Giving spirituality the chop

  (01 October 11)
  by Greg Spearritt

John McDonald’s recent piece in the SMH on the Blake Prize is compelling. He says of the competition:


Instead of addressing ''religion'', which implies a structured set of beliefs; a collection of stories, rules and codes; a series of moral and spiritual disciplines that determine how people live their lives; it now celebrates the New Age self-indulgence of ''spirituality''.


McDonald goes on to make the point that ‘spirituality’ means anything from a walk in the bush to sitting cross-legged for hours on a mat to attending the footy (though he acknowledges footy can also be a religion).


A few of us came to the same conclusion at the recent SoFiA Conference in Brisbane on ‘Spirituality and the Arts’. A lively presentation about the Blake Prize at that event raised this very question: if this is ‘spiritual’ art, what on earth does ‘spirituality’ mean? Perhaps it does mean something, vaguely, but no-one seems able to explain quite what.


If instead we use words such as ‘aesthetics’, ‘emotion’ and ‘ethics’ (and for some, ‘supernaturalism’) we appear to cover the territory pretty well, and all these terms actually mean something.


Is it time to give ‘spirituality’ the chop?




Hi Ralph. Does that mean spirituality = subjectivity?

Posted by Greg

Because the Australian Aborigines see everything as spiritual, John McDonald wishes to place their art in a separate category within the Blake Prize for Religious Art. ('The Spirit of Things', ABC RN, 2nd October 2011). As an Atheist I too see everything as spiritual. I am, non-theistically, equating the word spiritual with the human spirit. I hold Truth as one of my highest values. My agnostic side, however, holds Truth as an unattainable ideal. Either way, Truth is one of my 'gods'. Science, for example, is one of my religions. Science is a means of venerating, apprehending and manifesting Truth. (The gods, spirituality and religion need not be supernatural). If I produced a work of art which venerated, revered, honoured and upheld my 'god' Truth, I would expect to be able to enter it for the Blake Prize for Religious Art. John McDonald may, nevertheless, wish to suggest that it be placed in a separate category.

Posted by David Miller

Well it would be good if we came to a reasonable agreement on what the word means otherwise we end up in useless debates where people argue at cross purposes with different meanings as has tended to happen with atheism, god, feminism to name but a few. In one old theology book I have the author traces spirituality to a french theologian and is talking only about the life of the holy spirit in the christian church. Others I know have used the term Christian spirituality to just limit the range of responses and eliminate the entirely weird or indiscriminate. Some may think any talk of spirit is weird I suppose and spirituality is therfore quite a subjective term. I have nevertheless found it helpful in talking with people about our broader relationships in the world as it can encompass relationships with humans, self, nature and the more conceptual or experienced ideas of otherness. But that's just me.I will keep spirituality for where it is useful. You can do whatever you like. :)

Posted by Owen

APOLOGY TO JOHN McDONALD....Since my original post to this SoFiA blog, 'The Spirit of Things' has put the transcript of 'Both Sides Now: The Blake Prize for Religious Art' (2 October 2011) on their ABC Radio National website. In contrast to my orginal impression, upon reading the transcript I have found that John McDonald did not suggest that Aboriginal art be placed in a separate category for the Blake Prize. I wish to apologise to John McDonald for my erroneous assertion.

Posted by David Miller

Spirituality deals with the subjective experiences of human beings. Since we can never share these subjective experiences with another person it is up to the individual whether or not, and when, to give spirituality the chop.

Posted by Ralph Sedgley

SPIRITUALITY - In non-supernaturalist (non-theistic) terms, ‘Spirituality’ is merely another name for the human spirit. The higher or positive aspects of this human spirit are, for many people, symbolized by metaphorical personifications known as gods. ('God' in the monotheistic Abrahamic religions).... POSITIVE SPIRITUALITY - What is it? I will respond by listing, in non-supernaturalist terms, the wide-ranging variety of answers humankind has given to that question... 1. Our highest values - Goodness, truth, beauty... 2. Our loftiest ideals – e.g. Love, compassion, mercy, perfection, justice, freedom, creativity, security, power, etc... 3. Our peak experiences – e.g. Wonder, awe, mystery, gratitude, uniqueness, oneness, interconnectedness, etc... 4. Our areas of ultimate concern – e.g. Self, family, community, nation, humanity, nature, planet, universe, etc.... RELIGION - What ought to constitute a non-supernaturalist religion? Here are some of the requirements... First, the veneration, reverence, honouring and upholding of the positive aspects of our spirituality... Second is the apprehension and realization of these aspects; in simpler words, getting to know and understand them... Third is the manifestation and actualization of these aspects; in simpler words, bringing them into being in our world, both in ourselves as well as in others.... NEGATIVE SPIRITUALITY - However, we must take into account all our values, all our ideals, all our experiences and all our concerns. Even low values, mundane ideals, devastating experiences and base concerns, as well as vile impulses and crass desires, etc. Within the Abrahamic religions, most of the latter are labelled as ‘Demonic’. These religions use the Demonic as a metaphorical personification of humanity’s lower or negative aspects.... CONCLUSION - In non-supernaturalist (non-theistic) terms, 'Spirituality' is merely another name for the human spirit.

Posted by David Miller

As I moved to a non-supernaturalist view in middle age, I avoided using words like ‘spiritual’ and ‘spirituality’, at least in my more rational moments. In more recent years, however, I have found this self-censorship impossible to follow religiously, so to speak. In SoFiA meetings and other contexts where religious and philosophical issues are discussed, the concept arises all the time – whatever it means. In many situations, I suspect that most people don’t know or care what it means and those who do represent the full supernaturalist to non-supernaturalist spectrum. The issue has been discussed explicitly at many SoFiA functions and was the main focus of one SoFiA Conference. Faced with the fact that I could not participate in many discussions without using the related terms, I decided that I should return them to my lexicon using them in a metaphoric or abstract sense – as I might use ‘god’, ‘heaven’ or ‘evil’. When writing them, for a time I sedulously used scare marks or the qualifier ‘so-called’. (In oral discussions, I may even have been guilty of using the mimed, four-fingered quote marks!) This naturally became tedious for me and the reader; many may have regarded my position as unnecessarily pedantic. Nowadays, I rarely worry much about the issue. In most contexts where the concept arises, I just accept it and the related terms, however vague they might be. The inverted commas are still there, albeit invisible. I feel on rather safer ground talking about ‘spiritual experiences’ than the more general abstraction ‘spirituality’. From my experience, the current common-sense meaning of a spiritual experience is one that involves: • heightened emotion (In extreme cases, this might be described as ecstasy, though there may also be an intellectual component.) • a sense of transcendence (The experience seems to hold special significance; one may feel, for example, that one is part of something much larger than oneself, be it family, team, tribe, nation, humankind, Nature, Cosmos or God.) I no longer become too concerned if other people use ‘spiritual’ words in a literalist way – unless they assume that I intend supernaturalist meanings, too, or if they invite serious debate on the issue.

Posted by John Carr

Spirituality is one of those pesky words that like God means a multitude of things to a range of people. Perhaps it would be better if we could just forget it, though its continued use suggests that no more appropriate word has come along as yet. I want to suggest that there is an unfolding coherent view of what constitutes spirituality in the 21st century. Ken Wilber provides some framework. Hameed Ali takes it further, in my view, through an integration of modern psycholgy and more traditional (e.g. Sufi) understandings. At the end of the day, Ali's method of inquiry does appear to lead to an appreciation of 'what is' that incorporates ipseity and cessation. While there is no end point to which inquiry leads, the gradual erosion of false belief (fantasy in my terms)does arrive at a place which allows the wonderful diversity of being while at the same time acknowledging the loss of the egoic self. The ultimate mature human being is an upwelling, along with all else in the universe, of 'what is', and claims no self identity, while continuing to operate within the world in ways not so dissimilar (to the casual observer)to other clearly egoic selves. So I believe we live in a time when the outline of a new spirituality has emerged.

Posted by John Beasley

Thnx so much for this! I haven’t been this moved by a post for a long time! You’ve got it, whatever that means in blogging. Well, You’re certainly somebody that has something to say that people should hear. Keep up the good job. Keep on inspiring the people!

Posted by Spiritual Community

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