Essay 5: Overlapping Realms of Faith in America
Spirituality has to do with how individuals integrate the experiences and components of life in order to live effectively and optimize a sense of meaningfulness and fulfillment.
Spirituality is concerned with strategies for synthesizing insight, discovering peace, and maximizing life. Spiritual strategies usually involve training in mind control through physical deprivation or exertion, limited sensory input to deepen concentration or sensory overload to open the mind, and/or expanded knowledge and cognitive capacity leading to insight. The long-range goal is a break-through into expanded consciousness.
American spirituality is eclectic and optional. It often incorporates physical exercise or some dietary regimen in the name of being holistic.
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Strategies for synthesizing insight, discovering peace, and maximizing life are many and varied. A partial list might include the following:
Obviously, any of these strategies could have multiple objectives. They are only spiritual strategies if they are intended to provide spiritual benefits to the individual undertaking them.
Those benefits might or might not be religious; that is, they might or might not be included in the disciplines, duties and devotional activities of an orthodox religion. Many (but not all) orthodox or organized religions tend to imply they include all “necessary and desirable” spiritual exercises in their programs. Until recently, most Christian church organizations in the USA and elsewhere insisted that their programs of nurture, worship and discipleship were sufficient for one’s abundant life. There might have been diversity about what those programs included, but each religious organization tended to exclude practices not on their program, particularly practices that were identified with groups with which they were opposed or in competition. Yoga, for example, was frowned upon, as was Transcendental Meditation because those things were “un-Christian.” Protestants wanted nothing to do with rosaries or chanting. The spiritual discipline associated with particular costumes or items of clothing were likewise exclusive to particular groups. [Clothing tends to be a matter of group identity rather than spiritual discipline for Christians in America. Conversely, being “dressed in air” is all about spiritual discipline for Jains in India.] Because of the tacit opposition of organized religion, it is only recently that spirituality as an undertaking independent of orthodox religion has attracted a following in the USA.
For the most part, practitioners of spiritual disciplines are conscious of overlapping benefits. Physical exercise is good for health as well as being a means to sharpen focus and attain insight. Being immersed in a particular environment can reduce stress or eliminate distractions in ways that also alter consciousness. Sometimes the benefits are social as well as spiritual; volunteers in food pantries or soup kitchens often testify to the way their own spirits are enhanced by providing services. These might be called “value added” activities. In recent times the list of disciplines and habits has grown that are being undertaken because of their spiritual benefits as well as other benefits, and opposition to those activities has declined. Choice of spiritual development programs is now left up to individuals.
Although spiritual disciplines are matters of personal choice, and the benefits are personal, one of the attractions of many programs of self-improvement is the way they connect people. Participation in bible study groups, as much as classes in Tae Kwan Do, or a chess club, are about being in a group of like-minded people. Meditation on a mountain top might be the ultimate ascetic target, but chanting or singing in a crowded hall is more normal.
Meanwhile, spirituality has replaced orthodox religion for some people. It is often mentioned succinctly as spirituality without religion. At the same time it can be a sub-set of a religion in that the individual assumes inclusion under the umbrella of a religion without being an enrolled member and may think of spiritual exercises as an aspect of religion. It becomes confusing. Some who are practicing spiritual disciplines without having affiliated with a church in any way would be riled to have their Christianity questioned. Others would be equally offended by hearing it was assumed they were Christian because of their circumstances of birth, residency, or ethnicity, and would deny that their spiritual enhancement regimens were part of a religious program.
Spiritual development activities, as an aspect of membership in a religious organization, provide an element of accountability, discipline, and strategy for improvement. Without conscientious spirituality, church membership, for example, lacks transcendent direction and is relegated to a social rationale that tends to be unsustainable inter-generationally.
Church activities may not be religious, even if conducted under the aegis of a religious organization. Church bowling or softball teams, for example, are not apt to be in any sense religious unless a spiritual development facet is consciously incorporated. A church-sponsored emergency response team only has the potential of being a spiritual development activity, until it is focused to include that aspect. On the other hand, not everything a religious organization does needs to be for the purpose of spiritual development. A “coffee hour” after church or a “rummage sale” once a year may have discrete purposes that are quite legitimate.
Jealousy or suspicion should not be allowed to blur the value of a spiritual exercise being undertaken by someone. More than a few pastors have objected to members who strayed into bible study programs or prayer groups that were out of the pastors’ control. People have to assume responsibility for their spirituality. Even so, it is a pastor’s duty to admonish and warn if a spiritual activity is being misrepresented and is essentially something else in this time when spurious, commercial and devious enterprises abound that call themselves spirituality.
This concludes the series of essays on “Overlapping Realms of Faith in America.” The series includes:
www.kendobson.asia/blog/american-civil-religion (essay 2)
www.kendobson.asia/blog/a-religion (essay 3) and
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.