Twenty Questions about Spirituality

The conference talks were kicked off with a short introduction by Patti Whaley.

What on earth is spirituality? I think the main reason the steering committee chose this theme is that the word spirituality seems to make so many people so uncomfortable.

Some people in SoF feel uncomfortable about spirituality because they think we've lost it. Our brand of intellectual and rational theology doesn't give us much practical guidance about how to go about developing a spiritual life, and doesn't even give us a very clear signal about whether we still need one. Others in SoF are uncomfortable about spirituality because it represents for them exactly what SoF should be moving away from: all that vague, woolly "beyondness", probably with more than a sliver of realism in it, all that New-Age, latest-guru stuff.

Our task is to explore what we mean by spirituality and to see if we can come up with some concepts that make us a little bit less uncomfortable. We might be asking ourselves some questions like:

Does spirituality inherently imply realism? Does it mean that I need to believe in a "soul", that must be nurtured and trained? Do I need to believe in some metaphysical or supernatural being who lives in the spiritual world and therefore is the focus of my spirituality?

If not if there is no real soul, no real God—is there any purpose for spirituality? Is there actually anything I can point to outside my emotional life, or my moral life, or my artistic life, or just whatever way I go about trying to get through the day without injuring anybody, that can be said to constitute a "spiritual life"? If I have decided what my values are, and I'm going about trying to act those out in the real world, do I need anything more than that? Or is spirituality just some rose-coloured glasses that I use to look at the world? If I say I am looking for transcendent values—who or what am I transcending, and what good will it do me?

The things that used to constitute "spiritual life"—prayer, reflection, ritual, association with a formal worshipping community—what is the purpose of these activities now? Do I still need them? What part of me are they developing? Do I need a community, or can I be spiritual all by myself? When I act out the stories and rituals of my faith tradition am I exercising anything more than vague aesthetic sentimentality? If the Eucharist and the meetings of the South Place Ethical Society are really achieving exactly the same thing, why do so many of us feel the Eucharist is still important? Diarmuid O'Murchu, in his book Reclaiming Spirituality, calls us back to a spiritual life that is outside formal organised religion. What would such a spiritual like look like, or consist of?

Finally, if it is true, as argued recently in our magazine, that there is no such thing as non-verbal thought, what is the role of symbolic language in our lives? What is the role of the irrational, the subconscious, the imaginative, in the otherwise reasonable and completely linguistic creation of human values? And what does the "spiritual life" have to do with these less rational, but also very human qualities?

These are not just rhetorical questions. I actually think SoF will have a hard time moving forward until we have some clearer sense of whether we intend to talk about religion or be religious. We're terrifically good at talking about religion, and there's nothing wrong with that. What this conference does is look a bit closer at "being religious", and see if we can define what we think that means for us.

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