I am fascinated by the existence and need for religion having been cajoled by a mother who found deep support and understanding through it to a father whose logical wiring could never accept its broad premise. It conjures a variety of perspectives which for some never the twain shall meet. Take religious days of worship. For many it is a time to turn brain off and gorge; no reverence in sight. For others, these days convey a deeper sentiment but emerge from divergent pathways. For some it manifests from a belief in God so religious traditions are maintained for veneration. For others our enjoyment of these occasions materialise from the looping path of spirituality and are welcomed because we are encouraged to think about something more than ourselves.
I have surprised myself in recent years as my interest in ‘spirituality’ has increased. Not religion. Spirituality. The tricky thing is, I’m at a loss to describe what this actually means and what has brought it on. But here goes. I’m jealous of people who feel comfortable in their skin, one way or another. Who have a strong belief in how and why the world is as it is and our part to play in it. In all candour, I feel a small emptiness because I’m perturbed. I am a logical person but even I find this ‘sensible’ mindset inflexible and limiting. The questions I have about values and how to live are not answered by rationality or data and in truth cannot be answered in a substantiated way full stop.
I believe my doubts have emerged from a dissatisfaction with the basis on which societies have been constructed to operate. In my idealistic moments I like to imagine, the composition of social and legal constraints and supports for the individual today are based on certain unchanging values and moral principles. These emerge from beliefs of what is right and what is good for the individual and society (tolerate me as I know these can be mutually exclusive). But when I look around this day and look over my shoulder at the past, I can see it isn’t always the case. On the one hand how can it be? Different values are at play even within a single family and yet on the other hand we play fast and furious with how we evolve such constraints and supports, based on the loudest most aggressive voices. How can our legal and social anatomy provide complete worthiness to how individuals should live and be if the foundations are giddy and lack moral compass?
Perhaps I’m being unrealistic. Actually I know I am. There is no answer to my quandary. I equally find those who are certain in un-evidenced belief difficult to accept as those who completely reject the abstract. But despite this, it brings me on to suggesting how we conduct ourselves is derived from something more enduring; a something that encompasses not having all the answers; a something that suggests we should be open to and offer question; proffer vulnerability and contradiction and be ready to make decisions in our lives or by living that are not based purely on the norms around us but perhaps on what innately feels it might fit better with the wider needs of humanity. And that moral compass.
Nick Cave put it brilliantly in his latest book Faith, Hope and Carnage :
‘I think of late I’ve grown increasingly impatient with my own scepticism; it feels obtuse and counter-productive, something that’s simply standing in the way of a better-lived life. I feel it would be good for me to get beyond it. I think I would be happier if I stopped window-shopping and just stepped through the door’.
As I write this, I’m well aware the younger me would be scoffing. This is so fluffy….and meaningless…..possibly. But at some point, I believe most of us strive to find meaning.
I realise from what I’ve written, you might be inter-changing religion for spirituality and although I think they can be the same, they can also not be. Spirituality is highly subjective and personal. Your version of it will maunder from mine and what you derive from it will also differ. I read a thought provoking article in The Conversation (https://theconversation.com/what-does-it-mean-to-be-spiritual-87236) which seemed to suggest ‘when people speak of spirituality they are generally invoking some framework of meaning that enables them to make sense of that which, for them, science fails to address’. For some spirituality is related to our soul and the values we hold dear, for others to the beliefs we grasp tight, to some an awe of the universe to those who put their faith in a divine power through religion and God to some who place the super natural supreme. When poet and philosopher Bayo Akomolafe was asked what spirituality was for him, he replied, ‘a good sentence’. I quite like that.
How does spirituality change us? Curiously science might have an answer. On BBC Future, Andrew Newberg a neuroscientist studied the brain in a religious experience. What he found is meditation on God and religion for long enough alters brain connections. I think this is broadly true of thinking but essentially new dendrites are formed, new neural connections are made and lost and the brain becomes sensitive to disparate types of experience. Scans of people engaged in prayer or meditation show the parietal lobe responsible for creating a sense of self and establishing our relationship with the rest of the world can deactivate. He noticed over time, as this part of the brain started to quiet the sense of self began to blur and the boundary an individual held against the rest of the world seemed to dissipate.
I’ve pulled out some quotes from the BBC Reith lecturer 2022 Rowan Williams (The former Archbishop of Canterbury) on Freedom of Worship. I thought he offered beautiful explanations for how we consider religious belief which could be stretched across more broadly to spirituality.
‘Try thinking of worship in this sort of context. Not just as an occasional public ceremony but as the appropriate real world response to and expression of commitment to a certain kind of supposed truth, a truth which determines the options we have for relating to one another as persons in society’.
‘Manifesting belief it seems is not just about being able to say what you think in abstract terms, it’s not even about your sacred rituals being more or less tolerated; it’s about the freedom to conduct yourself in a certain way, understanding your pattern of life as communicating something more than just your individual wants or feelings because it’s answerable to something more than just your own judgment or just the prevailing social consensus’.
‘What’s at stake in all this is the freedom to believe that certain human actions and policies derive their goodness or rightness not from consensus or even legality but from something more lasting, something about the way things are, and the freedom to organise your actions; public and private on that basis. It’s the freedom to see your human choices and habits as part of an attempt to discover some kind of fit with a reality that is quite outside human control. It’s the ethics as tied up with a process of discovering what is lastingly appropriate for the kind of beings that human beings are in the kind of world that this world is.
I’m sure I’ve been confusing. In gently trying to make sense of this journey; of these feelings and thoughts I don’t have answers. But I think that’s ok and hopefully you do too….