Thursday, 1 March 2018

Spiritual but not religious CLARE McARDLE

Spiritual but not religious : independent? interdependent? identical?

John Olsen, 'Delta'

On Thursday the 1st of March, the Carmelite Spiritual Learning Circle met in the Library to discuss questions about how we distinguish between religion and spirituality. Here are Clare McArdle’s notes for conversation starters. Quotes throughout are sourced in the closing bibliography.

Have you heard people say that they are spiritual but not religious and wondered what they mean by it?

Does it reflect the decline in traditional church membership and a rejection of authority and dogma while at the same time acknowledging that there is something else, something non-material that requires our attention?

·         How do we distinguish between religion and spirituality?
o   Do they refer to a body of knowledge, beliefs, attitudes, orientation towards life, practices, a human capacity?
o   The way we source our beliefs? From some external authority such as a church, scripture, through the exercise of our own reason, from our individual experiences, feelings and emotions?
o   The purpose or function of such beliefs or attitudes? Are they about finding the god/spirit within or without; creating meaning or hope in our lives; providing a moral and ethical framework?
o   What is the type of practice required to develop and maintain one’s religion or spirituality? Communal, social, personal, individualistic?

Some descriptions of the ideas of ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’


William James summed up the characteristics of religious life as having the following beliefs:
1.      That the visible world is part of a more spiritual universe from which it draws its chief significance;
2.      That harmonious relation with that higher universe is our true end;
3.      That inner communion (prayer) with the spirit is a process wherein work is really done, and spiritual energy flows in and produces effects, psychological or material, within the phenomenal world. ( James p. 528)

The High Court of Australia proposed the following test for religious groups in 1983 as:
1.      a belief in something supernatural, some reality beyond that which can be conceived by the senses;
2.      that the belief in question relates to man’s nature and place in the universe and his relationship to things supernatural;
3.      as a result of this belief adherents are required or encouraged to observe particular codes of conduct or engage in particular practices that have supernatural significance; and
4.      the adherents comprise one or more identifiable groups. (Bouma p. 8)
“These High Court criteria reflect Australian community understandings: that religions focus on things beyond the material, beliefs locating the human in the cosmos, practices related to these beliefs and the formation of a group of adherents.” (Bouma p. 8)
John Caputo On religion argues that “there is a fundamentally religious quality to human experience itself” regardless of whether you identify yourself within a particular religious tradition or see yourself as an atheist.  Caputo believes that there is a deeply religious element within us all with or without religion. (p. 109)

Bouma continues,  – “one of the most basic functions of religion and spirituality at all times is to provide hope.  While in the past religions may have also been called on to promote allegiance to the state or duty to society, today in Australia the focus is on hope. …Religious meaning addresses the issue ‘what is the point in anything, life, work, love or getting up in the morning?’  At the very least spiritualities work by saying that effort, even if that is the cessation of striving, is worthwhile and that the universe is in some way, regardless of the vast evidence to the contrary, essentially friendly.  Spiritualities say that by attending to the more-than-physical in your life you will become attuned with the universe and as a result will be happier, healthier and wealthier – at least spiritually if not monetarily.  Through encounters with otherness, self is affirmed, connected and made to feel part of a larger whole”. (Bouma p. 18)

“The religious and spiritual is not primarily about meaning but is a set of activities that promotes hope, if only by getting the person moving.” (Bouma p. 25)


 ‘For many people, ‘spirituality’ is in the private realm: ‘my’ way of seeking meaning, connection and a certain centeredness in life.”  (Ranson p. 10)

“As it is used in Australia today, the ‘spiritual’ refers to an experiential journey of encounter and relationship with otherness, with powers, forces and beings beyond the scope of everyday life.  To be spiritual is to be open to this ‘more than’ in life, to expect to encounter it and to expect to relate to it.” (Bouma p. 12)

Bouma states, “Thus, while some see spirituality as essentially an individual activity and reflective of cultures of individualism, spirituality always involves the self in relation with some other and indeed is more profoundly relational than it is individual.  Like religions, spiritualities can be transforming and may raise ethical issues.” (Bouma p. 12-13)

Ranson - our sense of ‘spirituality’ arises from whether we have a Hebrew or Greek orientation.  If our orientation is towards the Greek we will conceive the ‘spiritual’ as immaterial, beyond matter, supersensory, ethereal – connection with a ‘spiritual’ world.  If we lean towards the Hebrew then we associate  ‘spirituality’ with force and energy, a vitality in life, a ‘coming awake’, an increased awareness about life and a deepened sensitivity to its murmurs and rhythms. (Ranson p. 17)

Ranson adopts the Hebrew approach.

Spirituality is a certain awakening to life that relates us more deeply to life.  The imagination is opened to new possibility.  Life can be seen and heard in a new way.  There is the recognition that there are deeper currents operating in life.  There are dimensions of life yet to be explored, all of which offer greater depth, connection, centredness and wholeness.” (p. 17)

Spirituality and secularism

According to van Ness this has two standpoints:  the first a sociological one where persons describe themselves as spiritual but holding no truck with religion or religious beliefs and the second is philosophical which allows that being religious is not a necessary condition for being spiritual and a secular spirituality is neither validated nor invalidated by religious varieties of spirituality.  It assumes that spirituality can be at least theoretically distinguishable from both a religious spirituality and a conception of secular life that is not spiritual. (van Ness p. 68)

A spiritual life is hypothesized to have an outer and an inner complexion.  Outwards – we assume human existence is spiritual insofar “as it engages reality as a maximally inclusive whole and makes the cosmos an intentional object of thought and feeling.” (68)  Inwards – “life has a spiritual dimension to the extent that it is apprehended as a project of one’s most enduring and vital self, and is structured by experiences of sudden self-transformation and subsequent gradual development”. (68)  In this sense the spiritual dimension of life “becomes equitable with the lived task of realizing  one’s truest self in the context of reality apprehended as a cosmic totality.  It is the quest for attaining an optimal relationship between what one truly is and everything that is; it is a quest that can be promoted by apt regimens of disciplined behavior.” (van Ness p. 69)

Van Ness sees the core of spirituality as understanding the world as a cosmic whole and the self as an enduring agent and these are not directly indebted to religion. (van Ness p. 71)

Others may speak of seeing the world clearly as though a veil has been pulled away, for example in Amanda Lohrey’s novel The short history of Richard Kline (2015)  in which a character  refers to ‘a cosmic consciousness, a form of intelligence that pervades everything…you swim in the ocean of that consciousness like a fish in the sea’. (Mackay p. 158)

Spirituality “cannot exist in a vacuum.” (Ranson p. 59)  The history of spirituality shows its connection to various religious traditions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity and even within those traditions there are different spiritualities.  In Christianity we can see two traditions of kataphatic (those discovering the presence of God through senses and imagery) and apophatic (those focusing on negation, silence and darkness). “ Ranson (p 59)  “Spirituality cannot exist apart from context: …it emerges from the heart of particular contexts.” Ranson (p. 59) This is so because 1) context provides the trigger points of transcendence ; they provide “different moments of awakening” and
2) spirituality is essentially a cultural experience. (Ranson p. 62)

Finding religious or spiritual truth via faith

Religious truth is a different sort of truth to scientific truth.  The faithful do not cognitively know what they believe by faith in any epistemologically rigorous way.  In that sense while “faith gives the faithful a way to view things, they are not lifted by the hook of faith above the fray of conflicting points of view.  They do not enjoy certain cognitive privileges and epistemic advantages of which others have been deprived, and their beliefs are not entitled to special treatment outside their own communities” (Caputo p. 111).

St Paul: “Knowledge puffs up but loves builds up.  Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by Him” (1 Cor.8:1-2) ( Caputo p. 111)

“Religious truth is not the truth of propositions” it belongs to a different order (Caputo p. 114). As St Augustine called it the “facere veritatem the making or doing the truth and particularly if it requires the impossible of us.  To say God is love means that we must get up and make that happen, we must do the word.  Religious truth is a deed not a thought, it is something that demands our response.  It is a truth without cognitive knowledge. “ (Caputo p. 115)

Faith is also unnervingly fragile. Partly because of the many formulations of the several faiths, the multiplicity of religious traditions and history but also by “the tragic sense of life” – summed up by asking is there anyone out there who cares? (Caputo p. 118)

Faith is tested against this tragic sense of life.  But for some (fundamentalists) faith is not sufficient, it is too fragile and hence needs to repress any questioning of that faith.  Faith is always haunted by the cosmic forces  - natural disasters, murderous hearts and murderous regimes.  Faith is faith when we can say some things are evil, are wrong and we have hope that we can change and transform the future.  (Caputo p. 125)

God is love or is it love is God?  We cannot know which comes first, which is a translation of which. We are left in a state of passion and non-knowing.  “Undecidability is the reason that faith is faith and not Knowledge and the way that faith can be true without Knowledge”.  It is because we do not know what is really going on, that faith, hope and love are called for and demand to be done (Caputo p. 128).

“Beliefs are ideas, concepts, or propositions concerning a religious tradition, which are formalized from the experience of ‘faith’ and adopted by the individual or group.  ‘belief ‘ may be a response to ‘faith’, but ‘faith’ is more than a set of beliefs.  ‘Faith’ is the experience of the individual, not a system of dogmas to be accepted.  It is a way of seeing, a consciousness of another dimension. ‘Belief’ centres on humanly developed propositions, but ‘faith’ is a relationship of trust in or loyalty to some experience, about which ‘beliefs’ are fashioned”.  (Webb p. 3)

How can we know whether such ‘beliefs’ or ‘faiths’ are not misguided? 

In Christian terms, spirituality “cannot be entirely private.  It exists within systems of religious discourse or behavior – even if these, in some cases, are implicit rather than expressed in membership of some faith community”. (Sheldrake p. 61)

Ranson - important to recognize that not all contexts in which spirituality emerges is good or healthy.  “We have seen …how fascination with the occult emerges out of a very defined background of powerlessness. Or how a misguided national spirituality can turn demonic.” [Nazism] (Ranson p. 70)   To avoid this Ranson suggests  asking whether any  given spirituality:
·         “increases our participation in life and affirms the material as the doorway of the spiritual?
·         Resists anything that would….’truncate our humanity, mutilate our sensitivities or stifle our imagination’?
·         frees consciousness from the superficial, the absurd, the tragically alienated, into a sense of the dynamic, interrelated whole?
·         Confronts us with reality, especially the reality of our own selves?
·         Does not superimpose an ‘ideal’ situation and, therefore, appeal to guilt, but works to extend ‘what is’, little by little?
·         A process of transfiguration of the heart and invites a deeper connection with ourselves, the world and with others?
·         Is accessible to all? (unlike a cult with the ‘chosen’) (Ranson p 71-73)

 Relationship between religion and spirituality?

Ranson adopts Canadian philosopher, Bernard Lonergan’s four core activities of consciousness to develop a cycle of spirituality that connects with religion.  The four core activities are attending, inquiring, interpreting and acting.  Very broadly the first two can be seen as core to spirituality and the last two to religions. ( See Ranson’s diagram on p. 19 for an explanation.)

Carmelite Library call numbers in bold

Bouma, Gary 2006)   Australian soul; religion and spirituality in the twenty-first century. Cambridge University Press.  (279.4B752A)

Caputo, John D. (2001)          On religion. London & New York; Routledge.  (Thinking in action series)  (200 C255)

James, William (2002) The varieties of religious experience; a study in human nature.  Being the Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion delivered at Edinburgh in 1901-1902.  New York: The Modern Library. 

Mackay, Hugh (2016)             Beyond belief. Sydney: Macmillan. (247.285 M153)

Ranson, David (2002)             Across the great divide; bridging spirituality and religion today. Strathfield, NSW; St Pauls publications.  (248.98 R212)

Sheldrake, Philip (1998)         Spirituality and theology; Christian living and the doctrine of God.  London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd.  (Trinity and truth series ed Stephen Sykes) (247.04 S544Sa)

Van Ness, Peter H.     “Spirituality and secularity” in The Way Supplement no 73. Spring 1992, pp68-79. (‘held’ in the Carmelite library stack)

Webb, Val (1995)       In defense of doubt; an invitation to adventure. St. Louis, Missouri: Chalice Press.

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