Spirituality for Smarties
For "Spirituality and the Academy," an Intervarsity Conference held at the University of Southern California, February 10, 2007. Also published in 2016 as chapter 6 of Renewing the Christian Mind (HarperOne Publishers).
"Spirituality" is now an acceptable and even a stylish presence in our cultural life, including the university or college. It can come in the form of religion, in some traditionally recognized sense. Religion can be, though it need not be, practiced as a form of spirituality, but much of spirituality’s contemporary acceptance is due to its breaking free from religion in the public mind. A statement overheard in current interchanges is: "I’m not religious, but I am a very spiritual person." This says something quite deep, though I shall not try to go into it here. "Diversity" has in recent years done a great deal to widen the doorway into university settings for both religion and spirituality.
Undoubtedly that is a good thing, so far as it goes. As you observe the phenomena of spirituality broadly you see that spirituality meets two basic needs of human life: identity and empowerment. It tells you who you are, and it offers to give you some power over what goes on in your life. Many people today find these needs painfully unmet in their lives in a mass society organized almost totally around individualistic and passive consumption. Of course such a painful condition is also found in other types of societies; but we have to deal with the condition we have got, and it is, for most people, one of paralyzing anonymity and passivity. Thus, anything that offers identity (turns me into a significant individual) and empowerment (brings important things under my control) becomes something to grab hold of. Spiritualities of all kinds, from Vegetarianism to Satan worship, step in to fill the bill. By a neat inversion, then, anything that gives me an identity and empowers me (or seems to) may be treated as a "spirituality." This accounts for the astonishingly broad application of the terms "spiritual" and "spirituality" today.1
However, spirituality on the campus is not treated with intellectual seriousness. It is like a hobby or a sentimental attachment. ("Oh, she likes bears.") Coming in under the flag of diversity entails that it shall not be treated with intellectual seriousness, nor, indeed, thought of in intellectual terms at all. Of course it could be studied in the manner of the Social Sciences—statistically and so forth. But no one would think of seriously examining Wiccan or Benedictine or Quaker spirituality for its truth or reasonableness, or of comparing them with respect to moral qualities. One of the odd things about diversity is how it usually amounts to treating everything as "the same." But intellect comes to distinguish, to order and to relate. So while "spiritualities" are welcomed back in to the academy, they are not taken on in the central business of the university: the serious work of inquiry, the search for truth, in the hope of arriving at knowledge of "how things really are," as well as what is best.
So, in fact, things have not changed as much as one might be led to suspect from all the talk about spirituality. The title of the current book, Spirituality for Dummies, reaches deeper than just a snappy sales pitch. In a sense spirituality is thought to be "for dummies." You can be intelligent and spiritual at the same time, some people—not all—will allow. (You may actually know some people who are both.) Just don’t treat your spirituality as an expression of your intelligence. Religion as a form of truth and knowledge was thrown out of the university a hundred or more years ago, and "spirituality" with it. They can be studied, intelligence can be applied to them, in the Social Science manner (whatever that may be), but that is all. One cannot say, for example, that spirituality A is more intelligent, more true to the "facts," or morally superior to spirituality B. And this, not merely to be polite or politically correct—though that too—but because "smart,""intellectual," and especially "better," just do not apply to spiritualities or to religions, the way the language is now used. That, generally, is how things are now taken in the academy—or at least in the "secular" academies. It is usually assumed that, if we don’t approach spiritualities or religions in this way, they will not be fair, respectful and generous to each other, nor we (academics) to them. "Tolerance," on this line of thinking, requires blindness, or inattention, or refusal to see.
Now I don’t know how all this strikes you—and perhaps I am wrong in how I have set it up—but I cannot but think and feel that this way of looking at "spirituality" is a fundamental betrayal both of the spiritual dimension of life and of the intellectual mission of the university. I cannot address all of the difficult issues brought up by bringing spiritualities and religions under the fair scrutiny of intellect in the university setting, and, if I could, I probably could not find a happy resolution to them. But I would like to try to make a start.
What are we to make of spirit and the spiritual, and hence of spirituality? What are these? What are we thinking of when we bring them before the mind? An old book says: "The word ‘spirit,’ even in its lowest uses, signifies something that acts; and when acting, is moved of itself and from within."2 (We have "alcoholic spirits" as well as "team spirit" and "The Spirit of 76.") The historical association of spirit with "wind" and "breath," in the Bible as elsewhere, occurs because spirit is thought of as an invisible power capable of producing visible effects. Wind, air, is like that. But usually this invisible power, unlike wind, is thought of as more than, or perhaps totally other than, powers associated with the physical or the natural world and its objects—though all of that imposes serious tasks of clarification, to make any helpful sense. Because of this take on the ‘spiritual’, it easily seems to blend over into the magical.3 They are often confused.
Some years ago a book was published under the title of The Office Witch. It was a treatment of how various symbols, incantations or physical objects (pyramids, etc.) could be employed around computers, printers, copy machines and other office devices to ward off the peculiar (‘temperamental’) evils to which they are subject, and to infuse and sustain a proper order in them. Some would call that "spirituality," tapping into an extra-natural order of causation, while others would treat it as magic. (Magic inclines toward disruption or suspension of causation—except black magic.)
So, in a certain minimal sense, spirit is invisible power, and, most likely, a power other than those of the "physical"—whatever they may be. This, I think, will hold of all applications of "spirit," the "spiritual" and "spirituality." But further distinctions need to be drawn. Especially: (1) Is this "power" personal (the powers of a person), or impersonal, as in "The force be with you"? And: (2) Is this power in some sense ‘in’ human beings, or does it lie beyond, outside of them ("transcendental")—or both?
If the spiritual is impersonal, you can freely approach it in an engineering mentality. That is, you find out how to "work it," and then you use it for your purposes. It has an order to it, and it can be dangerous (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and so forth), but if you know how to deal with it you can make it do what you want and it has no choice about the matter. It is neither moral or immoral. It just "works" or does not, like gravity and electricity, which are also invisible. If incantations or verbal symbols are required, it is not for the sake of a conversation. You do not pray to your pyramid, even if you chant at it.
If the spiritual is deemed to be personal, however, whether it is a "familiar spirit," a fairy Godmother, or Jehovah, you treat it as a person. It has choice and projects of its own, it can decide to do good or to do evil. It has moral personality and you must come to terms with that. An engineering approach can be tried, as is common with most historical cases of the use of idols, but what comes of it is at the discretion of the spirit or spirits involved.
With reference to the second question, if the spirit and the spiritual is within you, there are, again, two ways this can be thought of. One is relatively tame. Here you simply discover among your images, thoughts, feelings and choices some realities and powers you perhaps did not know you had or did not know how to draw upon. You learn how to engage them to discover who you really are, and how you can have results in your living that you desire but where previously unable to achieve. This is mainly what you find on the "Oprah" show and in Oprah’s "O" magazine. It can be described as a milder form of "New Age" thought, directed primarily at health, success and good living. On the second approach to the "in you" spirit, you actually turn out to be something very different from what you seemed to be. You turn out to be no less than God, the Universe, everything. And everything is you. This is what is presented to us by Shirley MacLaine, by Alan Watts, and by Radakrishna, the Maharishi, and other "Teachers from the East." Usually, what you turn out to be on this view is something "beyond personality," but the knowledge of this, and of how it works, brings identity and power into your daily life, however much of an "illusion" you and your daily life may be said to be.
Now, these descriptions and distinctions with reference to spirit and the spiritual can provide a kind of taxonomy for thinking about the different "spiritualities" that show up in our society and on our campuses. A Spirituality will be, in general, a way of living that draws, in significant ways, upon invisible, non-physical powers to bring about events and conditions in the course of daily existence. It will not be just an outward form of life—as religion sometimes is— but is primarily an inward and hidden source, no matter how it may be associated (or not) with outward forms and activities.
If all this is right and helpful—and I certainly welcome presentations of other ways of setting things up—then I see no reason why intelligence should not be applied to the understanding of spirit and spiritualities, or why, in the abstract, one might not choose his or her spirituality on the basis of intellectual insight into what is true or false and what is good or bad. A spirituality is a definite sort of thing, with a nature of its own, and with relations to other kinds of things and to how one lives life: how one treats oneself and others, lives in the family and community, goes to work, and thinks and acts in the political and international arena. I do not know if it is possible for a socialized human being to entirely escape spirituality, but in thought, at least, one might imagine someone living in total disregard of spirit and spirituality in the sense we have tried to explain it. Perhaps there is no such thing as spirit, and spirituality would then be based upon illusion. Perhaps that illusion is "necessary," as some argue, or not. But all of these are fair questions: questions of truth or falsity. They are questions to which intellect is appropriately applied. And clearly spiritualities are different, and often are different in very fundamental ways. Whatever "pluralism" is to mean, it cannot simply mean that "they’re all the same"—at least not if one is to have a clear intellectual conscience. For spiritualities, cultures, etc. are not the same. Just look at them, inspect them. If they were, we would not have a problem to which pluralism is supposed to be an answer. (One class of dummies might be those so ignorant of spiritualities and religions as to think they are "all the same."
If you agree with me that, especially on a university campus, we should not put our minds away when we come to spiritualities, the only thing remaining to discuss is how we do that? How do we bring intelligence and spiritualities together in the academy? It may surprise you to hear me say that we need to start with the understanding of intelligence and what it is like to be genuinely intellectual in the approach that one takes to any area of life and thought. We need to understand what truth is, and how logical relations enter into the organization of knowledge. We need to understand logical relations and where they are present and where they are not. We need, as people of intellect, to be morally committed to adhering to truth and logical relations with careful attention and modesty. Our situation today is one where this cannot be reliably counted on in university people.
The intellectual life can be viewed as, itself, a kind of secular spirituality, and it often functions that way. Certainly truth and logic are forces, and are not physical forces. But that leads into a larger discussion which we cannot take up at present. In any case, academics are human too, and that means they can be governed by other than rational considerations: especially by how they want things to turn out. We need to be wary. Desire, as Plato told us long ago, is an unruly beast. It can twist and distort our thinking in any area of life. Our degrees and scholarly attainments and recognitions mean nothing to it.
With respect to spirituality, the practitioners on the campus should expect and welcome the most thorough intellectual scrutiny, and they should devote the same both to themselves and to others, as the occasion calls for it. In addition, they should just be who they are, in terms of spirituality, wherever they are, within the boundaries of what is morally correct and sensible. Pluralism, in so far as it makes sense, is supposed to guarantee that, within those boundaries, one can be what one is without being socially isolated and mistreated for it, or deprived of economic or vocational opportunity. A practitioner of a given spirituality should assume that this ideal is respected (whether or not it is) by those around them in the academy, but they should at the same time understand that this does not mean exemption from intellectual scrutiny. As an English philosopher of some generations back, L. T. Hobhouse, used to say: "All that religion requires of philosophy is a fair field and no quarter given."
Such a "fair field" in intellectual terms is not always given. A couple of years ago there was a scientific conference at City College in New York City. A student arose to ask the distinguished panel—all of them Nobel laureates: "Can you be a good scientist and believe in God?" Reaction came quick and sharp from Herbert A. Hauptman, who shared the chemistry prize in 1985 for his work on the structure of crystals: No! Belief in God is not only incompatible with good science, he declared, "this kind of belief is damaging to the well-being of the human race."4 One has only to think of all the great scientists who believed in God to see that this is an irresponsible statement, or perhaps a groundless redefinition of what "good science is." What, after all, is the logical connection between believing in God and the ability to do "good science"? A "fair field" requires that one be faithful to sound reasoning and spell that connection out in a way that makes Hauptman’s claim at least plausible.
Perhaps somewhere he has done that. But I doubt it. People who make such claims, in my experience, have not seriously considered the evidence for their assertion. On occasion I have asked them for their data, and I have never found one who has taken seriously the provision of intellectual grounds for their claims. They are reasoning in terms of prejudice concerning what must be the case.
A similar case of logical overreach is seen in a widely circulated statement by William Provine, Professor of Biological Sciences at Cornell University: "Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear…. There are no gods, no purposes, no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end for me, and no free will for humans, either."5 Now all the conclusions which Professor Provine has reached may be true. But his claim here is that they are dictated by "modern evolutionary biology." I think that neither he not anyone else has shown us the path of logically sound reasoning by which established facts and theories in biology lead to the conclusion that "There are no gods,…" etc. It would be very important to know of a professionally accredited textbook or peer review journal in which this reasoning is laid out. Of course I am not qualified in this field, but perhaps someone could give me a reference to such literature.
Often these kinds of grand conclusions are advanced upon the assumption that "nature" is all there is, and that what nature is is exhaustively determined by the particular sciences. But none of the particular sciences, nor any combination thereof, includes in its subject matter any claims about all there is, or about all the sources of knowledge. Look and see. Such things are not a part of their competence.
Now, logical overreach is very common on the "spirituality" side as well. (Trying to determine the age of the earth by reading the Bible, for example.) Perhaps it is more common there that among those in opposition. But I have chosen these illustrations because of a tendency to credit anti-spirituality (I don’t what to say "science") with a higher degree of intellectual responsibility than spirituality (especially religion). If this were ever justified, recent decades have removed that justification. Currently there is a remarkable upsurge of an older tendency, on the part of those who claim to speak for "science," toward "saving" the world from religion and from most of what would be called spirituality. Some want to keep spirituality, but help us understand it in strictly "naturalistic" terms. Perhaps by identifying spirituality with brain processes of certain kinds, or with human creativity.
Now I want to conclude with some remarks about a—I am tempted to say "the"—specifically Christian form of spirituality. Christian spirituality holds that the invisible and "unbodily" power which it involves is personal and transcendent, though much effort must be expended to explain exactly what that means. In a spirituality conceived in terms of transcendent personality, there are two sides to be observed: (1) On the human side, the individual takes action toward the spiritual realm by addressing it, invoking it, developing ways of understanding it, and finding ways of participating in its activities. One can fall into "spiritual engineering" in the process; but that need not be, and one is usually warned against it. (2) On the transcendent side, the Spirit is itself treated as a person who is in charge of the world, who works to bring about what is good, who is involved in human affairs for that purpose, but who leaves room for human beings to reject him, choose evil, and go their own way. Matthew Arnold’s description of God as "a force working for righteousness in human history" does fairly well, if we understand the "force" in personalistic terms. With some adjustments one can see the kinship of Christian spirituality with the other familiar theistic religions (Judaism, Islam), and, with further adjustments, a similarity with Satanism, some versions (at least) of Wicca or Paganism, and even with aspects of Confucianism and Hinduism, or of Angel communion as now practiced in some quarters. But we will leave these lines of kinship and similarity unexplored for now.
In the Christian version of personalized spirit and spirituality, the spiritual life takes on the character of a personal relationship between individuals, with the attendant features of reciprocal attention, care, provision, assistance or service, emotional interaction, expectations, comfort, joy, and development or growth. In Western Civilization as it has actually developed, the great record or testimony of spiritual life is the book of Psalms in the Bible. Just as an illustration, consider the Twenty-Third Psalm, with which most people are familiar, whether or not they self-identify as Christians. But the entire book of Psalms is a record, an enactment, a celebration of spirituality, of spiritual life, understood as an interactive relationship between persons in a personal as well as "natural" order. On one side there is a transcendental spiritual being, God, with his retinue and his realm or governance, and on the other side human beings, individually and in groups, all together constituting what is called "The Kingdom of God."
This vision of life on a personal, spiritual basis in the Kingdom of God is extended, for the Christian, in the person and teachings of Jesus, in such a way as to include all of humanity, at their choice, without regard to any kind of personal, social or cultural status, ethnic or otherwise, and to allow the individual participant to have the dignity and power to achieve a good life and become a good person. Devotion to Jesus Christ and to what he is doing in world history then and now is the center of a distinctively Christian version of spirituality.
Was Jesus a dummy? Or was he the smartest, most intelligent person who ever lived on earth? If he were a dummy, Christian spirituality will not rise above him. You might try to make a list of three people whom you think were smarter than Jesus. Who in your field of specialization?
This extended vision of the spiritual life in the Kingdom of God here-and-now is the vision which originated this university, the University of Southern California, and the great tradition of the universities in the Western world, reaching back to Bologna, Paris and Oxford.. Although it did not always live up to its own ideals, Christian spirituality has been one that fostered the life of the intellect as an essential part of the spiritual life. The words of Jesus to his disciples, that they shall "know the truth, and the truth will make you free," is carved in the walls of more universities than any other saying. The ideology of truth and its discovery and dissemination is in fact a ‘spirituality’ in the broadest sense explained above. The statuary around the central tower of the Administration Building on this campus is an eloquent if mute testimony to the underlying spirituality: Matthew Simpson and John Wesley (both Methodist ministers) facing the central Quad, toward Doheny Library; Phillips Brooks and Borden Parker Bowne facing South; Plato and Cicero facing West; and Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt facing North. What that says about spirituality and this particular academy goes very deep into its history. (Contrary to rumor, however, God is not a Trojan and Tommy Trojan is not an idol nor a patron saint.)
The relationship between Christian spirituality and the academy is written large in the past for anyone to read who will. Of course that history is just there—with many justifiable qualifications, no doubt, and large elements of non-Christian contributions, especially from Jewish participants. It doesn’t particularly prove anything other than some de facto harmony and mutual support between spirituality and the academy. All the relevant questions about truth, reason and value, with respect to a certain spirituality, have to be asked and answered by each generation as it goes by. Any spirituality, even a"secular" one, incorporates a set of claims about reality, truth and value. The responsibility of people in the academy is to be intellectually thorough and honest with these questions, even if the officially recognized courses of study do not take them seriously (and they don’t).
The Christian in the academy has many useful models to look to. One of the most well-known, of course, is C. S. Lewis. His field of study, research and teaching was Medieval Literature, in which he was, to say the least, a recognized scholar with many published contributions to his credit. After he became as Christian, he was, simply, a Christian, wherever he was—"Warts and all," as we say. His field of expertise naturally spilled over into a wide range of literary productions in which the truths and values he upheld as a Christian were, as a matter of course, artistically presented; and because of who he was all round he found many occasions to address the general public, including the academy and its varied inhabitants, concerning his beliefs and values as a Christian, with no holds barred and no question ducked.
Another individual actually came to be a Christian from reading one of Lewis’s books, Mere Christianity. He is Francis Collins, well known for his work on the human genome and for identifying genetic defects that predispose to cystic fibrosis and other diseases. He simply is who he is and overtly practices his brand of Christian spirituality wherever he is, as appropriate. In his case, his special expertise put him in position to write the book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. Like Lewis, he is not dogmatic. His work simply tries to be thorough and honest about the facts and the logic, about what we know and what we don’t know, and to leave matters open for discussion where the weight of evidence does not incline in any particular direction.
In thinking about spirituality and the academy, it should be understood that the work of intellect and of the researcher or teacher is not to get people to believe things or do things. It is to bring understanding, awareness, truth and evidence to light. In a 1918 paper titled "Science as a Vocation," Max Weber says that it is not the role of a professor in the execution of his duties to sell the student a Weltanschauung or a code of conduct…. And if he feels called upon to intervene in the struggle of worldviews and party opinions, he may do so outside, in the market place, in the press, in meetings, in associations, wherever he wishes."6 But this is still true when we move beyond the range of world views and codes of conduct. If I am teaching geometry, as I once did, it is not my job to get the student to believe the Pythagorean Theorem, or to act upon it—though at some point I will want to know if they can act upon it. As a researcher and teacher I am not "selling" anything. My task is to bring understanding of what is true, and of what means what, and of what is (or is not) evidence for what. If the intellectual or valuational content of my spirituality, of whatever kind it may be, is relevant to that task, then I have a duty to discuss it, so far as it is relevant. Otherwise it remains in the domain of who I am, where it is open to all to scrutinize and interpret or misinterpret as they see fit. My task with reference to it is simply to be who I am, in openness, humility and benevolence to all. Its reality will speak for itself to all fair-minded persons. And if it is a spirituality that is also intelligent—an spirituality for "smarties"—that, too, will be clear upon inquiry. It must gladly stand the tests.
1. A good study of the range of these terms is found in the “Introduction” to Spirituality and the Secular Quest, Peter H. Van Ness, ed. In the “World Spirituality” series from SCM Press, 1996, pp. 1-17. Return to text.
3. The magical, but not usually the spiritual, is thought to involve some element of illusion, or at least of bizarre causation (hurting you by sticking a pin in an effigy of you, etc.), while this is not associated with the spiritual, except by those suspicious of it or hostile to it. Return to text.