Emotional Intelligence and Spirituality in the American Religious Market Place

Emotional Intelligence and Spirituality

Tim Keller in his sermon “Wisdom: How to Live it” both mentioned a NY Times piece on the question of whether emotional intelligence can be taught and noted that in our culture emotional intelligence can get close to what the Bible talks about as wisdom.

I also see that what we understand as emotional intelligence is I think also connected to what many outside the church see as being spiritual or mature. Many “spiritual but not religious” people and practices strive towards similar goals as what we would call emotional intelligence.

If you’re new to the language or concept of emotional intelligence you might check the Wikipedia article or the About.com article as well as the NY Times piece.

What does it mean to be “spiritual” in our context? 

Our secular context is skeptical about our ability to publicly know or speak of matters beyond the physical world, the world available to us through our senses and measured by scientific means. This subtly shifts the definition of the word “spiritual” for many to be more behaviorist than religious. We use “spiritual” today for something that we used to use “virtuous” for classically. A spiritual person is someone whose behavior conforms to certain context of public morality and public virtue.

A consensus surrounding public virtue today (this is more contextual than metaphysical again) tends towards non-violence, peaceful and even zen-like. The emotionally reactive person may be amusing, but is not generally admired. Tolerance, calmness, and gentleness are seen as spiritual and positive qualities.

This doesn’t mean that as a culture we don’t also esteem other non-spiritual values and people. A good example of this is the interview that Jon Stewart does with Malala. We might like Jon Stewards brash, witty, vulgar, highly reactive political and social rants (or Rush Limbaugh’s for that matter) but we don’t associate them as being “spiritual” people. Malala, on the other hand, is the kind of Muslim we like having around, challenging the Taliban with her version of non-violence. You will find alignment among various religious traditions for these values and as part of the “spiritual consensus” in religious pluralism these alignments are seen as justification for a pragmatic syncretistic meta-religion that prioritizes these values over others within the religious traditions.

The “spiritual” person in this context then is someone like Malala or the Dalai Lama or maybe the new Pope that is gentle, winsome, engaging, peaceful and attractive. “Unspiritual” people like the Taliban, or the Westboro Baptist Church, or shock-jock talk show hosts may be valued or despised for their positions but are not seen as being “spiritual” within our context.

What there seems to be is an alignment between what we would consider an emotionally intelligent person to be and what we would consider a “spiritual” person to be.

Emotional Intelligence training as Spiritual Training

If we were to use the older word “virtue” rather than “spiritual” it would help our discussion, but the co-mingling of the two words is contributing to the kinds of associations we are seeing today. If I were to ask “how does a person become virtuous?” the answer might not be specifically religious. If I were to ask “how does a person become spiritual” there would be greater associations with religious traditions.

For adults the path to virtue, greater sense of personal peace, more self-control or an ability to keep one’s emotions in check often lies in various paths of self-improvement or self-help. Adults seek psychotherapy, pursue various religious traditions and practices or even quasi-religious traditions or practices associated with the New Age movement.

As adults find that these pathways are helpful, they naturally want to their children benefit from them and the focus of that attention will be the public school system. Public schools have long noted that a child’s inability to manage their emotional worlds will impede that child’s ability to not only perform will in class, but also become a disturbance and a hindrance to the learning of their classmates. Schools have counselors on staff to help children, schools offer yoga for emotional and physical health for children, and schools are employing the practices of training children in emotional intelligence to hopefully help them cope with relational strife at home and in the school. Public schools have long seen virtue or “values” as part of what they want to deliver to students, emotional intelligence is the latest thing.

Emotional Intelligence as a title is newer than the idea

While the concept of emotional intelligence as having a value within psychology is relatively new, what it is barking at is in fact very old and as I’ve said before can easily be seen as what past generations called “virtue”. Someone who has emotional intelligence is someone who will think before they speak, think before they act, and project a calm and reasonable demeanor. It is in some ways the cultural synthesis of old rationalism with contemporary expressiveness. The knock on old rationalism was that it denied the emotions. Emotional intelligence attempts to give the emotions their due and allow for emotional expression while not allowing emotional reactivity to damage social interaction. It reinforces a social expectation around certain socially acceptable behaviors like talking and expressing while stigmatizing other negative behaviors like criticizing and hitting.

Religious Traditions Elevating Popular Threads for Religious Consumers

What will tend to happen within religious traditions will be to elevate threads within traditions and texts and de-emphasize other threads and texts. For Christians this might mean we talk more about Jesus saying “turn the other cheek” and less about overturning money changers and decrying Pharisees and hypocrites. It will mean praising Malala among Muslims and decrying the Taliban.

Similarly contrarian factions within religious communities will likely emphasize opposite things. We’ll hear how Jesus was no wimp and there will be charges about feminizing Christianity. These “back and forths” are how religious communities operate and process their stuff together trying to both engage their contexts and keep continuity with their religious pasts.

Will Success in Spiritual Achievement Determine the Religious Victor? 

To one degree or another in the pluralistic, religious market place religions will compete with one another based on how “spiritual” its adherents present themselves in the public square. Are the church goers or the yogis or the Buddhist meditators or the psychotherapized or those who mix and match these practices becoming more “spiritual” than others? Will early training in emotional intelligence make a contribution or trump them? Will the ability of one of these options, or a perceived cocktail of these options achieve a superior sense of well-being and a perceived level of social virtue over the others?

The market place of religions is always responsive to contextual factors. The supplanting of paganism by Christianity in the Roman Empire did not happen in isolation from a world of social factors, nor did the success of the Protestant Reformation nor the 19th and 20th century emergence of World Christianity. Nor has, of course, the emergence of radical Islam nor the rise of both the non-religious in the West or the new fascination with Eastern spiritualities. Today’s virtue (tolerant, non-reactive, positive) is of course connected with our context as much as virtue during the North American temperance movement and cold war spirituality.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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