2. Defining terms Parts 1 and 2

Defining terms Parts 1 and 2

Conducting the Lesson

Lesson Opening:

In small groups, discussion: ask students to discuss where, in their lives, they find spirituality. What role, if any, does religion play in helping them find spirituality? Do any of them feel they have had a ‘mystical’ experience? Describe it to the small group.

After the discussion, ask each group to come up with a diagram that represents the relationship between Religion, Spirituality and Mysticism – if they are related at all. Ask one member of each group to look after the diagram – it will be revisited before the next session.

Feedback – ask for examples from each group of one spiritual or mystical experience WITHIN the framework of religion and one OUTSIDE. List the experiences in shorthand on the whiteboard in their two groups for later discussion.

Ask students from traditions outside Christianity what their term for ‘religion’ is and what the word means to them. Did they have particular difficulty finding examples and doing the exercises or was it equally difficult for those from a Christian background.

Discuss why, in either case.

Before watching video, provide glossary – Dogma/ dogmatic; Gnostic; Sufism; Karl Rahner; Huston Smith; Dharma, Artha, Kama, Moksha

Participants should be warned that these terms will be used in the discussion and they should use the glossary as required.

Watch the video.

Return to Prof Philip Sheldrake’s questions (highlighted).

Look at the examples on the board and see if they represent an identifiable world-view. Are the experiences in the Religion column easier to define/ explain than those outside religion? Is there a unifying factor in either column?

Readings: (possibly set for follow-up or studied in class if time permit).

Karl Rahner

Huston Smith

Defining Terms part 1

Prof Anantanand Rambachan:

What are some of the challenges of the conversation we are having? The first is that we are given a certain terminology, which I am happy for  – ‘Spirituality’ and ‘Mysticism’ – and this terminology, clearly, has a history in particular traditions, and particularly in the Christian tradition, perhaps less so in the Judaic tradition. So what we are doing is trying to unpack the meaning of ‘Spirituality’, ‘Religion’ and ‘Mysticism’, drawing on the rich history of the appropriation of these terms in the Christian tradition. But even within that tradition, you have to be very specific,  because there are so many ambiguities in the use of the terms. And that is a conversation, obviously, where you have a particular direction in those traditions where there is a history of the employment of those terms.

Prof Philip Sheldrake:

First of all, in speaking from my own Western culture, not least in Northern Europe, ‘Spirituality’ is increasingly contrasted with ‘Religion’: ‘spirituality’ good, ‘religion’ bad; ‘spirituality’ enlivening, ‘religion’ deadening;  ‘spirituality’ freeing, ‘religion’ authoritarian, systems of dogmatics, buildings, money, clergy, attempts to be over-precise with dogmatic definitions – this is a very Christian problem – so, spirituality in some respects has come in many people’s minds to replace religion in a kind of Darwinian, evolutionary principle – that it is the ‘survival of the fittest’ and clearly Spirituality is more fit than Religion.

That is rather crude but that is one of the cultural positions I find myself in.

‘Mysticism’ – the word ‘mysticism’ to many people these days certainly in Western cultures, and particularly in Northern Europe, is very attractive but it stands merely for the esoteric or mysteries available to special initiates, so it is a very exclusive model.

There is also a very strong emphasis in ‘mysticism’ on experience. Now, those who are cynical about it, (experiential phenomena), those who are cynical say ‘Aah, strange things happening to weird people’.

In other words, it is very undemocratic view of mysticism. For mysticism, you need to have a teacher you need to be initiated into a special group, and then in a kind of Gnostic model of ‘specialness’, you can step aside from the common herd and be involved in these esoteric mysteries.

That is a rather crude, reductionist understanding of ‘mysticism’

Now it seems to me in that kind of context, that the task of religions is to some extent to critique the dilution of the terms ‘spirituality’ and ‘mysticism’, as is happening in the ways I have described and probably in other ways too.

To critique, not in the sense ‘to completely demolish them’, but to simply say, ‘Yes, but..’ or ‘Yes, and..’

Sometimes perhaps to say , ‘Yes, I understand but I think maybe not’.

I think the emphasis, for example, on simply self- enhancement and self- improvement is actually dangerous because it is individualistic and it simply turns spirituality into another consumer product and consumer choice.

So the task of religion, to critique, but by critiquing to expand – to re-enrich the concepts of ‘spirituality’ and ‘mysticism’ from our long traditions.

A couple of points I want to make: I think both words, although many people these days don’t perhaps acknowledge this, actually do embody world views. They are not simply about practices. We cannot have a practice without some kind of prior assumption as to what the practice is about: What model of human enhancement or human perfection or human wholeness does this practice point to? It doesn’t have to be a theological view. But there is in some sense a world view involved. It may be largely implicit.

So what I want to say is that whatever some people want to pretend, I don’t think any ‘spirituality’ is totally devoid of belief. There is some belief involved.

And putting our beliefs on the table, whether we are so-called secular people or religious people, seems a very important starting-point.

Secondly, I think ‘Spirituality’ implies some kind of vision of the human spirit and also what will assist the human spirit to reach its fullness. Whether that is through lifestyles as a whole, what I would call ‘moral commitments’ or explicitly through practices.

Thirdly, I think spirituality, in all its various forms, relates in some sense to the ‘Holy’, the word ‘holy’ coming from the Greek ‘holos’, which implies ‘that which is whole’, that which reaches out to what is whole, rather than to fragments or parts of reality. So ‘Spirituality’ relates to the holy. It is also about the quest for the Divine, ‘God’ in many religious traditions; but in broad terms it is about not one element in human life but that which in some sense integrates all of it together.

Another point: ‘Spirituality’, it seems to me, embodies some kind of quest for the sacred. For many of us that is named as ‘God’. For others it may be named as the depths of human existence, somewhat undefined. But it seems to me, in the end, that spirituality is healthy if it somehow affirms not merely the reality of the transcendent, however we want to name that, but also that human life and the world in themselves are sacred.

And finally, I think that spirituality evokes a sense of a life that is self-reflective – and that can be both individually but also collectively as a community – but it is a reflective life rather than an unexamined, purely episodic life. Life is not merely ‘one damn thing after another’, [Elbert Hubbard, (1856 – 1915)], but actually has some kind of sense of trajectory or pattern. How do we name that trajectory or pattern and what kind of understanding of development and growth is embodied in that?

What do we think, not only the role but the particular value of ‘traditions’ is? What do traditions offer, what does the idea of ‘tradition’ offer, that simply an ‘untraditioned’ approach to spirituality and mysticism does not? What can we offer as faiths, as faith communities, as faith individuals to the contemporary, really morally-based quest for the spiritual life?

Sheikh Muzzafar Iqbal:

If we try to find if there is a common denominator that we all have, instead of naming it as ‘Religion’, ‘Spirituality’ and ‘Mysticism’, first we try to have that common denominator as human beings living on this earth. Is there anything that we all share? Let’s call it ‘R’. Is there anything that we can all identify with which in Christianity they call ‘Mysticism’ and in Islam we call ‘Suf’? Is there another letter we can use by which we understand a common denominator which we all share?

Prof Anantanand Rambachan:

For us, as for Muzzafar, as it is for me, these are terms that are not native to the Hindu tradition. I have no history of the use of the terms ‘Mysticism’ and ‘Spirituality’ in the Hindu tradition. There are no easy Sanskrit equivalents, and Muzzafar is also saying in Arabic, so what can I do and what do I hope to do in this conversation as it progresses? If I am to participate meaningfully, I then have to listen. Since all of these terms are loaded historically, I have now to gain an entry-point in this conversation by using the history of the use of the terms in those traditions that are familiar with those terms and then seeing where, as a Hindu, I come into this conversation.

Prof Philip Sheldrake:

For me, ‘spirituality’ is a word we use as the core of Christian practice. In other words, spirituality isn’t an option within Christianity but is the way in which I seek to live out my following of Christ, my discipleship, if you want to use a very Christian word, in the world in which I find myself. That practice of trying to live that life out, in a principled, it is a value-laden way, but also a way that is necessarily fed by the worship-life of the community, but also my own spiritual practice, is what I understand by ‘spirituality’. Within that, I think some people are led through their spiritual practice, and not simply through spiritual practices in isolation, but through their attempt to practice at depth their religious commitment, are led through that experience, and through their encounter with the Divine, to an immediacy of presence that I would call ‘mystical’. That isn’t simply about a transformation of consciousness; it isn’t just about an experience of blinding light or an oceanic feeling of connectedness towards things that some people describe as a mystical experience but also as an aspect of a transformed life. For me, mysticism isn’t just about experiences but is actually about a serious conversion of a person. The mystical is, it seems to me, the intensification of spirituality or my attempt to lead a spiritual life within my religious tradition that takes place in the encounter with the Divine and essentially is a result of that encounter. In other words it is  ‘gift’. It is not simply because I set out to be a mystic. People don’t practice ‘Mysticism’, they practice their religion and within that they practice some kind of attempt at a spiritual life within that religion. For some of us, maybe if you believe Karl Rahner all of us, potentially, through that encounter with the Divine, however we name it, may be led into a level of not only of transformed consciousness but of transformed presence in the world, compassionate, intensely committed to overcoming violence and social injustice, all of these things, a growing selflessness – that seems to me to be a true marker of a mystical intensification.

Metropolitan Nikitas Lulius:

What we are talking about are the Energies of God – at least from an Orthodox concern – and how these energies of God – we can understand those, and partake and share in those. Not the essence.

Prof Philip Sheldrake:

We are energized.

Metropolitan Nikitas Lulius:

Exactly – but what we do is we take those on through this transformation and it is a continuous sort of thing going on.

Prof Philip Sheldrake:

But in the end it is a transformed life, filled with something that is above and beyond.

Metropolitan Nikitas Lulius:

But can it be? My thing is also the idea of it being ‘finite’. It is transformed but it is continuous.

Prof Philip Sheldrake:

It is ..by ‘finite’ .. we are finite. Every single moment is finite, which is one of the things I want to say about those who put a lot of emphasis on mystical experiences, as if ‘this is it!’ An experience evaporates in and of itself – that itself is finite. It is merely useful if it is a pointer to you of something that is enduring – that is the presence and the power of God.

Metropolitan Nikitas Lulius:

Glory to Glory!

Dr Ruben Habito:

What I had in mind and what I had as a question/comment not just for Philip now but for the rest of us is a take-off from what you quoted Karl Rahner as saying, that to be mystical is the vocation of every Christian. And if I go back to my own early days as a Freshman at College, I happened to be assigned a chapter on Huston Smith’s ‘The Religions of Man’, at that time, and re-titled ‘The World’s Religions’. The chapter on the Hindu tradition was a very, very illuminating one for me because the basic message that I got from there is: to be human, given the four wants of the human being – pleasure, power, duty – Dharma, Artha,Kama, Moksha – the fourth one, Moksha, is at the heart of what being human means. So that, if we are only pursuing pleasure, power, duty, which are legitimate pursuits, we are not fully human yet. So in that regard the thought of being mystical is part of our being human. So in that regard, I would like to expand Rahner’s statement and I think that that is something that all of us at this table can agree with. So now from our own various religious traditions, how can we recapture that and let that be a light and a power and energy that can vivify those religions and not be caught in those dead institutions and hierarchical structures that are part of the evil that makes religion part of the problem rather than the solution?

Dr Alon Goshen-Gottstein: We seem to agree that there is a dimension of religion that does not bring about the fullness of the human potential. That dimension finds expression in religious institutions, in rituals that are outwardly absurd, in anything that is self-serving and self-interested and anything that is mindless, mechanic, unintentional, maybe I can put it differently, that doesn’t involve the heart. Then we agree that all our religions somehow have a move from that external toward something that is more internal, from the outward to the heart, possibly from the more communal/ political to the more and individual and spiritual. In other words, we can start by having a negative definition. Even if we don’t agree about what the content is, we all recognize the movement that many of the things that we identify with religion are like the husk, the shell, and not the heart of the fruit. All of us seem to recognize, I haven’t heard anyone here offer any reservation about this fundamental tension, that there is something external, something internal, something hierarchical that we can speak about – what is really important, what is less important. And therefore, the intuitive understanding suggests that we are here to talk about that which is most important.