Monday, June 19, 2017

Are there Degrees of Spirituality?

This is not a question that I can answer. In my view a person's spirituality is an inner attitude; it is not a foreign supplemental addition to oneself. One can evaluate spirituality in terms of exterior social behavior after defining what is meant by "religious," but that is not quite the same thing as studying a mental state or stance toward something. The inner mental state or stance of spirituality is never available for direct study; instead, only the stated claims of those polled about spirituality may be analyzed.
            The Apostle Paul, however, thought there were degrees to spirituality, and from the perspective of nascent Christianity he described the scale this way:
But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as fleshly, as babes in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not ready for it; and even yet you are not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not still of the flesh and behaving just like ordinary people? For when one says, "I belong to Paul," and another, "I belong to Apollos," are you not just ordinary people? (1 Cor 3:1-4)
The degree scale that Paul establishes is at its lowest end "ordinary fleshly people" (or babes in Christ) and at its highest end "spiritual people." I suppose that the designations fleshly/spiritual would come together at the midpoint halfway through the scale. Paul is able to distinguish these two extremes, however, only in terms of human behaviors and he gives his readers an example.  Ordinary fleshly people act jealously and create strife (1 Cor 3:3). Presumably the spiritual people at the upper end of the scale would act just the opposite; that is, spiritual people would be characterized by trust and they would create harmony. But perhaps we should use his words as to how spiritual people behave:
The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. (Gal 5:22-23 RSV)
On the other hand, the behaviors to which the flesh (what Paul regards as human lower nature) leads are:
fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissention, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and such things." (Gal 5:19-21 RSV
            Does "spirituality," however defined, improve the species Homo sapiens?  Again, it is not a question that can be answered for two reasons: 1. It will depend on how you define "improvement." For example, some may think spiritual improvement means being less formally "religious" (however defined), since they might regard religiosity as a holdover from the superstitious period of humanity's primitive past; and 2. Since "spirituality" is a personal attitude (that is, how one regards oneself or how one is regarded by others), we can never analyze the degree of one's spirituality directly. We can only know how we regard ourselves and what we claim about someone else—and our self claims and what others claim about us may disagree.
            Suppose, however, "spirituality" were defined in terms of stated concepts of the Divine—that is to say how has the species Homo sapiens described the Gods it serves? Have concepts of God evolved or devolved? My theory is that spiritual people are more apt to conceive a more ethically respectable God; spiritual people would scarcely serve a flawed Deity. The more ethically their Gods behave; the keener must be the spiritual sense of those believing in such Gods.
            I do see specific indicators of gradual change in the representation of Deity by the species Homo sapiens. The overlapping changes are not uniform throughout the world and have been occurring over millions of years.
1.   The ascription of Divinity to the primal forces of nature (Primitive period).
2.   Polytheism and anthropomorphism (Classical Greek and Roman period).
3.   Monotheism and Spirit (Judeo-Christian period).
4.   Panentheism: God is in everything and everything is in God (Post-Enlightenment).
Whether this represents an evolution that makes our species more spiritual or whether it is a devolution that makes our species less spiritual, is a subjective judgment, however, and will be answered according to one's personal faith.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Monday, June 5, 2017

From the Jesus Tradition: On Becoming and Being Human

All of us are special, even those of us who are not. We belong to the animal species Homo sapiens (intelligent man), a thinking animal, capable of abstract thought, and logical analysis. Anthropologists tell us there have been several iterations of the genus Homo that preceded our species, apparently without our mental capability and potential; here are the names of those closest to us in the genus Homo: heidelbergensis, neanderthalensis, erectus, floresiensis.1 They are now extinct.
            As a species of the animal kingdom, our kind (Homo sapiens) often exhibits an insensitive brutish behavior that unfortunately reflects a destructive aspect of our nature. Nevertheless, the higher aspects of our nature enable us to contribute to the enhancement of civilization and life in community through the arts, philosophy, science, etc. This dissonance in the nature of the species Homo sapiens between the lower and higher aspects of our nature, or perhaps better: between the animalistic and the humanistic aspects of our nature, raises the following question: what is the quintessential characteristic of human nature? That is to say: what is best in the nature of our species?
            I suggest that what is best in our nature is a kind of liberal humanitarianism grounded in the concept of altruistic and unconditional love. Altruistic love is an unselfish concern for and devotion to the welfare of other human beings without regard for personal benefit or personal cost. In a sense it is a self-denying love for other members of our species of whatever ethnic background.
            This kind of love is first met in the ancient world in the Jesus tradition. The Israelite tradition of "love your neighbor as yourself" (Deut 15:1-3) is essentially a tribal ethic, since a neighbor was one of your own tribe; that is to say, your fellow Israelite. And love was also extended to the stranger sojourning in the Israelite community (Lev 19:33-34), a custom grounded in the hospitality codes of the ancient near east.
            Through the Jesus tradition love for the neighbor passes over into the Christian communities (Rom 13:8-10) where the neighbor is not a fellow human being of whatever ethnic background but fellow Christians in the community (as in Rom 15:1-2; Gal 5:15-15). James 2:1-13, however, does seem to shade over into a universal humanitarian code of care and concern for fellow human beings of whatever ethnic background because concern and care is extended to any poor shabbily dressed person who wanders into a Christian assembly. So it is not necessarily at bottom a religious community ethic, but seems grounded in a kind of humanitarian concern for other human beings.
            One of the clearer expressions of a kind of secular altruistic love as a quality in human life is found in 1 Cor 13:1-13. In this chapter love is not motivated by religious belief or empowered by divine sanction. Here love has more value than religious acts and knowledge (13:1-2) and other forms of charity (13:3). It puts others before self (13:4-7), and epitomizes what it means to be a mature human being (13:11-12). Hence, love has greater value than even religious faith or hope (13:13). There is no mention in the chapter of God or Christ, but love is apparently an altruistic human response to the human other. For these reasons some scholars of the Jesus tradition do not regard the chapter as composed by Paul but as borrowed from the Greco-Roman tradition.
            The clearest expression of an altruistic unconditional love is the challenge of Jesus to "love your enemies" (Luke 6:27b; Matt 5:44). Matthew and Luke each try to domesticate the saying by suggesting practical actions one can perform that do not involve one actually loving an enemy—that is to say: do favors for those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for your abusers (Luke 6:27-31; Matt 5:43-44); all of which one can do without actually loving the enemy.
            When our behavior displays altruistic love, we are quintessentially human; when our behavior is brutish and uncaring, we are marginally human. Being human is not an accident of birth, but a matter of behavior.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
1Richard Potts and Christopher Sloan, What does it mean to be Human? (Washington: National Geographic, 2010), 32-33.