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

7 comments:

  1. Hi Charlie,

    Most interesting and great clarity for such a complex subject! Where would one put the following representation of deity: what was once the function of God is now the function of humanity.

    "Since we are co-extensive with the universe, and can say nothing about God or nature that is not at the same time a statement about ourselves, we must learn to think of ourselves as the universe reflecting upon itself." (Wink, The Human Being, 2002, 47).

    The Gaia theory of James Lovelock (Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, 1979)"proposes that the biosphere is connected with the other physical components of the Earth -- the atmosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere -- in such a way as to form a complex interconnected system. This web of being acts in a homeostatic fashion that operates so as to preserve the climatic and biochemical conditions on Earth that make it suitable for living systems - So Don't Fool with Mother Nature...Since the concept of God can now be seen as a symbol for the responsibilities and virtues we feel bound to manifest, and since caring for the earth can now be seen as our supreme duty, then our traditional responsibility to God and our newly-found responsibility to the earth have become virtually the same." (Geering, Coming Back to Earth, 2009, 215-216).

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

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    1. Good Morning Gene,
      Thanks for the provocative comments! Your quote from Walter Wink: I think that we can talk about nature and the universe without making statements about ourselves. But I do agree that God is a reflection of ourselves, since we invented the Gods using ourselves as a model in some way--in other words God is not an objective entity over against us. I think that we are an extension of the universe in the sense that the earth is our mother and we are bone and flesh with the universe (in short we are formed out of stardust).
      Third paragraph: the terms (biosphere, etc.) used by Lovelock (I have not read his book, however) are likely directly out of Teilhard de Chardin. We are responsible for our behavior with respect to the earth and the universe but without any reference to the Gods.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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  2. This probably won’t make sense, but I don’t associate “spirituality” with “religion.” To me, spirituality is awareness, clearing the extraneous clutter from one’s mind and focusing entirely on the now – the task, thought or problem. It provides peace and clarity and unhinges one from attachments that get in the way.
    Dennis Dean Carpenter
    Dahlonega, Ga.

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    1. Hi Dennis,
      Why would you bother to use the religion word "spirituality" to describe awareness? Why not preface your comment with the statement: There is no such thing as "spirituality." What we call "spirituality" is better thought of as human awareness. There are degrees of awareness in the species Homo sapiens. When we are most aware, we are most distinctly human.
      Is that about the gist of your view?
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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    2. Not all terms that usually refer to an otherworldly cult like a religion need remain attached to religion. This particular one is long overdue a "makeover." Angels & demons don't wander the wind, the spiritual world.

      I don't see degrees of awareness. I think I'm probably looking also at awareness differently. When I say awareness I mean there is absolutely nothing in the conscious thought except the task at hand. Nothing. So, there couldn't be degrees. And, I'm not sure this is (from my experience with animals) distinctly human.
      Dennis Dean Carpenter
      Dahlonega, Ga.

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  3. 1) 'Does "spirituality," however defined, improve the species Homo sapiens?'

    2) '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.'

    Good afternoon Charlie,
    In reply to question number one- the short answer is no. Spirituality is an abstract mental concept in the head that does nothing to liberate humans from inflicting suffering on themselves or others. Simply believing in and accumulating certain thoughts/concepts about a deity does not change or transform any human... Besides- how do you know those thoughts are true? Can you absolutely know they are true? No single thought or perspective contains all truth, but can only point to it... And the truth is always paradoxical.

    In reply to the second statement about humans serving a more ethical deity- the only thing you are "serving" is a concept in your head. If humanity is to be changed or transformed, it only happens through changing their state of consciousness.. by bringing awareness to the unconscious mind movements that create an enormous amount of suffering for ourselves- and therefore others.

    Thoughts and beliefs about God are not permanent, they come and go and fluctuate continuously. One thought after another.... It never ends. Do having the "right" beliefs about an ethical deity ever resolve any problems or relieve suffering? "I now believe in an ethical deity, so that makes me an ethical person." It simply makes you a person who has ethical thoughts. And you are identified with them(for now).

    But your thoughts are never still. They fluctuate continuously. That is why humans are in a state of constant unease and resistance to situations and events in life. They are mistakenly led to believe that "if I can just get the right bundle of thoughts and beliefs together in my head, then I'll be a spiritual person- and behave like a spiritual person!"

    Adding more thoughts and beliefs to one's mind will solve nothing.

    Thank you as always! Elizabeth


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  4. Hi Charlie,

    In response to the suggestions that spirituality is awareness (Dennis)or a mental concept (Elizabeth), I want to reemphasize that Paul thought of spirituality in terms of embodiment, i.e., behavior. There was no mystery - just look at how a person behaves. You listed the behaviors that are evidence of Spirit quite clearly. So, if I'm living this life, I definitely want to be in a context where my fellow humans are spiritual. Paul's definition in Gal 5 sounds very much like something out of behavioral psychology research. This characterization, for Paul, even carries beyond the grave in the form of a spiritual body (1 Cor 15). A comforting thought to believe that kindness extends beyond the grave.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

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