by Jack McLean
Lord Chesterfield (1694-1773), that touchstone of English culture in the eighteenth century, remarked in one of the hundreds of letters written to his son Philip Stanhope that “spirit” had become “a very fashionable word.” The earl, known for his suave manners and breeding, disparaged the term. For Lord Chesterfield, a person with “spirit” connoted an individual who might act rashly or indiscreetly. Today we don’t usually say that someone who “tells it like it is” or “goes for it” has spirit. Yet this would be roughly a year 2000 equivalent.
A generation ago, a cognate of the word spirit, spirituality, began slipping into modern usage. In the 1990’s its currency grew markedly. Like the modish “spirit” in the Earl of Chesterfield’s time, the word spirituality has become fashionable in ours. Spiritual teachers or gurus abound (the word guru means simply “teacher” in several Indian languages), hosted regularly by television personalities. Princess Diana’s untimely death even elicited responses to her works of charity as expressions of her spirituality.
The word spirituality is, however, decidedly ambiguous. Although the words “spirit” and “spirituality” have a long history in both theology and literature, some members of the established churches are suspicious of the new-found interest in spirituality, particularly religious conservatives or hard-core evangelicals. For these individuals Anew age spirituality” is identified, among other things, with questionable psychic phenomena such as channelling or astral travelling.
Some mainstream believers pass off such movements either as inconsequential passing fancies or view them as dangerous threats that might weaken and the established religions. Yet by a strange twist, some of the metropolitan churches themselves speak of a more open and accepting “new age Christianity.”
In the minds of many seekers, religion and spirituality have gone their separate ways. Spirituality in this view is considered safe. It beckons as a symbol of liberation and personal growth, an indicator that search and discovery are taking place, that God is found in many forms and in religions outside one’s own. For these same individuals, institutionalised religion carries heavy baggage. In spite of popular trends, I am no opponent of organised religion for as I see it, “religion,” a derivative of the Latin religio meaning “to bind again/to unite,” cannot be divorced from spirituality.
Spirituality, at least in western culture, has its origins in the institutes of religion, in the ethical laws and precepts taught by the prophets. That spirituality today has become largely divorced from moral and ethical considerations is largely a historical aberration, for the two domains were originally very closely identified. Somehow it seems too easy to be spiritual and too hard to be religious. We need a reconvergence of these two expressions of faith that they might balance and strengthen one another.
Without endorsing holus bolus everything on the contemporary scene that passes for spirituality, I view this heightened interest in “things spiritual” as a positive move. It seems that “things temporal” are no longer delivering the goods. Perhaps we are beginning to realise after all that the essence of “personhood” is the soul and that the meaning of our brief lives is to discover the meaning and share the journey. Perhaps we are coming to realise that the quest for love, peace and security in material goods, work, relationships may prove to be deceptive divorced from their properly spiritual origins.
The sense of community offers an important counterweight to individual spirituality. In today’s self-preoccupied society, community service risks becoming an obsolescent notion. Restricted to a fixed preoccupation with the individual, spirituality can become narcissistic. Even the sincerest seeker can become over involved with the personal and private quest for transformation. It is only natural to gravitate to like-minded individuals in the desire to voluntarily share time, space, experiences and projects. Those who share common values or a belief system are not merely “ships passing in the night.” Ideally, a community becomes an on-going support network where sharing and healing can take place, a matrix for growth in which those who so choose can evolve as spiritual beings and become a refuge for those who enter.
At the dawn of the twenty first century, our community has become the world. Spirituality at the global level envisions the human race as one people. As we enter the third millennium, more than any other, this vision of oneness will help foster the well-being, peace and security of the nations.