What Does It Mean to Be Spiritual?

Are you spiritual? That’s a question that gets bandied about quite a bit these days. But what does it mean? For some it means that you “believe in God,” (as broadly defined or undefined as possible), but you don’t identify yourself as part of a particular religious tradition so that you are, by default, spiritual. For some spiritual is an attitude or bearing you have in life, one exemplified by the nuns in Sound of Music (not Maria) – you know, folded hands, peaceful countenance. But perhaps the most pernicious definition is a person who is trying to escape from the realities of this life. I grant that the image of a guy in his underwear sitting on top a mountain lends itself to such an interpretation, but nothing could be further from the truth.
The spiritual person is not seeking to escape reality; the spiritual person is seeking to engage reality, to uncover falsehood, peal back the illusions that keep us separate from what is real, the Divine presence.
So much of what we call “reality” is simply the illusion that we are isolated one from another and separate from the presence of a God who acts upon our lives. That isolation breeds fear and all its attendant response. Separate from God we play the victim in a sometimes cruel world, wondering why God is doing this or doing that. Or maybe we just write the whole thing off; it doesn’t make any sense anyway. But so many then find themselves in a spiritual wasteland, dissatisfied and yearning for something real.
The spiritual person though is discovering that none of this is real. The spiritual person is discovering the nature of God inseparable from the human spirit. The Hindus call it the union of Brahmin, the essence of Divinity, and Atman, the essence of humanity. God does not act upon us but rather God’s Spirit unfolds creation from within. John Calvin saw that the human spirit and the Divine spirit are both inseparable and distinct. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave helped humanity to see that what is visible to us is not what is real, it is a reflection of what’s real. When we are spiritual, we engage creation imbued with the Spirit of God.
How then shall we be spiritual? There are many ways, many paths as they say. Meditation is one approach to be sure, but it is not the entry point for everyone. Some encounter the face of God in another. We can recognize the presence of the one that unites all things when we look into the eyes of a child while serving lunch in the local community center. Others can be spiritual as the read Scientific American – not just read it for content, but read it with open eyes seeking the presence of God the permeates all things. The truth is, we can’t not be spiritual, we can only ignore what is real – and we’ve been doing enough of that don’t you think?

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About Sam Alexander

Sam Alexander is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of San Rafael and also serves as Adjunct Instructor in Homiletics at San Francisco Theological Seminary.


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