Spirituality: a Hindrance to Dialogue?

In a recent conversation a Muslim friend took exception to a caricature of Islam that (I confess) I may have inadvertently helped promote. Specifically she objected to an understanding of spirituality associated only with Sufism or certain types of Shi’ism. And she is right. The term spirituality has increasingly become associated with esotericism, the cultivation of aesthetics, emotional states, and metaphysical speculation. And it has been increasingly disassociated with ritual worship, obedience to divine law, rationality, and observation and appreciation of the physical world.

Two problems follow. First, this narrow understanding of spirituality is, as we say in Texas, B.S. The association of spirituality with esotericism, affections, and metaphysics is a product of the near total dominance of American religion revivalism and the association of religious experience with emotion. And the byproducts of this association are devastating for both inter-religious understanding and the making of any connection between religion and science.

Secondly, it tends to isolate and then dismiss conventional religions and conventional religious leaders from engagement in inter-religious dialogue. The pernicious association of spirituality with emotions, and emotions with faith, and faith with religion has led to the unhelpful idea that inter-religious dialogue is about coming to some common feeling or aesthetic sense that supposedly transcends all other differences. And those who do not or are not interested in pursuing this feeling are frankly dismissed as uninterested in real dialogue.

The underlying assumption of this false understanding of spirituality is that “spirit” represents that which is both unseen and mysterious in the human person. As science has penetrated deeper and deeper into the working of the human body the spirit has been more and more associated with the little bit of ourselves we do not, or choose not to understand: our apparently mysterious emotional states, aesthetic sensibility, and speculation about that which is beyond the reach of our physical senses. Spirituality, in other words, is just another word for romanticism.

This definition of spirituality, if it has any benefit, has put modern religious people in touch with the mystics of their own traditions, and others. “Spiritual” Christians cannot get enough of Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and Hildegard of Bingham. “Spiritual” Muslims cannot get enough of Rumi, Ibn al-Arabi, and Yusof Emre. “Spiritual” Jews are busy reading the Zohar and admiring Hassidism (albeit often from a distance.)

Yet this limited definition of spirituality also profoundly cuts us off from our different religious traditions, and from one another. A religion centered around the fulfillment of legal and ritual obligations – which is to say the religion of a vast number of Christians, Muslims, and Jews over a huge span of time – is dismissed as unspiritual or legalistic. At best the Christian mass, or Muslim prayers, or the rote worship of the Jewish Sabbath are accepted as aesthetic experiences; somewhat improved if the sermon has emotional appeal but rendered near worthless if carried out in an uninspiring physical space like a school cafeteria or strip mall. Those environments demand a full on Pentecostal emotional assault (buoyed up by an organ or rock band) or its compliment in a new-age drum circle or sweating suburban dervishes to count as spiritual.

Let me suggest that if we are to appreciate and enter into dialogue with all our religious neighbors then we need to expand somewhat the concept of “spirit” and thus spirituality.

First: for Christians, at least, “spirit” is what God shares of himself with us to give us life. God breathed into the primal humans, and into each of us, our rationality, our instinctive obedience to moral law, our inclination to worship our creator, our sexuality and desire for intimacy, and our hard-nosed quest to feed ourselves and reproduce.

The scientist at work exploring the purely mechanical inner workings of a cancerous cell is engaged in a spiritual activity. As is the taxi driver whose income will provide for her children’s needs. As is the priest whose obligatory mass is said with deadened heart in the midst of war’s destructions. As is the pastor whose eloquence brings a thousand worshipers to tears. As is the art student whose heart leaps as her eyes take in for the first time the work of a Flemish master. As is the father who once again rises bleary-eyed to make breakfast for his children. As is the family that clears a dinner table and turns on bent knees toward Mecca before homework and chores absorb their evening. As is the member of congress who votes against her party and in favor of just laws.

Secondly we need to realize that spirituality is that which fosters the awareness that in each of these activities the human spirit is manifesting the spirit of its creator. This can be a matter of the intellect, trained through teaching and sharpened in the repetition of that teaching in ritual worship. It can be a matter of the physical body – shaping itself to the demands of its own creatureliness through diet, daily labor, and authentic recreation. And of course it can be a matter of the emotions. None has or should have a priority, and all are equally valid and interconnected avenues of spiritual awareness.

The spinning gymnast cultivates through her movements a profound but quite possibly unthought and unfelt knowledge of that spirit which links his body with God. The mechanical engineer carefully calculating the stresses exercises in cold precision a knowledge of humans relate to God. As does the theater-goer whose heart leaps at the crescendos of a Brahms symphony. And of course, those who worship out of obedience regardless of understanding and joy are engaged in spirituality, for they are submitting to God’s command and cultivating one of the many ways that God gives humans life.


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