Spirituality: A Personal View
Author: Rhys Chisnall
It seems that spirituality means different things to different people and perhaps as spirituality is a very individual and subjective experience this is only right and proper. However as the word is often used in different contexts I believe that it is a phenomena that is worthy of some thought, so for those of you that may be interested here is my take on this difficult subject. If you care to look at the Oxford English Dictionary you will find that it says that spirituality is 1. Relating to or affecting the human spirit as opposed to material or physical things. 2. Relating to religion or religious belief.
For me this raises more questions than it answers.
What exactly is meant by the human spirit? Is it really something that differs from material and physical things? Is it a literal human spirit as believed by followers of some religions; a dualist point of view of a spirit that is of a different substance to the body that survives after death as Descartes claimed? It certainly seems to imply this, but that just does not seem to describe my experience of spirituality or those of some others that I know especially as I am someone who finds the dualism pill a hard one to swallow. These are perhaps questions for another time and are discussed in my essay, Spirit and Character.
Then there are those people who do not feel that they can’t fit their beliefs into any particular religion or religious belief. These people often regard their beliefs as their spirituality, but are they just splitting hairs as others might describe their beliefs as religious? That aside there does seem to be the intuition that spirituality is different to, though related to religion. Perhaps the key word here is ‘relating’, perhaps spirituality is about relationships. Within this article I am going to argue that spirituality is actually a certain kind of relationship that has particular qualities and we shall explore what those qualities could be?
In his book, Breaking the Spell, Religion as a Natural Phenomenon the American philosopher Daniel Dennett suggests that people’s belief in God may be in part down to the idea that people love God, or at least the idea of God. Dennett argues that some people continue to believe in God despite scientific evidence that makes a personal God unlikely because they are in love with the idea of him. So is love a necessary and sufficient condition of the relationship that defines spirituality?
Of course, Dennett is not suggesting that it is. After all someone who really loves Manchester United or his or her brand new convertible car is in a loving relationship of a kind. But however entertaining harbouring the notion might be, it would be a very long stretch of the imagination to believe that they were engaged in spirituality.
Love is not sufficient for spirituality and neither is it necessary. After all it is not hard to imagine someone who has a relationship with ‘God’ that is based on resentment and even hatred. Several Hollywood films seem to be based on this premise, though the characters may still feel that they have a spiritual relationship with the deity. The characters in the films Dogma, Signs and the Poseidon Adventure seem to fit this picture.
In real life I dare say there are many practising Christians who feel a sense of hatred or resentment (perhaps unconsciously) towards God for how their lives may have turned out. One wonders how Job might have felt towards God as he was plagued by misfortune in the myths of the Old Testament.
Who is to say whether historical pagans felt that they loved their gods? They obviously felt that they had a relationship with them and no doubt felt a sense of spirituality (thought they may not have expressed it in quite that term) but they did not always seem to love them. The Egyptians use to get in right huff with their Gods if they didn’t do what was expected of them.
In modern times the anthropologist Pascal Boyer described how a traditional community banished one of their local goddesses for not fulfilling her side of the religious bargain. Perhaps rather than love, the pagans took a more pragmatic approach to their deities based on appeasement of powerful ‘beings’ or the reciprocal altruism of ‘if I worship you will you be nice to me’.
I can recall reading an account of a reconstructionist pagan — these are modern pagans who are literal polytheists and seek to reconstruct pre-Christian pagan religions (within one assumes the bounds of the law) — who suggested that despite having spiritual relationships he did not feel any particular love for his gods. Mind you, he later changed his allegiance to a Chinese Goddess for whom he did feel it but nevertheless it seems from the evidence that love is not sufficient.
It seems to me that spirituality involves the kind of relationships that feel to the people who pursue them as being extremely important. These are relationships that are so important that we would feel the poorer or bereft in some way if we could not pursue them. This kind of relationship reminds me of the relationships described in the essay written by the phenomenologist Jane Howarth entitled Neither Use nor Ornament: A Consumer’s Guide to Care (an essay that I first assumed to be about middle managers) .
In the essay, Howarth uses the concept of cherishing, an idea similar to the German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s concept of care, to describe the relationship between subject and object. In other words she says that cherishing something comes from a history of interaction; the relationship between the parties involved.
For example, imagine two old friends that have gone through the hardships of life together, supporting each other through tough times, cried on each other shoulders, looked after each other’s kids and been through hell and back. They have also shared the good times, partied together and rejoiced at each other’s triumphs and shared each other’s joys. They have a history together, a history of interaction.
It could be argued that perhaps from their perspective it is the relationship that is cherished as much as the other person. The relationship has an instrumental value but it is also intrinsically important and cherished due to the history of interaction. By this I mean that you can have other friends, but you can never replace that specific person, you can never replace that relationship. The other friends and other relationships are just not equivalent. The experience of the relationship, the history of the interaction can never be repeated.
Admittedly in her essay Howarth was talking about relationships and interactions directed towards objects that we cherish and her ideas are often used in arguments within environmental philosophy, but it could just as easily be applied to people or characters.
Before we go on, I should just note that you don’t necessarily have to love something to cherish it. It could be argued that people have all sorts of habits and personality traits that they cherish. They may cherish certain traditions not because they particularly like them but because that is what they have always done and it gives them a sense of familiarity and positioning within their lives.
They may also have relationships with people that they simply cannot stand, but cherish these relationships nonetheless, if only to cause annoyance and upset to the other person. I daresay there are a few marriages that are carefully cherished for that very reason. However surely this is still not sufficient for our idea that spirituality is about relationships. After all, the fanatical football fan and car fancier could still conceivable fall into this category. For surely they too have had a history interaction leading to cherishing their object.
To me it seems that spirituality is an important relationship so important that many people who experience spirituality whether religious or not, says that it has helped them to endure times of hardship and difficulty. I would argue that this was the kind of relationship that the existentialist psychiatrist Viktor Frankl had with his wife.
During the Second World War, the Nazis imprisoned him in the Auschwitz concentration camp. As a Jew he was stripped of his psychiatric practise and forced into slave labour and endured terrible hardship including being separated from his wife who was imprisoned elsewhere. Frankl tells the story of being forced to march through the dark accompanied by guards driving them with the butts of their rifles. Anyone with sore feet was supported by their neighbours and a man stumbling close to Frankl murmured to him from behind an upturned collar, “If only our wives could see us now”. As they stumbled through the dark, Frankl’s mind turned to his wife, and he later wrote that he saw her image in his mind eye with uncanny accuracy; that on that cold dark night she seemed to him more luminous than the rising sun. And in that most horrific of places by contemplating his beloved he could still know a bliss that helped him endure. Sadly, his wife was later murdered by the Nazis at the Bergen-Belson concentration camp.
Is this an example of a spiritual relationship? Many people might not consider the idea that Frankl’s experience as spirituality but I personally think that it is. Perhaps it is similar to the kind of relationship that a Christian has with God or Jesus. It is of the upmost importance and sustains them through adversity and even, if genuine, sustains them in the face of death. Though I should add that this does not necessarily imply that the object with which they form the relationship has any literal reality.
For me, it is the same as the relationship and connection I have for and with the wonders and horrors of nature as personified through the Lord and the Lady of the Craft. My pattern’s relatedness and connection to the rest of the wider pattern related through such symbols — that which the famous mythologist Professor Joseph Campbell describes as transparent to the transcendent. It could be argued that Frankl felt this wonder in his relationship with his wife, and I see no reason why we can’t experience this in another person. It was the quality of the relationship that sustained him and led him to bliss in the most horrific of circumstances. I daresay that no matter how much the football fan loves their team or the car fancier cherishes his car their relationships with these objects are not sufficient to sustain them through hardship, grief or terminal illness; it does not connect them with something more important.
The relationship of spirituality, from my perspective engenders a sense of wonder. By wonder I mean that spirituality connects us with something other, it is a relationship, which is perceived as greater and more potent than ourselves. It takes us beyond ourselves, beyond limiting self-service and the limited sense of self. It connects us with something wider and other, yet intimately the same. It is that kind of relationship beyond ourselves that leaves us with that sense of awe and wonder which can’t really be adequately described in words and hinted at only with metaphor.
The 19th Century philosopher John Stuart Mill said that it was familiarity not understanding that destroys wonder. I would argue that it is mystery and awe despite an intellectual understanding that can fuel the wonder and awe in the relationship. Often intellectual understanding can add to the wonder experienced. For example I understand intellectually the process of evolution by natural selection and yet the process fills me with wonder at the blind power of nature. We intellectually know the stars are thousands of light years distant, that it takes thousands of years for their light to reach our retinas. We know that when gaze at the night sky we are looking back in time. Is that not wonderful and is it not awe inspiring, perhaps more so because we know these facts about them?
The British philosopher Ronald Hepburn claims in his essay on Wonder that, “if problems should arise over the philosophical basis of belief, and worship becomes impossible for a person, wonder is probably the nearest intense appreciative attitude and emotion that is free of problematic metaphysics and so remains available”. It is this relationship of wonder that changes our outlook, adding depth to our existence relating us to the mysteries of life and death. It is sustaining and life changing and so very important. It is the connection and interaction with the larger picture.
To my mind spirituality is not necessarily about spirits or spirit (what spirits are, is another question) . Rather it is found in the quality of a relationship or the character of the relationship. It is not simply a love for something, or just a history of interaction within the relationships. Nor really is it simply about relationships, which are seen as being very important, although these factors are part of it.
I consider spirituality to be about a relationship that is bigger, more powerful, with greater potency than just ourselves; a relationship that is based upon wonder that can sustain us in times of extreme adversity as it did with Frankl, and so provides us with a sense of meaning in times of extreme hardship. It is a relationship that takes us beyond ourselves and limited self-interests.
To sum up with metaphor I think that spirituality can be likened to beer; life without spirituality is like drinking pub larger, bland and flavourless, whereas life with it is like supping real ale, richer, more fulfilling and with greater depth and flavour.