What is this thing, that is so evanescent in the face of politics and education? Is its fragility something with which we should be concerned? Does it have anything to do with the “work for the equality and dignity of all people, including in religious professions,” that is the overarching mission of the Women’s Center?
According to the Funk and Wagnalls Standard College Dictionary, spirituality is an adjective meaning “of, or pertaining to, the quality of being spiritual.” Spiritual, in turn, is an adjective meaning of, or pertaining to, one of a number of things, including: that which is incorporeal; what is of the sacred or ecclesial realm, as opposed to what is secular; anything having to do with God or the Holy Spirit or the divine generally; that which is highest and best in humanity, uplifting, inspiring. The spirituality that vanishes in church board rooms or seminary classrooms presumably is not the kind that simply has something to do with God the Holy Spirit. Presumably God the Holy Spirit is as present throughout the life processes of the church as God is present anywhere, however attentive or unattentive individual faithful are to that presence. It might also be difficult to imagine that it would be the kind that has to do with ecclesial things, things of the church, since the institutions in question, being part of that life, would be spiritual by definition. That would leave the kind of spirituality that means something either incorporeal, or uplifting, or both.
But the explicit contrast of ecclesial with secular in the definition is probably a clue. The upliftingly incorporeal spirituality that seems to be what my acquaintances speak of so highly flourishes in circumstances that are separated and sheltered from some of the things people encounter in daily life. Insofar as the life of the church descends, so to speak, to the mundane — who is going to clean the lavatories, for instance — that life fails to consist of that which is incorporeal and different from the secular. Insofar as that mundane life evokes struggle and conflict — why are the people who read Scripture on Sunday morning snubbing the people who are cleaning the lavatories, instead of helping out with the job, for instance — we may encounter ourselves and one another, if not at our very worst, then at least at less than our very best and highest.
My friends who speak highly of spirituality often seem to mean that complex of thought and feeling that comprises awe in the face of divine holiness and majesty, an ineffable sense of connection or even oneness with the divine, and perhaps a beautiful, compassionate love and care for suffering humanity. Cultivating spirituality understood in this way seems to demand both solitude and the leisure for it, or possibly relationships with a select group of spiritual companions. It seems to be advanced most reliably by situations that permit focus on transcendent emotions and experiences, retarded by situations that require attention to concrete realities. This spirituality does not seem to flourish in situations of distracting stress, in facing the interpersonal challenge posed by difficult and annoying personalities, or working through conflicts over boring concrete matters like budgetary allocations and institutional procedures.
Just such conflict will always be a feature of situations where differing understandings of the meaning of such things as “justice” and “the good” are being worked out in practice, in and through the details of everyday life. Everyday life with its corporeal details is the only arena we have for developing an understanding and practice of realities like “the good” and “justice.” All routes to transformative learning run through the territory of confronting such challenges and stresses. All of which may explain why politics and education seem so withering to the uplifting, incorporeal kind of spirituality.
It also raises a suspicion about this approach to spirituality, and its cultivation. Could it be a form of hedonism? The pursuit of pleasure as a primary goal does not depend on the nature of the pleasure sought; it is as amenable to the spiritual kind of positive experience as to the material. It can, moreover, be as much the pursuit of a luxury good. The luxury of ignoring the mundane aspects of daily life is most available to those whose material needs are being met by the mundane activities of others. The luxury of ignoring political processes is most often embraced by those who can rest secure in the knowledge that their own fundamental interests will not be threatened by those political processes. The luxury of avoiding learning is most open to those not required by circumstances to understand and adapt to the minds and behavior of others. In short, we might want to ask ourselves to what extent this understanding of spirituality is a product of a privileged position, and to what extent its pursuit reinforces that privilege.
Spirituality, understood in this way, does not comport well with the mission of working for the equality and dignity of all people. The work of uncovering and transforming the limiting structures of our world is not done by withdrawing from the world that those structures create. It calls for engaging with those structures. That engagement gives rise to conflict — one hopes, the ultimately beneficial conflict that produces change. Modifying the architecture our thinking about fundamental realities, like gender, involves confronting the particular difficulties created by that architecture, and undertaking efforts to resolve them. This work does fit some definitions of spirituality. It can have much to do with the God who calls for justice and faithfulness; it can have much to do with the work of the Holy Spirit, breathing new life into and through the processes of a community. It can have much to do with the church as a community oriented towards worshipping God in spirit and in truth, a way of understanding worship as practical activity. It can even have much to do with cultivating what is highest and best in humanity, if we understand that to mean cultivating love and care in and through the practical details of everyday life. It is certainly no impediment to prayer, study, or devotion. But it does, on principle, challenge the desirability of an incorporeal approach to matters of the spirit. And while it is an enterprise in which understandings of what is highest and best in humanity are re-examined, re-assessed, and re-negotiated, it is not an enterprise which leaves unquestioned the conventional notion of that highest and best as whatever is least involved with the mundane processes of daily life. Which, perhaps not coincidentally, have for many centuries been most closely associated with the lives of women.