Thursday, July 28

Literature and Spirituality: Crafting a Point of View

I didn’t want to wait a week for this post because I don’t want to get ahead of myself, which is a really weird phrase when you think about it. Don’t think about it now though I will say that reading about and trying to process what we’re learning because of the James Webb Telescope plus the lost Covid years are messing up my thinking about my own time-space continuum.

My process so far:

  • Review a syllabus for the Literature and Spirituality class.
  • Note the books with which I’m familiar and the ones I don’t know; eliminate some titles based on those I do know because if I’m not interested in reading or re-reading them, I’ll never encourage students to read them.
  • Look up the ones I don’t know to figure out if I want to know them then, based on that “research,” order said books through Thriftbooks or an at least good condition copy through Amazon.
  • Skim some of those books once they arrive; regret some purchases and not others. That’s why I buy used, but also note that some of the regrets may be partially okay so have to figure out if I can find legit PDFs for at least some chapters because I’ve learned we don’t always have to read the whole book. I won’t say how many years it took me to appreciate that as an option.
  • Read articles I’ve found and determine which have useful and applicable information as opposed to “Wow, that’s really interesting” information that I’ll be tempted to include anyway just because I found it interesting. (I’m not alone in this; you know who you are.)
  • Review the responses from friends and colleagues. Make notes. Reflect on my own ideas about spirituality.
  • Write blog posts to help me process.
  • Start fiddling with introductory PowerPoint presentations for students.
  • Based on my reading, these are some of my thoughts about spirituality and what it means or implies. I need to point out that just as my thinking (and writing) often rambles, so does my research. I might be hot on the trail of one thing or idea and get distracted or sidetracked by something else. In this case, it was Nicholas Cusa and Giordano Bruno because others kept mentioning them.

    I’ve created a Padlet timeline to help me track, well, whatever I find. It’s helping me and may help my students. I'll continue to add to it as I discover and learn.

    Where I started

    For me, my first thought was that spirituality is an expression of what I value and how I want to live. That was the first pass and somewhat validated by my research, but there I am getting ahead of myself. Then I started thinking about what informs how I want to live, which reminded me of Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (1976). (A movie was made; I’ve never watched it. You can find the whole 4-hour-plus movie through Vision Video or the first episode here You might also find this 2016 assessment or revisiting of Schaeffer’s work interesting, too, especially in light of what’s going on in the world today

    But I have to go back a bit further for those of you who don’t know me. I became a Christian in late 1977, so after I graduated from college. This will be an abbreviated version of my conversion story. Let’s just say that I had fun in college and that academics were important but not a priority. I started working as a bookkeeper for a small software company then located in Satellite Beach, FL (I was born and grew up in Florida. Oldest of two. Family life complicated.) There was one other single woman there; she was a programmer. We became friends. She invited me to church and though my family and I had gone to church of a different denomination, I’m quite certain that was the first time I heard the Gospel. She and her family were incredibly patient with me, encouraging me to ask my thousands of questions and process my doubts. Roughly nine months later, I was born again. Yep, I find that weirdly symbolic as well. Was my life immediately transformed? Yes, in some ways, but certainly not completely. I had so much to unlearn and then learn. My responding to the altar call that day and then being baptized was only the beginning of my very wobbly journey to understanding what it means to be spiritual, but not religious. Hold that thought, and probably for a few blog posts because I’m sure I’ll keep coming back to that idea of being spiritual but not religious.

    So what informs my understanding of spirituality and how I want to live is my relationship with God, my understanding of who He is and who I am in relationship with Him. My spirituality is directed or guided by my understanding of the Holy Spirit and His (long, long-suffering) work in and through me. What I value is not what others tell me to believe or what they believe is true about God or the Bible, but what the Spirit guides me to think and test and process based on what I read in the Bible and what others teach me. But no one person—theologian, author, or pastor—defines my faith and spirituality. After all, those theologians, authors, and pastors are human beings and, therefore, fallible. They each have their own cognitive, spiritual, and religious biases.

    Faith vs. Religion vs. Spirituality

    I know we’re clawing our way to understanding spirituality, but I think many trip over “faith” and “religion.” I’m going to simplify my definitions. There is a lot of research, interestingly much of it secular, about these terms.

    And so, for me, religion is how we practice our faith; that is, the rituals, the practices, and the values of the denomination or the church someone attends. I grew up in a church with specific liturgies for each Sunday. There were certain things we did at certain times and in response to certain things. In other denominational experiences I’ve had, there are still routines as we follow the order of the service: when we sing, when we pray, when we hear the sermon or homily, when and how we have communion, etc. Practicing Jews have their rituals and that often depends on their affiliation because Orthodox Jews have rituals that are different from Reformed Jews, etc. Muslims pray five times a day and have specific guidelines for those prayers. You get the idea.

    My faith, however, is personal. Most Christians know Hebrews 11:1-3:

    Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the world were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible (NRSV).
    Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible (NIV).
    Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good testimony. By faith we understand that the [worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible (NKJV).

    But I think we have to look at all of Hebrews 11 and then all of Hebrews 12 and Hebrews 13, and in whatever translation you like. I think these chapters of the Bible help me understand what it means to express my faith—my belief in who God is and my relationship with Him.

    When I attend a church service, the expression of my faith might be in how I interact with and engage in those routines and practices. And if I don’t agree with the values of that denomination, I likely won’t be in a church of that denomination because I won’t feel connected.

    Now that’s just me. You don’t have to agree with any of this, but I beg you to think about it.

    That brings me back to spirituality: how I believe I should live my life and how I know how to do that. One of my favorite verses in Scripture is Isaiah 30.21: “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way, walk in it” (NIV). But because I don’t like to take a verse out of context, just go take a minute and read all of Isaiah 30. Yes, all of it. In whatever translation you like.

    Because this is how I believe faith and spirituality intersect, maybe even collide. I believe, like Kabir (and that may really mess with your head), that God is “the breath inside the breath.” I don’t care if you believe the Bible is or is not the inerrant Word of God. I don’t care if you believe the Bible is a fable or anything else.

    My faith in who God is informed by Scripture, absolutely. But I also believe that God speaks to me through His word differently than He does anyone else. Why? Because of Isaiah 43, specifically Isaiah 43:1-13, but also all of it. Because of Psalm 139. All of it. Because of Romans 12. All of it.

    How I personally respond to, embrace, believe, absorb, think about, pray about any and all of those chapters and verses is part of my faith. How I act or change my behaviors and how I live because of my response, embrace, thoughts, prayers—my soul response—is my spirituality. Perhaps what others might call living out their faith.

    Next time I’ll share what some of my friends and colleagues have said about spirituality and how that, plus my research, is shaping my thinking. If I have time, I’ll talk a bit about some of the texts though that may have to wait for subsequent posts.

    And just remember that I'm crafting my point of view, so I may as yet change my mind. The journey continues.

    Sunday, July 24

    Literature and Spirituality: Some of the Research

    I know. For some of you, the word “research” caused a frisson of excitement; for some, not so much. I did the academic research because I’m curious about stuff like this and I hoped I’d get more insight into the words “religion” and “spirituality.” 

    Herewith some of the research I found at least somewhat useful with a non-style guide form of annotation. The list is in alphabetical order by author so not necessarily by the resources most useful to me although the length and content of the annotation should be indicative of something akin to that.

    Lincoln, Andrew T. “Spirituality in a secular age: From Charles Taylor to study of the Bible and spirituality.” Acta Theologica, vol 31, no. 1, 2011,

    A Secular Age is a 2007 book by philosopher Charles Taylor based on a series of lectures. In it Taylor marks and discusses how “the place of religion in our societies has changed profoundly in the last few centuries.”

    Lincoln asserts that while most people discuss spirituality in terms of lived experience but struggle to explain it, Taylor asserts “the lived experience of spirituality is through the notion of the social imaginary that shapes it” and that the social imaginary is “the way people imagine their lives and their worlds” (75). Lincoln goes on to try to explain that more thoroughly, but my brain stopped processing because it read like “name it and claim it” theology to me. It may be more than that, but my intellectual and emotional response was very much like when someone was trying to explain how to calculate the area under an imaginary line. 

    McClendon, Adam. “Defining the Role of the Bible in Spirituality: ‘Three Degrees of Spirituality’ in American Culture. Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care, vol. 5, no. 2, 2012, pp. 207-225.

    McClendon, like many of the authors I found, situated his study of spirituality in context of Christianity and the Bible. However, McClendon stepped back to consider spirituality in an American cultural context.

    McClendon’s own research helped him understand the plasticity of what people mean when they say “spirituality.” He references The Millennials: Connecting to America’s Largest Generation (Rainer and Rainer, 2011) and observes

    nearly 75 percent of the Millennial Generation3 con- sider themselves more spiritual than religious. This move to separate spirituality from religion seems partly due to the fact that being religious, in its most basic sense, involves the acknowledgment of that from which one derives ultimate value or meaning. Since many “spiritual” people do not acknowledge the source from which they derive value, the push has been made to divorce spirituality from religion in the formal sense that spirituality might inherently imply religion. The problem is that spirituality in its very nature implies a religious context. Unfortunately, such people refuse to see that their failure to acknowledge the source(s) from which they derive value and meaning in life does not mean that such a source(s) does not exist. This concept of deriving ultimate value and meaning is basic to religious principles and impacts all of life [emphasis mine]. All actions in life flow from a religious foundation in the sense that a set of beliefs, however remote, underlie all actions. Those beliefs are inherently religious. Nevertheless, despite the cur- rent trend to divorce religion from spirituality and the persistent argument concerning the validity of that attempt, the fact remains that today’s American culture uses the notion of spirituality in a broad context and is increasingly confused about its intended meaning (208).

    From a Christian and/or biblical perspective, perhaps some are confused about the intended meaning of the word “spirituality,” but I take exception to that as it sounds as though McClendon believes there is only one way to consider, examine, and/or apply whatever spirituality means.

    I took a lot of notes from McClendon’s work as he considered not only the history of the word “spirituality” and the three degrees: general, Christian, and biblical. More on those in next week’s post; this article gave me an interesting framework with which to work.

    Steensland, B., Wang, X., & Schmidt, L. C. “Spirituality: What Does it Mean and to Whom?” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 57, no. 3, 2018, pp. 450–472.

    This article was another comparative exploration of religion, religious commitment, and the meaning of spirituality. And I learned there is a Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. I’ll just leave that there. I will also note that for the data geeks among you, this article is chock full of tables and charts of the statistical kind. For those of us for whom phrases like “regression model” and “collinearity problem” and “independent variables” do not spark joy, I’ll fast forward to the discussion section in which the authors addressed what they called the “elements of spirituality,” “classes of spirituality,” and “social influences on spirituality” (468-471). I’ll first give you some information about the study and then sum up what I found to be key points as I thought about my class.

    The study was fielded in May 2016. The final sample size was 1,038 with a 59% percent response rate (454). There is, of course, more information about the study and how it was conducted in the article itself. These folks are supposed to be good at what they do and their research was affirmed by a peer-reviewed journal and so I’ll lean into the data results. As to what I found interesting and useful:

  • “Forty-one percent of descriptions [of spirituality] referenced God and 21 percent contained some other type of reference to a higher being’ (468).
  • “Fewer than 4 percent of respondents explicitly defined spirituality in juxtaposition to religion” which may mean the “’religions versus spirituality’ binary” referred to by “scholars of religion” isn’t a thing for the rest of us (468).
  • “Lay people on the whole see spirituality as distinct from religion but not as intrinsically defined in relation to it, either negatively or as coterminous” (468).
  • “People’s conceptions of spirituality are not idiosyncratic; they flow from social location and experience” (469).
  • “Attendance at worship services is associated with having a relationship with God and ethical action. When it comes to religious traditions, evangelical Protestants and the unaffiliated are the most distinctive, especially in seeing spirituality as having a relationship with God or as holistic connection. The ‘spiritual but no religious,’ while not a religious tradition, . . . are much more likely to define spirituality in terms of holistic connection and ethical action, and much less likely, unsurprisingly, in terms of organized religion” (469-470).
  • One study found a connection between age and degree of spirituality whereas these authors found a connection “between age and type of spirituality.” Gen X seems to be the inflection point with younger people being more holistic, less theistic while Boomers are more traditional and Millennials more distinctive in their views (470).
  • “Spiritual views rooted in theism, for instance, could incline people toward a political ideology more associated in the public mind with a commitment to transcendent authority” (470). The authors note more research is required to understand the directional influence of spirituality and political ideology.
  • Studies have shown “how thoroughly political polarization has saturated American life” (470). We won’t be discussing this in class, though.
  • Schneiders, Sandra M. “Biblical Spirituality.” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology, vol. 70, no. 4, Oct. 2016, pp. 417–430,

    Sr. Schneiders is professor emerita at the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University. As an aside, I find it interesting that so many studies about spirituality have Catholic influences. Just an observation. Sr. Schneiders gets straight to the point when she states that defines Christian spirituality as “the lived experience of Christian faith” (417). She goes on to assert
    in my understanding, all Christian spirituality is intrinsically biblical in some sense of the term, and the Bible is always related in some way, explicitly or implicitly, to any spirituality that can be called Christian. What I will be exploring here is not a theoretical proposition but what it means to say that Christian spirituality is biblical (417).
    She ascertains that her purpose in writing is to explore “how the Bible functions, or how it is engaged, to promote the lived experience of God in Christ down through the ages in diverse individuals and communities. How does Scripture give rise to and shape the faith of believers?” (418). With that, she provides a bridge, I think, between faith and spirituality.

    She spends a bit of time with theology and theopoetics. Schneiders notes that theopoetics is “about experiencing God, or making God and the things of God real in experience, primarily through aesthetic [participative] mediation” (424). She also makes two fascinating analogies as she investigates biblical spirituality: one to a symphony and another to drama.

    It is the dramatic one that I found most interesting because of the point she made about how transformative seeing a play can be as the audience is transported to a “change of world” (429). Schneiders states that “[l]iteral experience is not so much replaced by the imaginative experience [of the play] as suffused with it, illuminated by it, transformed by it” (429). Distance and time, she observes, can be effectively suppressed as the audience is immersed in the play—its story, its characters, and its setting.

    Sr. Schneiders asserts the same can be true when we engage with a biblical text. I don’t think she means just read the text dutifully, but to sit down with the text and be in the presence of God. She doesn’t say it but seems to intimate that the engagement might be waiting on the Holy Spirit. She states

    The reader is not reading about something that happened in Judea in the first century but participating aesthetically in the dynamics of revelation occurring in the here and now. This can happen in numerous and various ways: through personal prayer or lectio divina (meditative reading of Scripture), in prolonged retreat experiences, in the doing or hearing of effective preaching, in the experience of spiritual direction or pastoral care, in the exercise of ministry, in contemplative study, and especially in good liturgy, and indeed, even in the classroom. Through the teaching or lecturing of inspirational teachers or the reading of integrated biblical scholarship, believers (and sometimes non-believers or inquirers) enter the world of revelation, find their own inner landscapes and outer lives illuminated in subtle or shattering ways. They experience various kinds and levels of transformation or conversion. They are not reading “about” things that happened to other people in other times but experiencing in a new way their own consciousness, their own life, in and through the biblical material they are reading. This mystery of transformative con- temporaneity, of participative experience, which is effected by aesthetic or theopoetic engagement, is the substance of biblical spirituality (430).

    van Niekerk, brimadevi. Religion and spirituality: What are the fundamental differences? HTS Theological Studies, vol. 74, no. 3, 2018, pp. 1-11.>

    van Niekerk asks the same two fundamental questions I’ve posed: “What is religion?” and “What is spirituality”? My initial observation is that his answer to the first is much longer than the second.

    van Niekerk takes us back to Cicero who “derived ‘religion’ from relegere, to re-read” (2). He also cites Lactantius who made the connection to religare, “’to bind fast’ or that which binds men and women to one another and to the gods” (2). He observes that religion “has a strong emphasis on community, which is ironic given the tendency in the modern world to think of religion as something private and personal” (2). I have to think more about that observation and how religion is viewed.

    The author later notes that each religion seems to “have a particular language which one has to learn in order to understand them” (3). I remember when I first became a Christian and adopted what I call a new faith practice (next blog post). I had to learn a whole new way of thinking about the performative elements of that church service, but I also had to learn an entire new vocabulary for talking about my faith (which I understand as something different from religion; also next blog post).

    van Niekerk states that Mircea Eliade “has bemoaned the fact that we don’t have a more exact or accurate word for religion that would express the relationship between man and the sacred. The term religion, he says, ‘carries with it a long, although culturally rather limited, history’. His concern relates to how we may ‘indiscriminately’ apply the term to other religions and religious systems such as Buddhism, Confucianism and so on. But he surrenders his need for a new term with a proviso that our definition of religion ‘does not necessarily imply belief in God, gods, ghost, but refers to the experience of the sacred, and, consequently, is related to the ideas of being, meaning, and truth’. Clearly, then, for Eliade, experience is paramount in understanding the concept of religion” (3). I’m not going to read Eliade, but this is helpful.

    Emile Durkheim (1915) is cited and Durkheim noted that religion was often defined by social and psychological functions as what it does or by what it is or “its belief content” (3). van Niekerk quotes Durkheim:

    A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a church, all those who adhere to them (3).

    There is a lot of useful information and perspective from van Niekerk, and considerably more than I need as goes on to reference a number of scholars before he shifts to his second question: What is spirituality? Much of what van Niekerk presented about spirituality has it rooted in religious practices and expectations. Perhaps taking on an in-depth study of both religion and spirituality was more than van Niekerk was prepared to complete because he seems to give short shrift to spirituality as, perhaps, something too squishy (my word, certainly not his) to try to define.

    Wright, Wendy M. The Spiritual Classics as Spiritual Guides, The Way, 1992, pp. 36-48./

    Dr. Wright is a professor of theology at Creighton University in Omaha, NE. Her bio states that her work focuses “on the Salesian spiritual tradition founded by Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal.” When I read that, I had to decide how far down the Salesian rabbit trail I might be willing to go. Far enough to do a quick Google Search and learn that it is characterized as “everyday holiness” and is it can be practiced by anyone at any time if not all the time. Father Dailey writes that in “this ‘every day’ context, we grow in holiness to the extent that we become consciously aware and intentional about doing what we routinely do for the love of God.” He quotes de Sales who wrote in the Spiritual Directory:

    They who wish to thrive and advance in the way of Our Lord should, at the beginning of their actions, both exterior and interior, ask for his grace and offer to his divine Goodness all the good they will do.  In this way they will be prepared to bear with peace and serenity all the pain and suffering they will encounter as coming from the fatherly hand of our good God and Savior.  His most holy intention is to have them merit by such means in order to reward them afterwards out of the abundance of his love.

    They should not neglect this practice in matters which are small and seemingly insignificant, nor even if they are engaged in those things which are agreeable and in complete conformity with their own will and needs, such as drinking, eating, resting, recreating and similar actions.  By following the advice of the Apostle, everything they do will be done in God’s name to please him alone.

    This was a useful side trip; in fact, more useful than Dr. Wright’s own work although she did me remind of the historical transformations and evolutions language and, therefore, of the word “spirituality” and that we must always taken into consideration the language of the time.

    Five general observations
    First, I’m more convinced there is less nuance between what many mean by “religion,” “faith,” and “spirituality.”

    Second, perhaps because of my own faith journey, or perhaps because of my cynicism, I’m more convinced that spirituality is an expression of my values, or my faith. That might still be muddy for me so that’s also for the next post.

    Third, as we are roiled by how some want to have very narrow definitions of many things related to or connected to Christianity, I am reminded of a book by J.B. Phillips, Your God is Too Small.

    Fourth, I am reminded of the danger of using one or two Bible verses to make a point. Verses taken out of context can offer a limited or incomplete view of God’s Word, but they can also lead to theological error.

    Fifth, as a Christian, I believe God invites us to a deeper biblical and spiritual understanding of Him. The first seven verses of Psalm 34 are praise about answered prayer. Psalm 34:8 states “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him” (NIV). That’s wonderful and is likely often used alone, but given that it follows praise and given what follows to the end of the psalm, it seems this is a pivotal verse as David says, “Hey! This is what happened to me and the same could happen to you if you fear God, if you seek His will, if you “keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies” (v. 13), etc. Psalm 34:22 repeats the use of the word "refuge" and I think what we see in verses 9-21 tell us how we can take refuge. THEN we can also perceive, experience, and see the Lord is good.

    There are commentaries that make Old Testament connections to this psalm and specifically to Psalm 34.8. And there are many ways to make connections to other passages in the Bible. However, people have to be willing to take the time to do that reading (Matthew 6:1-34, Ephesians 6:18, Habakkuk 2), to do that thinking, and to engage in that participative meditation.

    Monday, July 18

    Literature and Spirituality: The Journey Continues

    The original list of books and readings for this course, Literature and Spirituality, was daunting to me because there were authors with whom I am unfamiliar. But before I got too far into the literature options, I wanted to get a handle on this word “spirituality” and what it might mean to me and to others. As I was thinking about this word and researching it, I also realized I don’t want to tell my students what “spirituality” means because they should come to that on their own. However, I know I want to give them a baseline so we’re all working from a single definition at the start. I also want to give them enough resources—and not all strictly academic—so they can explore for themselves if they are so inclined, and I really, really, really hope they are so inclined.

    Of course, I’ve added to that stack of books as I’ve considered what might make stronger connections with today’s students. A lot has changed since 2013, which probably isn’t the last time the course was time but is the last version of a syllabus to which I have access.

    I will say, though, that my instructional predecessors think differently than I do and approach academia differently than I do. Even so, I started my reading with what had gone before.

    I should preface this by saying I had already been thinking a lot about why we should think about literature and spirituality, and recognizing that spirituality is not at all limited to Christianity. I also have my own ideas about what constitutes “literature.” 

    Yes, of course, the classics, but within reason. I’m of the opinion that just because students have been forced to read a book for generations doesn’t mean it is a book that must continue to be read. I’m not going to list any books or authors as examples because that’s a sure way to start a fight, although I will say I’ve never finished Moby Dick because I just didn’t like it.

    My theory is this—and based mostly on anecdotal evidence and my own attitudes and perceptions—if students like a book, they may be inclined to read another one. If students hate a book, they will decide reading is stupid and not worth their time and may never read another book except under duress.

    An aside, or digression, though I hope you see its purpose. Two years ago I was teaching AP Language and Composition for the first time. I was told that students should be expected to read books. The list of recommended books for the class included some tried and true, and I understood and understand why.

    However, there are so many great books and it seemed to me the purpose of having AP students read books is to develop and expand their critical thinking skills as well as expose them to different styles of writing. Yes, we read Fahrenheit 451  because it’s a good book and remains relevant. . .and the story of its writing is nearly as fascinating as the book. 

    But we also read Between Shades of Gray by Ruth Sepetys (y/) which is a story of Stalin’s holocaust. The story is situated in 1941. The protagonist is 15-year-old Lithuanian Lina Vilkas, She, her mother, and younger brother are arrested by Stalin's Soviet secret police and deported to Siberia. Lina fights for her life and vows that if she survives, she will honor her family and the thousands like her, by telling her story. Lina's writings and drawings chronicle her experiences--the depravations and the cruelties as well as the unexpected help from unexpected people.

    Not only did my students learn about what Stalin did to the Lithuanians, among others, but they learned more about parts of the global map people rarely examine.

    All of my AP students that year were taking AP US History, aka APUSH, and a number of them had taken or were taking AP World History so Sepetyps's novel was interesting to them. In addition to being very interested in history, a lot of them love and are good at math. So we read The Professor and the Housekeeper by Yoko Ogawa. Amazon describes the book this way:

    He is a brilliant math Professor with a peculiar problem―ever since a traumatic head injury, he has lived with only eighty minutes of short-term memory.

    She is an astute young Housekeeper―with a ten-year-old son―who is hired to care for the Professor. And every morning, as the Professor and the Housekeeper are introduced to each other anew, a strange and beautiful relationship blossoms between them. Though he cannot hold memories for long (his brain is like a tape that begins to erase itself every eighty minutes), the Professor's mind is still alive with elegant equations from the past. And the numbers, in all of their articulate order, reveal a sheltering and poetic world to both the Housekeeper and her young son. The Professor is capable of discovering connections between the simplest of quantities―like the Housekeeper's shoe size―and the universe at large, drawing their lives ever closer and more profoundly together, even as his memory slips away.

    I loved this book when I read it and thought my students might enjoy it. Which they did. Lots of conversation about both books. Does that mean they’ll be willing to read more novels? No, but they may be less resistant and that’s a win as far as I’m concerned.

    Back to Literature and Spirituality. In my mind, literature isn’t limited to the so-called classics although, for this class, it will make sense to read Saint Augustine’s Confessions and Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. If we are looking at ways that writers have expressed and wrestled with what it means to be spiritual, those are great books. I'll need to re-read those.

    My predecessors also included a couple of Hindu texts. Yes, I saw the raised eyebrows because, after all, this is a Christian university so what the heck, right? Well, Hinduism is the oldest living religion. I did not know that so that was delightful new learning for me. And Hinduism predated Greek mythology. Still processing that because, like many others, it’s easy to fall in a linear time progression of the world.

    However, the university is a Christian one and so it stands to reason I might be inviting my students to consider the broader implications of that word “spirituality.” After all, although the university is Christian, I do not know what each of my students believes or if they are Christians and, if so, what their religious affiliation and practices might be.

    I could give you the list of articles and the books I’ve read and am reading about spirituality. There is a lot to process there so that will be my next blog post along with the reference list.

    I will say that I’ve read some things about spirituality, jotted down a working definition for myself, and then started to read some texts. Some of my friends have responded to my question about how they understand "spirituality," and I refer to those as I go. I’ll keep adjusting that definition, but more in the next post because this one is already quite long. Thanks for staying with me so far.

    Monday, July 11

    Literature and Spirituality: A Journey Begins

    This journey actually began several days ago. I’d volunteered to take on another class at Judson University where I’m an adjunct. This particular course fit my schedule and it looked interesting.

    I downloaded the meager selection of syllabi I could find and promptly wondered what I’d gotten myself into. But mostly I started thinking about the word “spirituality” and what that means to people.

    A colleague of mine once said that she’s not a religious person, but she is a spiritual one. I’d heard that before, but now it mattered more as I thought about this course. What does it mean to be religious? What does it mean to be spiritual? How do those two work together or against each other? And what does literature have to do with spirituality?

    The last question continues to morph as I think about how people express their concept or sense of spirituality through their art—books, poetry, film. Probably memes and podcasts, too, but I’ve decided to stick with the basics for now.

    Then I sent an email and posted the question to friends on social media: What does “spirituality” mean to you? I gave them some context for the course and shared this image from Wellspring Passages. Why that source? Because the image seemed to capture what I think most people might consider as they think about what they think spirituality is and means.

    Then came the books as I began to wrestle with how I might teach this course and on what I might want to focus. I ordered copies of some of the books from earlier syllabi, although I did have some of the books, such as Saint Augustine’s Confessions and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.

    I searched for titles and perspectives online and downloaded a lot of academic articles about spirituality.

    My quest to begin to understand how I might start to encourage students to think about spirituality got real with some of those articles. I will also note my exasperation level occasionally spiked as I read, but that’s probably just me and my enduring frustration with the condescending tones that too many pedants seem to prefer.

    So what have I learned so far? I’m going to start with the last two articles I found that are actually less “academic.” One was published by the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI). NAMI offers a straightforward definition of religion and of spirituality: "Religion is an organized community-based system of beliefs, while spirituality resides within the individual and what they personally believe. “The idea of religion and spirituality is like a rectangle versus a square. Within religion there is spirituality, but if you have spirituality, it doesn’t necessarily mean you have religion.”

    Now, I’m an English teacher and a word nerd. I liked the image of the rectangle versus square: two shapes that are similar but different in that they both have four sides and they both have four 90ยบ angles. It’s a comparative image that makes sense. But the word choice of “have spirituality” and “have religion” struck me.

    NAMI goes on to state that religion “gives people something to believe in, provides a sense of structure and typically offers a group of people to connect with over similar beliefs.” In comparison, spirituality “is a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves—it helps a person look within and understand themselves while also figuring out the greater answer of how they fit in to the rest of the world.”

    I think when people think of religion, we think of Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, etc. We might then think of the rituals and practices associated with that religion, and the principles by which adherents to that religion should live or the beliefs they have about how they should live and act towards others. Religion, then, is an umbrella term.

    In another article, Patrick G. Love cites a synthesis of definitions of spirituality he had developed with a colleague:

    • is an internal process of seeking personal authenticity, genuineness, and wholeness as an aspect of identity development;
    • is the process of continually transcending one’s current locus of centricity (e.g., egocentricity);
    • is the development of a greater connectedness to self and others through relationships and union with community;
    • is the process of deriving meaning, purpose, and direction in one’s life; and
    •  involves an increasing openness to exploring a relationship with an intangible and pervasive power or essence or center of value that exists beyond human existence and rational human knowing.
    Then I went back to some of my academic articles to review some of what I’d highlighted, underlined, or otherwise marked as possibly interesting and/or important.

    I’m still reading, processing, and synthesizing. Some of my friends have gotten back to me with their thinking about what spirituality means to them.

    The journey has just begun.