Tuesday, January 6, 2015



This new report from a two year research program at the RSA (based in London) is a compelling attempt to discuss spirituality and its relevance to the public square in a non-religious context.

I liked it for its 'metaphysical openness' as it judiciously refuses to enter the debate about the ontological status of the embodied experience that is seen here as spiritual whilst granting the conversation a robust and elegant status.

It argues that 'spirituality' is a useful category that needs definitional boundaries but not 'a definition' that relates to our core concerns for love, our relation to our own death, our identity as selves and a reality to our language and usage of being souls (that carries the qualitative, indefinable qualities of our life). It does an excellent job of summarizing what in recent scientific research anchors this discussion of the ground on which we are (rather than simply the places we inhabit), a distinction that is rooted in Buddhism, but not exclusive to it.

It reminds us that spirituality is as much about how we hold to our beliefs, how we fashion them and live with them, as it is about their content; and, that holding them differently, more reflexively, even compassionately is a major goal, with transformative effect.

However, there is, I think, one major weakness in the discussion and this revolves around the 'intentionality' of the spiritual life. The report weighs in on how we might pay more attention to our spiritual concerns - the how to - but the how to, in order to be truly effective, must be infused with the 'what for'. I was reminded of the story of Arthur Koestler visiting Eugene Herrigel, the author of 'Zen in the Art of Archery', a compelling text on the 'how to' of spirituality, only to discover that, even now, after the war was over, Herrigel was an unreconstituted supporter of National Socialism! As Buddhists would note wisdom is nothing without the accompanying pole of compassion! Likewise in discussions of 'mindfulness' or 'meditation' simply becoming more efficient or healthy is not, in itself, a spiritual goal.

Ultimately 'spirituality' needs to live within a broader, deeper, more encompassing cultural frame (with or without metaphysical objects) such as is provided by religion; and, working out a genuinely 'secular' and actually useful spirituality will have to wrestle with that reality too. Spirituality may have its own boundaries but these must be necessarily, and continuously, porous to other concerns (the ethical, the social, the religious) if it is to be of any genuine value.


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