Saint Hilda's House

through the gates and into the city

A Spirit Free of 'Spirituality': Why I Want to Keep Spirituality Out of My Religion

By Ed Watson (n.b. as much as he'd love it to be otherwise, the views expressed here are of course Ed's views, not those of St. Hilda's House.  You can, however, also read this piece in the St. Hilda's House Winter Quarterly.)


Matchsticks burning.

Matchsticks burning.

Last week, Father Robert Hendrickson and Megan McDermott both posted excellent pieces about the relationship and/or tension between religion and spirituality.  Father Robert focused on several important differences between the religious and the dogmatic, and Megan wrote powerfully about the genuine spiritual impact of genuine religious experiences in her life (of the going to Church kind, among others).  I for my part felt prompted to try and pen a few thoughts which have been running through my head for a while, the overall thrust of which is this: that 'spirituality' seems to me to have a more destructive impact on the possibility of relationship with God than the fact of organised religion (mine is also a bit more polemical...)

I'm going to begin by making a somewhat facetious point: it seems to me that pitting religion and spirituality against each other is a category mistake.  It's not a case of apples and oranges, two things of the same type which you can't compare because it ultimately comes down to personal taste.  It's rather a case of apples and ceramic oranges, two things which might bear a superficial similarity, but really just belong to different categories.  

A religion is, relatively un-controversially, something like a body of people organised around a body of beliefs with the express intention of worshiping God through prayer, service, and services (among other things).  The mere word 'spirituality', however, naturally denotes a state of our existence, not a body of practices, peoples, or beliefs.  Indeed, its closest equivalent is not religion, but fleshliness, (just as the closest equivalent of 'spiritual' is not '[non]-religious' but 'corporeal' or 'fleshly').  

When someone says that they are spiritual, not religious, then, I always get a bit confused: it's like someone telling that they've got brown eyes, not blonde hair.  And I can't help but think 'of course you're spiritual; you're corporeal too, unless I'm talking to a ghost.  I don't see, however, how this can be linked to your not being religious.'  And I then begin wondering how they are trying to use the word, and what this says about the dangers of spirituality: I begin to wonder what this Spirit of which they are speaking actually is.

So, let's look at how the term 'spirituality' might be being used.  In my (admittedly limited) experience, it seems to be geared towards the practice of bringing the self into harmony or union with the spirit.  This can be accomplished through meditation, contemplation, and reflection (things which I am all for, prima facie).  These allow 'the ego' to better understand its true (spiritual) nature, and so allow the individual to live in peace as a spiritual being.  

Taking this account to be true (which it may not be), I have four concrete objections to it, both in general and as I have seen it practice.  The first is that its account of spirit is false, and follows from a philosophical confusion.  The second is that a consequence of this is the idealising of certain aspects of individual existence, to the detriment of individuality.  The third is that the type of practice which follows from this false account renders what is supposed to be spiritual very un-spiritual, in presuming it to be a scientific practice (in a very loose sense of the word).  The fourth is that all of these combined most readily point to a way of life which falls into self-interest, self-indulgence, and self-satisfaction (this is not a crime, nor something either uniquely or unusually true of spirituality, but it is worth noting).  I will conclude by noting one way in which religion is, I believe, a spiritual practice, as it offers an account of the Spirit which is free of 'spirituality'.

1: Flawed Philosophy

The Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein writes that 'where our language suggests a body and there is none: there, we should like to say, is a spirit. PI 36'  He is writing, in his bizarrely poetic fashion, about our mistaken tendency to appeal to mental processes to explain the essence which binds certain facets of our daily living together, even though these facets appear to have no one thing in common.  His point, however, holds here, if it holds at all: it seems to me that our use of the term 'spirit' here arises from a confusion produced in the term 'ego' or 'self' (this argument is, I think, very similar to Gilbert Ryle's in Ghost in the Machine: I haven't read that book, so I apologise for any direct plagiarism).  

I believe it true to say that the experiences of different individuals are diverse, not just in matter, but in form: it is not just that the content of our experiences are different, it is that our experiences of what it is to be a person, to be a 'self' are different.  I would go so far as to suggest that it is possible to find a small group of people whose senses of self have no one thing or group of things in common.  Their 'egos' are all constituted in different ways and characterised in different fashions.  

If this is the case, however, then how are we to understand the term 'self', or 'ego'?  These terms seem to function much like our normal object words, like 'chair' or 'bed' or 'person': fixed into our typical grammar, they suggest a body, something unified in itself which is then shared by others.  If the above is true, however, no visible body appears forthcoming: there is no obvious one thing it is to be a 'self'.  And so, we should like to say, 'self' is not constituted by something visible, but by 'spirit'.  

'Spirit' here is what we all have in common, beneath all our differences.  It is a theoretical hypostasis necessitated and posited by an outlook which feels the need to explain unity in terms of commonality.  Because it is necessitated by that outlook at the ground level, however, it is beyond testing: it is theoretical in a grammatical (crudely: what we need to be true for anything to be true), not an empirical sense.  As such it can occupy an insidiously entrenched position within that worldview.  

The worldview itself, however, is false, and its theoretical posits are distortions and misunderstandings (or so Wittgenstein, among others, would ferociously argue).  Insofar as our initial account of spirit stems from a need to unify our senses of self by appeal to a common substance then, it is flawed from the start.  

2: Threat to Individuality

One effect of this kind of thought is that it can pick out particular aspects of 'self' and then impute them onto the supposed substance, in this case 'spirit'.  They thus become substantial qualities, necessary for a true sense of selfhood.  The practice of spirituality then becomes the realisation of these qualities in our own selves: for if these are the qualities of 'spirit', and we do not have them, then our selves are divorced in some sense from our 'spirit' (n.b.: we first derived 'spirit' from a belief of how 'self' must be, and are now adjudicating the state of that 'self' in terms of how close it comes to our sense of 'spirit').  

The problem with this is that these substantial qualities, these qualities of spirit, are just aspects.  They may well be there in a lot of cases, and a lot of them may well be good, but they are not therefore in and of themselves essential to a healthy spirit!  If we idealise them across all of 'spirit' however, we distort both them and what we wish to speak about.  Worse, we can forget that a difference of sense of self at a formal (not just a material) level need not be indicative of poor health: we can trample over that formal individuality in the name of the 'true substance' of our 'spirit'.  We can exclude genuine ways of existence in the name of our account of existence.

To give an example, I believe Ignatian spirituality to be guilty of this: without going into too much detail (I will do so elsewhere), and without denying that it has been helpful to many people, this spirituality stems from one person looking into himself and emerging with a substantive account of 'spirit' and its movements.  The session we had on it, however, convinced me that this substantive account had merely taken an aspect of personhood, removed it from context, and then drawn it out as the only possible/true account of what it is to be a person and to navigate the perils of the spiritual life.  (I can hear someone saying that Ignatian spirituality is supposed to function for diversity; I am claiming that, whatever it is supposed to do, its structure is such that it runs counter to this intention.)

3: Unspiritual Spirituality

Once we have our substantive account of 'spirit', and most importantly our accounts of what it is to be a healthy and an unhealthy 'spirit', we can move to spiritual practices.  The belief, as far as I can see, is that by doing certain things we can achieve certain ends.  And this belief is based on empirical prediction, very similar to that which properly underwrites modern empirical science.  Thus we have, however much the name might be protested, a science of 'spirit'.

The problem here now becomes what we have left when our 'spirit' has been cast as a machine: one where if you pull a certain lever [meditate a certain way], you'll more probably than not attain a certain result [spiritual harmony].  Here we have the true peril of the ghost in the machine: not that it is a theoretical posit based on a categorical error, but that once you have a machine you've obliterated the ghost.  

If we have a religious sense of the Spirit in Christian religion, however, it is that which underwrites and undermines the limits of possibility, and so predictability: it is that which moves mountains and sends camels through the eyes of needles.  This is the Spirit of which Scripture speaks (or so it seems to me): the moment that account of Spirit is usurped and mechanised into the 'spirit' of contemporary spirituality, however, our account is of something else.  And insofar as the spirit we have is the gift of God, is the Holy Spirit, our account cannot thereby be true of ourselves as we are in-and-of-ourselves: it has to be true of God first.  As soon as we seek to predict the movement of God's Spirit within us by means of our anthropological spirituality, we have ensured that the 'spirit' of which we speak is something else entirely.

4: A Pseudo-Scientific Religion of Self

Which brings me to my final claim: that our account of spirituality can (and does) have the effect of turning us away from God.  First of all, it can give us a false picture of who God is.  Second, it can give us a false picture of what God wills.

First off, we have the self-deification which can occur when we say that the 'spirit' within us is the image of God, literally the God-within-us, such that we are in ourselves little Gods (look to Tillich and/or MacQuarrie for a nuanced academic version, to Google for others). The litany of logical and theological errors here is too long to list in an already long post: let us just note that even if this argument were valid, so long as the image of God is supposed to be the 'spirit' of contemporary spirituality, the effect would be nothing more than the deification of a philosophically flawed account of human self-consciousness.  This account sees Christ as the highest manifestation of human possibility, the one who fulfilled most fully that first commandment of 'know thyself' (as opposed to the old and outdated actual first commandment of 'you shall not have any gods before me').  And what, meanwhile, can this god of self-consciousness will other than a primary 'love yourself', out of which we can then derive a secondary love of neighbour?

And here is the true danger of spirituality, in my view: that ethics therefore becomes a self-help guide, filled with vapid platitudes and the belief that as long as you are at one with your 'spirit' and helping others to do the same, all will be well and all things shall be well.  The ultimate goal of Christian living, however, is not the spiritual wellbeing of Christians right here and right now: if that comes about, it is a gift from God much the same as food for sparrows.  The ultimate goal of Christian living is the worship of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, which can then be dissimilated into the love of neighbour, the desire for communion, and a radical turning outwards (neither of these three descriptions should be considered ultimate: they are just practical expressions).  Everything else is secondary.  (This is not to say that we should give in to self-flagellation, never take care of ourselves, or seek to therefore hate ourselves that we might better love others: here's a link to my piece on Self-Care and Cross Carrying on that topic!)

Final: A Spirit Without Spirituality

I'm going to end by saying that I don't think the term 'spiritual' is necessarily destructive or false: Scripture tells us that we are spiritual beings, both as we are created and as we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  Furthermore, there are genuine spiritual experiences, both mystical and mundane, which have formed people's lives in unique and wonderful ways.  This post is not an attempt to argue against the existence of a spiritual reality: just an attempt to argue, among other things, that efforts to systematise this reality in a pseudo-scientific manner on the basis of poor philosophy can only give a very unspiritual account of that reality. 

I am also going to say, and describe, how I think organised religion can help us recognise the contingency and unpredictability of that Spirit: by training us not to try and predict its movement, but focussing us instead on the God whose Spirit it is.  (This is partly why I made a distinction between spirituality and religion at the start of the piece: the two are such categorically different practices (one geared toward self, the other towards worship of God) that placing them on par will risk fracturing dialogue from the beginning.)

Religious liturgy, especially traditional liturgy, is wildly unspiritual in itself: it is, after all, just words on a page, movements in a building, bread and wine handed over an altar rail.  It cannot capture the Spirit, and so it can easily (even when carried out with the best intention) feel stultifying.  Yet it turns us towards God: it forces us, without having to subscribe to a general anthropology or potted spirituality, to confess to, to thank, to worship, to pray, to focus on God.  And so it turns us towards the actual Spirit, the Holy Spirit that is God, one of three which are one in three: the Spirit who must act in us if we are to act spiritually, the Spirit we cannot control or predict or manipulate, the Spirit we cannot account for by means of either calculation or meditation.  It turns us towards a Spirit free of spirituality, which can disturb and distress just as it comforts and heals.  It turns us towards that which is outside of us, and so towards the object of the Spirit's love: our neighbour in God.  

We may, of course, leave Church unsatisfied: we may say that we had a profoundly unspiritual experience.  But that's the point: if we could guarantee that church will be spiritual, it wouldn't be Spiritual and it wouldn't be Church.  And so as we leave Church unsatisfied, as we leave it inspired, as we leave it having been encountered by God or not, we must leave praying: Father, take not your Holy Spirit from us.  For it is this Spirit which saves us: not the pseudo-scientific phantasm posited by a society yearning for a body in which to ground faith. 


(Disclaimer: I'm not trying to say that any and all attempts to make worship engaging to different types of people, or deviations from High Anglican worship, are therefore idolatrous heresy :P).