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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Head to Head
At almost every level and in almost all Christian churches, the idea of spirituality is a given. But what does it mean? And should it be part of daily life? Perhaps spirituality isn't that simple a matter. Here Rick and Mick try to reach common ground.

Mick: Spirituality is the opium of those who cannot fully face the challenges of a world in which humanity has come of age. Just as some seek refuge in drink and drugs, so also do some religious people shelter from reality in spiritual practices.

Now, Rick, you may shrink from this judgement because it is too harsh, too over-the-top. Be that as it may, I intend to argue it to the limit.

So let me kick off by suggesting first that the spiritual cannot be described except in subjective terms. I can only be told about it. And what is absolutely subjective cannot be verified by an observer.

I conclude that a spiritual experience is a mental state. Practices which produce such states are pursued by some because they prove rewarding in some way. I don't deny that. But in the final resort that is all that so-called spirituality is. No more, no less.

Rick: Definitions of spirituality are numerous, variable and personal. There are common elements. Before specifically addressing your introductory comments I want to digress to provide a framework for my understanding of spirituality based on my theories of consciousness.

For billions of years following the "big bang" the cosmos expanded and evolved, essentially unobserved. Then suddenly (figuratively speaking) all changed with the rise of conscious Homo sapiens. A fork in the evolutionary path was reached. 

The cosmos now came under scrutiny by the rational human mind. Data gathered from past experience could be marshalled to control the present and help predict the future thereby lending a desirable measure of stability to life. The principle of cause and effect was recognized.

Why had all this happened and who or what was the agent, the ultimate cause of the effect? 

The human mind, by its very nature, divided into a rational material compartment and, for lack of a better term, a spiritual aesthetic or non-material one. It is the conscious individual operating in the spiritual aesthetic mode contemplating the ultimate cause or God or first cause, whatever term you wish to use, that constitutes the basic framework of religion and spirituality however it is defined.

Many adornments can be hung on the frame such as solitude and retreat, incense, yoga, meditation, prayer or whatever you wish. But when stripped bare, the fundamental framework should appear, namely an individual standing in conscious relation to the ultimate cause.

I return to your comments. In the course of my practice I gave a lot of opium drugs to my patients who were in pain. It was the right thing to do. If spiritual practices provide respite from the material world, why shouldn�t they be used? From time to time, most of us need temporary shelter from reality. A glass or two of wine may even do the trick.

All these spiritual thoughts are, of course, a subjective mental state. The very fact we are discussing this matter belies our belief that subjective experience is real and meaningful. It is just more difficult to measure than material experiences.

Mick: I'd like first to identify points of agreement. You agree that a "spiritual" event is by definition subjective. It cannot be shared or confirmed, but only reported. You also agree that a "spiritual practice" which enhances human experience is legitimate. That is, it doesn't have to be specifically Christian to, in your words, stand in "conscious relation to an ultimate cause".

So far, so good.

What I find hard to understand is that there are two fundamental dimensions. There is the universe and there is an ultimate cause. You think that we humans likewise comprise two compartments. One is material and another is spiritual/aesthetic.

Can you explain how you reached those conclusions?

Rick: I have previously suggested that the very nature of the conscious human mind leads not only to the recognition and evaluation of material reality, but also raises questions about what possibly lies behind and beyond the concrete world. This is simply cause and effect logic inherent in cognition. I am neither affirming nor denying an other-world reality. I am only suggesting how I understand the function of the mind.

My conclusions about the spiritual/esthetic compartment of the mind are based in part on the following evidence:

  1. Prehistoric and archeological evidence of human artistic and religious behavior;
  2. Manifestations of artistic and spiritual/esthetic behavior in modern man;
  3. My personal spiritual/esthetic experience;
  4. Scientific evidence of faith inclinations encoded in the human genome.

I suppose the hard question is, if a person does not experience or practice "spirituality", can that person still be considered a person of faith?

Mick: Drug addicts may be free of some pain, but the price is high. Part is loss of contact with life itself. Similarly, spirituality is used to "provide respite" (to quote you) from life in the round. I maintain that the price is loss of integration.

My world is a unity. It may be viewed from many angles. The spiritual/aesthetic is only one. As it happens, it's not particularly important in my life. I don't pray, for example.

Let me illustrate: Some doctors are beginning to understand the unity of the human organism. When they ask, "What are the defining characteristics of healthy living systems?" the answer comes back, "Before all else, unity."

So, by all means talk about and practice prayer, meditation and the like. But there is no need for the "spiritual". We divide the whole only to help our understanding. The resulting parts do not exist. We should not reify them.

Rick: Cloth is made of threads. Tissues are made of cells. The whole is best understood by analyzing the constituents. Were I to advise my patients on how to best lead a happy and fruitful life I would advise "balance." To balance all the elements, the material, the spiritual/aesthetic or whatever, is often difficult requiring maturity and experience. If one concentrates on one particular "compartment" over others, "imbalance", or as you might say, "disunity", is created.

Addressing the word "spirituality" has, I fear, caused us to talk around each other. I suspect "spirituality" is really a cipher for the debate concerning the existence of an immaterial reality. In this regard I would ask, where does Pi reside? It must come before the drawn circle. Where do the principles governing the cosmos lie? Do they exist beyond their concrete manifestations? Where does "Radical Faith" exist, somewhere in mid-air? I guess I haven�t progressed in my thinking beyond Aristotle.

I return again to the idea of personal choice. Given all the arguments that can and have been mustered for or against the concept of reality beyond the material, I see no way to settle the dispute. Considering the millions of years of human kind�s evolution, the miniscule fragment I have thus far enjoyed can mean little except to me, my friends and my family. If I haven�t already done it, I had better get about making personal choices in order to make sense out of the small spot I occupy in the universe.

Mick: I agree. There is no obvious way of settling the dispute. I suppose conceiving a reality beyond the material is one way of making sense of life. But it doesn't work for me.

Perhaps a way ahead might be to recognise an error of language. Certain words describe groupings or classes. A particular chair is an instance of the class "chairs". A particular circle is one of the class "circles". Circles are instances of a larger class "abstractions" and so on.

Similarly, I think "spiritual" is not a class "beyond the material" but a class "behaviours which assist us to achieve personal integration". If you can abandon what seems to me to be a category mistake, I might withdraw my charge of spirituality being a psychological opiate. Perhaps common ground might then be found.

Rick: You have introduced an interesting and creative method to analyze our discussion. I think it is appropriate that we have finally arrived at a matter of linguistics, "taxonomy of thought", as it were. In the domain of biology, class implies an ordering of categories based on features that point to a common ancestry or lineage. If this analogy is apt in our discussion, we might start by dividing reality into two kingdoms, the material and the non-material. Proceeding downward we pass through phylum, class and so forth. We can skip phylum and go directly to "class" for our purposes.

What are the features of "spirituality" that place it in the appropriate kingdom? From my perspective they are decidedly non-material. You have argued that spirituality should be in the material kingdom of the class "behaviours which assist us to achieve personal integration." Whereas spirituality may affect something on the material side, it has no material characteristics. There is no question but that spiritual exercises can result in physical changes in people. Spirituality, nonetheless, fits best in the non-material kingdom.

I share some of your suspicion of "spirituality." Its manifold expressions can range all the way from distasteful exhibitionism to secret prayer. As I previously asserted, definitions are numerous and varied. For me, I repeat, the core is a conscious person contemplating the ultimate cause. I am sure many will disagree and that is the problem. A firm definition cannot be reached and thus our taxonomy is fraught with potential error.

Language with its inherent weaknesses can be the source of disagreement and misunderstanding. As I look around my office I recognize all my apparatus, books and furniture without uttering or thinking a single word. Then my wife enters and asks to use the computer or have a piece of paper and an envelope. Suddenly everything I see has a label and I speak words. Propositional language is one of the wonders of human consciousness but it is still evolving. We continue to struggle with words in an effort to better understand our world be it material or non-material.

Mick: I had hoped to avoid our contretemps. But there it is! I remain unconvinced about spirituality as a "non-material kingdom".

As it happens, I do accept the non-material in a way which I suppose I could call "spiritual". But I prefer not to because of the connotations the word carries - of an alternative reality to the material universe. Perhaps my exposure in Africa to a spirit-infested world has tipped the balance.

The way in which you describe perceiving your office is something like what I mean.

To take one instance: most of us would attribute the word "immaterial" to the concept of "mind". So do I. But what I mean is that "mind" is the way you and I describe what it's like being "inside" the fantastic electro-chemical system we call the "brain" (or, more correctly, the body - since we are each a total, integrated system). When we're "outside" ourselves we use a wholly different terminology for a wholly different experience of the same entity.

The same can be said, for example, about a nation. It consists entirely of physical entities. But those entities can be perceived in many non-material ways. A nation has buildings and architecture, traditions and ceremonies. Its laws are much more than words printed on paper.

In the case of both brain and nation, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

I think that unless the Church finds ways of relating to the world without so-called "spirituality", the Church will continue to shrink and die.

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