Spiritual

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1 A SPIRITUAL DISCUSSION

An attender1 of my Meeting started me thinking about Spiritual when he asked in our Woodbrooke on the Road day, “What do we mean by spiritual…?” Like a good little academic I rushed off to the dictionary for a definition. The results surprised me. I was expecting something to do with mysticism and religion. What I found was that spirit2 refers to that which is not physical. It was disappointing to find spirit defined as a negative and one might think that the definition is too wide to be useful.

I found it helpful and heartening that all the things that I have spent a large part of my life with are spiritual: feelings and subjective responses to experience, emotion, thought and the unconscious. Also included are surprising intangibles like, music, design, and patterns of behaviour like our social customs, organisation, bureaucracy, project management, business and trading.

The thesaurus added another dimension. Spiritual is put into the adjectival categories of immaterial, psychic, divine, religious, pious and priestly. This focused my interest on the psychic, our relationship with the divine and the functions priests in religious observance. These are mysterious, transcendental and awesome.

Finally the word is also used to describe how a person responds to other people and situations – one’s spirit. I see this as similar to the musician’s ‘attack’ in playing a musical instrument or performing a piece. It has to do with the energy and excitement of the way one lives ones life.

Spirit has a moral dimension: the Victorian idea of moral character to do with honesty and integrity in ones relationships.

2 WHY IS THIS AN IMPORTANT TOPIC?

It is my experience and belief that the spiritual is an integral part of practical life. It was part of my life as a computer consultant and my life as a furniture restorer is rich in spiritual experience and challenge.

Looking back, it is the spiritual aspects of all the various roles that I have occupied – student, teacher, husband, business man, consultant, office worker, grandfather, Quaker warden – that I remember. They have stimulated my own growth and track my spiritual journey.

All the major arena of current affairs, and Quaker concerns – such as security peace and war, crime and prisons, health and the NHS, ecology with global warming and recycling, institution organisation, management, and bureaucracy, transport, food, commerce and quality of life – all resolve themselves in to matters of personal behaviour, responsibility, leadership and lifestyle. In short they are matters of spirit. Some areas of current affairs that are less central to typically Quaker concerns, such as politics, sport, entertainment, art, science, media, culture and religion, have an essential element of responsible engagement with others. They are also spiritual matters

3 RELATIONS IN SCRIPTURE

Nine out of the Ten Commandments, all the Beatitudes and most, if not all, of Paul’s letters are about human relations, our attitudes and behaviour towards each other, how we avoid and deal with the social relationships that we find our selves in. A common interpretation of the Book of Revelation is that it describes in allegorical terms the overcoming of Rome by the Jewish faith. I prefer an interpretation in which it describes the subjective experience of mending one’s relationships and behaviour by applying Christian principles in practice, the consequences of that and the subsequent feelings.

4 WORDS FOR SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCE

“There aren’t words for spiritual experience.” I think this is not true. We have the whole language of religion, the mystic, poets and literature. The problem is not that there are no words or symbols to express the spiritual aspects of experience, but that the experiencee has not learned or devised a language for them that he or she finds satisfactory. This leads us into the age-old problems of communication - even with oneself. I find the arts are riddled with leaders who invent their own language for their feelings and experiences and then expect everyone else to understand them. Paul Klee and Salvador Dali are classic modern examples, but listen to any group of artists or academics discussing their subject and you will soon see what I mean.

Many people claim they have never had a spiritual experience when what they really mean is that they don’t understand the imagery and language used by mystics and theologians to describe their experiences. They have never had an out-of-body, transcending experience that they could not explain in some other way. This does not mean that the spiritual experiences didn’t happen or that an experience was not spiritual - only that it was not recognised as spiritual or that it was not communicated in ‘spiritual’ language.

5 SUBJECTIVE EXPERIENCE?

An objective phenomenon is independent of the observer, often documentable, often detectable and measurable by instruments. Consensus about a phenomenon, how one experiences it or the interpretation of the phenomenon doe not in itself make the phenomenon, or its interpretation objective. Personal and collective opinion can be in error and if not in error it might be unhelpful. Following a fashion in clothes, house furnishing or ideas does not make something true or morally right. This is the fundamental difference between a democracy and a spirit-led community.

Subjective experience is essentially private and personal but no less real and may be overwhelming and intense. Subjective experience is a very important part of human experience – it is conscious experience of events, art and self-consciousness awareness. Intense experiences and the way that one deals with one internal sensations is the field of spirituality.

The notion of an objective experience is a contradiction in terms. Experience is inherently personal and subjective – inner. Objective is inherently outer independent of the inner. The outer phenomenon might give rise through the senses and the information processing and memory to an inner experience. Aristotle thought that the eyes gave out rays which struck an object so that we see it. Through science we now know that objects reflect light in all directions whether there is anyone there to detect them or not. A person who is a child, who is blind, who is colour-blind or who is suffering from post traumatic stress or some form of mental disorder does not perceive or experience objects (houses, pictures, noises, events) in the same way as a ‘normal’ person.

5.1 Outer Behaviour

The postures, movements, actions, facial expressions, verbalisation and writings of other people are their outer behaviour, objectively observable, recordable and measurable. These small behaviours form patterns of routines, habits, lifestyles, personalities and so on. The patterns are observable but they are not themselves tangible they exist in the observer’s mind – they are spiritual not material. I have portrayed the patterns as passive but patterns of human behaviour are under conscious control. We decide to act or not act to say or not say and we choose between options. Most of the time we follow the habits of a lifetime and the dictates of our culture. This makes practical sense because life would be insupportable if we had to think out each movement. To see the force of this, think about the difficulties that you had learning to ride a bicycle, drive a car, walk, talk or sew.

5.2 Inner Experience

As Quakers we habitually distinguish our inner subjective experience from our outward practice. We experience the inner directly. In psychological terms it is our emotional life, our perceptions and sensations. Physiology provides the physical mechanisms. Cognition describes the information processing mechanisms like learning and memory. Emotions and affect provide the dynamic drive and energy, that we experience in our awareness, ethics and morals provids the ideals, guides and constraints on our thought.

It seems to me that the part of our culture that we call art is founded and focussed on inner sensations, enjoying them, communicating them and interpreting them. Another part of the inner world is how we believe the world works and our relationships to it: our links to the divine and other people, our place and value in that world and so on. This innocent-looking part of our spiritual life is responsible for most religious, national and political wars. A third part of our inner experience has to do with rational thought, planning and decision-making. These three parts are intimately connected and intertwined with each other: they are three ways of looking at a whole. I think it is also important to realise that we each live in our own subjective world: no one else can see or experience that world. Nor can we see or experience anyone else’s inner world. In practice we make guesses and assumptions about other people based on our perceptions of their posture, facial expression, dress, speech and so on, using on our own expressions and the feelings that lie behind them.

5.3 Thought as a spiritual exercise

Understanding is an important part of our inner life. We put events and experiences into familiar categories for which we have habitual responses. Believing in relationships between things (theories and mechanisms) allows us to reason about new events and situations to reach effective decisions (thinking). Understanding is one of the ways in which we deal with the inherent uncertainty of the world in which we live. The search for absolute certainty and complete understanding seems to have been part of the human condition for at lest two million years.

Our earliest understandings were expressed in gods and myths that formed the core of the earliest religions and bound the group together into an effective living tribe. Today our understanding of people and cultures is much more sophisticated, but our quest for deeper insights, more reliable more trustworthy understanding is still with us.

In recent years I have come to see science not as the antithesis of art or religion but as part of our spiritual quest for understanding and for reliable knowledge. The whole business of science is the accumulation of trustworthy information and its articulation into mechanisms that are capable of predicting future events and thus of informing choices that lead to better decisions and behavioural actions. The key is the term ‘reliable information’. George Fox based his beliefs on experience: so does the scientist.

The scientist begins with the recognition that subjective experience is limited and untrustworthy. Like the lawyer, he looks for a way to gain objective evidence that can be relied on to a known extent. The great invention of the eighteenth century was the development of the controlled experiment that gives reliable information. The idea moved from physics (or natural philosophy) through medicine, chemistry, psychology and in the twentieth century to sociology.

Fashioning a theory from reliable information is just as much a design experience as any artistic or engineering creation. We all do it all the time to make sense of surroundings. Reading the lives of scientists, great and small shows the human engagement of the people involved to such an extent that one can hardly doubt the spirituality of their experience and of their achievement. Measurement has been an important way of correcting our subjective perceptions and refining the precision of the controlled experiment. Logic and reason, especially when combined with publication and scrutiny by our peers, helps to avoid the subjective errors of personal thought. As Quakers we gather together in meeting for worship to seek greater unity with the Spirit than we can achieve alone. Scientists also have a testimony on simplicity called Occam’s razor which says that although any event or phenomenon can be explained in many different ways, one must always prefer the simplest explanation that needs the least assumptions, the smallest mechanism, the shortest pathway and so on.

This is where the crunch comes. It’s easier to accept what one is told, to believe what authority says than to go out and check the evidence for oneself. It’s easier to assume than to observe someone’s actual behaviour, to live with them or work with them.

6 SPIRITUAL BEHAVIOUR

Having cleared away, at least in part, some distractions and confusions, what is spiritual in our subjective and objective behaviour?

Shortly after we came to our present meeting, a member ministered on the well-known letter of Paul to the Corinthians (I chapter 13). She interpreted what had been for me a simple exhortation to good behaviour into a spiritual exercise. This new interpretation opened the way for me to see much of our every-day life and behaviour in spiritual terms. This was developed further in our Bible study groups particularly in the Sermon on the Mount and even in Revelation.

7 SPIRITUAL ISSUES

There are many aspects of spiritual experience and the behaviour that they engender. Some of these include the powerful emotions of love, hate, and fear. They include reverence for things of value, discipline, passion, dedication and persistence and moral character. Includes how one deals with such things as freedom, responsibility, duty, error, sin and courage. Each of these has had a wealth of literature devoted to it and it would be presumption of me to enter those arenas, at this stage.

8 WELL, SO WHAT?

This brief survey has led me to a spiritual landscape of people and their relationships (to each other and to me) where I am responsible for the consequences of my behaviour. This is only of value in so far as it helps me to live a better life and “mend the world”. Rather that drifting through life accepting the established as given, following conventional fashion, and taking the path of least resistance, the idea of spiritual craftsmanship in a real world opens the possibility of deliberate, justifiable choice and an exciting new world of understanding, and a new meaning of the Light and Truth. Through this it opens the possibility of positively learning new skills, especially in building relationships.

This leads me to a focus on the personal and the immediate. I am aware of many Quakers concern with big issues and global effects. These are important, urgent and I would not wish to diminish their efforts in any way. However, although I have taken part in some of these movements, I have never felt drawn to them for any long term commitment. I rationalise this by saying that big issues are created and resolved by the actions (behaviour) of individuals. If we can improve our face-to-face behaviour then we deal with the larger and otherwise intractable issues.

I don’t think there is anything inherently Quaker or distinctively Quaker in this idea – true godliness excites our efforts to mend the world. But I do think our history, our tradition and our testimonies present us individually with a personal and spiritual challenge. I don’t think it matters whether or not the spiritual experience of mending the world is associated with Quakerism or not. Sentimentally, I would like to see Quakers in the forefront and again see Quakers known by and for the quality of their behaviour – but perhaps the time for that is past.

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