Monday, April 7, 2008

What is Spirituality?

Many people see religion as being primarily concerned with a separate spiritual reality. This creates a difficulty for modern thinkers who are used to the kind of empirical 'proofs' provided by science. Personally, I am left unsatisfied with the view that simply affirms that everything about the spiritual life simply needs to be taken by faith and that the use of logic or the intellect are barriers to faith. At the same time, I must acknowledge that science does not provide the tools to answer questions of faith - not surprising given that the questions of science are generally very different in character.

William Booth, the founder of The Salvation Army, suggested that we should abolish the distinctions between acts of compassion and religion - that it should be considered a spiritual act to feed a hungry person. This is the best starting point that I have found to understand the nature of spirituality. What we do in this life doesn't impact on a separate plane of existence, but it encompasses in this reality that aspect of life which we call spirituality.

This gives an exciting and liberating view of the place of social services within The Salvation Army. They are an integral part of the spiritual life of the organisation; all who take part in extending the compassionate hand of God towards those who are in need are performing a spiritual service. It may even be that a rediscovered correlation between spirituality and social service has the potential to helpfully reunite our dual mission.


Anonymous said...

Christianity very explicity promises "eternal life". Eternal life has been taken to mean a never-ending existence that incorporates elements of one's self, possibly including one's memory of earthly existence and elements of one's earthly personality.

As explained previously, this sits uncomfortably with current scientific understanding that the self ceases to exist when its supporting infrastructure - the brain - dies. The self, memory, emotions, etc, are only possible with "brain hardware". An analogy would be the software program running on your computer ceases to exist, or dies, once the hardware is switched off or destroyed.

You have either narrowed your view of spirituality or ignored the question of eternity in stating that spirituality is best understood as part of service to others. Whilst I would agree with that, how do you fit that into a model of spirituality that answers the questions of eternity? And do so without the dualistic artifice of body and soul.

JDK said...


This is a fair critique of my theology. You're right eternity doesn't play a big part for me. Why? 1) It's an area where there are few known elements. There is very little that we can demonstrate about eternity with regards to what has past and nothing we can prove with regards to the future. 2) That which we do know suggests that our human existence is incredibly fragile and temporary. Though we don't fully understand the links between mind and brain, everything points to an interdependence - you can't have one without the other. 3) A focus on eternity seems to distract from the issues that we need to face in this life. Neither do I think it's helpful to try and control people's behaviour based on eternal consequences - good or bad.

It's possible that others know a lot more than I do about eternity (many certainly claim to do so). Personally, I'm content leaving the question open. If I'm wrong, I'll be pleasantly surprised (assuming that I'm not burning in hell)...

Regards, JDK

Anonymous said...

You describe salvation along the lines of a "change for the better" at an individual and social group level, whether that be local community or nation state. Salvation can encompass reconciliation in personal relationships, improvement in fortune, positive changes in behaviour, organisations run justly, better government legsislation, to name just some aspects.

None of the above requires the death and resurrection of Jesus. Well, it looks that way. Christians understand the Easter events to be concerned with "eternal salvation". So it's back to eternity again - no way of avoiding that.

Is it better to lead a drug addict through an "eternal salvation conversion experience" and let him die in his addiction, or save him from his addiction but risk him suferring eternally in hell? With limited resources the choice may sometimes matter.

Seems like the traditional evangelical position can't be shaken that easily. But that's because, I believe you have not managed to tie both together in a cohesive manner, or have I missed something from your thesis?

Remember, eternity is such a long time. I can't see how you can be so apparently cavalier about eternity.

JDK said...

Hi David,

I guess one thing that I've learned over the past few years is that Christianity doesn't take a single orthodox form. The history of the Christian church is full of rich variety. The downside to this is that we have historically called everyone else heretics, but on a more positive note I am reassured that I'm not the only one with these wacky ideas.

I will also acknowledge that it is a fair critique of my thesis to note that my presentation of salvation does not require anything of Jesus' death or resurrection. It's a significant flaw - though one I'm prepared to live with considering the purpose of the thesis.

Your question about the drug addict is the exact dilemna that many people in The Salvation Army struggle with. If we assume this dual reality then we must at some point choose our priorities - and who could prioritise this temporal existence over eternity? I don't mean to be flippant about eternity but I need to work with what I have. I don't claim to have a grasp on eternity but I am daily dealing with problems that impact upon the present, so it is these that I can help to solve for the moment.

I believe that its possible to be a Christian without being overly concerned about eternity. I've heard what you think most Christians believe. What is your perspective on eternity?



Anonymous said...

I understand there are at least three understandings of eternity (from a human point of view).

1. A traditional Christian one in which we pass on to an eternal state after death - the steady state view

2. The cyclic view of re-incarnation where souls return again and again. Often there is a steady state end game here, too, eg escaping this cycle to gain final reunion with God or enlightenment.

3. A realistic view where life on earth will eventually cease. This one seems the most reasonable in light of our current understanding of the lifetime of our solar system.

I can see no reason to adopt views 1 or 2 or any variation of these religious or faith based theories of eternity. Mainly because the reasons for the third view are so compelling.

On a grand cosmic scale, our lives are meaningless. There will be an end to all human existence. It sounds depressing, but I think its the most realist viewpoint to take (as much as I would like to indulge in fantasy and join a belief club at a local church).

Possibly this is not the most highly motivating point of view in terms of social service.

james said...

Ive always been taught that evangelisation and social work stuff are both grace. So the question is not evangelise or serve, the command is grace.

Therefore we need to serve people as it is an expression of grace. We also need to lead people to Christ, the ultimate expression of grace. "There is no greater love than for a friend to lay down his life for others."

We can see this principle in Jesus. His work was grace.

If we were looking at it from this point of view there wouldnt have to be any competing for the better grace, or whats more important. Its all about grace.