What do we seek when we seek spirituality or a religious community? It’s a difficult question because the terms “spiritual” and “religious” are so vague and broad; many people mean many very different things with each term. But if we don’t even know what spirituality is, then how can we seek it? How do we know if we’ve found it?
Now I certainly won’t propose to dictate the definition for such an old and complex term, but I think that a historical comparison can shed some light on this question and help us understand what we may mean by “spirituality”. In short, like many terms, I think this one’s meaning has shifted and changed over the centuries. And that shift itself can tell us a lot about ourselves and what we may be seeking when we seek the spiritual.
If one reads a traditional religious text, whether its an account of the life of Siddhartha Guatama the Buddha, or one of the gospels describing the ministry of Jesus Christ, one will find a common theme: strangers come up to the teacher seeking knowledge, truth, or peace. They assume the teacher has some kind of special wisdom, and they want to learn that wisdom. The student tends to assume that they will need to submit to a certain kind of discipline in order to access or attain to this wisdom, and they also tend to put real trust and authority in the teacher.
Consider, for example, Matthew 19:16-22:
Then someone came to him and said, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ He said to him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus said, ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ The young man said to him, ‘I have kept all these; what do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
This young man comes to Jesus to ask him how to attain eternal life–a spiritual question if ever there was one! And he clearly thinks that Jesus has some kind of information or wisdom that he, the young man, lacks. Jesus has authority, and this young man recognizes it, and seeks to learn from it. Notice too that when Jesus gives him the answer to his question, the young man grieves because he doesn’t like it–but he doesn’t argue with Jesus. He seems to accept the strength of Jesus’s authority, even if he isn’t pleased by the outcome.
Now, how easily could we imagine this scene in a 21st century church, synagogue, temple, or other religious community? Do we expect people today to approach spiritual communities or teachers with this same attitude? I don’t think so. Spirituality today, generally speaking, has a rather different quality. It’s not marked by this student-teacher relationship, but is rather generally presented as a personal quest that an individual engages in more or less on their own. Indeed, if spirituality in the past was more or less equivalent to seeking wisdom, spirituality today might be summarized as equivalent to “self-actualization”.
Obviously this is a generalization, and it therefore won’t apply to every spiritual “seeker”. But I think it’s accurate enough to apply to many and indeed perhaps most seekers in the West. If this is so, two questions arise: first, why has this happened? And secondly, is it good or bad?
The first question is as important as it is complicated, and I won’t endeavor here to try and give some exhaustive social explanation for why spiritual and religious life has changed over the last few centuries. Needless to say, spirituality is not the only thing that has changed over this timespan, and so we might guess that spirituality has changed precisely because society has changed so much overall. Political, technological, cultural, economic, and other aspects of our lives have been transformed since the 17th century. So it stands to reason that our understanding of spirituality, the problems that spirituality is meant to solve, and the means by which it might to do so will also have changed. If spirituality is always a human response to questions of meaning, then as human lives change, then it makes sense that human means of interpreting meaning and purpose will adjust as well.
The second question–Is this change good, or not?–is complicated as well. Answering this question will ultimately involve us taking a closer look at what each of us really thinks spirituality is all about. Before we go there, however, let’s survey the ground we want to cover:
First off, if we reflect on this question for a moment, we should see that we are unlikely to have a straightforward answer. We might–and, I think, should–expect to find that this change in spirituality is good in some ways, and not so good in others. We should resist simplistic and polarized answers to such a serious question.
In particular, we might say that this change in spirituality is good for one of the historical reasons it probably arose–the corruption, hypocrisy, and abuse of power by religious authorities. Many people today, quite understandably, have little trust for clergy or other religious teachers, and so what I have presented as the old model of student-teacher spirituality might immediately appear to them as inherently problematic. Furthermore, many people are suspicious of anyone who seems to take spirituality or religious faith too seriously, and assumes that they are up to something devious. This speaks, to some extent, to the cynicism of our age, but it can’t be denied that that cynicism has its root in real, and tragic, experience. Stories of sexual abuse, financial corruption, and egoism among religious leaders are all too common to deny. So, perhaps spirituality has changed because the old approach was inherently broken? Perhaps the authority entrusted to religious leaders was always a mistake?
Doubtless this lack of trust and the reality of religious hypocrisy has played its role. Yet we might just as easily turn the tables around, and ask about the social and material basis for the rise in individual-centered self-help spirituality. First, as a general observation, we might point out that such spirituality seems self-centered and even selfish at its core; spirituality in this form often looks like little more than an effort by an individual to cover their own opinions and interests with the mantle of the numinous. Secondly, we might go further and argue that this mode of spirituality actually reflects a very specific set of economic and cultural values and perspectives: that it arose from, and reinforces, a certain kind of middle-class or bourgeois attitude towards society and reality. If this is true, then modern spirituality is not an inherently liberatory or postive thing, a progress in response to changing circumstances, but actually an effort to shape individuals and society in particular ways. We might ask who wins and who loses under such a model of the spiritual or religious.
Thirdly and finally, we might ask whether the individually-focused spirituality actually solves the problems it seems targeted at solving. Does it really challenge religious hypocrisy, corruption, and abuse? When we think of such modes of spirituality, movements like the Prosperity Gospel or pseudo-Eastern self-help communities come to mind–and such communities are actually rife with deception, egomania, and hero-worship. And even when such a spirituality seems to work as advertised, it seems to replace an out-sized authority and respect for an elder with an even more out-sized authority and respect for ones own self. It’s not immediately clear that this is necessarily an improvement.
Nonetheless, even if one is fundamentally opposed to the changes in the way spirituality is conceived of and sought, it would be foolish to simply dismiss the changes as bad across-the-board, or as having no value. Ultimately, to address the question of whether this change in spirituality is basically good or not, I think we need to address what, at root, we really mean by spirituality in the first place.
In seeking to answer this question for ourselves, we might find that the two models of spirituality we explored above: the old and the new, the traditional-authority model and the self-actualizing model, actually reflect not just differing historical and social contexts, but actually differing sets of values. Do we fundamentally believe that human life is a search for Truth (with a capital “T”!) or do we fundamentally believe that human life should be centered on personal fulfillment, pleasure, and comfort?
Such questions should be taken seriously, for they reveal ever deeper layers of philosophical concern. Some people today, for example, might deny, right off the bat, there there really is any Truth to seek in the first place. For such people, the above questions will have been answered before they were even asked. To recognize this level of the question about spirituality is to address topics like postmodern thought and what, exactly, is the modernism to which postmodernism is responding to and critiquing. In the interest of brevity, I will not attempt to address such a thorny topic here and now, but I want to conclude both by promising to address this question in a future post (or posts) and also by encouraging you, the reader, to reflect on your own values and assumptions when it comes to these big-ticket questions. What do we value, at a foundational level? What do we really care about? I think our questions about the nature of spirituality in the 21st century will be answered by these more fundamental questions.