Not for the first time, this useful series of pocket-sized readers for short train journeys has provided stimulation and edification. The book begged to be written in the context of that over-used phrase "spiritual but not religious". Philip Sheldrake tackles the subject in 7 succinct chapters, beginning by pointing out the difficulty of defining such a 'chameleon-like word' which takes on the shapes and priorities of its contexts. Nevertheless he finds a number of 'family resemblances' and quotes Evelyn Underhill (1911, 1930) who suggested that human beings are vision-creating beings and not just tool-making animals. He goes on:
In other words, ‘spirituality’ expresses a sense that human life involves more than biology. As human beings we are naturally driven by goals beyond physical satisfaction or mental supremacy to seek a deeper level of meaning and fulfilment.In his conclusion he identifies 3 critical features of the concept, and these too are worth quoting:
First, spirituality expresses the reflective human quest for identity and meaning beyond a purely pragmatic approach to life. Second, it suggests that a full human life needs to move beyond self-absorption to a sense of the greater good and service of others. Finally and vitally, S relates to a process of unlocking the creativity and imagination that enables us to touch the edge of mystery.
Coincidentally Rowan Williams and Julia Neuberger were at Edinburgh last week and Williams had quite a lot to say about what 'spirituality' is not:
'I want to cultivate my sensibility'
Sharing a platform at the Edinburgh International Book Festival with Julia Neuberger, president of the Liberal Judaism movement, Williams launched a withering critique of popular ideas about spirituality. "The last thing it is about is the placid hum of a well-conducted meditation," he said.
He said the word "spiritual" in today's society was frequently misused in two ways: either to mean "unworldly and useless, which is probably the sense in which it has been used about me", or "meaning 'I'm serious about my inner life, I want to cultivate my sensibility'".
He added: "Speaking from the Christian tradition, the idea that being spiritual is just about having nice experiences is rather laughable. Most people who have written seriously about the life of the spirit in Christianity and Judaism spend a lot of their time telling you how absolutely bloody awful it is." Neuberger said she found some uses of the word self-indulgent and offensive. Williams argued that true spirituality was not simply about fostering the inner life but was about the individual's interaction with others.Williams went on:
"I'd like to think, at the very least, that spiritual care meant tending to every possible dimension of sense of the self and each other, that it was about filling out as fully as possible human experience," he said.Guardian review, Aug 15th
Dialogue between faiths developed strongly in the 20th century and not just in terms of intellectual debate. Recently there has been increasing contact between Christianity and Buddhism and between Christianity and Hinduism. There will be much to pursue here at Wychwood Circle and Islam will be high on the list.
I will be fascinated to look further into three 'iconic figures in interreligious spirituality' whom Sheldrake describes briefly: the Dalai Lama (b. 1935), Thomas Merton (1915-68) and Raimundo Pannikar (1918-2010), as well as other intriguing accounts of interreligious encounters.
Whether this sort of dialogue leads to syncretism or pan-religious integration of spiritual experience is a question Sheldrake touches on in the same chapter. He quotes Rabbi Sacks who says, no, religious diversity is actually divinely intended. Others point to their belief that
the never-ending process of dialogue without any obvious final resolution has a spiritual value in itself. For them, God is found precisely on the borders or the spaces between different faiths and in the continual and challenging movement back and forth between what is familiar and what is strange or ‘other’.The 'borders or the spaces' between faiths, between faith and non-faith, and indeed within faiths have already been explored at Wychwood Circle meetings and we hope to invite several guests to help us to do so in the new season.