Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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As the Church continues to fade from the consciousness of Western societies, large numbers of people turn to alternative forms of religion. In these forms - as in the Church itself - the terms "spiritual" and "spirituality" are in increasing use. But what do they mean? Very few are attempting to answer that question.

This is inevitably an outsider's summary. I must confess at the start that I don't have a spiritual life - or if I have, it doesn't resemble what some others talk about. Like everyone else, I do have preconceived ideas and prejudices on the subject.

This attempt at understanding spirituality will not, I hope, be understood as a demolition job. I think of it rather as an attempt to turn my analytic way of approaching the world (I'm often accused of being too "intellectual", whatever that means) towards an approach which seems often expressed in purely emotional tones. That "something" seems to be beyond me. It slips between my fingers when I try to grapple with it. When I do "spiritual exercises" with others, I either go to sleep or get impatient. I wonder at the closed eyes and expressions of enjoyment or even ecstasy I perceive around me.

Recognising that I think about my feelings while another large group of people feel about their thoughts, I nevertheless suggest that someone had better start thinking about spirituality. Note, though, that some people refer to "the sacred" in place of the more commonly-used "spirituality". I take the two to be coterminous.

My personal view begins with an observation: I'm biased against any interpretation of life, the world and the universe in dualist terms. By that I mean a perception which divides reality into two sections. 

One is the physical. It can be weighed, measured and described. It is the subject of science and of analytical disciplines like history and archeology, to name only two of a vast array of modern fields of study. 

The other is "spiritual". I'm told that it exists essentially separate from the physical. Some say it runs "parallel" to the physical. Others insist that it is part of the physical but, so to speak, embedded into it or intertwined with it. It appears to require certain sorts of behaviour to get in touch with or participate in it - such as prayer, meditation, song and suchlike. Some advocate diet, yoga exercises, swinging crystals, massage and a number of other techniques to better enable us to access the spiritual.

A Dictionary of Christian Spirituality on my bookshelf contains a large number of articles about Asian spirituality, discernment of spirits, glossolalia, love-feast, nature mysticism, the psychology of spirituality, St Thomas Aquinas and Zen, to select but a few at random. Such dictionaries are useful for a broad summary of a subject. This may explain why there is no entry for the "spirit" from which I suppose spirit-uality is derived. Nevertheless, without this reference I have no way of knowing what the authors think a spirit might be.

The "Spirituality" entry says that the word describes

... those attitudes, beliefs, practices which animate people's lives and help them reach out towards super-sensible realities ... [and which is] an irreproachable term defining the life of prayer and discipline with perhaps a hint of "higher levels" and mystical elements.

This explanation is clouded somewhat later in the article (written by the Editor) when it remarks that spirituality is not always good.

Adolf Hitler was a spiritual being, a man, more than most, "possessed"; yet his spirit was surely evil.

There is no explanation of what the "spirit" is which invaded the person of Hitler. We are told that a certain Alexander Schememann (an Orthodox Church theologian) substitutes "Christian life" for "spirituality" because

... the latter term today has become ambiguous and confusing. For many people it means some mysterious and self-contained activity, a secret which can be broken into by the study of some "spiritual techniques" ...

Other religious traditions have, it seems, flowed into and flavoured the Christian stream of spirituality - in particular Buddhism, Judaism and Islam. In Buddhism, Nirvana is an enlightenment experience in which there is a deep, "oceanic", awareness of a cessation of thought and action, in which an intense inner stillness occurs. It is the fruit of the deepest possible detachment. The way to achieve perfect detachment involves long practice of dispassionate introspection, which generally requires guidance. The goal of Nirvana resembles, I think, the mystical goal of awareness of and unity with God which medieval and other Christians stress. Buddhism's emphasis is on detachment as a pre-condition to Nirvana.

My impression is that the modern concept of "spirituality" has evolved away from the medieval concept into a synonym for one's life pattern. That is, spirituality is thought of as including every aspect of a person's life - mental, emotional and physical. Some seem to think, however, that a "spiritual life" is lived mainly when it is separated from the world of action. This distinction I can understand. When you and I are deeply involved in selling a product, bargaining about a strike in the factory, balancing the books in time for month-end or trying to catch a terrorist, not many would say we're deeply into our spiritual life.

Taking a different line, the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says that the meaning of the word "spirituality" has not been satisfactorily defined.

It is used to refer to people's subjective practice and experience of their religion, or to the spiritual exercises and beliefs which individuals or groups have with regard to their personal relationship with God.

However, these attempts to define "spirituality" fall at the first hurdle when the course is opened up to a wider field. In 1907 the famous pioneer psychologist William James wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience, now an abiding reference point for his successors. In it he sought to "combine the religious impulses with other principles of common sense" in covering the nature of humanity's "spiritual" experiences. James made a key observation - one which might account for much contemporary scepticism of matters spiritual:

Modern psychology, finding definite psycho-physical connections to hold good, assumes as a convenient hypothesis that the dependence of mental states upon bodily conditions must be thorough-going and complete.

He calls this hypothesis "medical materialism". He rightly points out, however, that unless medical materialists can demonstrate exactly how bodily states produce mental consequences, their theories are null and void. To prove their case they would have to describe in great detail how, for example, a reported mental image or chain of thought relates to physical changes in the entire system of one human being. We now know that this would be so complex a description that it will probably always be beyond us. To do the same for every unique person on earth is obviously impossible. And until we can achieve this link, it will not do to insist that St Paul had an epileptic seizure on the road to Damascus, or that Joan of Arc experienced visions brought on by tuberculosis. It is impossible to link any behaviour with any particular thought.

In addition, says James, even if such a link can be found it cannot judge that any one inward state of mind is superior to any other. It is only valid to say, for instance, that my construction of the woman I am in love with is likely to differ from the constructions of everyone else. 

Nevertheless, medical materialism has, I think, profoundly affected the way ordinary people think about things spiritual. Once psychology has been taken on board as a viable model for individual physical-mental processes and (as in social psychology) the interaction of those processes with society, a metaphysical or semi-metaphysical model tends to lose its efficacy.

Steven Pinker recently put his horse into the race with a thoroughgoing debunking of the traditional "spiritual" standpoint. He managed to jump some of the hurdles rather better than most by proposing that, in his words, "... the mind is a naturally selected neural computer." [3] First, our minds are the outcome of a very long process of the selection of the fittest in the evolutionary process. They are therefore limited in their scope by the task of surviving that process. Put another way, we can't do things we're not selected to do, and more than an albatross can do what a whale does. Second, the mind (Freud's Ego) has developed to be ruthlessly logical. It therefore has no essential need for either the arts or religion. Emotions get in the way of good thinking. The welfare of individuals and groups is best forwarded by a rational evaluation of survival options, not by feelings or creative imagination.

At the end of his book, however, he acknowledges that his case is weakened if people are in fact ennobled by the arts, humour, philosophy and religion. These seem to have no adaptive value - and yet ...

... members of our species do mad deeds like taking vows of celibacy, living for their music, selling their blood to buy movie tickets, and going to graduate school [university] ...

He wants to know why "... a mind would evolve to find comfort in beliefs it can plainly see are false ..." such as spirits, devils, the resurrection of the dead, life after death and God. Putting aside his judgement, given without reason, that such are indeed false, his question has a point. Humanity has always greatly treasured art and religion in both simple and complex forms. How can such things help us in our daily endeavours to survive and prosper?

Pinker thinks that our religious beliefs help us cope in various ways. First, they help us (misguidedly) avoid real but intractable problems we face in the physical world. So we ask God to suspend laws which govern the weather when we pray that a drought will be broken. Second, we refuse to acknowledge that we're puzzling about problems to which there may be no solutions. Our brains have not developed over the millennia to solve certain kinds of problem, writes Pinker:

... the mind of Homo sapiens lacks the cognitive equipment to solve them. We are organisms, not angels, and our minds are organs, not pipelines to the truth. Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness or to answer any question we are capable of asking.

He adds that he thinks that what has happened over millennia is that we have managed to chip away at this intractable kind of problem. In the process we have found solutions to some parts of our questions. But in the process we have confirmed insuperable difficulties with other parts.

A third coping mechanism is a type of reductionism. Neurologists propose that we should eventually be able to watch ourselves thinking, although our technology is too crude for that at present. At first sight this is a promising way ahead. So, for example, A Newberg and E D'Aquili have shown that certain reportedly mystical states can indeed be seen on a brain scanner and made sense of by linking them with certain commonplace and well known mental tasks [2].

But this turns out not to be a solution. If anything has been demonstrated it is that there is no way of proving that any particular brain activity is linked with an event or object "outside" the brain. The best we can do is to record that a person reports thinking about a tomato, for example, when a number of particular regions in the brain show increased blood flow or electrical activity on a brain scanner. We can't be sure that every time anyone shows even the identical brain pattern they also are in fact thinking about a tomato, whatever a person reports. Similarly, we may know exactly what parts of the brain "light up" when a person is doing something "spiritual" but we can't correlate that for certain with anyone else's experience.

The more obscure the problems and solutions, the more likely are horses to fall at the jumps. All the above may not help you or I understand what we mean by spirituality, but the lack doesn't necessarily invalidate the experience.

Rudolf Otto is sometimes thought of a someone who has successfully thought his way through to an experiential answer [5]. He proposed that the "idea of the holy" (for my purposes here I take "holy" to be contained in the wider concept "spiritual") is a first principle. That is, it is self-evident - an a priori category of the mind, a cognition which arises in the mind from principles native to the latter. We are all capable of the idea of the holy, what he called the numinous - but that idea has to be awakened "... through the instrumentality of more highly endowed natures". To illustrate, our a priori sense of the numinous is rather like art. We can all paint, but only a few can conceive and execute really great paintings. (I might add that some can be taught to paint pictures - but it doesn't work for me.) Again, it is like the a priori statement that 2 + 2 = 4. (Note: It doesn't make sense to say "an a priori statement" in this case. There is only one 2 + 2 = 4.) Some great mind realised this sometime in the past. But such creative ideas are beyond most of us. We have to be taught them. But once we have been so taught, we recognise that a priori truths are inherently true.

To one who has no experience of what Otto addresses, I can only suppose that I am somehow deficient in this area - a spiritual moron. On the other hand, it may be that Otto has not in fact given us a genuine idea of what spirituality is. He probably recognised this particular weakness in his argument because he suggested later in life that the numen can be inferred by its results in our lives - goodness, completeness, substance and so on. In this sense the numinous is as objective as it is subjective. 

I answer that if Otto is correct, I should be able to tell which particular examples of human goodness derive from spirituality (the sense of the holy) and which derive from some other human function. Do those people who are spiritual inevitably exhibit behaviours we call "good" while those who are not spiritual don't? Surely some non-spiritual people might also behave well. If so, from what source does their good behaviour spring? An implication is that Otto must claim that all goodness and completeness derive exclusively from the numinous - and I don't think he wanted to do that.

None of the above have got me very far. I am still unable to differentiate between a spiritual person and a non-spiritual person except insofar as each claims or denies certain subjective experiences.

However, I am able to relate to reports of internal experience which might be called numinous. I think I may have occasionally in my life been in some sort of ecstasy, a state which appears to accompany the numinous. One or two ecstatic experiences have been distinctly sexual in nature; others have been closely related, as far as I can tell, with my state of health and the surroundings I was in at the time. Put it this way: I have never had an ecstatic experience in a dentist's chair. But I have no way of knowing that my experiences derived from or were related to anything external to me. Indeed, the probability is much greater that they were expressions of the functionality of my overall state as an electro-chemical system at a certain time - to express "spirituality" in concrete terms with which "spiritual" people seem uncomfortable.

Lest I seem too determinedly sceptical, I had better add that I value these experiences highly. It's just that I don't need to call them "spiritual" and don't really understand why anyone else should want to.

It remains to consider the rather scant output of some who are considered experts in the field of spirituality. I have not come across another attempt to discuss this subject quite in the way I have done here. This may tell me that I have merely got it all very wrong. Or I may be one of those for whom the very categories included in the subject "spirituality" are of little use - rather like a colour-blind person who wonders what others see in a flock of gaily-coloured birds apart from their vigorous movements.

I have searched among the 700 or so books on spirituality in our library for a definition of spirituality. None, as far as I can tell, think it worthwhile to explore this territory, except in passing. So I have had to turn to writing which does deal, albeit very briefly, with some aspects of the matter. 

Soundings in Spirituality is a short booklet which includes the heading Descriptive Definitions of Spirituality [6]. The authors qualify their offering from the start by asserting that definitions of spirituality depend upon the person doing the defining. This amounts, it must be said, to a re-definition of a definition. 

Normal language regards a definition as a formulation of words which make as clear and unambiguous as possible what is the essential nature of a person or thing. In other words, if you and I agree that something is green we have both defined an aspect of it. But unless we go on to specify what "it" is so that an onlooker will be able to distinguish it from all other objects, we have failed to define it - though we will certainly have described it or aspects of it. 

Descriptions are never enough. One can go on for ever listing aspects of something and get no closer to the essential characteristics of the class of things to which a  particular thing belongs. I can describe in great detail the motor car in my driveway. That description will not tell me even what a vehicle is, never mind what a passenger vehicle is.

Not surprisingly, each of the descriptions (for that is what they are) in Soundings is different. One interests me more than the others because it indicates what may eventually turn out to be a definition. Spirituality

... embraces all of life ... It is at the heart of our efforts to be human. It is the seamless robe in all our roles ... [7]

and, along similar lines,

... spirituality is not limited to a concern with the interior life but seeks an integration of all aspects of human life and experience.  

At this point I may venture an interpretation of what I think spirituality might refer to. The booklet describes briefly a range of spiritualities - African, Celtic, Lay, Monastic, Radical and "Time-Out" to name a few. Each is, I suppose, a type of spirituality because it uses a particular focus rather than because it is generically distinct from all other types.

If so, a core meaning should be detectable in all the types. Perhaps this core can be fashioned into a working definition. A caveat is essential here. I must make do with the brief summaries in this booklet. Alternatively, perhaps I must plunge much deeper into each type of spirituality to discover the golden thread.

I am able to isolate only two aspects of all 21 examples given in Soundings:

  1. All appear to counsel a class of behaviours useful and perhaps necessary in the pursuit of spirituality. These methods, as far as I can tell, involve (to coin a phrase) withdrawal in order better to engage in life. They include behaviours such as silence, prayer, meditation, worship, song, dance, listening, "spiritual" reading, poetry, keeping a journal, story-telling, retreats, study of the Bible and theology, service of the poor and oppressed, monasticism, pilgrimages and even feminism. Some of the examples are phrased in ecclesiastical jargon, impenetrable to all but the initiated. One such is labelled "Evangelical spirituality". 

    An essential element common to all seems to be the aim of renewing "the divine image" for a "life of self-expenditure" - a phrasing which I take (at rather a stretch) to imply withdrawal in order to engage.

    Somewhat weak in this respect are "African spirituality" and "Native American spirituality". Both are deeply rooted in nature. The former stresses community and "experience of the divine while one remains on earth"; the latter "concerns itself with the way humans live together" and "an appreciation for silence and solitude".

  2.  A strong element detectable in all but the summary of Evangelical spirituality was a striving towards balance in all things - between individual and group, life and nature, prayer and work, silence and noise, stillness and dance, solitude and community, stability and change. The list could be expanded indefinitely.

    A particular focus for this sense of balance seems to be nature in all its glory. Celts, for instance, are referred to as living in "a sacral environment" which is "never world-negating but totally world-affirming". Nature is perceived as always in balance. Even its movements are part of a balancing mechanism.

The above are potential reins with which might guide us towards a definition, however inadequate. I suspect that those involved in spirituality may not much like this attempt. They may protest that to define spirituality is to shackle it. So perhaps they will feel more comfortable if I first approach the endeavour obliquely.

Before I do that, it should be noted that Soundings doesn't overtly mention what is usually called the supernatural. While there is reference to "spirit" as an apparently non-material dimension of humanity, it doesn't seem to follow that "spiritual" connects, as it were, with an other-worldly dimension. This may be a saving grace for those who can't think of a supernatural realm in addition to the universe or somehow intertwined with it. It might also be noted that, despite this, entries referring to Church-related spirituality assume the supernatural.

In attempting to present a very brief outline of how "spirituality" might make sense to others like me, the starting point must necessarily be one which assumes a humanity "come of age". That is, it takes as granted that we are in the sometimes agonising process in the 21st century of weaning ourselves from traditional paradigms. Two aspects of the ancient world are honoured as having served humanity well throughout its brief (in cosmic terms) existence - authority as derived from the past, and nature as divided into the natural and the supernatural. But it seems to me that they are useful only to an increasingly small minority in the West. Different conclusions have taken their place:

  1. Authority is no longer thought of as derived from the past. History may present us with lessons and insights. But we no longer decide between true and false because there is a claim to have received the truth direct from God in times past. A truth is accredited because it has been derived from a process of questioning and because a good consensus has evolved. It follows that all truths are provisional upon further questions and answers. None is absolute [8].

  2. Nature is now regarded as a unity. It is not fragmented into segments or dimensions. It is not dualistic. What is invisible to us is so because our senses cannot register it, not because it is of an order entirely different from that of which we are a part. Just as each of us is a self-contained open system, maintained in equilibrium, so also is our planet. Though we can't be certain, it appears that consistency demands that the universe ("everything that exists") is a closed system. Logic in turn demands that if it is an open system, our modern-day knowledge falls apart.

Those considerations out of the way, a remarkable book by Anthony Storr proves a good starting point for a somewhat oblique approach to a definition of spirituality. He addresses an area of life not much stressed nowadays. Solitude [9] challenges a widely-held contemporary position that only good interpersonal relationships hold the key to happiness. On the contrary, work and creativity are just as vital to human endeavour, says Storr. Many of the most dedicated and inventive of our forbears have, contrary to modern convention, been loners. 

Storr's pivotal theme is that the capacity to be alone yet fruitful is a sign of maturity, not of pathology. It is nonsense to suppose that solitary people are either unhappy or neurotic. We are all geared towards both the personal and the impersonal. Solitude is a valuable resource. He writes:

Man's adaptation to the world is largely governed by the development of the imagination and hence of an inner world of the psyche which is necessarily at variance with the external world.

This rings a loud bell with the similar approach of Buddhism, in which detachment from relationships is a principle of fulfillment and maturity.

The final chapter of Storr's book is entitled The Desire and Pursuit of the Whole - which brings to mind the balanced unity which Soundings suggests is distinctive of spirituality. Any sense of harmony between our inner and outer worlds - what some talk of as an "oceanic feeling" - is always brief and impermanent. Storr quotes William Wordsworth:

When from our better selves we have too long
Been parted by the hurrying world, and droop,
Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired,
How gracious, how benign, is Solitude. [10]  

A feature of contemporary spirituality is temporary separation from life's normal pursuits and busyness through retreats, quiet days and the like. Getting away from normal life is, I suspect, a common way of viewing spiritual things. The attempt to balance spirituality as a whole by insisting that it is as much concerned with every other aspect of life is understandable in this context. "Radical Spirituality", for example, is presented by Soundings as "... a synthesis of action and contemplation ... in order that God's will may be done on earth".

A problem with any synthesis which attempts to make spirituality an umbrella concept covering the whole of life is that by doing so it can't be differentiated from life itself. If spirituality is to be equated with life, then why bother to talk about it?

I have to take it, therefore, that spirituality is something which embraces or covers all of life but is not itself life. If that's true, then what is spirituality? Is it a method, an orientation or a goal? In the absence of a satisfactory definition (no doubt through my ignorance) I'm forced to suggest the following:

Spirituality is an orientation which distinctively seeks to better embrace life in its fullness through methods which help individuals and groups to develop a deep, mature and lasting harmony between their inner and outer worlds.

  • Orientation  It is a general category, not a specific one. It isn't useful to describe characteristics of spirituality. Similarly, limiting it with theological, organisational or behavioural boundaries is to diminish or even kill it.

  • Distinctive Spirituality can't simply be subsumed under a catch-all umbrella such as "life". It is possible to define it and therefore to say that certain orientations are spiritual and others are not. For example, this definition of spirituality leads to the conclusion that wealth as a life goal may not be "spiritual" because it implies lack of a balanced life.

  • Seeking There is no set of absolutely right parameters or paradigms to describe spiritual behaviours or thoughts. At all levels it is a journey or search, always unfolding, never finished.

  • Betterment Spirituality seeks to improve our engagement with every aspect of life, to enhance our involvement and avoid too narrow a focus.

  • Harmony A life which demonstrates imbalance between inner (subjective) and outer (objective) aspects is immature, shallow and lacking in harmony. Certain methods, often involving temporary solitude, promote harmony, depth and maturity.

Of course, a definition doesn't make for spirituality. But perhaps it will help those who need definition to reach a reasoned perspective.

[1] Ed. G S Wakefield, SCM Press Ltd, 1984
[2] Ed. F L Cross, OUP, 1997
[3]How the Mind Works, W W Norton, 1997
[4] See Why God Won't Go Away, Ballantine Books, 2001
[5] The Idea of the Holy, Galaxy, 1960 (1923)
[6] Soundings in Spirituality, G Cashmore and Joan Puls, ESP, 1996
[7] Quoted from Every Bush is Burning by Joan Puls
[8] I write a day after the news (London Times, 21 February, 2004) that mathematician Stephen Hawking has now given up on his hope that a "theory of everything" will one day be found. He is reported to have affirmed that new truth will always open up before us. His "theory of everything" isn't the same as the Unified Theory much sought-after by physicists and claimed to have been formulated recently by Superstring Theory
[9] Harper Collins, 1997
[10] The Longer Poems of William Wordsworth, J M Dent & Sons, 1928

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