Saturday, July 08, 2006

Open question #?: spirituality

What does that word mean to you, "spirituality?" What about "religion?" What place, if any, do either have in your life?

No agenda here, just curious.


The Rendezvous said...

It means you feel to know why you come to this planet in the first place..

or do u have other suggestions

LtL said...

I feel like spirituality is the name for an ongoing negotiation between oneself and the larger universe. It's a process that can never be finished because both sides of the situation are changing, adapting to one another. I change the universe (even on a small scale) and the universe changes me. For some people this negotiation is bound up in a religous framework. Personally, I am not religious, but, on the other hand, I am not terribly spiritual either. I mean, I don't spend enough time really letting the universe and negotiating with it. Rather, I intellectualize things, and place--even if subconsciously--demands on the universe to give me things for free. I wonder how much our political/economic structures help form the ways in which people engage in spirituality, or the ways in which they model their relationship with the universe.

Thanks for stopping by my blog the other day and I really look forward to reading more of yours.

belledame222 said...


Thin Black Duke said...

I don't feel that intellectualizing and spirituality are incompatable, much the same way that I don't feel that a love of science and a love of the arts are incompatable. I don't think it's a coincidence that one of the greatest scientists of all time, Einstein, was also a deeply spiritual person. For me, spirituality is synonomous with the mysterious. Like LTL says, it's an "ongoing negotiation between oneself and the larger universe." It is, as Einsteing put it, a neverending "holy curiousity" and the "source of all true art and science."

Having said that, I'm not a religious person in that I don't follow or practice any organized religion. I don't believe in some old White dude that's gonna cast my ass into eternal damnation or anything like that, but I do believe that there is "something" larger (the universe) than myself, that I can only call the mysterious and which, if anything, is the source of any spirituality that I have.

Emily said...

Well, when I was 13 or 14, I started going down the road of total Christian mania, except for one problem: morality. Ethically, Christianity is an extremely unsatisfying religion because the "morals" pulled out of the Bible have a "flavor of the month" quality to them, and if you're a teenager tempted to drink, all Christians can say to you is "Don't drink." "Why?" "God said so." "Didn't Jesus drink?" "They didn't have clean water back then."

At 14, I dropped out, I literally made the decision to stop being a Christian right then and there because I would rather be an atheist than a hypocrite. At first, I thought, "You're just fooling yourself, Emily. You still believe in God." The the farther I got away from it, the less sense it made, and now I can't even begin to comprehend why anyone would believe in god, let alone base their entire system of ethics and philosophy on such an unprovable, and obviously based on wish-fufillment, assumption.

I stayed an atheist until around a year ago or so. Well, technically, I am an atheist because I still refuse to believe in any kind of deity, but I've become a pseudo-Buddhist. There are many teachings of Buddhism that are so much more philosophically and ethically satisfying than anything a western religion could ever put forth, but like any established religion, a lot of bullshit comes with the territory. Most American Buddhists are Buddhists because they burned out on Christianity, but still wanted something cool, so they go to a guru, and learn to meditate, use their prayer beads, solve koans, hang prayer flags, recite sutras, etc. In essence, so matter what kind of Buddhism they're into (Zen and Tibetian are the most popular) they're caught up in the cultural trappings instead of the actual teachings. However "pretty" Buddhism may be, that's no reason to practice a religion. It's like converting to Catholocism because you like the taste of communion wafers. So that's what's going on right now, just sorting through the bullshit.

Nio said...

Religion is a proscibed set of rules which one must follow in order to be a 'good ____.'

Spirituality is worshiping in the way you inner deity whispers into your soul.

dwayne m. said...

The other day I found an old jpeg that had been virtually lying around in some forgotten folder on my hard drive for Aphrodite knows how long.

It was an image taken from one of the Voyager spacecraft (Voyager 2, I think) speeding towards the outer solar system. Jet Propulsion Lab engineers momentarily re-aligned the probe's camera system to look back, 'over its shoulder' so to speak, upon its birthplace – the Earth - quickly receding into the dark.

This is a photo which manages to hold a fascination that is simultaneously sublime and horrifying.

The beauty is the easy part to understand: the Earth as a fragile jewel, making its elliptical way around our nearby star. The horror however, comes from deeper down the psyche's rabbit hole.

The Earth, which seems so large and important to us for obvious reasons – looked, in that Voyager snapshot, like a mote of dust caught in the light, so insignificant as to beggar description. Along with awe and reverence and a lovely quiet taking hold at the sight there's a deep existential dread – which, I believe, humans felt long before the age of spacecraft gifted us with images of our planet; looking up at the night sky was surely sufficient to invoke it.

It's from this dread – at least partially – religion comes, crawling from our subconscious, stubbornly refusing to accept contra-indications to 'revealed' truth.

In the back of our minds we instinctively know there's a vast cosmic stage and the Earth is but an extraordinarily small piece of it. But our religions reverse the order of things – we are the center, the reason, the whole; it's the rest, the vastness, that is unusual because it lacks us, God's chief accomplishment and primary concern.

There's an irreconcilable gulf between the central conceit of the three main monotheisms – that humanity is the pivot point – and our true place in the order of things.


Just as classical Buddhism was an opening of Hindu concepts to those outside the Brahman caste and Christianity was – at least originally – a Judaism for Gentiles, 'spirituality' is, at its best, a modern attempt to avoid the vainglorious preoccupations of the Middle Eastern spawned faiths to craft a broader understanding, or at least acceptance, of the truly profound mysteries of our species' strange situation (conscious of our eventual death, yet able to behave as if we'll live forever...cosmically unimportant microbes, yet able to imagine, and explore, the universe).

The human/machine age (which really, only people like Phillip K. Dick, Octavia Butler, William Gibson, Stanislaw Lem and Bruce Sterling seemed to be even really trying to grasp) needs spirituality to remind us of our animal curiosity and encourage wonder. It also needs spirituality to help us evolve.

I'm not convinced however, we can long survive our deeply embedded religious instinct – our need for shelter from the vast cold and dark. Can we fashion, ex nihilo, our next step?

The evidence isn't encoruaging.

Tuffy said...

>I'm not convinced however, we can long survive our deeply embedded religious instinct – our need for shelter from the vast cold and dark.

Aren't you being a little hard on religion? Many religious people experience their practice as both a reminder of spiritual truths and a trigger for "spiritual" emotions. Just because contemporary Christianity and Islam are dominated by the kind of anti-spirituality you describe, doesn't mean all religions are inherently anti-spiritual.

dwayne m said...

"Aren't you being a little hard on religion?"


But then again, we have many centuries worth of examples demonstrating how the monotheisms handle ambiguity and competing faith-systems.

It's a not pretty picture.

Granted, as you say, "Many religious people experience their practice as both a reminder of spiritual truths and a trigger for "spiritual" emotions."

But these people are, I believe, a minority.

The ovewrall trajectory of the religous groups is away from the universal and towards balkanization.

belledame222 said...

Sadly, one doesn't need to be religious per se to balkanize.

it's the "one true way" thing, ime, not so much the ideology per se: metaphysical, political, whatever.

'course it's true that certain ideologies lend themselves to one-true-way-ism more readily than others.

I had been looking at it as: if spirituality is the living stream, religion is a sort of structure to, if not contain it, give it a shape one can use in which to do one's work.

You can maybe have the stream without the structure, but it's hard for a lot of people to grasp or work with something if it's completely amorphous.

on the other hand, if the structure becomes too rigid, too much of a closed container, the stream is halted or simply dries up, and all you have is the ossified, crumbling edifice.

i was going to say more about the tradition i was starting to be a part of, but unfortunately i have learned, yet again, this week, that just because someone can be intellectually and spiritually broadminded and sophisticated, even talk with seeming wisdom about such things as group process and mentorship and so on, one can still have a big ol' blind (or at least rigid) spot when it comes to basic human interactions, at least in certain contexts. anyway: i am: bummed.

always kind of sucks when someone you looked up to turns out to have not only feet but maybe a heart of clay.

o well.

belledame222 said...

or, that is: walls and closed doors come in many many many forms and in all sorts of places you wouldn't expect.

as do the open doors, too, i expect.

just not right this minute.

another fucking opportunity for growth, i guess. sigh.

belledame222 said...

(what about you, tuffy? where you at?)

belledame222 said...

and kae, yeah, agree wrt Einstein. also Bohm.

funny you mention science and arts--i come from an academic marriage of just that, pretty much (mom arts/humanities, dad science). Dad has lately been interested in trying to build bridges between the two, with a group acronym'd SLS (Society for Literature and Science? i can never remember acronyms; that's the gist of it).

anyway i went to one of their meetings/lectures once and remember thinking: it's like (some) people are trying to recreate a language for what spiritual/metaphysical traditionally does without actually acknowledging that this might be relevant or even existent.

i can't reconstruct it any more clearly, just: yeah. still thinking about all that.

belledame222 said...

>cosmically unimportant microbes, yet able to imagine, and explore, the universe

Sure. But where does consciousness come from?

Not a trick question: i still don't know the answer. it fascinates me.

i guess a sort of pantheism makes sense to me; as in, maybe it makes more sense to see it as it's *all* alive. It's *all* conscious, in some way, if not the way we think of as ordinary daytime human adult consciousness. The source, the reasons, the workings are still a mystery to me.

neopaganism made sense in many ways, and still does, but, well, yeah, still feeling bitter right now, i expect; bad breakup, never mind, talk amongst yourselves.

i will just add here rather cryptically that i never really gave a flying rat's arse about Gerald Gardner and am now glad i don't have to.

Howard said...

Belle, are you sure you want me to weigh in? I'm cranky today. :)

Frankly, I think both words were made up to try and explain the universe in simple, easy to use terms. The more 'facts' that we as humans learn, I think, the more that people start to fall back on their religious and spiritually beliefs to help them cope, which is cool and fine, but for whoever higher power you believe's sake, STOP PRESENTING YOUR BELIEFS AS THE ULTIMATE TRUTH AND SHOVING IT DOWN EVERYONE ELSE'S THROATS!

Unfortunately, both words have become dirty and soiled and we seem to be moving towards another period of human history of religious wars. Again proving that no one learns anything from history. Oy!

The universe is far too big and too small (microscopically so) for any one narrow minded belief in religious or spirituallity to be right.

To summarize, everyone is right, continue to debate (Please, in an adult fashion) and discuss, but not to the point of death and distruction. Gaaaa!

But then I pesonally think humans are no where near as civilized as they would like to believe.

Dan L-K said...

I've said elsewhere that I think religion serves a very deep human need to play dress-up and speak in poetry, and that's as good a reason as any to participate.

As far as practice goes, I'm a shameless syncretic. I find there's a lot of sense in Alan Moore's assertion that magic is the linguistics of religion - a linguist wouldn't claim that one language was a legitimate one but another wasn't, only acknowledge that one might be better at expressing certain concepts than another. (Some religious systems, of course, seem to have insufficient vocabularies for engaging the world.)

Moore also says that the idea of a god is a god, which is something else that makes a great deal of sense to me.

Spirituality... I dunno. There's a sense in which I'd just as soon let the Mystery be, and recognize that any rites I engage in are an insufficient attempt to address the Infinite on my terms and not its own. I like the idea that the spiritual is a river, but I wonder if religions are more like boats - fragile, unreliable little vessels caught in the current, going we know not where.

(And that said, I feel a truth in pantheism as well; the notion that it's all God makes at least as much sense as anything else.)

Dan L-K said...

As an aside to BD, in re. your cryptic reference; you might appreciate this bit of doggerel I did for a Making Light thread a little while back:

In decrying the Crowleyan bent,
A Gardnerian's loathe to relent;
Since a change of position
Would require the admission
That they both made it up as they went.

Caren said...

For me spirituality is my personal relationship with the Universe.

Religion is an organized way of attempting to hone that relationship.

I much prefer the notion of spirituality versus religion. Religion has too many man made string attached.

belledame222 said...

dan l-k: haw!

these guys were of course not terribly orthodox, otherwise i would not have been interested; nonetheless. at this point i'm thinking: shit, why bother at all?

then, too, i learned that one can be thealogically extremely broadminded and nuanced, and still be completely dogmatic in depressingly mundane ways.

i mean; learned again. more. something.

and then, too; it *must* be possible to hold a group together without regular eruptions of drama, mustn't it?

well, i hold out hope.

but really, i did just sort of gloss over their whole business about (something) "if you want to join to get in good standing with the," i don't know, elite Gardnerians or somedamnthing, well, that wasn't them, you see; and i was all, the who what? oh, pfft, i don't care about any of that.

seriously, who the hell would? i mean, like, at all?

i wanted a flexible (theaological) framework and useful techniques.

pointless drama, no.


belledame222 said...


uh yeah, that's been kind of an ongoing theme with me lately i've found.

not so much in the metaphysical area.

though i'm sure we could get there as well. yee-ha!

I think at this point my creed can be boiled down to this:

1) Don't be a complete fuckwit.

2) something to do with empathy which i'm too cranky to make profound and useful right now. mostly: have some. for further clarification, see point #1.

belledame222 said...

caren: sure, that's what i was trying to get at.

i mean i guess they do call it "organized religion" for a reason.

maybe i should say i believe in a "disorganized religion."

i'll tell you what it is if i can ever find my notes.

belledame222 said...

>I think religion serves a very deep human need to play dress-up and speak in poetry, and that's as good a reason as any to participate.


theatre at its best serves that purpose as well.

you wouldn't know it with a lot of current theatre, of course, but then you wouldn't know it with a lot of current religious ceremonies either...

emily said...

well I'm actually writing my PhD about spirituality so my response is more of an intellectual one--namely, that "spirituality" generally tends to be used as a label to separate spiritual belief and practice from the Abrahamic religious traditions of Judiasm, Christianity and Islam (and often implicitly refers to New Age movements). And spirituality is often used to differentiate its conception of the otherworldly from an anthromorphised God. Interestingly given its separation from "religion", it often includes Buddhism or Buddhist-influenced thought..

Spirituality and religion have an interesting place in my life, in that I experience the visceral (coffee, food, sex) as spiritual, but don't particularly believe in God. Like a lot of queers I don't find it easy to fit into institutional religions, and New Age spirituality often seems like a load of invented bollocks to me. On the other hand, I find certain strands of mysticism immensely seductive, say negative theology (since God is unknowable, he-she-it- can only be described by what it is not) and the theological turn in Derrida's later works.. Do I believe any of it? I dunno (and I'm cool with that).

Dan L-K said...

theatre at its best serves that purpose as well.

We are of the ancient order of the Priesthood of Dionysus, we Thespians; though the roaming drunk through the countryside and tearing people apart has diminished, somewhat.

belledame222 said...


belledame222 said...

scenius: I think you're right that in many cases "spirituality" (as opposed to "religion") is primarily distinguished by being any framework differentiated from the monotheistic Big Three, at least 'round these parts.

Monotheism and also, I want to say, uhhhh, what was the term:

ohyeah: "immanent" vs. "transcendent."

that is, besides the notion that there is only one true Lord/Way, what we get from the Big Three--at least the non-mystical/ecstatic/charismatic/mainstream bents--is that the Divine is out *there,* and we are separate from It. The clay and the potter. Or maybe a fingernail clipping or a cut hair strand, separated from the Living Being.

as opposed to the notion that in fact there is no separation at some core level, and never was; the separation is illusory. (Why we would have that illusion in the first place is one of the main stumbling blocks I always have with Buddhism/Hinduism).

on the whole, though, i find the latter theory to make more sense.

the atheistic or at least materialist proposition, i guess, is that there is no Divine at all; the implication is that at some level it's all dead, pretty much.

i see where that comes from, but somehow can't be moved to see it as the ultimate Truth.

there is a difference between recognizing, yes, we humans, collectively and especially individually, are, in the greater scheme of things, ridiculously tiny;

and believing that because this is so, there *is* no meaning, no story.

just because we may not be the main protagonists or know more than a cryptic fragment of a smudged sentence doesn't mean there mightn't be a bigger narrative after all.

dwayne m. said...

"and believing that because this is so, there *is* no meaning, no story.

just because we may not be the main protagonists or know more than a cryptic fragment of a smudged sentence doesn't mean there mightn't be a bigger narrative after all"


Point taken.

However, the source of much of our woe is the debate - sometimes acted out with surface to surface missiles - over precisely what that story is.

Indeed, the fact there are so very many flavors of religious expression - even within Protestantism - demonstrates our tendency to relentlessly craft new tales.

Suppose that I, on a random Tuesday, declare my preference for what we might call the "2001: A Space Odyssey" narrative (in which, some unfathomably ancient and powerful species has been patiently guiding our evolution towards cosmic maturity). If I'm charismatic and persistent, an entire movement might accrue around my passion for this story.

But there's no way to know, really, whether that narrative is a description of reality or an echo of my own fantasies.

At some point in “The Great Gatsby”, Gatsby says, about some idea he clings to but knows to be a chimera, “isn't it pretty to think so?”

To me, this is the central dilemma we face as religiously inclined, grandly dreaming yet incredibly limited creatures. How can we ever really know our spiritual certainties aren't, as Gatsby said, merely “pretty”?

The ancients were aware of this problem. In the Old Testament, Hebrews 11:1 directly addresses it -

“Now faith is assurance of things hoped for, proof of things not seen.”

Which works for the faithful, providing an elegant way to resolve any and all inconsistencies.

But beyond that, is it really enough?

And, if it turns out there is no narrative, can we learn to embrace the abyss?

Caren said...

I forgot to mention in my prepvious comment, but Bill Moyers has a series running on PBS right now addressing these sorts of questions and answers.

The three episodes I've seen have been very thought provoking.

belledame222 said...

oo, yeah, i remember Moyers had done a series with Joseph Campbell--that's not this, is it?

Bill Moyers is teh awesome.

matt said...

as but an english major who took too few classes in linguistics, i thoroughly enjoy the semantic squabble inherent in your question, belle...

i am both religiously and spiritually inclined. that is, like a good number of my fellow humans, as a spiritually inclined person there is some part of me that longs for something bigger, something outside, something pure and transcendant. as a religiously inclined person, i believe i have access to the true identity of that something else (my apologies, harold, but i am not so tolerant as to say that the existence of what i believe to be ultimate and focal truth does not make some people right, and others wrong - still civil discussion and debate are a whole different ballgame, and i consider it a privelage to discuss such matters with people whose view of the truth differs from mine. it is, in fact, one of my favorite things to do - not, as you may now be thinking, so i can convert them, but so i can understand them, and understand myself better as a result).

kenneth burke would be quick to point out that, regardless of the (in-)validity of a given relgious/spiritual worldview, the rhetoric in which it is packed and presented plays a major role in both understanding and action. we all act and perceive through what he calls terministic screens (partially inborn and partially constructed by experience). the point too few people recognize is that the screen through which we act and perceive is limited, and too-often serves, if we are not careful, to render us blithely unaware of different screens, and thus, of greater understanding. our goal in discourse, then, should not be to purport to have access to the ultimate truth, in all its forms (which is, of course, quite a ridiculous claim for how often it seems to be made). rather, we should strive to recognize the limitations of our own screens and, in stepping back, see that the bits of truth to which we are each privy might just be enhanced by incorporating (at least some small piece of) someone else's screen into our own.

forgive me, for i have strayed, though not too far. in answer to your question, belle, spirituality and religion are a huge part of my life. they offer me direction, community, and hope. i understand the general spiritual longing of every human being (apologies to the athiests), and as a specifically religious person it saddens me to see so much anti-religious sentiment, especially when i realize that much, if not all of it, is deserved, brought on the religious by those who practice without the necessary and unconditional compassion toward their fellow men. all i can claim to be is one man trying desperately to follow the desires of my soul and the teachings of my God. semantics aside, this is the most important thing i could possibly do with my life, and i could not pretend to be really trying if i did not also strive to understand the spiritual/religious longings of others, to understand them, and agree, if not on the specifics, to move forward together, peacefully, in search of truth.

belledame222 said...

> rather, we should strive to recognize the limitations of our own screens and, in stepping back, see that the bits of truth to which we are each privy might just be enhanced by incorporating (at least some small piece of) someone else's screen into our own.

Yes, that's nicely put.

There is of course the parable of the blind men and the elephant:

A number of disciples went to the Buddha and said, "Sir, there are living here in Savatthi many wandering hermits and scholars who indulge in constant dispute, some saying that the world is infinite and eternal and others that it is finite and not eternal, some saying that the soul dies with the body and others that it lives on forever, and so forth. What, Sir, would you say concerning them?"

The Buddha answered, "Once upon a time there was a certain raja who called to his servant and said, 'Come, good fellow, go and gather together in one place all the men of Savatthi who were born blind... and show them an elephant.' 'Very good, sire,' replied the servant, and he did as he was told. He said to the blind men assembled there, 'Here is an elephant,' and to one man he presented the head of the elephant, to another its ears, to another a tusk, to another the trunk, the foot, back, tail, and tuft of the tail, saying to each one that that was the elephant.

"When the blind men had felt the elephant, the raja went to each of them and said to each, 'Well, blind man, have you seen the elephant? Tell me, what sort of thing is an elephant?'

"Thereupon the men who were presented with the head answered, 'Sire, an elephant is like a pot.' And the men who had observed the ear replied, 'An elephant is like a winnowing basket.' Those who had been presented with a tusk said it was a ploughshare. Those who knew only the trunk said it was a plough; others said the body was a grainery; the foot, a pillar; the back, a mortar; the tail, a pestle, the tuft of the tail, a brush.

"Then they began to quarrel, shouting, 'Yes it is!' 'No, it is not!' 'An elephant is not that!' 'Yes, it's like that!' and so on, till they came to blows over the matter.

"Brethren, the raja was delighted with the scene.

"Just so are these preachers and scholars holding various views blind and unseeing.... In their ignorance they are by nature quarrelsome, wrangling, and disputatious, each maintaining reality is thus and thus."


And then of course there is the parable of the blind elephants and the man. When Babar came to ask them what sort of thing it is they had discovered:

The first elephant said, "Man, o great Babar, would appear to be flat, like a pancake."

The second said, "I concur. Man is flat."

The third opined, "Yup, flat..."

Popess Lilith said...

I'm mostly with Caren on this one: Spirituality is a matter of finding one's relationship with the cosmos, and religion is simply an organized way of doing so. Alas, each organized religion has its own assumptions about the nature of the cosmos and therefore falls apart.

I am actually involved in a disorganized religion--Church of the SubGenius, of course. The nice thing about the Church is that we don't care what you actually believe. We accept both skeptics and those who'll believe just about anything. The skeptics of course wind up with rude surprises, and the ones who'll believe anything eventually get The Talk from one of us SubGenius ministers who've been around for a while. But, hey, that's not bad for a mere $30, and the occasional bewildered glance from others....

Popess Lilith said...

BTW, I love the parable of the blind elephants and the man! I'll be sure to repeat that one, often. Who to credit?

Rick McKnight said...

Spirituality is a personal relationship with spirit. Religion is by nature designed to keep itself going. How? By setting itself up as an intercessor between humans and God. Thus by its own self-serving agenda, it interferes with spirituality. Religion will not help you reach the ultimate freedom because if it did you would not need it anymore. Don't get me wrong, there is a message in most religions that people should hear. It is the dogma that can actually set people back spiritually. Or the awareness that just going to church or just accepting Jesus is the end of the path.