Recently a friend of mine sent a link to a blog by Sam Harris entitled “In Defense of Spiritual.” In my mind, the words Sam Harris and spiritual aren’t often found in the same sentence so of course I clicked the link with interest. Turns out his next book is about spirituality . . . so much for my assumption! In the post, Harris is addressing the animosity many people have about the word spirituality. Harris opines that already his use of the word prompts “fellow skeptics and atheists who think I have committed a grievous error” to comment. Harris reports that his critics consider the word “thoroughly poisoned by its association with medieval associations.” I was delighted to find Harris’ reply to be an integral argument for the use of the word spiritual and its cognates.
In rescuing the word from the medieval associations of superstition and supernatural Harris is making the distinction between experiences associated with an earlier, pre-rational, stage of development and experience associated with the trans-rational stage of development. Ken Wilber has coined the phrase pre/trans fallacy to explain this phenomenon. Because of the “medieval associations,” many rational, modernist types (this would include Harris’ critics) view all things spiritual as non-rational and relegate them to the pre-rational, magic and mythic stages of development. Since spiritual experience – the mystical, contemplative and meditative states – are non-rational, the modernist’s move is to see all non-rational experiences as spiritual.
Wilber says it this way:
If you do not believe in Spirit, then you will take every trans-rational event and reduce it to pre-rational impulses and preverbal twaddle, perhaps claiming it is regressive, nothing but a holdover from the oceanic fusion days of infancy. You are a grand reductionist, and your names are legion, and happily you go about the day, collapsing trans-rational to pre-rational – reducing any experience of Spirit to a bit of undigested meat, and God is something you can simply outgrow, if you just keep trying. With this sleight of hand, this intellectual bit of laziness, all genuine trans-rational realities are dismissed. Integral Spirituality p. 52
Certainly this can go the other way where some who do believe in Spirit take every selfish, egocentric or irrational experience to be deeply spiritual. Elevationism and reductionism are simply two side of the coin that pits the rational against the non-rational.
So here’s to Sam Harris who defends his use of spiritual by making the elevation/reduction distinction and declares in the conclusion of his post, “so ‘Spiritual’ it is.” I’m for that!