Thursday 2 January 2020

What is spirituality?

We may agree that materialism is false, evil and self-destroying. But it is hard to say - positively - what is meant by 'spiritual'. Indeed, I once participated in a research project where the literature was reviewed and people were interviewed about what they understood 'spiritual to mean' - and no conclusion emerged about any shared meaning.

The usual definitions (such as they are) tend towards excessive abstraction (in terms of the properties or classes of spiritual entities), or gestures towards a world beyond the material (reality is 'more than' just that which is perceived or measured) - which are true, in their way, but hardly adequate.

Clearly, too, spirituality does not equate with religion. Some religions, including some practices of Christianity, are barely spiritual - for instance religious life that is almost wholly ethical, rule-following, or focused on ritual participation. Indeed, many people claim to be 'spiritual but not religious' - however, strictly there is no such thing. To be coherent, to make sense; spirituality depends on metaphysical assumptions of a religious kind.

When someone tries to be spiritual but not religious - for example by merely believing-in and communicating-with spirits, or the dead - then this simply reduces to a type of materialism - spirits are, in effect, being brought into the definition of material and treated as mundane.

People who say they are Not spiritual seem to be those who regard life as being wholly on the 'level' of the everyday - so that the entirety of life (including personal and leisure time) is of the same quality as the normal, shared, public world of work, officialdom, the media. 

By contrast, when a spiritual dimension of life is desired - this is a wish for a larger life, beyond the mundane - with a different and 'higher' quality. In practice, nowadays, with the current pressures; this seems to entail according 'the spiritual' the highest priority; above (in particular) the political - and this is where so many would-be spiritual people and organisations fall-down.    

It is probably best to think of materialism as the assumption that the world is made of Things, and spiritual as the contrary assumption it is 'made of' Beings. 'Beings' meaning living-entities, conscious and motivated. Thus, to be spiritual means to assume that this universe and reality consists of Beings. 

We could further say that the materialistic perspective says that the universe arose by means of 'physics' processes - it just-happened for deterministic reasons and/ or perhaps randomly. In other words, in materialism there are Things interacting by physical processes.

By contrast, a spiritual perspective assumes that we live in A Creation - that is, a universe made by a Being. Furthermore, the Beings interact by 'relationships'. For the spiritual person; the ultimate reality of interaction is not the forces, particles, processes of physics, but the attributes of relationships - such as motivations, emotions, beliefs...

What prevents a spiritual world view (among those who want it) is many things. Habit, of course, plus that The World requires us to operate on materialist assumptions - to treat everything (including people) as Things.

It can be seen that this is a source of confusion. in that plenty of people assert a living universe, a purposive creation - but then explain it in abstract, geometric, mathematical, and physics terms. This is, indeed, difficult to avoid - for it is seen in Rudolf Steiner, Rupert Sheldrake and a staple of 'New Age' spirituality. I am saying that this is an error, and leads to an unstable hybrid that default-reverts from failed-spirituality back to materialism-in-practice.

This drive to abstraction based on the idea that abstractions are the primary reality - for example the view that ultimate reality is mathematical, or that physics provides the deepest explanation of the origin of the universe.

All this is a version of the ancient Greek metaphysical practice of explain reality in terms of abstractions; which was taken up by Christian theologians who (to varying degrees, but always to some extent) made Christianity fit-into this pre-existing materialistic framework (whereas most of scripture is describes a world of beings and relationships).

In a strange paradox; much Christian theology over the past many centuries represents a continued attempt at maintaining materialist assumptions as foundational for Christianity. Any whiff of anthropomorphism, animism, a world of beings - all such are regarded as childish errors.

In terms of the evolutionary-development of human consciousness, this was an early and necessary step in the direction of increasing human agency, freedom, choice; until the point (reached within the past 200 years in the West) that belief in God became active and voluntary rather than unconscious and passive.

Men began living in a world of Beings - but passively and unconsciously. This was Man's childhood.  The abstraction was part of detaching us from that immersive world and allowing us to think independently - Man's adolescence. The future is to return consciously and by active choice to the deepest truth of the spiritual world view - and again acknowledge reality as created by a Being, and consisting of Beings.

(From which perspective the abstractions - mathematics, sciences, Classical metaphysics, traditional Christian theology - are seen as ultimately tools: pragmatic approximations for particular purposes.)

But it is this vast inherited inertial legacy of abstract materialistic theology - mistakenly regarded as definitive of being-a-Christian - that has made mainstream institutional Christianity fall-into materialism (including bureaucracy); and which makes it so surprisingly difficult to be a Christian and to be spiritual.

Spirituality entails creation having a purpose, and materialism - with its physics universe - has none.

So, I would say that the spiritual world-view - which I want, and which is sought by many - is one in which we inhabit a universe of Beings that was itself created by a Being.

'Spirituality' is therefore thinking and living in such a way that we interact with 'the world' on the assumption that it is a purposeful creation and consists of Beings.


Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

I've never really been able to understand or sympathize with most of what people say about "materialism" vs. "spirituality" -- terms which, taken at face value, have to do with questions of physics that seem remote from anything that really matters in life -- but if I read "mundane" or "everyday" for material, with "spiritual" meaning the opposite, that clears things up considerably and makes "spirituality" something I can get behind.

William Wildblood said...

Things/beings is a very good distinction. Simple and to the point and showing that everything (everybeing?) comes from a being not a thing. A person is the origin not some kind of process.

edwin said...

I live in the South of the U.S., in a mountainous region somewhat remote from the mainstream culture. When I moved here, people would ask me, as a newcomer, whether I had found a Church yet. It was a naturally occurring question, for Church was a big part of most people's lives and they assumed I would be looking for a group of like-minded Christians to interact with. I come across this sign - on plaques and coffee mugs - from time to time: "Jesus: it's not religion, it's a relationship." But, alas, I have not found a Church and my relationship to Jesus is still struggling to free itself from the materialistic theology of Catholic education, including four years at a Jesuit college. I try to see people as individuals in God's image, but find it difficult to get beyond banalities in conversation. We're all wearing this protective armor that shields us from one another, from genuine interaction. I'm not sure what to do about it, other than to be kind, to smile, to be more understanding than vindictive. I still wonder whether it is possible to combine relationship with Jesus with meditation techniques and understandings that come from the East, i.e. Buddhism and Vedanta, etc. without getting swallowed up in abstraction.

Bruce Charlton said...

@edwin - As William Arkle says in this lecture - towards the end

We each must 'quarry out' our own path through life (our 'uniqueness' - so prized by God); and it is not meant to be easy - because we neither appreciate nor learn from things that come easily. We are meant to do as much as possible for ourselves. Spiritual/ divine help is always available, but seldom given - presumably because it would not be good for us.

Some Christian churches still do a great job for certain people - and I am grateful for it; but there will never be enough churches for the needs of all. It seems to me that the events of our age - the destruction and corruption of all institutions - compel us to look to our own resources or else be led into damnation.

Even good churches all have blind spots - huge areas of sin that are neglected or deliberately ignored; for example the pervasive strategic lying and misleading of all professions nowadays (law, medicine, teaching, science, management, public relations etc) is a rising tide of evil and corruption, completely neglected by churches.

We can't wait for others to respond, we must do it for ourselves, as best we may; especially by 'keeping it simple'.