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Ethics and Spiritual Care
A Guide for Pastors, Chaplains, and Spiritual Directors
By Karen Lebacqz, Joseph D. Driskill
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2000 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
The Many Faces of Spirituality
Everywhere we turn today, "spirituality" is in vogue. Cultural cachet is obtained for many pedestrian topics simply by attaching to them the word spirituality. Even practices of rest or relaxation in the workplace are called "spiritual" enrichment. Both pop culture and academic treatises cash in on the popularity of this term.
But what is spirituality? If clergy are to provide good spiritual care, they must first know what constitutes the "spiritual" dimension of life. Immediately, we encounter a problem: although "spirituality" seems at first a simple and obvious term, on deeper reflection it becomes more than a little complex and can even be obscure. Consider the following pair of comments about spirituality:
"I have nothing to do with organized religion, but I'm very spiritual."
"The spiritual is the deepest sense of belonging and participation."
The first comment assumes that it is possible to be "spiritual" without an organized religion, the second that spirituality and a sense of community go together. What is the role of "belonging and participation" in fostering spiritual growth? Can one be spiritual on one's own? Without religion? Can one have it both ways?
Consider another pairing:
"Spirituality is otherworldly."
"To separate spirituality from the rest of life ... runs against the very nature of spirituality."
Is spirituality otherworldly? Can it be separated from "the rest of life," from material things? Is it true spirituality if it is? Can one have it both ways?
Finally, consider the following comments:
"To heal the spirit involves creating a pathway to sensing wholeness, depth, mystery, purpose, and peace."
"Christian spirituality is about a process of formation ... in which ... we are transformed so that we come more and more to share the Christ nature."
Does spirituality have to do with taking on a "Christ nature" or simply with sensing wholeness, purpose, and peace? Are they the same thing? Is there a distinctive Christian spirituality? If so, what are its marks? Can one have it both ways?
As these quotations show, there is no single agreed definition of spirituality. The diversity of groups interpreting spirituality creates some of the confusion: some consider it the province of Christianity or of religion more broadly, while others think it has to do with what is most deeply human and need not be connected to religion at all. Some refer to historically accepted practices or definitions, others to whatever they have found most useful or healing. Speaking ironically, noted Episcopal lay leader and ethicist William Stringfellow once declared:
"Spirituality" may indicate stoic attitudes, occult phenomena, the practice of so-called mind control, yoga discipline, ... an appreciation of Eastern religions, multifarious pious exercises, ... intensive journals, dynamic muscle tension, assorted dietary regimens, meditation, jogging, cults, monastic rigors, mortification of the flesh, wilderness sojourns, political resistance, contemplation, abstinence, hospitality, a vocation of poverty, nonviolence, silence, the efforts of prayer ... or, I suppose ... squatting on top of a pillar.
If everything from political resistance to yoga to "squatting on top of a pillar" can be considered spirituality by somebody, is there any point to using the term at all? Can we make sense out of this cacophony?
We think so. True, we face here a "muddy" terrain. So many feet have tramped about in the waters that the riverbed has been stirred up and it is now difficult to see with clarity the beautiful rocks below. It is hard to know where to step. Yet we believe that there are stepping-stones, and that they can be pointed out, so that the intrepid traveler can begin the journey across the waters. In this chapter we will survey some definitions and approaches that we hope will lay out focal elements necessary for understanding spirituality in the contemporary setting. We will also note some of the ethical questions that emerge as each set of focal elements becomes clearer. These questions will help to frame our later discussion.
Spirit and Spirituality
The root of spirituality is spirit. The Oxford English Dictionary offers some twenty-three definitions of spirit as a noun, and eight as a verb. Some of these contribute little to the topic at hand—for instance, those concerning distilled spirits!—but others suggest that two foci must be held in creative tension.
The first focus is the human spirit—the notion of a life force that animates human beings:
a) The animating or vital principle in [a person] ... which gives life to the physical organism, in contrast to its purely material elements; the breath of life; b) a particular character, disposition, or temper existing in, pervading, or animating a person ... ; a special attitude or bent of mind ...; c) the essential character, nature, or qualities of something; that which constitutes the pervading or tempering principle of anything.
Note that these definitions speak not only of something that "animates" humans, but also of that which gives us our distinctive character or essence. Thus, "spirit" means something that is central and essential to who we are as human beings. Note that these definitions also give some nod to the idea that "spirit" is to be contrasted to "matter"; this gives force to the popular notion quoted above that "spirituality" has nothing to do with our "material" selves. We will return to this again.
The second focus is the divine spirit, which in Christian tradition is the Spirit of God or Holy Spirit. Definitions here include:
a) the active essence or essential power of the Deity ...; b) the Holy Spirit; c) the active or essential principle or power of some emotion, frame of mind, etc., that operates on or in persons.
These definitions point to Spirit as an essence and as a power of the divine that may be active in human life.
Approaches to spirituality will differ in their understanding of the human spirit, the divine spirit, and the relationship between them. These differences bring some ethical concerns: Is divine spirit, for example, primarily a loving and forgiving presence in human life, or is divine spirit a judging and condemning force? Does the divine spirit work in the human arena, and if so, how? Are Wisdom and Sophia—both understood as feminine principles—appropriate interpretations of Spirit? Is human spirit created in the image of divine spirit? Is human spirit good or corrupted or incomplete?
A crucial divide is whether one understands "spirituality" to be something that humans possess independently of the working of a divine spirit. The first "stepping-stone," then, in our muddy terrain, is recognition of the importance of clarifying what role, if any, the divine spirit is playing in people's understandings of spirituality. Since this book is primarily geared to those in the Christian tradition, most of our readers will not make such a separation. But it is important to remember that the term "spirituality" as it is used today increasingly connotes a stance that may separate humans from any sense of the divine or of the workings of a Holy Spirit in people's lives. Too much emphasis on Spirit will not connect with many people's understanding of their spirituality; too little emphasis on Spirit runs the risk of pandering to modern temperament at cost to the integrity of Christian tradition.
Three Approaches to Spirituality
As the next stepping-stone, we propose Bernard McGinn's threefold division of definitions of spirituality. One tends to separate spirituality from divine spirit; two incorporate an understanding of the divine, but in different ways.
1. Anthropological Definitions
McGinn calls definitions of spirituality "anthropological" when they focus exclusively or primarily on human spirit. Here, spirituality is seen as an element in human nature, frequently a depth-dimension of human existence. This approach considers "spirituality" to consist in human authenticity, self-transcendence, and the experiential dimension of human existence. The approach is reflected in the first set of definitions of spirit from the dictionary.
Even Christian theorists sometimes work with anthropological definitions. Noted scholar Sandra Schneiders says spirituality concerns "the experience of consciously striving to integrate one's life in terms not of isolation and self-absorption but of self-transcendence toward the ultimate value one perceives." This definition speaks of "ultimate value" rather than of God. It leaves open the possibility that one might be spiritual without relating specifically to a Godhead.
A similar definition is given by Ronald K. Bullis: "Spirituality is defined here as the relationship of the human person to something or someone who transcends themselves." Bullis makes clear that this broad definition "is intended to include the enormous variety of transcendent values, concepts, or persons with which people identify as higher sources." Either religious or secular language and concepts would be compatible with such a definition. Spirituality understood this way might explore the personal biography of a figure or group, for example, to determine what inspired someone to "greatness" or leadership. The approach seeks to find the "spirits" that guide human lives beneath the surface. By starting with human experience, rather than with faith affirmations or traditional doctrine, such approaches allow a wide berth for understanding spirituality.
2. Theological Definitions
For some, the anthropological definitions allow too wide a berth. Terms such as "depth" of human existence are too vague. They do not help to clarify what is inside the purview of spirituality and what is outside. Indeed, they appear to give rise to precisely the array of activities that William Stringfellow so derisively lists.
For some, true spirituality happens only when human spirit and divine spirit are connected. Theological definitions therefore tend to stress the divine spirit. They begin with the assumptions of a particular faith tradition. For example, Walter Principe defines Christian spirituality as "life in the Spirit as brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ and daughters and sons of the Father." In such a definition, there is no "spirituality" without "Spirit"—human and divine spirits must be connected. Here, spirituality is understood by one's relationship to a community of faith, be it Christian or Jewish or other.
Such definitions help faith communities to situate themselves, but may not help them to address those outside the tradition. It is sobering to remember that "seven in ten Americans believe that one can be religious without going to church" and that "in the new millennium, there will be a growing gap between personal spirituality and religious institutions." Christian groups who insist on theological definitions may find themselves not speaking to the majority of spiritually inclined "neo-agnostics," to use Winifred Gallagher's term.
3. Historical-Contextual Definitions
Principe's definition speaks from a broad understanding of the community of faith, trying to encompass all Christians at once. However, it is possible that particular traditions (Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Calvinist) would have even more refined understandings of appropriate spirituality. Historical-contextual definitions are rooted in a particular community's history and experience. Here the rituals, values, beliefs, and attitudes of the community—its particular animating "spirit," if you will—give definition and meaning to the practice of faith. For example, Hinson suggests that both Baptists and Quakers differed from Catholics in their stress on individual rather than corporate spirituality, yet differed from each other in their styles of worship and prayer, among other things. The black church tradition in the United States sees spirituality as having a distinctive connection to the struggle for social justice. As Bernard McGinn himself puts it, spirituality here is "the effort to appropriate Christ's saving work in our lives." It stresses "those acts in which the relation to God is immediate and explicit." Historical-contextual definitions recognize that we are socially located and that this social location gives meaning and purpose to human life. It shapes what we perceive and what we do. When Sandra Schneiders turns to an explicitly Christian understanding of spirituality, for instance, she defines spirituality as "the conscious striving for self-integration toward the God who is revealed in Jesus and is present as Spirit in and through the community of faith, the church." In such a definition, there could be no genuine spirituality apart from participation in a distinctive community.
This definition does not presume that all human spirituality is the same, therefore. For instance, women claiming their own modes of spirituality might resist anthropological definitions, even as they use some of the language that anthropological definitions provide. But women are seeking an understanding of spirituality that is distinctive to the context of women and that takes seriously women's historical struggle for liberation. Reflecting on the possibilities for women in the church, one woman said, "I think it's all hopeless. We must dump Christianity and start over—or go back to the Goddess." A definition of spirituality based on such a community's history and experience might include the necessity of relating not to God or to the Holy Spirit, but to Goddess or to WisdomSophia.
These three approaches—the anthropological, theological, and historical-contextual—are not necessarily incompatible. Although each characterizes an emphasis in approaching spirituality, elements from all three may be present in each. What this stepping-stone allows us to do is to ask whether we have attended adequately to all three dimensions: to the importance of that which is ultimately and distinctively human, to the role of theology or the divine, and to the particular historical and contextual situation in which our spirituality must find expression. For example, we would argue that post-Holocaust Christian and Jewish spiritualities must attend to the significance of this event as an expression of extreme evil in the world. If our expressions of spirituality cannot confront such evil and denounce it, then they are not adequate expressions of spirituality. We will return to this question in chapter 4 when we look at charges of spiritual neglect.
Devotional Literature and Spiritual Growth
A great deal of the current literature on spirituality is geared toward the edification of the believer or practitioner. Books on "enhancing your spiritual growth" abound. Some of these focus on the spiritual growth of the individual within the framework of a religious tradition. Others distinguish spirituality from religion, often debunking religion as they support nonreligious approaches to spirituality. Our third stepping-stone consists in evaluating the approach taken by such texts.
Within religious traditions, books on spirituality often focus on personal spiritual growth. They advocate practices such as prayer and devotional reading. In both Protestant and Catholic circles, devotional magazines encourage readers to develop and deepen their relationship with God (e.g., Alive Now, Upper Room, Praying, Spiritual Life, Weavings). Articles often detail stories of faith, offer poems dealing with important life transitions understood from within a faith paradigm, and provide introductions to spiritual practices— for example, the role of silence in prayer or an explanation of the labyrinth as a spiritual exercise. Most of these books are concerned with prayer and contemplative practice. Few, for example, urge political involvement as a mode of spirituality, though historically such involvement has been quite important in Christian spirituality. (Think, for example, of the nonviolent disciplines engaged in by African American Christians during the Civil Rights struggle.)
In Taste and See: A Personal Guide to the Spiritual Life, William Paulsell describes the nature of religion in terms of an experiential relationship with God: "Religion is our personal relationship with God. That is the essence of it." Paulsell contends that our social action and service, and even our church life and morality, "are religious only if they are grounded in our experience with God." His introduction to the spiritual life is useful, and shares with many other resources a focus on developing an experiential relationship with God. The primary focus is helping the individual become more faithful by establishing, nurturing, and maintaining a personal relationship with the divine. Yet this emphasis on personal relationship would not stand the test of some definitions of spirituality, and it may reflect more the modern American setting than it does a historical appreciation of Christian faith.
Excerpted from Ethics and Spiritual Care by Karen Lebacqz, Joseph D. Driskill. Copyright © 2000 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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