Once I had agreed to do this talk, I decided to try and get some input from different perspectives. I asked various friends, of various persuasions and none, what they felt or thought about “spirituality today” and they all said the same thing. They all asked, “What do you mean by spirituality?” Good question. Do I mean ‘religion’? No. Clearly there are a lot of people in society today who do not follow any recognised religion but are deeply concerned with the spiritual aspect of life. When I was membership secretary of Sheffield Interfaith, 50% of the membership described themselves as ‘seekers’ - people who wanted guidance to find their spiritual path. Friends I made at the Bhuddist centre were often in a similar situation. I used to go to the Gyaltsabje Centre because I wanted to learn about meditation but I learned so much more! I was offered new and gently challenging notions of ‘spirituality.’ It seemed that I was not alone.
At the other end of the spectrum, of course, there are people who go to church, synagogue or wherever and who describe themselves on census forms as belonging to a particular religion but whose spiritual life is sadly barren. I’m afraid we probably all know such people. You may know that Karl Marx once said, “One thing I know for certain is, I am not a Marxist.” I often wonder whether Jesus of Nazareth might say a similar thing about today’s ‘Christianity.’ Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) might wonder which ‘denomination’ of Islam he fits in to.
So, if it’s not necessarily to be found in religion, where do we look for a definition of spirituality? 2~3 years ago I was in Waterstone’s bookshop and I remember being surprised to find a whole alcove of books on “Mind, Body, Spirit” so I thought I’d pop in again and check out what was on offer these days. There is now only 1/3 of an alcove devoted to this section. Does this mean that we have become ‘less spiritual’? I don’t think so. It seems to me that we are becoming more serious about spirituality. Many of the books that might have been in the “Mind, Body, Spirit” section are now elsewhere (maybe the ‘Best Sellers’ section) and “Mind, Body, Spirit” has become a miscellaneous section. What occupies the space now is quite a revelation. Deepak Chopra and Khalil Gibran aside, much of what now fills those shelves comprises conspiracy theory, books about vampires and astrology. You can purchase a “Short Introduction to” Postmodernism, Schizophrenia, Dinosaurs or Aristotle but not Spirituality. Waterstone’s is clearly confused. I suppose big business feels out of its depth with spirituality, as it once did with environmentalism. We must look elsewhere for help.
Once an English teacher, always an English teacher. If you want to know what a word means, look it up in the dictionary. (Even Pearl, my computer, keeps telling me “Word is saving Spirituality Today” every time I close the file). So I went to the OED and found that I needed the volume marked “Soot-Styx” (honestly!) I knew the OED would not let me down! They have a proper understanding of these things. Spirituality, of course, lies somewhere between the dirt and blackness of our industrial heritage (small children sent up chimneys to clean them instead of being sent to school; the whole ‘dark, satanic mills’ scenario) ~ between that and the Styx: the crossing from this life to the next. Some believe that what happens to us at the other side of that river is directly consequential on how we have lived this life. Even those who do not subscribe to that view, if they are seekers of a spiritual path, want to leave this life feeling that they have lived it, as they should have. We are already moving toward a better understanding before we’ve (well, I’ve) even opened the book
So what gems of enlightenment did I find in that quasi-sacred text, the OED? I found ... well, I mostly found what spirituality is not. It is not “bodily” or “material” or “temporal” or “secular.” But I stuck with it and eventually found some positives: “higher faculties of mind,” “refinement of thought or feeling” and having to do with “a creative, animating or inspiring influence.”
Now, that seemed to chime with what those Sheffield Interfaith ‘seekers’ wanted and, too, with my own search ... I swear to you that even as I typed the word ‘search’ Bruce Springstein sang from my radio “I ain’t comin’ round searchin’ for no crutch.” Thank you, Bruce; erudite as ever. Perhaps that is the challenge of ‘spirituality’ as opposed to ‘religion’ ~ it is not a search for comfort, consolation or conformity but a willingness to push our minds towards those “higher faculties,” to find or to forge a “creative, animating or inspiring influence” (or all of the above). Some years ago on TV there was a programme about Kumbh Mela. On it a Hindu teacher said “the purpose of religion, surely, is to bring us together in Love and kinship.” The Springstein quote is from a song called “Human Touch.” Is this, then, where ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ come together? Where we do. Is ‘spirituality’ the personal impetus toward right action in the wider, social context? I think it will certainly be beneficial and useful to consider ‘spirituality’ in that way.
Spirituality is perhaps, then, something which links the inner, private life with the outward, social life. It is both centrifugal and centripetal. Some would say that it is the thread from which the web of being is spun. An ancient notion but one that brings me to the ‘today’ part of the topic.
The idea of a web of interconnectedness is very much part of modern thinking in the field of spirituality as in so many other fields. Politics and commerce have become globalised. The World Wide Web connects people as nothing has before. The Interfaith movement seeks ~ not to make connections, but to celebrate connections which already exist. There are, as we know, many paths to the top of the mountain. As we climb, we come closer together and realise how similar our paths have been and how the summit we seek is pretty much the same for all. It is a place from which to see everything. Our ‘spirituality’ will inform or underpin the way we look out from that vantage point. It’s all about our ‘outlook’.
Many people, probably most, would say that, quite obviously, science is one thing that spirituality is most definitely not. I beg to differ. I recently heard an eminent scientist say, “I know when the Universe will end. But don’t worry, there will be one perfect day on Earth before that happens.” Well, as someone who has been called airy-fairy, mumbo-jumbo, hippy ... that strikes me as being a lot less scientific than anything I’ve ever claimed to know. Surely science, when it is being properly scientific, is about looking at the available evidence; at what is there to be seen and trying to find a truth or principle or trend. That doesn’t sound too different from the spiritual ‘seeking’ I’ve been talking about. Is science, then, about understanding the physical, the “bodily,” “material” or “temporal” aspects of our world?
All very neat and tidy. Science deals with one side of the equation, spirituality deals with the other. You’re either a scientist or a spiritual being apparently. But Newton was a Christian and Einstein was Jewish. Unless they, and many others too, suffered from multiple personality disorder. It is possible to be successful in both fields. In fact, most of us have a ‘scientific’ or ‘practical’ as well as a ‘spiritual’ aspect to our lives. “There comes a time” as the lady at Greenham Common said, “when, whatever your political or spiritual path, it’s your turn to wash the dishes.”
Personally, as a Pagan, I find physics brings me ever better understanding of the sacred World and helps me along my faith path. “All matter is energy,” said Einstein. Physics seeks to understand that energy, that “creative, animating ... influence” or what Dylan Thomas called “the force that, through the green fuse, drives the flower.”
You may be familiar with String Theory. It’s altogether very likely that you are more familiar with it than I am. As I understand it, which is at a very basic level, String Theory replaces the idea of an ultimate, primal particle with the idea of ~ well ~ string. We are used to the idea of particles so unthinkably small that molecules are huge by comparison. Similarly with these ‘strings’, they are barely there as far as size or thickness is concerned. What is significant is not, of course, size but behaviour. Particles orbit, like planets, or swarm like ants or move unpredictably like (and this is not my analogy) fans at a Bruce Springstein concert. Strings pulsate. Like the strings of a guitar or violin, each has a frequency or pitch or signature. Matter is what it is according to the nature of that pulse or vibration.
This may all have a familiar ring or echo (pun intended). “The Music of the Spheres” is a concept as old as Pythagoras. It was an idea that was discussed and modified by European musicians of the Middle Ages. What both societies had in common was that they did not divide, even polarise, scientific and spiritual searches for truth or principle the way that we have done in the last 3 or 4 centuries. The so-self-styled Age of Enlightenment set up science as the new religion. ‘If we can’t prove or demonstrate it with what we have available, then it is not allowed to exist’ seemed to be the mantra. Take, for example, herbalism. We take for granted that we can walk in to a high street shop and buy Echinacea or St John’s Wort but, for a long time, the idea of a link between, say, Feverfew and headache relief was not merely derided; it was open to accusations of witchcraft and therefore (in England, at least) punishable until 1951. Even more recently, those who suggested that there was a link between tobacco-smoking and some forms of cancer were ‘conspiracy theorists’ or, as in the case of my uncle Stewart, ‘nutters’. Scientists had not found, or not published, any such links so there were none. How far we have come in less than a lifetime! Science now has the self-confidence to take on the “spirituality” rather than the “dogma” of organised religion.
Personally, I like String Theory; I am very much drawn to a vision of the universe predicated on harmony and rhythm. I have long felt that, to paraphrase John BonJovi, “Music is the one true church.” As to whether String Theory will prove to be more than just that; whether, as Patrick Moore said, “we will have to drop the word ‘theory’” remains to be seen. But it is one aspect of modern thinking which breaks down barriers and allows us to search widely as well as deeply for ‘truth’ or ‘Meaning’. We are no longer required to think within the confines of a particular ‘religious’ dogma. We have access to ideas and knowledge from all over the globe. The Internet, as the Bishop of Bradford says, “enables us to engage outside our self-selected safe communities, be present in a space where a different sort of conversation can be had.” Not only can we engage in Interfaith dialogue, we can engage in any dialogue, explore as widely and deeply as we want. It is no longer an accusation of heresy to be called ‘unscientific.’ “Spirituality Today” is, I think, in a pretty healthy place.
The above article is based on a talk that Lynn, as Chairperson of Sheffield Interfaith, gave as part of a series of lunchtime talks at Burngreave Ashram. Details of multi-faith events at the Ashram/Multifaith Chapel can be obtained from Nirmal on firstname.lastname@example.org or by phoning 0114 2700972