Sunday, July 23, 2017

'Spirituality' seems to be the label-du-jour


My photo shows the village of Rocamadour in south-west France. The village is on one of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage routes and pilgrims come to venerate the Black Madonna in the Chapelle Notre-Dame. When I was approaching Rocamadour I was reminded of the Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in Ladakh - see this post - and the interior of the Chapelle Notre-Dame seen below also has similarities to Vajrayana Buddhist shrines.

It is easy and fashionable to view all the great wisdom traditions as just being ingredients in one big spiritual potpourri, and it is a view that I confess to having taken many times on this blog. So it was refreshing and invigorating to come across an alternative view recently in the form of David Webster's book titled provocatively Dispirited: How contemporary spirituality makes us stupid, selfish and unhappy. David Webster is principal lecturer in religion, philosophy and ethics at the University of Gloucestershire where his main work is in Buddhist thought and its relationship to Western philosophy. His thesis provides a bracing antidote to the temptations of syncreticism, so I will conclude by quoting in full the first two paragraphs of his recommended book:

When someone tells me that they are not really religious, but that they are a very spiritual person, I want to punch them in the face. Hard. But I don't; partly because it is a poor way to recruit students, and also because it is probably wrong. And I am a coward who fears retaliatory pain. But it does annoy me hugely. It annoys me because confusion is distressing - and when people tell me this, I really don't know what they mean. I do know what they mean in a socio-cultural sense. They are indicating to me that they don't want me to mistake them for one of those 'crazy' religious people - the sort who believe that they are right and other people wrong, the type who is tainted by extremism and religious fundamentalism. They want me to recognise them, though, not as a shallow egotist with a mere mechanistic world-view, but as someone with depth and sensitivity. In this latter desire, 'spirituality' seems to be the label-du-jour.

But beyond its use as a social-cultural identification, I am unsure what empirical content to ascribe to the 'spiritual, but not religious' statement. Does it mean that the utterer has beliefs, but doesn't practice them in any way? Perhaps not. Maybe they mean that they are some sort of syncretist who follows a path of their own faith-conflations - but I can't be sure. Largely I am confused, as I understand a religion as a spiritual activity, and crucially, see spirituality as fundamentally religious in nature. I would suggest that to be spiritual, you have to be religious.

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5 comments:

Steve said...

I'm sorry, Bob; but I think he has it entirely upside down. I'm with Schleiermacher on this (and William James), first comes the religious impulse, that oceanic feeling, which historically has attached itself to social and cultural "religions." That impulse is like the bird looking for a tree to nest in. But we shouldn't confuse the tree for the bird and its quest too much. Also, I rather like how Owen Flanagan expressed it in this interview in The Prosblogion.

"In The Really Hard Problem: Meaning in a Material World (2007), I make the distinction between assertive theism, where one asserts certain supernatural claims as true, and expressive theism, where one expresses various extra-mundane impulses, feelings, emotions, and expansive not-humanly-possible love. I prefer the latter to the former.

"You might think this makes me a familiar type: spiritual but not religious. Maybe. But I am pretty allergic to New Age style religions because they seem self-indulgent, egoistic, and in addition often assert empirically irresponsible stuff such as one hears in homeopathy."

Like Flanagan, I was raised Roman Catholic, though I've left it far behind; but I can appreciate this, also from that interview: "...I get the religious impulse, embrace the feelings of mystery, awe, and existential anxiety about the meaning and significance of life that most every religion responds to. I love the part of most religious traditions that enact, express, and acknowledge the mystery of things. In fact I preferred the old pre-Vatican 2 masses in Latin with more dramatic music, incense, mystery, drama."

Also, if Webster is confused by what someone means by a statement of belief or position, he can always ask for clarification instead of assuming motive. Conversation is good.

Pliable said...

Thanks Steve, as numerous posts on my blog confirm I am more with you than with David Webster on this one. But I did think his alternative viewpoint worth airing - unlike certain other social media users I do not block people whose views are at variance with my own.

And thanks for your comment. It is reassuring to know that someone is interested in this kind of topic; because just recently I have really been having my doubts if there is an online audience left for anything other than Paintshopped pictures of Donald Trump, coverage of anti-Brexit shenanigans, and rabid self-promotion.

Steve said...

Thanks, Bob. I appreciate that you providing a forum for various views on a host of topics. Over the years you have pointed me to music and texts I can't imagine now living without.

I was quite taken with your photo of Rocamadour, a place I would now very much like to visit (The Camino de Santiago is on my bucket list).

Just a few weeks ago I was in the Italian hill town of Anghiari. Compare and contrast!

Pliable said...

Steve, Rocamadour is indeed - to use a controversial term - a spiritual place. But it does attract an awful lot of spiritual seekers not to mention common or garden tourists. So if you are visiting arrive early in the morning or in the late afternoon!

Graeme said...

I don't know. I feel uneasy when people say they are spiritual but not religious. But probably because they have not thought it through. In the 18thc there were Deists such as Voltaire,and his position seems good. I wonder whether Vaughan Williams was really a Deist than whatever he told people he was. The man who wrote the Five Variants doesn't seem to be an atheist to me. Holst, on the other hand... VW never to my knowledge wrote anything as bleak as Holst's setting of Betelgeuze... By a very odd person indeed