Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Wrestling with Spiritual Concepts

By Gary Berg-Cross

Spirituality and religion are often conflated. In conversation there are terms like “soul” that gets used in each, but some freethinkers are bit more comfortable believing in some spiritual concepts than religious ones like god. This was recently discussed as part of a movement from religion to a non-god spirtual realm by the Nones.  Spirituality lacks a definitive definition, but the general idea is that it is a realm of existence set apart from the ordinary (think - the natural world as shown by science) and worthy of special attention. That is, more attention should be given to these special, transcendent ideas than the mundane, material world that science gives us. In a word spirituality leads us into a supernatural realm.
As the Wikipedia entry suggests, religion and spirituality were largely synonymous for a long time. But in about the 11th century this identity began to break. Spirituality began to denote the mental aspect of life, in between the material and sensual aspects of life and pure spirit. In other words a socio-psychological distinction began to be part of "spirituality" and indeed it might be considered the more foundational piece to explain religion. William Irwin Thompson puts it in a way that makes sense to me:

 "Religion is not identical with spirituality; rather religion is the form spirituality takes in civilization."

Sure, if we can agree on what those elements of spirituality are and that religion is a construct. 
One may follow this growing distinction through the Enlightenment and into 20th century thinking as Psychology grew as a science and discussed spirituality in more scientific ways.

After World War II spirituality & religion were further distanced as more ideas on the nature of spirituality arose.  New humanistic discourse developed, which including things like existentialism, humanist psychology, but also the import of mystical and esoteric traditions and eastern religions such as Buddhism. Quite a blend of efforts to talk about topics like the true self, true life, free expression, mindfulness and meditation.
I find this a bit of a strange stew and while some of the common language of spirituality is now a distance from religious dogma, it can seem arbitrary and unscientific in the hands of layman but also the spiritually inclined. It provides perhaps too much of an easy frame to experiences and thus may hinder deeper understanding. Take the idea of soul.  We can use it as shorthand for some inner complexity. We might agree that Morgan Freeman has great "soul."  But I might think of that not as some indwelling spirit, but as great presence, a calm confidence etc.  It might be OK to use the soul-shorthand, for some open discussions. Sloppy use may mislead at times. An example is a new (killer) phone App called GPS for the Soul.  What is that about - some higher level of being?  No it uses the phone to monitor "stress" levels.  How?  It measures your pulse. Here we have the physical pulse standing in as a proxy for a mental concept of stress/good living, but labeled for the soul.  Discuss children.

And all too often we start to jump from a simple word sense to a huge image via a false analogy. Consider this one about soul that uses an image of life as if we’re all at a swimming pool, with the water in the pool standing in for a Pool of Spiritual Understanding. Some are fully in the pool and exhibit a large, spiritual soul, while others are along the sides of the pool, are just dangling their feet in, and still others are sitting out of the pool on the lounge chairs, just watching and listening. Horror! Explaining complex phenomena with untestable hunches is the slippery slope of spiritual concepts that frightens me.

Giving spirit the central role is to imply that we are NOT human beings on a spiritual journey, but instead, we are spiritual beings who just happen to be on a human journey. This idea of primary spiritual beings pulls us back to this early idea of a spiritual source of life, the breath of god, for example.  We started to break away from this idea centuries ago, but keep getting tripped up in sloppy thinking and trapped in vague terms that remain in the culture like "soul".
Sure there is great mystery in the mind, and some oceanic experience of some unexplained connection to a larger reality greater than oneself, but we should not allow loose talk to cloud our understanding or explain away phenomena that we still don’t understand by labeling them too readily and believing that we are really having a meaningful conversations using them. Here I’m thinking of phrases like spirituality as a way of life, an inner path, inner peace or the overuse of the terms love, wisdom, virtue & tolerance. We see language examples from people like Deepak Chopra:

"...we understand spirituality not as some kind of religious dogma or ideology but as the domain of awareness where we experience values like truth, goodness, beauty, love and compassion, and also intuition, creativity, insight and focused attention."   Deepak Chopra 

 We may all agree on the importance and great value of concepts like love, compassion, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, contentment, responsibility, harmony, and a concern for others, but are these spiritual concepts or better framed of as part of our humanity and psychology?  Give me good scientific studies of selfishness and altruism and I see the Enlightenment still progressively at work.  

Biology is the science that studies life, but nobody has a precise, general definition of life. We are still learning about the subject but I don't speak in terms of life vitality or design rather than evolution.  We do make progress by making careful and empirical distinctions even in everyday life with our common sense vocabulary to describe our experience. To paraphrase Elbert Hubbard - the spiritual (aka supernatural) is the natural not yet understood.
Talk about it in vague Buddhist terms (harmony & order etc.) and I see a good conversation but little progress. Worse yet, perhaps, is to collapse too easily into a mysterious belief that there are things unknowable or that can’t be expressed in some form of language.  There may be some, since we are cognitively limited, but I think we are not close to practical limits and do not yet want to cede a large territory to something vaguely reifiied and called spirituality.

 Some see spirituality in everything, and want to "walk in the spirit." As a reaction against naive materialism, I may have sympathy for this. But I prefer to try the path via sciences like Psychology. It's a surer path to where we'd like to go and makes for interesting conversation along the empirical way.

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