Defining spirituality

Dr Felicity McCutcheon, Head of Teaching and Learning in the Senior School, discusses her understanding of the term ‘spirituality’.

Editor: Perhaps I could begin by asking how you define ‘spirituality’. The word seems to be more commonly used these days but I am not sure there is clarity about its meaning.

Felicity: You are absolutely right. The word now appears everywhere and often to sell something, whether it be a wellbeing retreat or a technique for relaxation, but I would not want to define it in relation to either of those things. Attempting a definition is of course precarious, but the one I offer students is one that I think gets closer to its essence, which is that spirituality concerns the deepest self and is necessarily related to both love and truth. Fire is a well-known metaphor for spirit and there is a clue here. A spirit that is ‘alight’ or ‘lit’ is in right relationship to reality and to others.

Editor: So would you claim that spirit is essentially relational?

Felicity: Yes, I certainly would want to maintain that and the deep self in the human knows this absolutely to be true. We are happiest, most engaged, and fully alive when we are truthful and loving and both concepts require a relation between self and reality.

Editor: It is unusual to hear someone refer to ‘truth’ with such confidence. Many people would argue there is no such thing or that it is relative or subjective.

Felicity: Yes, but those ‘many’ will, like the rest of us, experience the pain of being lied to or deceived or betrayed. And that tells us something important about truth. There may be more than one way of giving an account of reality but that does not make any account of it as valid as the next. For example, some may deny truth to the claim that Jesus was God but no-one could claim he was a liar and a cheat. We cannot just make anything up with impunity. We all know what it means to try to tell the truth and we can distinguish between truthful and untruthful people.

Editor: What about love? That also seems to be open to many interpretations.

Felicity: Agreed, but like truth, when you clarify what people mean, they nearly always come to some basic agreement about what it is and what it isn’t.

Editor: Such as?

Felicity: Things like love may hurt but it can never be harmful. Love seeks the good of its object, even at the expense of the one who loves. In spiritual terms, some people will claim to be forged by the fire of divine love. It can purify and transform and neither process tends to be comfortable. In that sense, it is inextricably bound to truth. Love without truth is indulgence and that rarely ends well.

Editor: Is spirituality about connectedness?

Felicity: I prefer to think in terms of relationship rather than connectedness. The latter is compatible with anonymity. The former is not. One has to be a participant in a relationship, whereas connectedness can apply to pieces of Lego!

Editor: Just what exactly is the nature of spiritual relationship?

Felicity: Buber famously defined it as I -Thou but the relationship we all long for is one that no human being can satisfy. In the depth of our spirits we are aware of the source of our being. Thomas Merton expressed it poetically: “God utters me like a word containing a partial thought of Himself. A word will never be able to completely comprehend the voice that utters it.” Here, straight away, we encounter the problem of language and mystery, but the key idea is that humans know they are more than pleasure seeking animals, more than their bodies, more than political or moral entities. This ‘more than’ is what all religious traditions have tried to articulate.

Editor: It seems to me the rise in the popularity of spirituality has coincided with the decline of institutional religion.

Felicity: I think you are right and there are many reasons  for this, changing world views and radical social change among them. The rise of the political conception of ‘equality’ has also resulted in many rejecting the objective reality of goodness. But equality is primarily a political, not a spiritual concept. A world where nothing has more intrinsic value than anything else is intolerable for spiritual nature, which seeks the food of goodness, beauty, and truth. We have substituted quality with quantity. The more popular something is, the better it is. This is, of course, patent nonsense the minute you stop to consider it, but people rarely do. Deny the spirit food and it will gobble poison, as C S Lewis aptly put it.

Editor: What is to be done, then?

Felicity: The problem here is that having ‘killed [God]’, as Nietzsche once put it, we have failed to create or re-discover a meaningful narrative that sustains spirit.

Editor: It is unusual to find Nietzsche being quoted approvingly by someone defending spirituality.

Felicity: Nietzsche’s insights are profound. He foresaw us becoming less tolerant and more anxious. He would see political correctness as the new dogma and smile at the hypocrisy of those who champion the demise of religious dogma whilst unleashing their wrath on those who don’t conform to their new rules.

Editor: Are you suggesting that morality isn’t the essence of spirituality?

Felicity: One needs to be careful here. Goodness is intimately connected to spirit, but if it is cut off from our inner life, as some moralities advocate with their emphasis on behaviour alone, then something has gone wrong. The Pharisees were called out on this by Jesus from time to time. They thought their outward behaviour was the key to holiness, whereas he told them it was the state of their heart – how they truly felt and thought about people that mattered most.

Editor: Did the church get this wrong?

Felicity: At times no doubt it did. I think it is important to remember that Jesus said, “I came so that you might have life and have it in abundance.” The institutional church has not always got this right because it is easier to follow rules than to embrace freedom and respond to the demands of love.

Editor: That sounds paradoxical, freedom and demands?

Felicity: Yes, because we have forgotten that true freedom is really the freedom to be, not the freedom to get what you want. The messages of consumerism and political liberalism have drowned out the still small voice of the spirit that simply needs to be known and loved. However, love is also an inducement – an exorbitant demand on the individual to ripen, as Rilke once put it. Hence, freedom and demand.

Editor: Can I take you back to your initial statement that wellbeing and relaxation aren’t the essence of spirituality and ask you to elaborate on that?

Felicity: One can imagine a society in which everyone has achieved emotional and psychological wellbeing without having any awareness of the divine. Hence the distinction. Spirituality engages with deep truth. (‘Buddha’ for example, means ‘One who is awake to the truth’, and Jesus says, “I am the truth.”) This is quite different from employing ‘spiritual’ practices to seek relief from anxiety. ‘Peace’ here really just means freedom from the discomfort of existence, a ‘feeling’ of peace – achieved by employing a technique that ‘blocks’ out reality, including the reality of your own deep fears and messy emotions. However, that reality is waiting for you when you come out of your meditation or return from your retreat. One simply oscillates between stress and stress relief. But in spiritual traditions, peace, along with joy, is the fruit of the spirit. You don’t intentionally seek either; they are the result of the integration of the inner and the outer such that one’s life and one’s being are in harmony. Superficial withdrawal can serve as a veneer for pain, but deep engagement with it results in a genuine transformation. One sees with different eyes, speaks with a different voice and acts from different motives.

Editor: That is both a cautionary and liberating message.

Felicity: Perhaps perfectly expressed in the sign Carl Jung had hanging above his doorway: ‘Called or uncalled, God is always present.’

This exploration was previously published in Grammar News no. 123, August 2017.