A need for mature spirituality in the public realm
"In a culture often thought to be shallow, awash with unfettered consumerism, celebrity gossip, status updates and formulaic scandals, and with our world leaders and politicians seemingly incapable of tackling the major problems of our age, such as climate change, inequality and widespread political alienation, the need and appetite for more ‘depth’ is palpable....To this end, we argue that spirituality should play a greater role in the public realm.' (The RSA)
Understood in a way that is intellectually robust and politically relevant
'The capacious term ‘spirituality’ lacks clarity because it is not so much a unitary concept as a signpost for a range of touchstones; our search for meaning, our sense of the sacred, the value of compassion, the experience of transcendence, the hunger for transformation...There is little doubt that spirituality can be interesting, but what needs to be made clearer by those who take that for granted is why it is also important. To be a fertile idea for those with terrestrial power or for those who seek it, we need a way of speaking of the spiritual that is intellectually robust and politically relevant.' (The RSA)
Understanding ourselves as fundamentally a social species
'The notion of a profit-maximising individual who makes decisions consciously, consistently and independently is, at best, a very partial account of who we are. Science is now telling us what most of us intuitively sense: humans are a fundamentally social species.
What is the RSA?
The RSA "is a London-based, British organisation committed to finding practical solutions to social challenges. Founded in 1754 as the Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufacture and Commerce, it was granted a Royal Charter in 1847, and the right to use the term Royal in its name by King Edward VII in 1908. The shorter version, The Royal Society of Arts and the related RSA acronym, are used more frequently than the full name. Charles Dickens, Adam Smith, Benjamin Franklin, Karl Marx, William Hogarth, John Diefenbaker, Stephen Hawking and Tim Berners-Lee are some of the notable past and present members, and today it has Fellows elected from 80 countries worldwide." (from Wikipedia)
An emerging view of human nature
Many people think of themselves as having a spiritual aspect to their lives, but without really knowing what that means. This report puts forth that whilst spiritual identification is an important part of life for millions of people, it currently remains ignored because it struggles to find coherent expression and, therefore, lacks credibility in the public domain.
Beyond reference points of atheism and religion
'We are examining how new scientific understandings of human nature might help us reconceive the nature and value of spiritual perspectives, practices and experiences. Our aim is to move public discussions on such fundamental matters beyond the common reference points of atheism and religion, and do so in a way that informs non-material aspirations for individuals, communities of interest and practice, and the world at large.' (The RSA)
Developed with help from the neural
Now that the RSA project on spirituality is complete, what does spirituality come to mean? As I read the report, with eyes influenced by process theology, I begin to think of "spirituality" as a form of knowing, feeling, and acting in the world: as embodied cognition. What is "bodily" about it is that it originates from bodily experience (Whitehead called it experience in the mode of causal efficacy) and also that it cannot be separated from interactions with the world (process philosophers call it relationality) and from responsive actions to the world (Whitehead calls it decision-making). I then think of "mature spirituality" (the RSA's phrase) as a form of embodied cognition that is mindful, creative, compassionate, and wise in its way of living in the world. Thus understood, mature spirituality can find its home in atheists and believers alike, in the religiously affiliated and those who are none of the above, and the many who are in-between.
What about God? This does not mean that God is unreal or ineffective in spiritual development. In process theology, God is understood as a spirit of creative transformation at work in the universe and the world that is continuously present and ever-adaptive to each new situation. God is present in the ongoing history of the universe as a lure toward order and novelty; in the evolution of life on earth as a lure within each animal to live with satisfaction relative to the situation at hand; and in human beings (who are themselves creatures among creatures) as a lure, not only toward satisfaction, but also toward wisdom and compassion, creativity and inner freedom. See Panentheism: The Universe as God's Body. All of this means that God or God's lure is present within the process of spiritual development. But "belief in God" is not a precondition for God to be effective in a person's life. A person can be open to the lure of creative transformation and name it differently or not be aware of it at all. And if God is understood as a tyrant in the sky, then disbelief is probably much more conducive than belief. Spirituality can be enriched by theism and inhibited by theism, depending on the kind of theism at issue.
Personal and Political. Spirituality is inescapably personal because it is synonymous with the depth dimension of a person's life: his or her deepest feelings and motivations. And yet it is not cut off from the world. It is best expressed in compassion, care for the vulnerable, respect and care for the community of life. It is nourished, not depleted, by rich and loving connections with the surrounding world and political advocacy for just causes.
Personal and Ecological. It can provide an existential foundation for what those of us concerned with people, animals, and the earth call world loyalty. See, for example, What is Ecotheology?: It's How Jane Goodall Looks at the World and also A Covenant with the World: Process Theology for Theists, Atheists, and Agnostics. Or see the work of the network of thinkers and activists involved in Toward Ecological Civilization. My point is that mature spirituality, understood as embodied cognition in service to life and planet, can provide a foundation for such work. Of course, it can and needs to be informed by rich experiences with the more-than-human world.
A Subject of Scientific Inquiry. Importantly, as understood in this way, the topic of spirituality is fully compatible with science and can be studied scientifically by biologists, psychologists, sociologists, and others. All they need to do is to recognize and be interested in the deeper dimensions of human experience: including partly conscious or unconscious aims and motivations that are grounded in bodily experience and that give rise to behavior. Toward this end the understanding of experience offered by process philosophers -- Alfred North Whitehead, for example -- can be helpful because it is offers a language and cosmology in which these aspects of experience, and their connections with the body, are understood in their particularity and local settings, and also in the larger context of a creative and evolving universe.
Helpful for the Religiously Affiliated. Equally important, as understood in this way, spirituality can also be encouraged and nourished by all forms of institutional and cultural religion at their best: Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Baha'i, Daoist, Confucian, Indigenous. And because this understanding of spirituality can include non-theistic as well as theistic understandings of the universe, it can be embraced by participants in these traditions in their own distinctive ways. A person can have a mature spirituality and believe in God, or be skeptical about God, or anywhere in between. The in-between is especially important, because many people find themselves in this place. As Andrew Marr puts it, "many, perhaps most people, live their lives in a tepid confusing middle ground between strong belief and strong disbelief."
Three strands of spirituality: experiences, practices and wisdom. Mature spirituality includes the wisdom of emotions as well as the wisdom of discursive reason, and the body as well as the mind. As embodied in a person's life it has three strands which evolve over time:
Spiritual experiences: moments of aliveness, rapture, courage, and homecoming.
Spiritual practices: meditation, yoga, running, gardening, prayer, music making and music enjoying.
Spiritual perspectives: visions of what it means to be fully alive and contribute to the common good of the world.
Thus understood, spirituality is not an add-on to human life but the core of a life well-lived.
-- Jay McDaniel