Monday, January 27, 2014

Something Thoughtful

 Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.

                                           RELIGION AND SPIRITUALITY
            I have given a lot of thought recently to the two terms “religion” and “spirituality” and how they are understood. I would say that “religion” and “spirituality” are related concepts, but they are not the same concept.
Both terms feature now in much sceptical and post-Christian polemic, often with the understanding that “religion” refers to something inherited and corporate - belief systems and forms of worship, the churches and their liturgical practices; while “spirituality” refers to something personal, creative, individual and not organised communally. It was with these understandings that, at a history conference in Ireland some years ago, I heard a young Australian lecturer declare fervently, “We don’t need religion. We need spirituality!
I am aware that these understandings of the two terms are not the only ones. For example, I have read older books, which refer to the “spirituality” of this Christian saint or that Jewish scholar in the sense of how that person said prayers or conducted devotions or organised reflections and intellectual life in relation to a God who was believed in and who was seen as objective to the believer. In this context, “spirituality” is a subset of “religion” and more-or-less refers to religious “style”.
 When, like a 5th Form debater, I go to the OED, I don’t find too much help but I am pointed in a significant direction. “Religion” derives from the Latin “religio”, meaning obligation, bond, or reverence – in other words, religion refers to looking beyond oneself somehow, feeling dependent upon something greater than oneself, and developing a moral sense because of this. The OED then rather unhelpfully gives its primary definition of “spirituality” as “spiritual quality”, but the problem here is that we then have to ask what we mean by “spiritual”. Does it mean relating to what is non-material, ideal or transcendent? Or does it mean constructing a sense of selfhood and personal identity out of memory, emotions, the senses and those things that seem personally significant to us?
I suspect it is largely in the latter sense that the term “spirituality” is now commonly understood, and here I have a number of problems.
If “spirituality” is a sense of significance based upon the self, then it is a closed circuit. It is the solipsism that refers to nothing but the self. While “religion” is other-centred, pointing beyond the self, then “spirituality” is, in the real sense of the term, self-centred and self-validating. It could be argued that many of those who identify with “spirituality” do look beyond themselves and feel dependent upon something greater than themselves. The thing they look to and depend upon is physical nature. This is where the sense of awe at the wonders of nature – felt as much by an atheist as by a religious believer – is often cited.  But, unless we anthropomorphise nature and give it ethical qualities, nature in itself does not provide us with a moral basis for our lives. Matters are not helped by saying that nature itself is God, for in the end pantheism is a playing with words that leaves us with nothing but raw, non-ethical nature. If everything is God then nothing is God.
“Religion” can be caricatured as blindly following rules or set forms (ignoring the immense individuality, and indeed creativity, with which individual religious believers respond to creeds and formulae of belief). But I believe that the caricature of “spirituality” bears more weight – it means “whatever turns you on” or whatever feeds the senses and ego. (Reductio ad absurdum – some years back I recall a travel advertisement on television promising tourists “unique spiritual experiences” in Bali – meaning, presumably, lovely beaches and nice performances by Balinese dancers.)
Given all this, I would find it hard to refer to, for example, Percy Bysshe Shelley or D.H.Lawrence as “religious” writers as I have defined the term here. “Spiritual”, perhaps, but not “religious”, for the only ethic they follow is the ego. And with the self as the centre of the universe, other people become less important than oneself. It makes no difference that Lawrence spoke of the “gods” in himself communing with the “gods” in other people, for it is still the ego that is being divinised.
I hear Shelley in Epipsychidion describing two women as “Twin spheres of light who rule this passive Earth / This world of love, this me.” And I hear the voice of (current-sense) “spirituality”, wherein other people exist to feed my senses and ego.
Or I turn to the passage in Sons and Lovers (Chapter 13) wherein Paul Morel is reflecting after his first bout of love-making with one of his mistresses, and I find this:
In the morning he had considerable peace, and was happy in himself. It seemed almost as if he had known the baptism of fire in passion, and it left him at rest. But it was not Clara. It was something that happened because of her, but it was not her. They were scarcely any nearer each other. It was as if they had been blind agents of a great force.” (Sons and Lovers, Chapter 13)
A “great force” is mentioned, yet Paul is not fired by love, or passion, for Clara but “something that happened because of her… not her. ” The living woman, objective to Paul’s ego, dissolves into his ego. She is there to feed him and his senses and provide him with a formative experience. Her only importance is that she has made him “happy in himself”. This note is sounded repeatedly in Lawrence’s writings, longer fiction, shorter fiction and poetry. I am the centre of the universe. I have rejected transcendence and rationalism/ idealism and I have only my senses and my emotions to guide me. I am therefore the only validation of anything. Apart from external constraints over which I have little control (such as the law), my obligations to others depend, in effect, only upon how I am feeling.
I could digress at this point on the whole tension in western culture between Platonic transcendence / idealism / rationalism and Aristotelian empiricism, but I will shorthand such a digression by saying that the only satisfactory approach seems to me to be a synthesis, even if not necessarily the Kantian one of categorical imperatives. To dismiss idealism and transcendence brusquely, and claim that all that exists is what is physically apprehensible, is to cut off half of what human beings are, including reverence, the ability to categorise, the ability to construct moral codes, and reason itself. (And what is any literary criticism except a form of rationalism?)
In a famous phrase in his Pensees, Pascal said “There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any living thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus”. In its complete form, this is a specifically Christian confession of faith. But, shorn of the last six words, it has often been précised as the “God-shaped hole” in human consciousness. (I have seen the phrase used, ruefully but sincerely, by agnostic and atheist writers such as Eric Hobsbawm).
Claim to reject transcendence, but the “God-shaped hole” remains, nagging and expecting a response even in the non-religious. So out comes “religious” imagery in agnostic and non-religious writers (especially poets). Once, perhaps too hastily, I ascribed the use of religious imagery by non-religious writers to their envy of religious forms and formulations. It may not be very helpful to ascribe such base motives to other people’s literary practice (it comes perilously close to the way atheist polemicists routinely ascribe hypocrisy or smugness to religious believers). But I still believe envy of the system which produces such imagery is at least part of the mix. There is a considerable degree of intellectual inconsistency in the agnostic’s use of religious imagery for emotional effect, given that the religious imagery of itself denies the declared bases of materialist agnosticism.
But, you may reasonably ask, is it any different from the way, for centuries, Christian poets used (Greek and Roman) pagan imagery in their works? I think there is a difference – for even if the Christian and the pagan classical terms were different, they both pointed to a transcendent and non-material reality. And there was the further assumption that the pagans were right, but not right enough. (It is Vergil who guides Dante through the Inferno, remember.)
I have seen no literary criticism that has persuaded me it is any otherwise.

Crude summary of all of the above: As a religious believer, I feel more kinship with the honest atheist, who is prepared to live with the intellectual consequences of his/her world view, than with the “spiritual” agnostic, who comforts him/herself with unbelieved-in formulations and images.



  1. There is more ambiguity attached to 'spirituality' than 'religion' because as you suggest, spirituality is not organised - into events, beliefs, practices and symbolic orders. Spiritualism is also suggested, which relates to parapsychology. Also, in the (hopeful) broadening of consciousness in the new century, more and more ideas are falling under the banner of spirituality, thus widening its reference. Perhaps this is because no other word appears to do the job.
    Concerning your suggestion that spirituality is about something personal, creative and individual and thence a sense of selfhood, etc, I think that prior to that, the concept is identified with cosmic power as presented to us - so: the virtual domain of consciousness, something not limited to the personality.
    JR Illingworth, if I remember correctly, referred to our affinity or kinship with the material world as implying spirituality behind it, so that a spiritual current is implied, something which has a passage through matter. This could equally refer, in scientific parlance, to electromagnetic energy.
    Religion, while having a clearer reference re. symbols, beliefs and practices, has in its institutional forms been criticised for sometimes neglecting the spiritual flame at its centre, or at least that the flame has become obfuscated by the weight of tradition. If religion is primarily revelation, then its referent is simpler to understand - a 'soul-sight' of the infinite through the finite, and the eternal through the temporal.

    1. Thanks Hugh. As always I value your thoughtful contributions, and I am aware that this is a vaster and much more nuanced topic than my brief and inevitably inadequate comments could hopr to cover. I am still insistent, however, that as the term is frequently used, "sprituality' has come to mean "feeding what makes me feel good' rather than "looking to something greater than myself".