09 February 2015

Spirituality and the Secular Quest: a review

Peter H. Van Ness (ed.) Spirituality and the Secular Quest (London: SCM Press, 1996)

I begin my reflections on this massive volume with some trepidation. This latest addition to a series entitled ‘World Spirituality: An encyclopaedic history of the religious quest’ is certainly a very ambitious project. Given that we live in a predominantly secular era, the editors of the series felt that, for the sake of completeness, they needed a volume exploring the spiritual dimension of secular beliefs and practices. The result is a very diverse collection of papers grouped in broadly historical and broadly thematic contributions. The historical section tackles the roots of secularism together with various key phases and movements within the modern era. The thematic section attempts to encompass the bewildering diversity of beliefs and practices for which people might claim a spiritual dimension today. Most readers will find something in here of interest and relevance to their own situations.

Inevitably the quality of the contributions is uneven. Many of them are thought provoking. Several of them are quite hard going, demanding some familiarity with the technical jargon of contemporary critical theory. I also felt that several contributors were uneasy with their brief. As I read the book, the image that came to mind more than once was of ugly sisters trying in vain to make their feet fit a glass slipper.

In spite of the wealth of valuable material contained in these pages, by the end of the volume I too felt uneasy about the entire venture. The sheer breadth of the volume raises a serious question. If gay leathersex sadomasochism can count as a spiritual practice (pp. 344–6), is it possible to conceive of anything that would not count as spiritual? The encyclopaedic nature of the book suggests that it is both descriptive and comprehensive. There is certainly little indication that the authors are aware of any significant omissions.

Nevertheless, I am conscious of important areas of life that this book has simply ignored (and, by that marginalization, condemned as inherently unspiritual). The editor's working definition of spirituality is a good place to begin an attempt to identify these margins. Van Ness summarises the spiritual dimension of life as ‘the embodied task of realising one’s truest self in the context of reality apprehended as a cosmic totality’ (p. 5).

In the context of modernity (which, after all, is the cultural context of any book that focuses on contemporary secularity), the definition is disturbingly narrow. Modernity invariably interprets self in individualistic terms. Thus, in answering the question where is spirituality to be found in a secular age, the contributors have, mostly, shied away from the public sphere. Spirituality only appears to enter the public arena insofar as it concerns the personal identity of people in minorities and special interest groups (specifically feminists, gays, civil rights activists, and environmentalists). The spirituality inherent in scientific enquiry (or in academic methodology generally) is equated with the attitude of the individual practitioner. Similarly the treatment of the spirituality of arts, sports, and games focuses on the individual. For example, we are assured that even in a team game the sportsman is ultimately alone. Tell that to the footballer whose team has just lost a match because a team-mate scored an own goal!

It is tempting to accept this as a description of spirituality in a secular era. We could take this as another manifestation of the sharp dichotomy between public and private that prevails in the modern world. The social processes of objectification and rationalisation have evacuated the public sphere of meaning and value. In such a situation, where else should we seek meaning (and spirituality) but in the private sphere?

However, the fact that secularisation has led to a quest for spiritual experience in the private sphere, does not imply that the public sphere is inherently non-spiritual. On the contrary, as Walter Wink has argued very powerfully in his ‘Powers’ trilogy, our public institutions invariably possess a spiritual dimension.

Why does this matter? Because of an unspoken but patently false assumption about the nature of spirituality. According to Van Ness, the spiritual dimension of life is about self-fulfilment. It is entirely positive and beneficial. In view of the history of spiritual practice, I can only describe this as a naively optimistic view of spirituality. One contributor suggests that sadomasochism between consenting adults may be an aid to spiritual growth. However, what if I feel that a spot of child sex abuse or some human sacrifice would aid my spiritual development? Where do the grotesque self-mutilations of a St Rose of Lima figure in such a view of spirituality? What should I make of Adolf Hitler – an indisputably evil man, but one whose evil was tied into a very charismatic spirituality? Like every other aspect of human experience, the spiritual dimension of life is morally ambiguous and must be subject to an ethical critique.

In practice, the contributors to this volume do make implicit ethical critiques of their subject matter. For example, exploitative forms of sexuality are explicitly excluded from consideration in the chapter on gay spirituality. Other contributors are critical of consumerist tendencies in contemporary spirituality. However, the volume’s silence on the spiritual dimension of our public life prevents even such a limited critique of this. Yet because this aspect of our existence has been consistently neglected in the modern era, this is precisely the area that is most in need of conscious and critical scrutiny.

Perhaps the most powerful public spirituality of the late twentieth century is the spirituality of the market. Radical economists like Jeremy Seabrook acknowledge its archetypal status. Seabrook highlights our tendency to use religious and quasi-religious terminology in relation to the market. He also notes the way in which economic language invades other areas of human activity. Of course, Seabrook is not the first person to acknowledge the spiritual dimension of the market. Within the Christian tradition, we call it Mammon.

Closely related to the market is the military–industrial complex that was such an important part of the Cold War. Walter Wink has explored its spiritual dimension in some depth in the final volume of his ‘Powers’ trilogy: Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991). Other distinctive features of our public world that have a clear bearing on the spiritual dimension of life include the mass media and the global information network.

From a Christian perspective, genuine spirituality can never be merely a matter of private spiritual practice. Even if we accept Van Ness’s definition of spirituality as the quest for self-fulfilment (a dubious view of what would count as spirituality within the Christian traditions), our understanding of human nature requires us to acknowledge the public dimension of spirituality. God did not create us as isolated individuals. According to Genesis 1, ‘male and female he created them’, i.e. as part of a network of social relationships. True self-fulfilment – achievement of the purpose for which God created us – is not possible apart from this network. Thus, in the quest for a Christian spirituality for a postmodern era, we should not be content with the narrow space in which modernity has attempted to confine spirituality. Quite apart from the impact we might have upon society, our own spiritual growth depends upon our finding Christian ways of being spiritual in the workplace, on the Internet, in the market.

It would, of course, be unfair to criticise this volume for failing to provide a Christian perspective on its subject matter. In spite of my reservations, it remains a thought-provoking overview of the spiritual quest in a secular era. Those who are called to think seriously about contemporary Christian spirituality would do well to ponder its contents (and its omissions).

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