Monday, August 8

Literature and Spirituality: Still Thinking

Yoram Raanan
I've had to take a bit of a break on this course for some other work and some family stuff. My nephew Nathan has graduated from high school and this past weekend there was a party for him in Austin and I was able to go. It was nice to see and catch up with my sister and her family, and other friends, all of whom I've not seen since our mother's memorial in October 2019.

So this week is about what others have shared in their thinking about spirituality. I give you no information about each person other than to say that, so far, the only responses I've gotten are from women. Interesting.

I'd given each a bit of background about the course and why I was asking the question, so they all knew the context of the course "Literature and Spirituality" being taught at a Christian college. I'll share their thoughts without commentary and as they were given to me. 
I believe “spirituality” or “spiritual” means someone is open to ideas beyond the physical. They are willing to consider concepts outside of what they can see or prove. More than feelings, spirituality is the ability to embrace what we can not reason. Knowing there is more to life than what can be explained but lacking the “proof." Spirituality is no longer about organized religion but feeling there is more outside of us!
If I'm thinking about it simply as the word and not connected to the course I'd have to say spirituality is a concern with what relates to the non-physical aspects of our life.
The first word that popped in my head was New Age. But in light of the fact that this is a course at a Christian college my thoughts are different. Perhaps a course that discusses how faith informs the reading of literature as well as the authorship of it.
“Spirituality” is a word that raises red flags for me or perhaps I tune in carefully when I see or hear someone using that word now. In the past when I was not reading the Bible regularly I naively assumed someone using that word was referring to belief in the trinity and responding to the presence of the Holy Spirit. These assumptions caused me to overlook other signs, and there were many instances where I was deceived or I deceived myself about intentions and beliefs. Now when I hear “spirituality” I listen more closely for the words/actions that follow and I test all against the Word of God…I now question WITH BOLDNESS and prayer and listen to the Spirit in me to guide me on understanding how that word is being presented. Is it being used in the truth of the Word of God or in the truth of the person uttering it? Often a pause and sit still is required to decipher it and other times it is clear at the utterance. Indeed (as I learned the hard way) there are many spirits one could listen to and follow and all could be the basis of “spirituality” but for me there is only One True Spirit I choose to follow so I’m looking for evidence of the Holy Spirit when I see that word now. If it is used in a context void of the HS I will probably not pursue listening or reading further.
When I hear or see the word “spirituality” I think of that part of every human that longs for connection to a higher power than what we can access through our physical, mental and emotional capacity. As a believer I know the presence of the Holy Spirit fulfills that longing.
I think of basic "spirituality" (with a small 's') as cognizance that "there must be something more" than biological life [brief existence] and death [non-existence]. This "something more" is a domain of existence beyond the physical, material dimensions. It is not constrained by time or space. It possesses/conveys a moral quality [sense of right or wrong] and influences society in ways that are distinct from culture or custom, although it impacts both.
Spirituality: the world’s view, which is anything but Christ, and my view, which is everything in Christ and is Christ. To truly seek first the Kingdom of God. When He permeates everything in and through us.
My first thought on spirituality the essence of the soul which is in one of two camps death or life to me. If its’s not the Holy Spirit, no thanks. Seeing it is a small “s” makes it more like mysticism. At an evangelical college Literature and Spirituality I would want to learn from autobiographies how the Holy Spirit lead ordinary people to reach beyond themselves for the Kingdom.
God inspired and created communication beyond the physical realm. Our individual Spirituality can be utilized to build and bless through God The Father, Jesus Christ The Son or The Holy Spirit OR directed towards evil for the result of death and destruction. We are free to choose how to use our own Spirituality.
Spirituality: the practice of connecting with an unseen, outside influence which will bring about a positive change in one’s life, mainly peaceful and powerful.
Spirituality: any conversation, thought, song or event that includes God.
Whenever I see or hear spirituality I immediately think of the Word of God. Is it used in the context of rightly divining God’s truth. I’m looking for a practical application and/or approach to a spiritual truth. It seems to me that whenever the concept of spirituality is mentioned in the Bible, it almost always refers to something we should be “being” or doing.
The Bible says man is body (material) and soul/spirit (immaterial part). For those that are born again believers, the spirit of a man IS the Holy Spirit - the true identity of a person, his true spirituality. This is not referring to a religion but to a relationship, although coming to understand and appropriate this truth might have come to a person by means of religious truths taught in an Biblically-based organized religion/denomination. For those that are not believers in Jesus Christ a search is on to define/understand/explain the immaterial part of man- my sense of being, my moral compass, my identity. This is when I most often hear or read the word “spirituality” or “spiritual person”. They are looking for their true identity themselves- apart from the God of the Bible, apart from truths taught in an Biblically-based organized religion/denomination.

Again, every response is from a woman and, as you've no doubt noticed, from a Christian perspective and from a few different denominations although each of these women likely identifies as born again. 

What I see consistently through these definitions, if you will, is an expression that one's spirituality emanates from what one believes. That aligns with the research. The last "definition" notes that those who are "spiritual but not religious" (SBNR) are trying to find a source or foundation for their identity.

I've not been able to glean any insights from those of different faiths, but I do wonder if those of other religions have a similar sensibility of what it means to be spiritual. So that sent me on a brief quest. I don't know that Dina Mohammad Basiony speaks for all of Islam, but I did find this interesting. What is also interesting about Islam is that there are specific rituals or spiritual practices that reinforce key pillars of the religion, that are key expressions of a believer's faith. What also intrigues me is that Muslims have also pondered this notion of being spiritual but not religious and that there are academic treatises on spirituality within Islam.

And so a brief foray.

A Muslim woman born in Pakistan and living in New Jersey, Saima Mehboob, wrote about her own spiritual journey. Mehboob writes that at one time she did not have a personal connection to the acts of worship--those rituals of prayer and more that every religion has--

But the concept of spirituality did keep me grounded in my faith. Like others that haven’t found their guiding light but knew it existed, I did believe that we were created for a purpose, the sense that there is something bigger than ourselves. Spirituality focuses on this belief and uses practices like mindfulness and meditation to connect the person’s mind and spirit to central themes of harmony with creation and attaining inner peace.

An academic article on place spirituality, defined as "an attachment to a geographic place or an 'object,'  refers to the three ways a Muslim might "attach to God everywhere and at all times, without consideration of any place, time, or object." I don't want to wander too far off-topic, but I will say I found that article fascinating and the correlations to how we might view spirituality quite profound.

Just as Muslims have specific place spirituality, so do Christians. I know plenty of people who have made their own pilgrimage to Israel. There are millions of Christians who have gone to Israel to walk the believed paths of Jesus, to be in Israel at Easter for the re-enactment of stations of the cross. The cross itself is a spiritual and iconic object for Christians. 

"Spirituality in Islam" is the title of a chapter in a 2020 text titled Essentials of Islamic Studies (2020). The abstract for that chapter states that "[s]pirituality (Ruhhaniyyat) in Islam is defined as the presence of a relationship with Allah that affects the individual’s self worth, sense of meaning, and connectedness with others."

One other site identifies specific practices of Islam. What was interesting to me is that while I know there are some sect differences within Islam that often lead to terrible violence, there seem to be more unifying practices of Islam than divisive ones, which I find intriguing. The practices also remind me of the books I've read about spiritual disciplines in Christianity. What are the spiritual disciplines? Great 
question and I'll note there may be 4, 5, 8, or more. However, there is consistency in the lists. 

The spiritual disciplines themselves are practices that can lead to spiritual growth and deepen a believer's relationship with God. They are those practices in which Christians should engage routinely and regularly to be more connected with God.

What we see is the importance of prayer, meditation, fasting, study, service, confession, worship, guidance, celebration, and fellowship. Nothing surprising other than the fact that Christian disciplines tend to refer explicitly to "submission" whereas Islam seems to emphasize obedience.

So then I took a look at Judaism and not just because my mother's family was and is Jewish so my fractured experience and understanding of Reformed Judaism informed my personal faith journey.

The first article I read is titled "The Four Fundamentals of Jewish Spirituality" and is the sermon of Rabbi Brian Field delivered Erev Rosh Hashanah 2016, which marked the beginning of Rosh Hashanah--the Jewish New Year and the beginning of the Ten Days of Awe (or Repentance) that culminates on Yom Kippur.
Rabbi Field identified four tools to make the connection with God because of one of the most foundational scriptural statements that we are created in the image of God (Gen 1:27). The four are covenant, Torah, mitzvah, and teshuvah.

The Bible speaks often of covenant relationships. Field states that "[c]ovenantal relationships are relationships that matter so much that they shape who we are." Each of us experiences many covenantal relationships within our schools, our churches, our communities, and, of course, our families.

When we think of biblical covenants, we think of the promises God has made us. The covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David are foundational. Jews do not acknowledge the ultimate salvation covenant in the person of Christ whereas some Christians learn how the Old Testament covenants are fulfilled in Jesus.

An oversimplified explanation of Torah is that it is the books of the Old Testament. The Judaic concept of Torah is a little more than that, but it works for my purposes because it is the fundamental text from which Jews learn about Yahweh and what He expects of His people.

Rabbi Field explains mitzvah this way:
A mitzvah is a specific act at a specific moment.  It is a decision to act or not to act, to do or not to do.  It is an act that in its doing, reinforces the covenantal relationship.  More than a commandment, then, a mitzvah is a covenant–enhancer.

The fourth tool is teshuvah, which means "response" or "to turn." 

Another article shares the definition of spirituality offered by French philosopher Michel Foucault: "the search, practice, the experience by which the subject operates on himself the transformations which are necessary to access the truth." The other thing of particular interest to me from this article is that the author notes we "get almost nothing of Moses's spiritual experience. What we get are the Ten Commandments and all the laws that follow--the fruits of the spiritual experience, not the experience itself."

Yoram Raanan
I think it's true we tend to emphasize only the Ten Commandments and all of the laws, but I think we get far more than we realize and now I have to spend more time with Exodus 19 and Exodus 20. I think we get a glimpse of Moses's spiritual experience, and maybe more than a glimpse.

What's special about Jewish spirituality? There are more than two "signature marks of Jewish spirituality" listed through that link, but I'd like to focus on two. First, spirituality is "a means to fulfill the purpose for which you were created." Second, the Jewish concept of God is "both personal and transcendent. G-d is never defined." Judaism tends not to forget that God is infinite, which is why they might refer to Him as "The Infinite." It's harder to make your God human-sized when you think of Him as infinite.

I notice several things but these two come to mind first:

  • Most people seem to understand spirituality as the connective essence between a person and God.
  • We connect to God through our understanding and engagement with Scripture, through personal prayer and meditation, through the observance of whatever rituals or practices are elemental for that religion--fasting, worship, confession, etc.
I am struck by the reminder that too often human beings limit God or seem to try to make Him a puppet of our prayers and desires. I think I start contemplating God every day as "The Infinite," I might have a much more profound sensibility of who He is. 

Christians are the only ones who speak of the Trinity, but I wonder if we too often do the Spirit of The Infinite an embarrassing disservice. Back to John and Acts.

For now, then, I'll close with this from Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso:
Religion is the container for the life of the spirit. It is the gravity that anchors spirit to earth, translating the vision of the soul into the responsibility of the individual. In the best of all possible worlds, spirituality and religion are partners. The soul’s most profound experiences with a presence greater than the self are given form and articulation through liturgy, ritual and moral law. Religious forms, in turn, remain constantly open to the renewal of sacred moments. If spirituality at its best lifts us up, religion at its best keeps us rooted. Religion can test spiritual vision in the crucible of community and history. Spirituality can keep religion from forgetting the experience that formed its story. Religion keeps spirituality from selfishness; it reminds us of our obligations. Spirituality keeps religion from absolutism; it reminds us that the breath of God blows through each and every human soul.

No comments: