Le 21ieme siecle sera spirituel ou ne sera pas - Malraux.
"The 21st Century will be spiritual, or it will not be." Well said, Malraux.
Spiritual. That other 's-word'. Not 'even spiritual', 'almost spiritual' or some other timorous apology. Why shirk from matters of ultimate concern?
I don't exactly know what 'spiritual' means, but I also don't know what lots of words I use on a daily basis mean; goodness, happiness, wisdom, freedom, democracy, power, love, equality, joy.
On reflection, most of the things that matter to us are 'essentially contested' i.e. the definition is alway a matter of contention. The best you can do is lay out the various conceptions of the concept that matter and declare an interest in which matters most to you in a given context.
On another day, I might make a pitch for a definition of spirituality, perhaps reflecting on self-awareness or reflexvity, something about mystery, aliveness, peace of mind and belonging; or say what is meant by 'ultimate concern'. I would include something about the unconscious and the numinous, the transcendent, perhaps discipline and commitment, mythos and the sacred, and various other intrigues. It would also be worth reflecting on the nature of spiritual experience and how it differs from spiritual ritual or practice, or indeed other kinds of experience. Something would have to be said about the dark side of spirituality (satanic rituals, football hooliganism etc) and I would definitely mention Ken Wilber's Pre-Trans fallacy. But defining the term is not my main concern today.
It is not just that we don't know what we mean by the spiritual, but rather that we are afraid of what the spiritual might mean for us.
What is bugging me is the tendency to apologise for speaking of the spiritual, regardless of what we mean by it.
We are familiar with Freudian slips, but there are different kinds of psychological leakages that are worth paying attention to. I have in mind pervasive statements like: "Mental, emotional or even spiritual"..."Almost spiritual", "'Dare I say 'spiritual'?" and so forth.
What is going on here? Why do we appear to be so cautious about this term?
I don't exactly know what 'spiritual' means, but I also don't know what lots of words I use on a daily basis mean, like goodness, happiness, wisdom, freedom, democracy, power, love, equality, joy. On reflection, most of the things that matter to us are 'essentially contested' i.e. the definition is alway a matter of contention.
To begin with the good reasons:
The spiritual is to the conceptual what Turkey is to the EU. We know we should accept it, but we are not sure what we are letting ourselves in for.
Such reasons, and I'm sure there are more, make some sense of why we hesitate to use the word. If the reserve was purely intellectual, I would respect that and move on, but it feels to me like something deeper is going on. In many people I sense something more like 'spiritophobia'- fear of the spiritual. It is not just that we don't know what we mean by the spiritual, but rather that we are afraid of what the spiritual might mean for us.
The spiritual is to the conceptual what Turkey is to the EU. We know we should accept it, but we are not sure what we are letting ourselves in for. If we were to let the term become an intellectual bona-fide what would follow?
Facing up to 'the spiritual' obliges us to problematize human nature, to think more deeply about our values and our direction, and to ask ourselves the big questions on a more regular basis. Spirituality is discomforting and we prefer not to think too much about what it points towards, for fear it will oblige us to change our lives.What I am here for? Am I wasting my life? What really matters to me?
But essential too. Malraux's point is that most of the world is run without really facing up to these questions. And so we live in a world with a climate crisis, a burgeoning population, ubiquitous terrorism, nuclear weapons, and the recurring possibility of financial meltdown.
But essential challenges that require some deep thinking. For such reasons, and more, perhaps we should speak of the spiritual more often, even if we don't know what it means.
If you’ve ever had experience of psychotherapy you’ll be used to being asked how you feel about something. You typically start by explaining your emotions, but soon you realise you’re not feeling anything at all. You’re just talking.