What does it mean to be “spiritual”?

October 25, 2007

Just wondering.

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14 Responses to “What does it mean to be “spiritual”?”

  1. Dave Bonta Says:

    “I’m spiritual, but not religious” I think means, “I enjoy imagining that my life has a larger purpose, but I resent being told I should modify my behavior or lifestyle as a consequence.”

  2. sheepdays Says:

    Well said, Dave. I might add that the imagined or felt “larger purpose” may express itself in a more relational way, i.e., one feels part of a larger network of interconnectedness, which more than likely has a purpose. And the resulting resentment because of the demands of the behavior and lifestyle modifiers is the kind of reaction that is understandable and also frustrating to establishment insiders like myself. Some time I will write a post about why I am a Christian.

    Really, though, my question about what it means to be spiritual was put too vaguely. I had so-called religious people in mind. For instance, what does it mean for Christians who already go to church more or less regularly to claim that they want to be more spiritual? Do they want more contact with the original feeling of higher purpose that Dave mentions? Do they want to feel like all their ritual is actually getting them somewhere? Do they seek out some sort of wisdom that seems to be eluding them?

    What got me thinking about this was a men’s retreat that my current congregation will be going on this weekend (without me due to other commitments). The theme is “living spiritually on a daily basis.” The pastor told me today that they are going to be exploring what the Bible has to say about day-to-day spiritual practices. A week or so ago, when I learned of the theme, I admit that my initial reaction was that the Bible says next to nothing about my modern concept of “spirituality.” Hence the question. What does the word mean as we use it, and where did it come from?

    I have plenty of book-learnin’ on this subject and can talk about the Wesleyans and the holiness movements of the 19th century, I can discuss the different types of contemplative practices of our monasteries, I can outline liberal Christianity’s impulse for human self-improvement and the subsequent and inevitable neo-Orthodox backlash, I can even–if pushed–think of a few biblical scenes of Jesus praying while alone.

    But a major part of me feels defiantly “religious but not spiritual.” For example, one “praise song” I’ve heard repeatedly intones, “I want to know you more,” referring, of course, to knowledge of God. I guess I get the basic sentiment of this lyric, but I worry that it is ultimately dangerous. The church of Christ gives us ritual to please God, to teach our innermost selves a kind of religious muscle memory, and perhaps to protect us from the terrible mysterium tremens of the holy. In one sense, I am saying that behavior and lifestyle modification is it: that’s what being spiritual is. Any transcendent feelings are welcome, but not expected, especially not on any sort of regular basis. “Going through the motions” is the best I’ve got on most days–it is my religion. Maybe I don’t want to get “spiritual” because I know that I will fail.

  3. Little Mary Says:

    these are times i wonder if we were separated at birth.i want my match.com profile to say religious not spiritual. i have been thinking a lot of this lately…actually since you said it in class that one day. i can get quite dogmatic about my beliefs, and i am pretty systematic. and i think people are missing out if they can’t find their own systematic theology. and at the same time i wonder how much of it is a head exercise and how much a heart exercise. i don’t know. been thinking of htis a lot. i wish you would post more often…

  4. Tinman Says:

    You wrote: The church of Christ gives us ritual to please God, to teach our innermost selves a kind of religious muscle memory, and perhaps to protect us from the terrible mysterium tremens of the holy.
    The ritual is to please God? Why does God need us to perform rituals? God gave us ritual (and wired our brains to respond to it) as a way for us to get closer to the Holy Spirit. (Sorry to get Trinitarian it was easier than finding a gender neutral term for God.) Ritual is a gift!

    You wrote: Do they want more contact with the original feeling of higher purpose… ritual is actually getting them somewhere… wisdom that seems to be eluding them?
    I say yes, yes, and yes. With some caveats. For me, I’m trying simply to get closer to God. Worship, lectio divina, prayer, meditation, eucharist (none of which I do regularly) are all, sorry to get Wesleyan: Means of Grace. They are, simply, ways to get closer to God. Emphasis on simply. Those of us with “book learnin'” try to understand stuff with our brains. We get close. But sometimes we have to get past trying to understand stuff and simply get back to basics. A great Theologian (my Mom) once said. “That’s why it’s called Faith!” That is why we have ritual. It’s time to stop thinking so much and just do it and allow the ritual to carry us along…

  5. Tinman Says:

    BTW, I know of your “other commitments” and have been keeping you in my thoughts and prayers…

  6. Tinman Says:

    Ok How’s this for a “book learnin'” answer.

    To be spiritual is to allow kairos to intrude upon chronos.

    – with thanks to Martin Buber and Pamela Cooper-White.


  7. Do you suppose they’re going all Gnostic on you? I’m not sure what “spiritual” means in these contexts, but I suspect Dave is right about a desire for good feelings, or exciting insights, or revelation without difficult personal consequences. LSD was touted in my day, but a wish for exotic and instantly effective practices springs up again and again.

    And of course, we all want to feel special.

  8. Charles Says:

    To be “speer’chul” is to have 30 years worth of perfect attendance pins in Sunday School.

    Being spiritual is the process of locating, becoming acquainted with, and developing the part of self that will eventually break free of chronos to which Tinman refers.

  9. sheepdays Says:

    Little Mary–I thought you were off match.com! I believe in systematic thought as well as a an important means of self-knowledge and of social roles. I think I understand what you mean by head/heart but am not always sure that I can tell the difference in my own experience.

    Tinman, thanks for the various and valuable comments (and for the prayers for Alex). Ritual pleases God because it is a blessed part of human life, whose purpose, as the divines noted, is to worship and enjoy God forever. And, as you write, it is better to let rituals carry us than for us to attempt to carry them. But they only carry us, I contend, when a social tradition with its own institutions supports them with history. Nice move with the kairos-chronos distinction, but the question remains, what does this look like? How is this achieved?

    Charles, you approximate an answer with the Sunday School pins, one that is very attractive to me. Like I said in my first looong comment, “going through the motions” is nothing to sneeze at.

    Rebecca, I brought a bunch of smelly younger teens to a Jr. High youth retreat at a Presbyterian camp once. The keynote speaker started his presentation by saying, “Hi. I’m Kenny, and I’m God’s gift to this earth.” By the end of his talk, he had somehow convinced these pimply, hormone-ridden kids that they also were special gifts. The trouble, of course, is that church camp is “spiritual” while Jr. High is not. But one way or another, I hope that we all will get to the point where we can affirm the quotidian specialness of the creature. It is different than the exotic or the gnostic (or the trippy!).

  10. sheepdays Says:

    Thanks to Tinman for linking to this post. He has started a related conversation at his blog.

  11. Alex Says:

    I think that the “spiritual not religious” phrase says that the individual is not interested in the rigors of life in a religious community. I think that the religious life is one that requires practice.

  12. Matt Says:

    my short, and late answer in this thread, is that spiritual practice is an effort to somehow feel what they believe, or strive to believe.

  13. Patty Says:

    i realize that this is an old thread, but i just tripped over it and thought to respond…

    spiritual, if seen with the perspective that it let’s one off the hook ethically/morally, is of course, that.

    that is a prejudicial read of the word, in my opinion. i see it more simply as looking inward towards anything beyond the 3 dimensions, but still even including the impact on the 3 dimensions (ie. physical).

    this is an interesting sight.

  14. sheepdays Says:

    Hi, Patty. Lately this blog has sort of been on hold, but thanks very much for reading and contributing.


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