is. The times, they done a-changed. But whether you buy your beliefs via an independent bookstore or inherit them with your family name, complacency is always the danger to guard against, the cataract growing over your third eye, which is why, to answer Oliver's excerpt with Hedstrom's, I have such revulsion for the term: because being "spiritual" has itself become a thoughtless cliché that means everything and nothing simultaneously.

5 comments:

noel said...

I'm unconvinced. Let's divide the world into "subjects", who can observe, feel, and experience, and "objects", which cannot. Being spiritual means having a worshipful attitude toward whatever makes the former different from the latter. The scorn of a million atheists does not make this mystery go away or be unimportant.

The Vile Scribbler said...

Unconvinced by which part? Because, to rephrase it, I'm suggesting that being "spiritual" is how the same religious impulse - your "worshipful attitude" - is expressed by people who have been shaped by the values of consumer society rather than the cultural values of particular times and places (i.e. religions). Spirituality is what happens when religion meets the marketplace.

Anyway, that's just idle speculation. The scorn is toward the clichés of language, not toward the "worshipful attitude" itself.

noel said...

- not convinced that there is anything wrong with the word itself. You don't seem to object to the use of the word "religious". I've found that most Americans who use that word to describe themselves are not actually very religious, but we still know what the word means. "Spiritual" is just less specific. It's not about marketplace; it's about the meanings of words. We are not mere objects, as inexplicable as that fact may be.

The Vile Scribbler said...

Well, when I talk about the marketplace, I'm saying that the widespread phenomenon of people picking, choosing and customizing their metaphysical beliefs is a modern one, directly related to consumerism. "Religion" was about where you were born and what your community did. "Spirituality" is when circumstances have allowed you to hold those factors at arm's length and comparison-shop. (Another aspect of modern consumer society that I suspect comes into play here is the drive to distinguish oneself, to have a more uniquely-customized spiritual identity.)

To you, being spiritual may just mean having a sense of humble mindfulness. In my experience, when people say "I'm spiritual but not religious," and you ask them what that entails, it usually just means a less rigorous version of religious doctrines. They've intuited that it supposedly makes them more freethinking and independent-minded than those who follow "organized religion", but I think a fair argument could be made that they're confusing being a dilettante with being a polymath.

noel said...

"a less rigorous version of religious doctrines" is likely to be less wrong.