Serious Spirituality

There was an article last week in the Huffington Post by Jay Michaelson titled Will Spirituality Ever Be Serious? It is an intriguing piece that deserves looking at in full. The purpose of this article by the author is to point out two reasons that spirituality is viewed in a poor light and then offer some ways to correct this.

First, I need to point out that Jay Michaelson makes a distinction between spirituality and religion. Most Christians wouldn’t really see a difference between these two. From what I read in his article the difference between the two mainly seems to revolve around the notion that religion requires some form of regular attendance at a Church, Synagogue, Mosque, etc. Whereas a spiritual practice is something an individual can practice completely on their own. Remember, these are not necessarily his definitions of the two, but that are what I gathered from reading his article.

The first reason he gives for spirituality not being taken seriously is this that “spirituality makes claims to transformation” and he defines transformation as “a growth beyond one’s previous limits.” The problem that he sees is very often that this transformation is really nothing more than a way to please one’s self. In other words, a person deludes his or herself into thinking they are doing this spiritual thing to grow spiritually when all they are truly doing it for is to enjoy one’s self. The second problem that he noted with current spirituality is that it often times “involves a lot of hoo-hah.” Interestingly, he doesn’t just dismiss hoo-hah in spirituality, but criticizes those who “rush to supernatural explanations for entirely natural phenomena.”

Following his diagnosis of these two problems of “messy thinking and self-aggrandizement,” he offers four tips to help bring some seriousness back to spirituality. The first tip he gives is that there must be an understanding that “spiritual work is part of being a well-rounded person.” Part of his explanation of this seems to imply that a person cannot be well rounded if they lack spirituality in their lives.

“If we are serious about spirituality’s worth, then we should be serious about doing it” is Jay Michaelson’s second tip. He believes that people should be as serious about their spirituality as they are about going to the gym; that spirituality is not to be viewed as a hobby.

His third pointer is that “spiritual integrity and intellectual integrity should be allies, not enemies.” In other words, one should be intellectually honest about their spirituality. This means that those who are spiritual should critically evaluate claims from gurus and holistic healers.

His last big piece of advice is that those practicing spirituality need to realize that “the self is the object of the practice.” He likens it to going to the gym; the body is the focus of the workout so people go to the gym even when they don’t feel like it. So to should people practice their spirituality even when they don’t feel like it.

Now, there are some things to note about his article. One thing to take away from this is that spirituality is alive and well in America. There seems to be a pervasive understanding that religion is dead in America and that all too often makes Christians squirm mish. It is very easy to begin a discussion about spiritual matters because a lot of people are still “spiritual” although they may not be religious. I think that Christians will begin to have much more success in their talks about Christianity if they would first begin by only talking about spirituality. After the discussion progresses enough, then one can lead into Christianity in particular.

Likewise, many people believe and want to be better people (a.k.a. well-rounded). If this is why they pursue their particular spiritual practice, push them on this a little. Ask them how that’s going for them? Ask them why that matters? What goal do they have in mind by becoming a better person? Most likely, these will all be difficult questions for them to answer.

And there are a couple of ways to build common ground. He points out that spiritual integrity and intellectual integrity should coexist. I think most Christians would agree with this statement. We see no conflict between spiritual integrity and intellectual integrity. In fact, most Christians I know desire for their to be unity in these two areas because it brings a peace to one’s mind about their beliefs. If we read in the Bible that things were one way and then observed that they were not so, then that would cause doubts and an unsettled faith. His last point can also be used to build common ground. Not because we believe that self is the object of practice, but because we believe that one’s faith/spirituality should be taken seriously.

There was only one thing I really took exception with in his article. About half way through the article, he seems to imply that “fundamentalists” are not taken seriously because they too “interpret their experiences incautiously.” My first problem is with his use of the term fundamentalist. This is a term that seems to be thrown out there a lot in the mainstream media and I think that the understanding of the term by non-religious people is far different than what the term actually means in religious circles. For example, anyone who believed that Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven is labeled a fundamentalist by the mainstream media. However, this is almost a universal belief of Christianity—regardless of denomination. Fundamentalism in Christianity is one who believes a particular point of doctrine is essential to salvation. For example, there are some that believe that a person is not saved until they are baptized. This is a “fundamentalist” view. Likewise, there are some that believe only a certain translation of the Bible can be used because all other versions are heretical; this is a “fundamentalist” view. So there is a vast difference between what Christians label as fundamentalists and what mainstream media labels fundamentalists.

I am not so naïve to believe that there are not Christians who do interpret their experiences incautiously, but I do not think that Christians as a whole make this mistake. Any more than I would look at spiritualists who lack a real commitment and then cast all spiritualists in that light. Furthermore, even if the vast majority of Christians did this; it does not make the claims of Christianity false.
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