The Soul of Spirituality
"Spirituality" is a term beloved by seekers and loathed by atheists. But what does it mean? For a fresh perspective, turn to an old book, Ecclesiastes.
By R. Joseph Hoffmann
What do Antony Flew, the world’s most famous convert to deism, and the third century BCE author of the book called Ecclesiastes have in common? Almost nothing—except that both have a healthy skepticism about the soul and an afterlife.
Humanists, atheists, and skeptics have a problem. It isn’t clear whether it’s born of a conundrum in metaphysics or an after-six chat at the bar. He says, “Are you religious?” She says, “No—but I’m kind of spiritual.” That seems to satisfy the terms of the discussion, as if the choice had been about dogs and chocolate, and the answer is, “No, cats and toffee.” “Spirituality” has become the word of choice for a generation of non-denominationalists who are either uneasy with or unknowledgeable about the specifics of their faith. They range from peripatetic Protestants who choose churches on the basis of their pastors, to socially progressive Catholics who have seen the moral teaching of the faith discredited by frisky priests, to Gen Y religious libertines who mix and match doctrines with the same routine inattention they use to mix soft drinks at MacDonald’s.
Spirituality isn’t anti-religion; it’s just anti-taking-religion-seriously. It has almost nothing to say about the classical doctrines of Christianity and Judaism. In fact, it’s perfectly “spiritual” to take doctrines like the Trinity with a grain of salt, or not at all (“Whatever…”), or the Commandments of God and Church as rules of thumb. It’s ok not to say the rosary, not to keep kosher, not to believe the rabbi has the answer, or that the priest can shrive you of unmentionable sins (“Duh...”) It’s both retro—with a scent of those ‘60s and ‘70s movies that teetered between LSD parties and be-jeaned blondes in slow-mo, gliding across a softly lit meadow (Remember Jennifer Cavallari in “Love Story,” explaining to her confused dad, whom she calls Phil, how the wedding wasn’t “exactly going to be a Mass?”)--and metro; it usually requires a spiritual supermarket the size of Boston, where the secular opportunities for staying home on Sunday and reading a paper, or going out for coffee before a visit to the Museum are at least as attractive as the 11 o’clock service and an after-church visit to Applebee’s with the grandparents.
Why should humanists (and those atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers who always get flung into the same box) care? After all, it’s pretty clear that the freewheeling spirituals aren’t like the mystics and hesychasts of the ancient Christian tradition; some may play with numbers and do astrology, but few are Kabbalists. Some dance, but few spin like dervishes hoping for a vision of Divine Love. Modern spirituality seems to be way of clutching onto a belief that there’s more to life than Starbuck’s, "South Park," and Wii, and that not quite knowing what it is, is the QED that there must be something. Given the non-doctrinal, anti-supernatural, and largely secular worldview of a girl who says she’s spiritual and the guy who understands this as code that he can take her back to his apartment after dinner, shouldn’t humanists (and those others) measure this as progress in the long struggle to cast off the shackles of superstition?
You’d think so. And this is where the Bible and Anthony Flew, and a few assorted New Atheists come into play. In a 1996 essay, Flew contended that the term “spiritual” was irredeemably nonsensical and rooted in a dualistic notion of human personhood that modern science had annihilated. Like a lot of philosophers incubated in Oxford and Cambridge, Flew thinks that the word “spirituality” doesn’t refer to anything in particular (a bit like “existentialism”) but points to an outmoded Plato-besotted dualism that sees existence as split between a material, sensory, empirical world and an immaterial, unseen, undemonstrated world.
He’s right of course, at least when the definition of spirituality is linked to tradition. Christian mystics from Bernard of Clairvaux to the mischievous Cistercian, Thomas Merton, played with language in a way that drove their philosophical opponents, and later social progressives, around the bend. At one theological pole, “official” Islam and Christianity have always been healthily skeptical of spirituality and mysticism, because, after all, belief in religious authority and flow charts doesn’t sit well with the idea that monks and nuns are gaining access to God by secret detours. Even St. Paul worries about a clutch of spirituals who have infected the Corinthian church with claims to possess knowledge and charismata (like speaking in tongues) superior to the run of the mill Christians who just want to get on with their new religious lives.
At the other pole, certain kinds of traditional spirituality emphasize the private life and the unique experience of the believer to such an extent that all other expressions of belief look paltry by comparison. The hesychasts (quietists) of the Middle Ages and the Tariqah sect among the Sufis are examples of a kind of spirituality that have close parallels with Asian religious practice. At this end, which can promote quiet contemplation or ecstatic movement as means to the same end, socially progressive movements, especially in Christianity, have seen interior piety, the life of the soul, and private experience as a retardant force in religion—a spiritual self-centeredness that regards doctrine as provisional at best, unnecessary at worst. Spirituality in relation to the institutional church has always been subversive. Defining it has always been problematical.
A lot of what atheists and humanists think about “being spiritual” is dredged from this historical stream. Critics normally justify their position as a rejection of dualism, on the one hand--a round profession that the world we see is the only world we’ve got, and a challenge to anyone who claims to have climbed Jacob’s ladder to another world to show us the photographs or shut up. All of which makes it seem that the rejection of spirituality is taken from the same manual that requires the citizens of a scientific age to reject the supernatural, the anomalous, the mysterious.
True, Richard Dawkins, the lead rider among the four horsemen of the New Atheism, didn’t write that couplet--I did. But the put-down of spirituality in books like “The God Delusion,” which argue that the spiritual “impulse” should be rigorously controlled if not outlawed altogether, suggests a lexicographer’s approach to the word. On the one hand, this lexicality shows that often scientists, philosophers, and theologians are not paying attention to semantic change—how concepts are given new names through the process of widening, narrowing, substitution, and transference. Equally missing from the debate, as far as I can tell, are references to the important work in historical and applied semantics that describe how social, cultural, and psychological forces affect meaning. (A good place to begin is Joachim Grzega’s “Historical Semantics in the Light of Cognitive Linguistics,” or Andreas Blank’s “Why do New Meanings Occur?”)
Students who take a college class in Shakespeare know that a “knave” used to be a servant, and before that, just a boy; that the word “nice” meant ignorant; that to “astound” meant to be struck by thunder; that “fast” meaning standing still and “fast” meaning moving rapidly are the same word with different applications, or that “kill” used to mean to torture (not to end a life). If we don’t reach quite so far back, just to the Beat generation, hot became cool and cool became the new hot. Linguistics isn’t for the fainthearted because meaning and the processes that create it are messy, like human psychology. And it isn’t a matter of what dictionary we use, or even (as philosopher’s wanted to think 50 years ago) what we can do with the ordinary sense of words in deciding whether a sentence means something or means nothing at all. The simplicity of the assumptions underlying this approach to language points to a time when philosophy and science wanted sentences to behave themselves, like good boys. But words like love, God, and spirituality do not behave.
Language is notoriously mischievous. The girl in the bar who says she’s “spiritual,” and the Olympic athlete who’s describing the release of endorphins after a race as a “spiritual high” are describing moments, not practicing metaphysics. In fact, one of the hardest things to grasp about the forms of both private and collective religious extremism—especially the sorts that result in violence—is that they all occur at a very literal level, in a world where technology, maps, bombs and schedules are part of the ritual. The end of “spirituality” in its postmodern form is not a fallen skyscraper in Manhattan. Even less toxic forms of religious extremism—Pentecostal outpourings in Alabama, mimetic crucifixions on Good Friday in the Philippines, young Muslim men slashing themselves on Ashurah in remembrance of Ali’s martyrdom—are based on literal readings of the sacred books, not on what Origen had called “the spiritual level” of interpretation.
Can humanists et al lay claim to the word, given its new semantic lode? Probably not, if they see it as a dodge, a way around using the word “religion” in polite conversation with other non-believers, and if they stick to that narrow lexicon that requires words to be good children and mean what they’re told. Alas, however, that lexicon is looking at least as dated as some of the arguments the current generation of militant atheists is putting forward as “new.” Somewhere in the third century BCE, the author of Ecclesiastes, a man named Koheleth (Hebrew Qohelet), asked in what is easily the strangest book in the Hebrew Bible, “Who knows if the breath of a man goes upward while the breath of the beast goes downward to the earth?” Various translations have substituted “spirit” for breath and added “upward to heaven” for euphony—but the ASB translation here captures the writer’s question. He doesn’t know the answer, but he clearly believes, as anyone who’s read Ecclesiastes knows, that nothing lasts, death is the end, and there is no afterlife. As historian Jennifer Michael Hecht notes in her book “Doubt: A History,” Koheleth questioned "every aspect of religion, from the very ideal of righteousness, to the by now traditional idea of divine justice for individuals.”
Urging us to see life as it really is, Koheleth doubted everything and thus, ironically, found meaning. "Accepting the abyss at the edge of life will strip away any reason for envy or longing inside us and leave us only with the awareness that for the moment we are here," Hecht writes of the message of Ecclesiastes. We may not be able to discern a purpose or design to the world, but we can marvel that we have a world at all. Our only option, Koheleth argues, is to embrace our finitude and "to rejoice, and to do good in [our lives]."
It’s in this sense that I understand the word “spiritual,” as something both negative and positive: negatively, a word that refuses to consent to the idea that meaning can be achieved without struggle and suffering, and positive in the sense that human spirituality is a spirituality that tests the limits: it refers to the way others across time and cultures have matched wits with fate, refused to accept tidy recipes for the good life, rejected fear and dogma as prescriptions for salvation, and contributed to filling the void, dispelling the fog, and creating alternatives to the “absurdity” and “insignificance” that the word hebel—vanity-- connotes in its raw form. When the girl in the bar says she’s spiritual, it simply means she’s testing the limits and refuses to believe there’s no life after Saturday night. She rejects the ordinary, and as such probably includes religion in the category of things that no longer provide meaning in her life. She may or may not believe in God, but in any event God is not the only conclusion worth arguing about, the only thing worth caring about. Personally, I’m kind of spiritual myself.
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R. Joseph Hoffmann is Senior Vice President of the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, N.Y., a twice-over graduate of Harvard Divinity School and still a watchful observer of trends there. He is also Chair of the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion (CSER). He received his Ph.D. from Oxford University, where he was senior scholar at both Keble and St Cross College and University Lecturer in theology at Harris Manchester College and Westminster College. His last essay for SoMA was God and Man at Harvard.
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