What is Spirituality?

At a recent party I was asked about my spirituality. I replied that I was an orthodox Christian. My conversation partner didn’t buy it. She replied, “yes, but what feeds your spirit.” Sensing the direction of her thinking I nodded toward my nearby sailboat. And she understood. We both did.

What she meant by spirituality isn’t a structured reflection on religious beliefs. Still less is it engagement in ritual worship. It isn’t even heartfelt devotionalism. What she meant by spirituality is that inward journey that stills the mind and breaks down the distinctions between self and world. She could see sailing as a form of spirituality far more readily than she could see worship as a form of spirituality.

Because she was channelling a common, if not necessarily comprehensive, understanding of the life of the spirit.

Even more recently I sponsored a talk by Swami Shantatmanandu of the Vedanta organization in India. In it he explained that from the standpoint of Vedanta there are four basic forms of the human search for salvation/freedom/release. They are a variation on older Hindu ideas, and they consist of jnana yoga, bakti yoga, raja yoga, and karma yoga. Yoga in this case simply means a regular, disciplined practice.

Jnana yoga means the discipline of rational reflection on reality; seeking to understand the relationship of the human mind to the things that it perceives. Bakti yoga is the pure outpouring of love and devotion to one or more manifestations of God. It is the emptying of the self into the divine. Raja yoga refers to what is usually called meditation in the West. It is the practice of systematically detaching the mind from all false distinctions until the unity of all existence is directly experienced. Karma yoga (which is an idea that distinguishes Vedanta from early Hindu thought) is active work with other human beings. One could say it is acting out the reality that all humans are one by serving the neighbor as one’s self.

According to Vedanta each of these yogas has its own integrity, and each can be the basis of a complete spiritual life. Yet none can fruitfully exist without the support of the others. Knowledge detached from devotion can be as arrogant as it is arid. Devotion to God without service to humanity allows illusory distinctions between the self and other to persist. Meditation not guided by a philosophical understanding of reality becomes just another cycle of psychic experiences. And work for humanity without acknowledging the reality of the divine becomes as arid as it is arrogant.

So each is necessary, indeed critical, and maintaining the distinctions between them is crucial to understanding the spiritual life of humanity as a whole. Because the one an individual cultivates will depend not on a hierarchy of value for attaining salvation, but on the individual’s needs at a particular place and time in his or her spiritual journey.

Modern Protestant Christians have largely forgotten the rich Christian tradition, ecumenical in the original meaning of the word, that understood the complex inter-relationship between both different spiritual personalities and their complementary spiritual disciplines.

We tend to normalize what works for us (studying the scripture, liturgical worship, prayer and praise, social engagement, theological reflection) and make it the sole center of our personal and congregational lives. Indeed in certain modes we can be quite dismissive of other approaches to a relationship with God. Evangelical Christianity, as Mark Noll has noted, has a strong anti-intellectual streak. Liberal  Christianity can be as strongly anti-devotional. And when you hear a Christian dismiss meditation as “navel gazing” you know that the cultivation of an experience of the unity of being is being dismissed in favor of social activism.

At best we have a tendency to make forms of spiritual engagement different from our own mere subsidiaries of what we regard as the central path of faithful Christian living. At worst we dismiss them from our community life altogether.

And this means that we lose opportunities to speak the gospel to some substantial part of our increasingly non-Christian neighbors. As does any church whose normal practices become normative.

Although we could find in our own Christian history a much richer and complex understanding of spirituality, perhaps a lesson from outside our tradition, and our traditional enmities and justifications, is helpful. The Vedanta understanding of the our yogas has something to teach us as Christians: not because our tradition is insufficient, but because we are forgetful of our own wealth. We are forgetful of the complex economy of the spirit in the life of the church.

And this is the value of inter-religious dialogue. Not that we necessarily learn what we do not know, but because we are reminded of what we have long forgotten.

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  • Y. A. Warren

    Wonderful insights.