The Word “Spiritual” as a vague marketplace of diverse feelings and ideals

Towards a working definition of “Spiritual” or “Spirituality”

I’m going to do a little series on this word in the pursuit of an intelligible metaphor for the spiritual within our skeptical, secular context. This is part one.

“Spiritual” is one of the most frustrating words for me. It is close to becoming a meaningless word.

When I think about how the word is used I think about my friend Forrest who is a magician. “Spiritual” means, as best I can discern its usage today, the thing under the fancy handkerchief that Forrest is about to do something to or with. It’s covered, unseen, the focus of attention. It’s just out of sight, but everyone is interested, involved, fascinated, making assertions about what is not too clear. 

Definitions from the Web

Words get messed up when we use them to mean what they really don’t mean, like “literally” (or the YouTube Dictionary of Jack (pg13)).

Google, the great crowd sourcer of data channels:

Adjective: Of, relating to, or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.

Noun: A religious song of a kind associated with black Christians of the southern US, and thought to derive from the combination of European…

Synonyms: mental – ghostly – sacred – unworldly – religious

How about Bing

of soul: relating to the soul or spirit, usually in contrast to material things

of religion: relating to religious or sacred things rather than worldly things

temperamentally or intellectually akin: connected by an affinity of the mind, spirit, or temperament

Synonyms: religious, holy, sacred, divine, heavenly, saintly

So does Wikipedia, they push us to “spirituality”

  1. ultimate reality
  2. allegedly immaterial reality
  3. an “inner path” enabling a person to discover the essence of his or her being
  4. the deepest values or meanings by which a person lives.

Free online Merrian-Webster allows comments and on “spirituality” the most favored was this one.

Adonis Alexander: Spirituality is not something you can define by mere words. You must see this within yourself. Words are to limited and belong to describing things. Spirituality is not a thing of the mind. It is the inexpressible beyond the mind. So, the mind as thought can never touch it, grasp it or take hold of it. For example, to be psychic is still a thing of the mind. But, to be spiritual is to discover for oneself if there is something that transcends this world which is an actuality but its not a reality. Spirituality is the ultimate reality that does not change. It is beyond time-space and causation. Spirituality is the awakening to the divine within you.

A lot of people I know would like Adonis’ definition. There’s more than a little religious tradition in it obviously although it tries not to show it.

A Huffington Post Piece on it. It’s quite a good article I think. She makes this point about the word’s ambiguity:

Here’s what I think: The ambiguity of the term allows for it to be applied universally. Maybe its nebulousness contributes to its appeal. It can mean anything anyone wants it to, and people who might not otherwise agree on theological points or even big questions like “Is there a God?” can talk spirituality without a hitch. Interfaith groups can rely on spirituality to form bridges between religions. We can all have it in common — until someone says, “I don’t think I’m spiritual,” at which point everyone can say, “Oh no, you are. You just don’t know it.”

Here “spirituality” becomes town common where religious ideas, values conversation, moral judgments, mingle and try not to fight.

Taxonomy and Confusion

Spirituality as a feeling: I find this one to be common. The feeling seems connected with meaning and importance mixed with a sense that it is larger than themselves and their life (transcendence). See the Webster commenter above.

“Spiritual but not religious” seems to mean that rather than using an external “religion”, being bound or guided by a book, a movement, a group, a tradition, a method, etc. they use their individual feelings as a compass “to be led” along what they think will as an individual lead them to “the source”, or meaning, or purpose, or truth, or authenticity, etc. Christians do similar things often identifying their feelings as communication from the Holy Spirit.

Spirituality as morality: Another association. A “spiritual person” is supposed to be moral even if morality is using the same kind of social lubrication that the word “spiritual” is using according to the Huff Po piece.  People who have a sense that their appetites or emotions are out of control or are leading them places they don’t want to go suddenly get “spiritual” or look for “spirituality” in order to bring some order back into their lives. Others have expectations of “spiritual” people that they won’t cheat on their taxes, lie or molest children.

Spiritual as opposed to physical or material: The Bible is often read through this filter and in some passages with good reason. In John 3:1-21 Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be born “from above” and Jesus goes on to elucidate. This can very easily become Gnostic where material itself is suspect.

Spiritual as ultimate and foundational: Again, through the feeling thing but also a sense that the material world is derived from an immaterial world. This of course goes back to many religions including Christianity and many philosophies including Plato and the Greeks. We’re also getting into the question of “meaning” with this one.

Next: Part 2 Materialism and Hard and Soft Spiritualities

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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