Today, after two years of preparation and a pause for Christmas dinner, we are publishing: Spiritualise: revitalising spirituality to address 21st century challenges.
Put away your trumpets. Spirituality is a serious business. In Matthew Taylor’s words:
The fact that the RSA – known for its work on policy issues like city growth, self-employment and public service reform – undertook this project is a sign of the growing importance being attached to spirituality as a source of motivation, meaning and creativity. Spirituality is coming into the mainstream. It could powerfully affect the way we approach major 21st century possibilities and challenges
Matthew is right, and by no means alone in thinking that the world’s existing and emerging challenges are so complex, contested, interrelated, urgent and exacting that technocratic and technological solutions are unlikely to be sufficient, and may sometimes even compound matters. While instrumental and utilitarian thinking will always have its place, we need to re-engage with fundamental questions to deepen and broaden our perspective, and sharpen our sense of priorities - What are we? What really matters? How should we live?
This report is the legacy document written to capture the contributions of around three hundred people from a range of academic disciplines and faith backgrounds, including agnostics and atheists, who gave substantive insights at various stages of our project: Spirituality, Tools of the Mind and the Social Brain. This two year project funded by the John Templeton Foundation and the Touchstone Trust sought to examine whether new scientific understandings of human nature might help us reconceive the nature and value of spiritual perspectives, practices and experiences. Our objective was to help give the idea of spirituality improved intellectual grounding, so it could speak more directly to issues of shared personal and public concern.
The overarching societal role of spirituality is to serve as a counterweight to instrumental and utilitarian thinking. At an economic level, that means intelligently critiquing the fetishisation of economic growth as a panacea and global competition as the only game in town. At a political level, it means that citizens need to be the subjects of social change, not just its objects, with spiritual perspectives playing a key role in shaping and expressing the roots and values of democratic culture. Within organisations of all kinds, the spiritual deepens our vision of intrinsic motivation and gives structure and texture to human development and maturation.
The project comprised a literature review on how new conceptions of human nature might inform spirituality; a Student Design Award - ‘Speaking of the Spiritual’; 4 research workshops by invitation – on spiritual commitment, experiences, practices, and spirituality’s place in the public realm; 6 public events – on belief, the body, death, the soul, love, and the political dimensions of the spiritual; 40 blog posts and our final report attempts to synthesise those diverse forms of input and research.
Our inquiry was motivated by the fact that, while survey data is not clear, many if not most people appear to self-identify as being in some way ‘spiritual’, without quite knowing what that means. Moreover, many seem to recognise that the world’s major problems have ‘spiritual’ elements that are not adequately acknowledged or addressed, partly because we don’t seem to know how to conduct the debate at that kind of fundamental level. The project therefore aims to make the exploration of deep and difficult features of human existence bigger parts of our public and political conversations, through an argument in four main parts:
- Spirituality is ambiguously inclusive by its nature and cannot be easily defined, but at heart it is about the fact that we are alive at all, rather than our personality or status; it’s about our ‘ground’ in the world rather than our ‘place’ in the world. It is possible and valuable to give spirituality improved intellectual grounding and greater cultural and political salience. The primary spiritual injunction is to know what you are as fully and deeply as possible.
- Some recent developments in neural and cognitive sciences significantly help to contextualise the nature and value of spiritual perspectives, experiences and practices. We selected six:
- Our deeply social nature highlights that ‘belief’ is emergent, not propositional.
- Cultural cognition helps explain why the sacred won’t go away.
- Automaticity reveals why the spiritual injunction to ‘wake up’ matters.
- Embodiment sheds light on the widespread experience of meaning.
- Our divided brains contextualize the need for perspective and balance.
- Neural plasticity indicates why we need take spiritual practise seriously.
- Spirituality struggles to differentiate itself from religion on the one hand, and wellbeing on the other. To become a viable part of public discourse, it needs distinctive terrain that goes beyond emotions but doesn’t collapse into ethics or aesthetics. Our inquiry suggests four main features to help clarify the claim that the spiritual is fundamentally our ‘ground’ not our ‘place’:
- Love – the promise of belonging
- Death – the awareness of being
- Self – the path of becoming and transcendence
- Soul – the sense of beyondness
- We need the spiritual to play a greater role in the public realm, because it highlights the central importance of connecting personal, social and political transformation.
Spirituality already informs various spheres of public life in subtle ways, for instance, addiction, psychiatry, nursing, education and social and environmental activism. The overarching societal role of spirituality however is to serve as a counterweight to instrumental and utilitarian thinking.
At an economic level, that means intelligently critiquing the fetishisation of economic growth as a panacea and global competition as the only game in town. At a political level, it means that citizens need to be the subjects of social change, not just its objects, with spiritual perspectives playing a key role in shaping and expressing the roots and values of democratic culture. Within organisations of all kinds, the spiritual deepens our vision of intrinsic motivation and gives structure and texture to human development and maturation.
In one of my favourite quotations from the report, political theorist Roberto Unger (The Self Awakened p38) puts it like this:
If spirit is a name for the resistant and transcending faculties of the agent, we can spiritualise society. We can diminish the distance between who we are and what we find outside of ourselves.
Diminish the distance between who we are, and what we find outside of ourselves. What’s stopping us?