Tomorrow' Spirituality

Lloyd Geering
Delivered at the 1994 Annual Conference of the Sea of Faith Network (NZ)

Let me first discuss what I mean by spirituality. This is one of the family of words derived from "spirit", which have had a long history in our cultural past. We have long been used to such terms as 'the human spirit", "the Holy Spirit", "spiritual", "spiritualism". The English word spirituality has been used for five hundred years to refer to "the state or condition of being spiritual". It and all the other derivatives from the word "spirit" reflect the dualistic understanding of reality which was widespread in the ancient and medieval worlds.
In this world-view reality was divided into spirit and physical matter. Trees, rivers and animals belonged to the physical world: the gods, angels and other unseen beings belonged to the world of spirit. "God is spirit", as the Bible says. Humans conceived themselves as unique among earthly creatures in having a foot in both worlds. Our bodies, like those of the animals, are physical and made of the dust of the earth; our essential selves or souls are spiritual and were thought to exist independently of the physical world of space, time and matter. In such a view of reality, spirituality had to do with the care and nurture of one's spirit or soul; being eternal, it would long outlast the earthly body it temporarily inhabited. Christian spirituality evolved in ways which were best thought to promote this goal.
We no longer conceive reality dualistically but monistically. But we have inherited, and still use, a language which reflects it. Maori culture is still much closer to the former world-view than is modern secular culture. That is why such a term as Maori spirituality fits very readily within it. In the secular or this-worldly culture of the West the word spirituality has understandably become suspect.
To understand why this is so we must look to the origins of modern secular culture. It may be said to have originated with Galileo. We are all familiar with the way his exploration of the heavenly spaces led to the undermining of the traditional heavenly-earthly dualism. This process effectively secularized divine space or the traditional dwelling place of God. The supposed heavenly space of God became swallowed up by the greatly expanded empirical world of space and time.
In a similar, but much more subtle, way modern scientists in the 17th century further undermined the reality of the spiritual world when they showed that the air we breathe is a gas which is just as physical as solids and liquids. In other words they secularized the world of spirit. Spirituality, henceforth, was to be become very human, this-worldly and secular, if we continue to speak of it at all.
Let me illustrate this by a little everyday science and the use of language. In the modern secular world we commonly acknowledge three states in which we find physical matter - solids, liquids and gases. Such a common thing as H20 is frequently found in any one of all three states - solid in ice, liquid in water, a gas in water vapour. The ancients knew nothing about vaporisation and drew an absolute line between solids and liquids on the one hand and what we call gases on the other. The name they gave to what we call gas was spiritus (in Latin), pneuma (in Greek) or ruach (in Hebrew). In each case the word meant air, breath, wind. The ancients thought of the wind as the breath of God. So when the Hebrews told the story of origins they said the ruach or breath of God gently fluttered over the waters. When God made humans out of the dust of the earth he breathed his breath into them and they became living persons. It was as obvious to ancients, as it is to us, that the best way of distinguishing between a living person and a dead corpse is to test for breath. A living person breathes. Breath, air, wind -- it was all the same for the ancients -- was the very principle of life; breath or spirit was the very essence of what constitutes a living human being. When a man dies, said Ecclesiastes, "the dust returns to the earth and the breath returns to God". When Jesus died on the cross, according to Luke, he said, "Father into your hands I commit my breath" and, saying this, he expelled his breath. Of course we are used to hearing the word "spirit" in one place and "breath" in the other, even though it is the same word in Greek. Even the King James Version, which was still nearer to the medieval world view than we are, acknowledged to some degree that the same word was used; it translated it, "Father into my hands I commend my spirit" and saying this, he gave up the ghost".
The transition to the modern world and the secularizing of the ancient world of spirit, wind and breath has been so subtle that few people seemed to have noticed. People kept on talking about spirit as if it operated just like the wind. The word spirit had become so much a part of religious language that the momentum of religious language carried it along without people realising that they were no longer talking about something originally conceived as tangible as the air we breathe. Christians continued to talk about God as spirit and refer to what they called the power of the Holy Spirit. Preachers continued to expound the story of Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3, where being born again of the spirit is described in terms of the blowing of the wind. But they failed to draw attention to the fact that it is the same word that is translated, sometimes as wind and sometimes as spirit.
Only slowly has it dawned upon us that in talking about spirit we are talking about something far less substantial than a gas, such as the air or breath. Indeed spirit has no substance. It is a purely abstract term which has no literal meaning. It is a frozen metaphor from a now obsolete world-view and the only meaning it can have is a metaphorical or symbolic one. Conservative Christians continue to speak about the Holy Spirit, the power of the spirit and so on, as if it were an oozy something which operates something like the wind. It appears that without being wholly conscious of the fact, they operate for religious purposes in the medieval world and return to the modern world for the mundane purposes of daily living.
On the other hand, to people who consciously live within the modern secular view of reality and who see themselves as psychosomatic organisms, the terminology we have inherited about spirit and spirituality has become increasingly problematical and puzzling. If we continue to use such terms as spirit and spirituality we have first to make clear what we mean by them. Meaning has increasingly become a problem with all sorts of religious terms, including even the word "God".
First we have to acknowledge that all words derived from the basic term spirit are now metaphors. They are being used poetically rather than scientifically. I believe the family of words derived from "spirit" do have a future in our language and refer to a dimension of human existence, which is not only important but which we are in danger of losing if we do not learn how to use the terms. In some respects the transition to a viable use of these terms is happening more outside of traditionally religious circles than within them simply because within them we have been too committed to an outmoded interpretation of them.
We may start by observing that the word soul continues to have a useful place in our language even though we no longer regard the human soul as being a distinctive and immortal entity in the way our forbears did. We may say, for example, of a musician, that he is technically skilful but shows no soul in his playing. Similarly the word spirit is useful to describe degrees of vitality and the highest qualities of personal existence. We may say of some production, for example, that it was a very spirited performance. Whenever we feel drawn to make some reference to the human spirit we are referring to a dimension or aspect of human existence which is over and above emotion, volition and cognition, though it contains and depends upon all three. It is this dimension of human existence which is expressed most powerfully in the arts.
If we explore this dimension a little more we find that it is closely associated with the highest values or qualities we associate with personhood, that is the state of being a person. This is why such qualities are referred to in the biblical tradition as gifts of the spirit or spiritual qualities. In Galatians 5:22 they are enumerated as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
These qualities, we should note, cannot be labelled intellectual qualities; they cannot even be called moral qualities, though some of them certainly have moral implications. One has a moral obligation to be honest, for example, but does one have a moral obligation to be patient? These so-called spiritual qualities are associated with what we regard as the highest manifestation of human behaviour, and the highest level of self-conscious human existence to which we can aspire. Thus some of these spiritual qualities point more to the quality of life experienced within the person, such as joy, or self-control, while others refer to the quality of our personal relationships with others, such as kindness, love, faithfulness and gentleness.
Thus far I have been explaining what may be meant by such terms as spirit and spiritual, when applied to the human condition. The word spirituality has a two-fold use. On the one hand it may refer to what I have described as the spiritual aspects or dimension of the human condition. And on the other hand it may refer to the particular practices in which that spirituality is expressed and nurtured. When, for example, we speak of Maori spirituality, we may be referring to either or both of these usages.
There is of course an essential relationship between these two usages, of the kind there always should be between theory and practice. This can be clearly illustrated by looking at the spirituality of the great religious traditions.
The essence of Islam, for example, is human submission to the omnipotent deity, Allah, the only true God, believed to have revealed his will in the Qur'an. That is the substance of Muslim spirituality in theory. The substance of Muslim spirituality in practice is this: five times a day devout Muslims prostrate themselves in both bodily and mental submission to Allah, facing Mecca the geographical place where the divine revelation took place. At least once in a lifetime the Muslim tries to make the pilgrimage to Mecca. Muslims study and memorize the words of Qur'an, thus immersing their minds in the knowledge of the revealed will of Allah.
It is quite different with the Buddhist. Buddhist spirituality in theory is the acknowledgment of the Buddha's analysis of the human condition, the universality of suffering, the wheel of continual rebirth and the possibility of becoming enlightened and gaining release from the wheel of rebirth. So Buddhist spirituality consists in practice of embracing the Three Jewels, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha, and of following of the Eight-fold path to Enlightenment opened up by the Buddha, in order to experience one's own enlightenment. This chiefly consists of meditation, the clearing of the mind, the release of the will from desire, the abandonment of possessions, all leading to the release from suffering and the wheel of rebirth.
In each of the great traditions the basic form of spirituality expresses and rehearses those things which give identity to that spiritual path. In each form of spirituality there is the acknowledgment, at least unconsciously, that the very form of humanity being experienced has been made possible by the specific culture which has produced them. The highest quality of life we humans come to experience internally has been made possible only by what we have received from others, initially from our parents and family, but ultimately from our cultural womb.
The secret to what we may call our internal spiritual condition lies in what we have received from others. Our human potential to reach the highest levels of self-conscious human existence we owe to the countless generations of our human and pre-human ancestors. We inherit the potential to become human in the genetic code. But all this would atrophy and come to nothing if it were not for the cultural womb into which we are born and by which we are stimulated to personal growth by the complex network of personal relationships in our immediate family and in society at large.
Martin Buber in his great spiritual classic I and Thou believed that to regain an adequate understanding of spirit in the modern world it is to personal relationships that we must turn. It is a mistake, in his view, for us to think of spirit as some intangible thing within us. "Spirit is not in the I but between I and You", he said. "Spirit is not like the blood that circulates in you but like the air in which you breathe". Note that Buber was recovering something of the original meaning of the word "spirit" but was treating it metaphorically to refer to that indefinable something which brings cohesion and quality to the life of a society and which is nurtured by the way we all relate to another at a personal level: or in what Buber chose to call the I-Thou mode of existence. What is more it was by turning our attention to the essential importance of human relationships that Buber sought to point to the reality of God. God is not an existing thing or object and therefore cannot be talked about; God is pure subject and can be addressed only. We address God whenever we address, and respond to, a fellows human being.
In the light of all this, what form will Tomorrow's Spirituality take? Many of us were shaped by the traditional Christian forms of spirituality. They are ceasing to be useful today simply because they were shaped to fit a different kind of world from the one we find ourselves living in. Whereas the traditional spirituality of Christianity was divine, heavenly and otherworldly in character, tomorrow's spirituality must be basically human and earthy by comparison. The spiritual practices of the past no longer fit the spiritual understandings of the present. Theory and practice have become disjointed.
But Tomorrow's Spirituality will not emerge as an entirely new creation but can only evolve out of the past. That is the way culture and our humanity has always developed. what we need to do with the Christian spirituality of the past is to learn how to distinguish between what has to be discarded and what can be salvaged and restored for use tomorrow.
Tomorrow's spirituality will focus on the nurture of the human condition, both individually and socially. We only become human through our relations with other humans. To quote the almost hackneyed words of John Donne, "No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main". That means that to understand spirituality for today's world we must not be primarily concerned with self-improvement, with introspection, with navel-gazing. Such values as are found in personal development come chiefly as a by-product of something else. We must be primarily concerned with how we relate to one another, both locally and globally; further, we must be concerned with how we relate not only to our contemporaries but also to those who preceded us and to whom we are indebted, as well as to those, as yet unborn, who will succeed us, and for whom we already bear responsibilities. These responsibilities have chiefly to do with how we relate to the earth and in what condition we leave it for those who follow. Tomorrow's spirituality is to be conceived holistically rather than atomistically. It will take the form of a kind of planetary mysticism; it is one which acknowledges past, present and future. And what was once compartmentalized into spirit and matter, holy and secular, will be conceived as an evolving whole.
It is because of those who preceded us that none of us ever starts on our growth to full humanity from scratch, having to pioneer an entirely new path. So in developing forms of spirituality we are not in the position of having to create out of nothing. There is much we can still draw from the past. So now I propose to look at some of the practices of traditional spirituality, conceding at the outset that much of their outward form have to be discarded because they have been shaped to fit a view of reality which has become obsolete.
As we look at what takes place in Christian worship in the great variety of forms stretching from a high liturgical Mass in Catholicism to the hand-clapping and speaking in tongues of a Pentecostal congregation, we may think that none of this is for us, in either its high or low form. But we should be asking what it is which lies behind all these forms and what if anything they still have in common. The simplest thing they all have in common is something we can too easily overlook just because it is so simple, and also so secular, even though it does point to their common origin.
In each case there is a coming together of people to celebrate that which is of greatest importance to them. Let me repeat that -- a coming together to celebrate that which is of greatest importance to them. In doing this they are nurturing their relations to one another and becoming a fellowship, a congregation. We in the West are so used to associating this simple coming together with religious practice that we often assume it applies to all religions. That is not so. It applies only to those, such as Jews, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, whose traditions can be traced back to Judaism. Because it was not universal we even miss the significance of the simple words in Acts about the first Christians - "All who had faith came together and they had all things in common and day by day they went to the temple together and the had meals together in their homes".
But this coming together did not originate with the Christians; they were simply continuing what had slowly evolved as a Jewish form of spirituality, originating some three or four hundred years before. The Jews called it the Synagogue - a word which simply means "a coming together". The reason why it evolved was this. After the Fall of the Davidic Kingdom the Jews were scattered and were cut off from the Temple by distance, even though it was later restored. The synagogue evolved as a fellowship of Jews who came together to give one another mutual support and to do so by studying their cultural past as they had come to encode it in their Scriptures. The synagogue was not a holy institution like the Temple. Priests had no tasks within it. It was an institution of lay people and democratically self-ruling. The synagogue was essentially a layman's institute, a very secular institution by comparison with the temples of the day. One non-Jewish scholar has referred to it as the greatest gift of Judaism to humankind. It was the synagogue to which the Christian church, the Islamic mosque and the Sikh Gurdwara owe their origin.
When the first Christians came together to celebrate their common faith they were establishing a Christian synagogue. It is largely due to an odd linguistic phenomenon that church congregations did not come to be called synagogues. The first Christians, being Jews, also read and studied their Scriptures, namely the Jewish Scriptures. But by the time we hear about them in the New Testament they were using the Greek language and the Greek version of the Jewish Bible. Two Greek words were frequently found there to translate the Hebrew words meaning congregation or assembly. One of them was synagoge, and the other was ekklesia. By the time the New Testament was written, however, the Jews and the Christians were becoming mutually exclusive; since the Jews had already laid claim to the word synagogue, the Christians took over the word ecclesia, or church. Even so, during the latter part of the first century the Christian churches were still much more like Jewish synagogues than what they later became. They were not ruled or ministered to by priests. They were fellowships of lay people. This was acknowledged much later by the Protestant Reformers when they tried to replace the priesthood with an order of ministry and later again by the Plymouth Brethren when, in the 19th century, they abandoned even an ordained ministry and tried to restore primitive Christianity to its pristine purity.
But now let us look at the chief activity which took place in the Christian churches. Even to this day in most of the ecclesiastical streams into which classical Christianity has now become divided the central celebration of spirituality is what is variously called the Mass, Holy Communion, the Eucharist, the Lord's Supper. If we trace this back to its point of origin we may be surprised to find what a this-worldly origin it had. The Christian Eucharist did not even originate with Jesus and the Last Supper, though that tradition came more and more to shape it as time went on. Behind the Christian Eucharist was the Jewish Kiddush. This is a simple sharing of bread and wine at the end of the meeting together as the synagogue. If you go to a service in a liberal synagogue to this day you may find yourself invited to participate in the bread and wine of the Kiddush. There is nothing exclusive about it, as it later became with the Christian Eucharist. It is a cementing of the bonds of personal relationship of all those there, both to one anaother to to their spiritual ancestors. And how did the Kiddush arise? It was taken into the synagogue from the family setting, where it had come to represent the regular nurturing of the family relationships which took place within the context of shared meals.
Even this was not wholly the beginning. It was preserving the focus of attention on a value which had come to be highly prized among the ancient Semitic people, a value which has been preserved almost unchanged among the Bedouin to this day. The ancient Semites, living as they did on the boundaries between the uninhabitable desert and the often hostile environment encountered in the urban areas of early civilization, came to prize hospitality above all things. Hospitality was the key to survival in an unfriendly world; one was bound to provide hospitality not only to the stranger but even to one's enemies. One the one hand, nothing could be more secular and down to earth than inviting strangers to share one's meals. But it was a duty regarded as sacred;
In tracing the forms of Christian spirituality back to their roots we find ourselves strangely back in something like the present context, where the supernatural trappings which have accumulated over the centuries are being stripped away. In coming together in this Conference to share the doubts, problems and humanly based faith which we have largely in common, we are doing something very like the first Christians. Of course we see and interpret the world and human existence very differently from the way they did. But we stand in succession to them and we owe a great deal to them and to their Jewish forbears. Moreover in this simple coming together for mutual support and stimulation we are celebrating our common human and cultural links with them.
It is important not to disown our cultural past for it has enabled us to be what we are. But, as Nietzsche said, "One repays a teacher badly by remaining only a pupil". We have to receive our cultural heritage critically. There is much of its spirituality which we have to abandon. For example, its authoritarianism, its exclusivism, its patriarchal character, its other-worldliness, its sexism, its slave mentality and its crushing of individuality.
But we can draw upon and develop its basic concerns with our common humanity, its focus on fellowship and hospitality, its goals for a more worthwhile future, and the human values which permeate it.
Just what particular forms tomorrow's spirituality will take are not for me or any other single person to prescribe. It is rather for us all to assist in their evolution. It is for us to create them out of the past. But in view of what I have said, I expect them to be:
  • not uniform but multiform.
  • not complex but simple.
  • not rigid but flexible
  • not exclusive but inclusive
  • transcending class, gender, race, "religion"
  • yet evolving out of the best of the past
  • celebrating our common humanity
  • sacralizing secular events, e.g. the common meal
  • encouraging active participation by all
  • celebrating our mystical relationship with the earth and all its living forms.
I believe with catholic priest, Thomas Berry, [in the foreword to Earth, Sky, Gods & Mortals, by Jay B.McDaniel, Twenty-third Publications, 1990,] that "We must move beyond a spirituality focused simply on the divine and the human to a spirituality concerned with survival of the natural world in its full splendour, its fertility, and its integral well-being as the larger spiritual community to which we belong."'



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