I have a problem with the word “spirituality.” If you spend much time hanging around a 12-Step program you’ll hear people say, “It’s not a religious program, it’s a spiritual program.” In fact, there are strong reasons for contending that it’s a religious program, but that’s an argument for another time. The question for today is, what do people mean when they say “spiritual”?
We should always be wary of people who attach new, esoteric definitions to common words. (Scientology does that quite a lot.) The word “spiritual” has several common meanings. A spiritual is a type of traditional choral music often heard in the African-American community. The lyrics of a spiritual are typically in praise of someone named Jesus. That’s not a meaning that resonates with me. A hundred years ago, a spiritualist or spirit medium was a con artist who claimed to be able to communicate with the ghosts of the dead. That’s not a meaning I care to embrace either. And then there’s the Holy Spirit, which is one of the three aspects of the Catholic God. Oh, dear.
A slightly better meaning is that someone who is spiritual is uninterested in “worldly” things, a category that would presumably include riches, fame, and 2-pound boxes of Swiss chocolate. But this meaning is slippery. Those whose lives are devoted to the study of mathematics are hardly engaged in a worldly pursuit, yet few of us would say they’re spiritual. The same could be said of philologists and grammarians. If you study ancient Greek and Latin, will people say you’re spiritual? It seems unlikely.
No, when the word is used in this seemingly generic way, it seems to refer to people whose lives are devoted to “higher” things, whatever those are. One would be inclined, for instance, to say that a scholar who studies the Old Testament (and who believes it has some sort of special relevance in human affairs) is “spiritual,” while the mathematician is not.
We might also say that someone who feeds stray puppies is “spiritual,” while a person who kicks stray puppies is not. But does the word just mean “inclined to be kind”? I’m not sure, but I suspect this usage embraces, at least potentially, the idea that the person who feeds the puppies is motivated not by mere kindness but by some sort of awareness, however tenuous, of a “higher plane of existence.”
I don’t feel comfortable with that usage either.
The best I can do is to replace the word “spiritual” with the words “life-enhancing.” If I perform that little mental trick, I can hope to deal with it when people use the word. But why should I have to lie to myself like this? Why can’t people just say “life-enhancing” if that’s what they mean?