Spiritual but not religious?

I’m just back from the first public discussion of Jonathan Rowson’s spirituality project for the RSA. I want to reflect on what was said because it amplifies and extends some of the points I made in my last blog entry and will lead naturally to other things I want to think about in these pages.

The RSA session illustrated very obviously the danger for the project of using the word “spirituality”, because the discussion turned almost entirely around the possible value of faith (and, more or less, “faith based traditions” also known as religion). This would be fine if the enquiry was about the possible value of this kind of faith in societies that have largely lost it, but I think this enquiry is more interesting than that.

Jonathan Rowson’s own definition of what he means by spirituality is broader than a faith-based definition, even if it courts the metaphysical when he suggests it’s about feeling we’re part of something bigger. I accept that the latter is a common apprehension, a mark of a yearning that most of us will have felt and many will have thought important, but what’s really interesting is whether it’s possible to understand this yearning in terms that don’t commit us to metaphysical propositions (I’ll come back to “propositions” in a minute), and which go further than the usual language of ethical humanism (a point touched on by Robert Rowland Smith in the discussion). I think it’s about our need to make sense of what we have, both in terms of articulated “meaning” and an embodied understanding of how we are. (I understand the next session will go further into what embodiment might mean and look forward to it – it’s particularly important when neuroscience is forcing us to revise what we could mean by “mind” as an embodied phenomenon, and that’s to say nothing about the way deep-rooted notions of identity and self are unravelling in front of us).

The project offers the potential to understand this context, to explore how our ideas of self, meaning and even truth may be better understood as part of our socialised existence, with direct consequences for how we see the political sphere.

Faith traditions have a necessary interest in all this, and Elizabeth Oldfield expressed that interest eloquently and sympathetically. But I can’t help thinking this interest is something for those traditions to work on themselves, or at least that it’s secondary to this enquiry, and as we saw tonight it drags the centre of gravity away from where it needs to be. In this light I agree with Madeleine Bunting that the S word (spirituality) is unhelpful at this stage, though perhaps for different reasons from hers: I was with her until she started agreeing with Jonathan Rowson that faith/belief is not about a rational assent to a proposition, but more a commitment to a way of being. Well, John Henry Newman traced similar ground in A Grammar of Assent, but it won’t do. I understand that an assent to a religious proposition may not be like accepting the evidence for human involvement in climate change, and I accept that such belief can feel like an immediate aspect of consciousness (in the same way that it makes no sense to say “I believe I’m holding a spoon” rather than “I’m holding a spoon”, but this “faith commitment” still rests on propositions about how things are, and if those propositions are contradicted by other things, it is not stupid to doubt them, or to doubt the wisdom of those who continue to cling to their commitment.

But here am I falling myself into an argument about the special nature of religious faith (or its ordinary nature) and that’s to lose focus, illustrating yet again the danger of trying to think about these things even from the “perspective” (as someone put it) of spirituality.

A final thought (for the moment): someone in the audience asked whether or not “intellect” might be a hindrance in this discussion. Here’s another lurking false opposition. I suppose we could try to define intellect as something narrow, something distinct from other ways of knowing, but the danger here is we underestimate what we are doing when we intellectualise. Intellect itself is embodied, shaped by our emotions and feelings. I seem to remember Iain McGilchrist talking about the problematic opposition of intellect and feeling, and I think ironically it probably belongs to a religious tradition which this enquiry should be trying to leave behind.

To return to the starting point, about what we might mean when we speak of being “spiritual but not religious”, we should not get sidetracked by the quite different question of what hold “religious” still has on us; not if what we really want to understand is whether the idea of “spirituality” has any meaning outside or without religion. In order to do this it might be tactically necessary to drop the word “spirituality” and concentrate on developing a more useful set of terms.


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