Being ‘Spiritual’

In my previous post, I insisted that love of God must, if both are to be authentic and able to flourish to their full capacity, precede love of neighbour. However, I also made the point that although this ordering of the two loves is necessary, a true love of God cannot be said to exist if it does not find expression in love of neighbour. These two loves, and their interrelation, are at the heart of Christian spirituality, and it is this that I would like to compare and contrast with the modern concept of being ‘spiritual, but not religious.’

We see reported time and again that according to recent polls or the findings of a national census, affiliation to religious groups is falling, and the ‘none’ group is increasing; yet at the same time when people are asked if they see a bigger picture to life in general, non-confessional terms, numbers in the affirmative are high. When asked for clarification on whether that bigger picture may include a divine presence that gives life its shape and purpose, and what form that presence may take, more and more people conceive of God in terms of a ‘life-force’ – something impersonal and vague, with no particular claims on the individual.

It is in this light that we must understand the common claim to being ‘spiritual, but not religious’ – spirituality is increasingly being seen as something private, non-committal, and vaguely pantheistic. By depersonalising God (if this term is used at all), modern people can then have all the existential benefits of affirming the sense of there being some sort of wider meaning to life (e.g.; that there is a ‘point’ to life), whilst rejecting any claims that this God/force may have on their lives – no demands are made, either in terms of signing up to particular beliefs, or in terms of moral imperatives being required of the believer.

Thus, on this model it is possible to feel satisfied that one is responding to the promptings of Truth, Goodness and (especially) Beauty, without having to commit to the objectivity of any of these, or allow them to demand anything of us. There is no Law-Giver, so there is no Law; there is no such thing as Truth, so your ideas about reality are just as good as mine; we can all reverence the Beauty of nature, but we don’t need to go much further than wide-eyed appreciation and/or ask what this profound beauty might suggest to us.

Religion, on the other hand, requires commitment to a set of ideas (based on a combination of inference from our reason and the world around us – natural theology – and information received from a higher source that we would not otherwise know, but which is often consonant with our investigations – revelation) about God, humanity, the beginnings and ends of existence, and our purpose in this life. This necessarily involves two things – becoming part of a community of people who share the same commitments, and active response to the ideas enshrined in that religion about who we are as people and what our obligations are.

This, to a certain extent, is common to all the major world religions, but particularly so of the three Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Dharmic faiths of the East (e.g.; Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism) place less emphasis on objectivity, and are much more fluid in terms of what one can believe about both God and the self – this, combined with their pantheistic conception of God, makes them much more amenable to modern, post-Enlightenment, Western people, as it is much easier to appropriate the above elements of their traditions without committing to the whole. As we in the West are increasingly individualistic and relativist in our thinking, the ideas that Truth cannot be contained within any doctrinal formulae, and that tat tvam asi (the self is ultimately identifiable with ultimate reality – i.e.; God) are particularly attractive.

The moral and doctrinal commitments required by the Abrahamic faiths however, and the consequent limits put on the individual, are anathema to modern Western culture on the whole. Christianity in particular, with its command to love the neighbour as one loves the self, whilst (after decades of diluting this message into a bland obligation to be ‘nice’ to one another) seeming agreeable at first, is particularly demanding – it requires a great deal of self-sacrifice, and (as I argued in my earlier post) will not survive if divorced from a giving of the whole self, in love, to God.

This though – the giving of the self in service to one’s neighbour out of pure love – is truly what constitutes an authentic spirituality, building as it does on the insights and intuitions of all the other world religions, and yet surpassing them. Being spiritual is not ultimately about having a feeling of satisfaction or contentment, or ‘finding oneself’ – it is about finding God, and finding out what He desires for us, what we were really made for. When we discover that God is Love, this is indeed a wonderful thing – for to know that, at bottom, the universe is informed by Someone whose very life is to donate, to give Himself away to the other, is the greatest ground we can have for seeing ultimate reality as inherently trustworthy.

But, this knowledge also makes a profound claim on us – we are called to partake of this life, to become more like God ourselves, and this means being as selfless and as truly loving as He is. So, being truly spiritual is fulfilling, but also demanding; it brings peace, but not as the world gives it – it involves not just feeling loved, but being loving oneself. The ‘spirituality’ invoked so often today, whilst having a superficial attractiveness, cannot last, just as our culture of selfishness and relativism cannot last – in time, a world without roots and without a genuine concern for the other that goes beyond natural affection will fold in on itself.

What Christ offers us however, is and will always be an opportunity to find true freedom – by forgetting ourselves, receiving the love of God, and passing it on to our neighbour. This way of ‘being spiritual’ has done before, and will again, save the world from itself. How long it will take for us to realise just how much we need this properly authentic freedom (contra the individualist version we have bought into) I do not know, but God will never stop being Love, and the offer of joining Him in living a life of costly, yet liberating and joyous service, will always be there. We just have to remember that we need it – that this is the way to be truly happy, truly free, and truly human.


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