Words with Baggage

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?

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5 Responses to Words with Baggage

  1. thenoveilst says:

    Introspective. Here on this link, you may find something that resonates with you: http://vedabase.com/en
    Free online read into ancient, yet timeless Vedic texts of wisdom from erstwhile India. Blessed be.

  2. Kav says:

    A person who feeds puppies is not necessarily spiritual. He could just be an activist. The spirit has more meaning in contrast with matter. If humans are made of body and soul, spiritualism has to do with the soul. Meta-physics could be another relevant word.

    • midiguru says:

      As far as science has been able to determine, there is no such thing as the soul — not if you think of the soul as something immaterial (that is, something that’s not made of atoms). If you think of the soul as a complex _activity_ of the cells and chemicals in your brain, then the word has a meaning, but it’s so vague as to be worthless. If we use the word “soul” in that way, and if we say (as I think you’re implying) that spirituality has something to do with the soul, then by definition _everything_ that a human being does is spiritual. I don’t think this is a useful way to look at spirituality.

  3. Mike Zimmerman says:

    MidiJim,
    Your quote, “The soul is something immaterial, ie., not made of atoms,” is a good, even a great quote, although the word “something” isn’t needed (someTHING, being a “thing”). Therefore, the soul, love, hate, emotion, or belief are all immaterial. These emotions and beliefs are generated by atoms (cells) in the brain forming thoughts, and atoms (cells) of the body conveying meaning via actions.
    So, what’s the problem? It is that belief is the basis of action. We talk, vote, spend, (name your action), based on belief. “…. I’m an Athiest. I accept evolution, mutation, change, and chance. I will vote for candidates and measures that …. I’m an Evangelical doing God’s will. I have no question that I’m right, so my vote and my money will …. My Shinto beliefs will strengthen my resolve to honor my ancestors and I will pay for …. My Pagan beliefs celebrate rebirth this spring and I will ….”
    For one thousand years many believed the moon, sun, planets, and stars rested upon crystaline spheres which rotated about our static earth. How else could they possibly be so perfect? Very few, if any believe that today, and NASA didn’t worry about busted crystal when Apollo 8 circled the moon. What many devoutly believed before is just plain silly today. So, Muslims: Keep women from driving; Jews: keep cheese off of your burgers; Hindus, wash your sins away in the Ganges. In the mean time, look at others’ beliefs as well as no belief. If doing that doesn’t change your minds, at least you might become more tolerant or more understanding of others.
    Yes, I read evolution and physics. I also read of all religions, listen to Evangelical radio, and pick up on eastern and middle eastern religions. Doing this informs me and gives me a clearer understanding of others. Shouldn’t the religious be the more tolerant and understanding ones?

    • midiguru says:

      If emotion is immaterial, then a river is immaterial. Both words describe complex activities engaged in by billions of atoms. But few of us would say that a river is immaterial — and for the same reason, I would say that emotion is not immaterial. An emotion is a phenomenon that exists in physical reality. “Emotion” is our word for something that atoms do. It’s material. So is “spirituality,” for the same reason.

      Some devotees of religion are more tolerant than others. Last night a friend of mine told me that when he was a kid, the Presbyterian youth in his Sunday school were encouraged to question everything. Now, that may have been because the teachers thought they had memorized all the pat answers — but nonetheless, that church doesn’t seem to have been too closed-minded. Another friend commented that in the church where he grew up (LDS) they were taught that the Catholic Church was the Great Satan. Only as an adult did he discover that Catholic writers had wisdom to offer.

      In general, I would guess, religions have creeds — items of faith that are not supposed to be questioned. If you question what’s in the creed, you’re no longer a member of the church. But possibly this is a narrow, Euro-American view. I don’t have any idea whether Vodun has a creed.

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