Monday, October 2, 2017

The meaning of spirituality

This week we asked Philosophy faculty this question:

What does it mean to be a spiritual person in the 21st century? Is this desirable? Is the lack of it a moral failing? Does it require us to believe in a non physical plane of existence?

Saray Ayala

I take spirituality to come in two flavors. One of them contains an ontological commitment to some supernatural entity or process. This supernatural something, which might or might not coincide with what existent religions postulate, takes care of making our mortal and minute lives meaningful. Endorsing spirituality in this sense gives us some solace about our mortality.

The other flavor contains no ontological commitment with the supernatural. It is rather a way to approach the natural (and social) world. In this other sense of spirituality, the natural world is special, complex, and even meaningful enough. No need to postulate anything extra. This second sense can be expressed in a profound appreciation of life.

Garret Merriam

In my experience, when asked about their theological views, many people like to say they are 'spiritual, not religious.' I take this to reflect both a disenchantment with organized religion, and a desire for the existential value that religion has traditionally supplied. Some of these people no doubt believe (or would like to believe) in a god of some variety, or at least a vague 'higher power.' Others, though, do not believe in a god of any kind, yet some kind of cognitive dissonance prevents them from accepting the label 'atheist.' That label has (erroneous) cultural associations with nihilism, relativism, amorality, and meaninglessness that many people wish to eschew, even if technically the label does fit them. Calling themselves 'spiritual, not religious' gives them a psychological buffer, a label they can accept in place of 'atheist', one that gives them an affirmative identity, rather than simply a negative one.

So what does it mean to be 'spiritual' in general? I'm not sure. But in at least some cases, it means 'I am an atheist, but not comfortable telling other people--or even myself--that fact.'

Mathias Warnes

"Spiritual" denotes to me some type of enrollment or participation of the self in a personal understanding of ultimate meaning, and an attendant commitment to self-development in harmony with this meaning. I tend to think of the spiritual in continuity with ideas of the spirit in historical traditions. The Hebrew ruach, Greek pneuma, Latin spiritus are all unfolded within scriptural or philosophical traditions that testify to the human experience of divine immanence, the numinous, world soul or world spirit, and the potentialities for human consciousness to fathom being, nature, life, the mystery, etc. To be spiritual still means for me something analogous to what the German Idealists called Geistesgechichte, or better, Heidegger’s Geschichte des Seyns (History of Being). 

It is desirable to be experienced in spiritual matters and initiations because they often combine aesthetic, ethical, and metaphysical insights in helpful or healing ways. To have metaphysical opinions about the existence or nonexistence of a spiritual world, or to partake in an epistemological skepticism, is a very different matter than having undergone an experience of spiritual immersion, for example, a vision quest or Peruvian ayahuasca ceremony. Human beings who are well versed in diverse spiritualities seem to me an asset in the 21st century. I do not believe spirituality requires us to posit a nonphysical plane, but I am open to the existence of such a plane. On these topics, I might recommend Schelling’s underappreciated attempt at a popular novel Clara: Or on Nature’s Connection with the Spirit World (1810).

Scott Merlino

I confess that I have no clear idea about what it means to be spiritual. ‘Spiritual’ is vague in the way ‘self’ and ‘race’ and ‘free will’ are. Most people disagree more than they agree on what such terms connote or denote. This is not to say ‘spiritual’ is useless or empty, especially in such utterances as “I am spiritual but not religious”. In this case I believe people express their personal attachment to some sort of non-material, enduring, authentic existence than what is offered in religious organizations. They are also taking care to distance themselves from conventional forms of religion, which for me is progress. It says, I think, that they are aware of the limits and risks of being religious, that there is a way to be compassionate, forgiving, and charitable without the trappings and authoritarianism of fusty institutions. The term ‘religious’ unlike ‘spiritual’ is vague at the boundaries, to be sure, but we can agree on some of the essentials. (See Ninian Smart’s seven dimensions of religion for example.)

Marnie Binder

I believe that throughout history spirituality has resulted from our human inclination to have a need for meaning. We need explanations, we need meaning, and spirituality provides a sort of ad hoc answer to that – that, I believe, is key; that it can end search through this ad hoc essence of it. Spirituality crosses everything, and life without some sort of organized ontological, epistemological, and ethical explanation (not proof) can create so much anguish in people in that existential sense that Sartre so eloquently described. When we have no concrete proof, no satisfactory explanation, this is a time, among many, we may lean toward spirituality. Moreover, it can provide a particularly deep and comprehensive "meaning" for those who are very "spiritual," in whichever form it may manifest itself. Spirituality, I believe, is a circumstantial perspective to help us define our place in the world, and this is how any relativism, or at least consideration of relativism, in our experience of it may possibly be interpreted. We may start from an individual experience of it, and then proceed to find meaning in a more communal, situational circumstance.

David Corner

This is a difficult question to answer because the word “spiritual” is ambiguous.

I’m inclined to say that spirituality is an inherently religious notion, but that it means different things in different religions. Christians may associate spirituality with the supernatural, whatever that is- something non-physical, at least. But a Daoist might not. A Muslim would say that spirituality must involve a relationship with God. A Christian would agree, but a Buddhist would not.

Having said that, I do think that one can be spiritual, in a sense captured by some religion, without being an adherent of any religion. Hinduism and Buddhism might regard meditation as a spiritual practice, but one can meditate without being a Hindu or a Buddhist. Prayer is certainly a spiritual practice in the context of the Abrahamic religions, but one can pray without being a Christian or a Muslim.

On the other hand, the question of whether these practices are spiritual ones cannot be determined outside of any religious context. So, for example, one can imagine a Christian denying that meditation is a spiritual practice. A Buddhist might argue that theistic prayer, since it is predicated on belief in God, involves the denial of an important spiritual truth- the Doctrine of Dependent Origination. Such a prayer could be taken as incompatible with one’s spiritual wellbeing.

This seems to imply an odd conclusion: That one can be spiritual without being religious, even though one cannot decide what qualifies as spiritual outside of some particular religious framework.

Tom Pyne

The first “spiritual but not religious” sophisticate was the Greek philosopher Xenophanes (545 BC).

Thus Xenophanes:
Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and dark,
Thracians, that theirs are grey-eyed and red-haired.
He encouraged doubt about accepted religious practice like blood purification and the veneration of images.

But Xenophanes was no skeptic or atheist. In fact, he seems to have been an early practitioner of ‘Anselmian’ or ‘Perfect Being’ Theology:
…(W)hole [he] sees, whole [he] thinks, and whole [he] hears…always [he] remains in the same [state], changing not at all…completely without toil [he] agitates all things by the will of his mind.
So there is indeed a divine order – the realm of metaphysical perfection. (The ‘Omni-God’ as Matt McCormick calls Him.)

However, this is not where such sophistication always leads. Often it results not in transcendence of religious tradition but mere substitution: in observing the forms of religious practice minus the content. Food taboos turn into a preoccupation with an ‘organic’ or non-GMO diet; carbon offsets are just the sale of ‘indulgences’; religion as the locus of ultimate goods is replaced by politics.

I find it amusing that now the deepest, most systematic, most revealing acquaintance with the divine order is to be found not in abandoning traditional religious practice but by more thorough commitment to it. No author from the ‘metaphysics’ section of the bookstore could have anything to offer Thomas Aquinas or Gautama Siddhartha. No yoga instructor would have anything to teach Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz.

Randy Mayes

Human beings live their lives on at least four different value planes: material, social, intellectual and spiritual. To understand the spiritual we must distinguish it from the others.

Life on the material plane is about satisfying our basic needs and desires. Life on the others are attempts to transcend the material, seeking a source of value beyond ourselves.

Life on the social plane is about becoming a part of a larger human concern. This may provide material benefits, but the satisfaction that results from a willingness to sacrifice our material interests to those of our community is uniquely rewarding.

Life on the intellectual plane is an expression of our need for greater knowledge and understanding. Intellectuals are those who willingly sacrifice material and social benefits for the freedom to think. Science and philosophy are pursued most seriously by people who love ideas more than possessions or people.

Life on the spiritual plane is like life on the intellectual plane in that it attempts to transcend the social and material. But it arises from the feeling that there is an ultimate, fundamentally ineffable reality beyond intellectual comprehension. Spiritual people are those who make sincere attempts to connect with this world, even knowing that it is an intellectual absurdity to do so. Some forms of art, music, poetry, prayer and meditation are expressions of human spirituality.

This view of spirituality does not depend on religion or a belief in immaterial souls. But it may justifiably be accused of mysticism (whatever that means).

Russell DiSilvestro

My two parallel sets of answers to these four questions—with set (b) dependent on set (a)— reflect a book I read by Dallas Willard titled Renovation of the Heart.

1. What does it mean to be a spiritual person in the 21st century?
a. I am, or have, a “spiritual” dimension in a wide sense: an inner life accessible to me including thoughts, feelings, and a will/heart/”spirit” in a narrower sense: a capacity to choose or resist things. 
b. I live with an overarching goal of transforming my spirit(ual dimension).
  2. Is this desirable?
a. Yes—and unavoidable. 
b. It depends on both the means and the end of said transformation.
3. Is the lack of it a moral failing?
a. No—lots of good and beautiful things do not have a spirit and are not in the wrong for not having one. 
b. Yes—unless I am already morally perfect.
4. Does it require us to believe in a non-physical plane of existence?
a. Interestingly, no—while I believe my spirit(ual dimension) is indeed non-physical, and that “spirit” can be defined generally as non-bodily personal power, I also believe that one can be a non-physical entity without believing in a non-physical plane of existence.
b. Again, no: while I may not cultivate something well unless I believe the truth about it, I can often cultivate my spirit(ual dimension) despite having frequent doubts and flat denials about its reality and nature. Perhaps reality is surprisingly forgiving of such failures.


  1. I am not sure I agree with the view that spirituality is a way of finding meaning. Spirituality, as I have come to understand or experience, is a means of connection. It brings one a sense of relief from the self and its woes, a "healing" as Mathias put it. This does not require a theistic approach to achieve, although religion has a way of making you "feel" connected (regardless if the thing you are feeling connected to is correctly identified). If you have ever felt the sort of calm that sitting on a beach watching the ocean brings, or perhaps sat in the woods feeling at peace in the nature around you, then you have felt "spirituality".

    To be spiritual in the 21st century, requires a great deal of disconnecting from the "social and material," as Randy mentions. There is so much mental chaos and sensory input that it would seem difficult to connect to anything on a deeper level.

    But is spirituality beyond intellectual comprehension?

    I am unsure if it is some sort of dopamine release (still researching the subject) or another phenomenon like quantum communication, but this "connection" seems to be a positive thing, regardless. Whether or not a spiritual connection is in a physical plane, should not matter to the relevance of its benefit. If we deprive ourselves of this benefit, then perhaps it IS a moral failing. Especially if being spiritual contributes to happiness and a greater good.

  2. Kris, I think your sense of spirituality connects best with Saray's second sense, which I really like. The sense of spirituality I was trying to get at is an attempt to connect to the world in a way that transcends language and concepts, the noumenon or "thing-in-itself" as Kant put it. But another way to look at it is to think about your example of sitting on the beach with someone sitting next to you trying to put the experience into words. It's hard not to want to punch them.

  3. Randy,
    How about this?

    Intellectual content - the kind expressed in propositions - is not the only means of cognitive access to reality.

    Supposing, for the sake of argument, that your spiritual plane (my 'divine order') is real and not reducible to the other planes; then we can be intentionally related to it in a number of different ways.

    For instance, one can grasp the intellectual arguments for the irrationality of the notion of 'forgiveness.' But one can also learn something about forgiveness, something that conflicts with those arguments, by listening to the finale of 'The Marriage of Figaro.'
    (Which, BTW, I can't dry-eyed)

    So it's possible to learn something about even social and material reality from a piece of music, or a work of art.

    That also seems possible regarding the spiritual.

    Question: "Well, what did you learn then?"
    Answer: "I can't tell you; I'll have to hum it."

    So, I don't think I'm disagreeing with your conclusion that trying to grasp the spiritual plane is an intellectual absurdity.

    That doesn't mean it's an absurdity, period.

    (I never know whether I'm agreeing with your or not.

  4. Tom, really nice point, and I'm pretty sure I agree with you. Students often say things like "I understand it but I just can't explain it," to which we intellectuals sometimes respond, "No, part of what it means to understand it is to be able to explain it." I guess this derives from the Socratic notion that you you don't know what something is if you can't define it. Usually, of course, students do not understand things they can't explain. But I think it is better for us to say, "Well, that's possible, but our goal here is to be able to do both." The world is full of people who have extraordinary intuitive understanding of things like math, language, music and sport but almost no ability to explain what they are doing or how they are doing it. My point being that if we acknowledge this distinction on the purely intellectual plane, why wouldn't we acknowledge it on the spiritual plane?

    Of course, there is a real concern here, viz., that on this side of the spiritual plane when people claim to understand something without being able to explain it, we don't have to simply take their word for it. We see their understanding expressed as behavioral competence that can't be explained away. But in the spiritual domain there doesn't seem to be anything similar. At least I don't think so. Others would probably claim that you bawling like a baby at the Marriage of Figaro is evidence of spirituality, but as far as I know it just triggers bitter sweet memories.

    I also think it's good to be skeptical of the idea that things that are only accessible on the spiritual plane at a certain point in time must remain that way. It's possible that the reason for this is simply that we haven't yet developed the requisite intellectual resources. So that at least sometimes life on the spiritual plane is mostly a matter of our reach extending beyond our grasp.

    1. Regarding my last comment as it relates to your initial claim, maybe this is why/when we should call it cognitive access to reality. Meaning, to the extent that we are convinced that it is permanently beyond our intellectual comprehension, perhaps we should not call it cognitive access but something else entirely.