Spirituality: A Detective Story

David M. Pittle, Ph.D., M.Div.

I've been on the trail of this culprit for a very long time. "Why culprit", you ask. Because it disturbs my life and keeps shaking up what I think I know for sure. It leaves me sure that I don't have the answer and the more I do my "detectiving", the less sure I am of my answers. On the other hand, it does leave me more certain of the bankruptcy of my old answers. A friend of mine has a bumper sticker on her car, "Don't believe everything you think!" Amen!

Born to an ultra-orthodox Jewish mother, I early realized that her answers, while satisfying to her, were not adequate for my life. So I became a convert to Christianity. Like most converts, religious or otherwise, I accepted the most orthodox dogmas. (Have you ever listened to an argument among theoretical physicists? Now there is a clash of orthodox dogmas.)

But the path led from there to more progressive forms of Christianity, including non-doctrinal ones. And on and on. Now, I'm out of the box. A “Heterodox, Non-theistic, Zen follower of the Way of Jesus.” I would love to put that on a bumper-sticker, but I don't have a car wide enough. And, of course, as soon as it becomes a bumper-sticker it also becomes a new doctrine.

Among my most cherished learnings is that “Every statement of dogma or orthodoxy is always wrong—including this statement.”

So I continue my detective work. I have gotten some clues from a large range of sources: The writings of people like Br. David Stendl-Rast, Thich Nhat Hanh, Marcus Borg, Meister Eckhart, Alfred Korzybski and even Albert Ellis. I know that spirituality is not limited to people who believe in a super-natural god. I've known some very spiritual folk who are not theists–including myself.

As an aside: I think that most people fit into a small number of categories in regard to the word "god".

  • There are theists. People who believe in a supernatural god who (or which) is beyond nature and controls nature–or at least created it.
  • There are agnostics. People who haven't seen enough evidence to be in the theist camp, but also not enough to discard such a belief.
  • Another group are non-theists. These are people, like myself, who don't believe in a supernatural god, but for whom that word is a metaphor which points to truth.
  • Fourth are the atheists. They, like the non-theists, don't believe in a supernatural god and they choose to eliminate the word god from their vocabulary.
  • Another group are the anti-theists. They are not simply atheists, but "fundamentalist" doctrinaire atheists. They are reactive and militant and oppositional. I think that a Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris or Christopher Hitchens are examples. They react to what the conservative religious theists teach, but can't acknowledge other alternatives and are absolutely sure that their own dogmas are true.

I know that spirituality is not religion. Not all religion is doctrinal, but most is. I think that spirituality has something to do with asking several questions (and the quest to find satisfactory answers) like, "Who am I?", "Why am I here?", "Where is here?", and "Who are all these other creatures here with me?" The quest is not entirely cognitive. Spiritual answers are not all thought out, they are partially felt out and they are articulated in metaphor.

Even if one does not credit a supernatural being, in most lives there are certain moments, when one stands in awe, reverence or gratitude.

Here's a quick summary of the clues I have; I'm still working on. I would be delighted if other detectives–less defective than I–have found more and can share in the comments.

The first clue:

On any given day, the patient population at our local hospital will be between 90 and 100 people. Of those, three to five will be under forty years of age. When a patient is admitted they are asked two questions: What is your religious preference? Would you like a visit from the chaplain while you are here? The answers to those two questions are clues. Of the more or less 95, about 55 will answer the first question with “None.” Six or seven will answer the second question with “Yes.” Of those who do not answer “None,” twenty will say “Roman Catholic” and this will include five of the Yes answers. Three or four will say “Judaism,” and another three or four will have answers of Islam, Hindu, Sikh,  Buddhism or some other non-Christian religion. Most days there are one or two who state their religious preference as “Atheist.”  Finally, twelve to fifteen will have answered the first question with some variety of Protestant denomination or simply “Christian.”

I used to spend one or two days a week as a volunteer Chaplain at that local hospital. Chaplain is a word that originates from Christian history, but today there are Jewish and Buddhist volunteer chaplains at our facility and we would be open to many other forms of spirituality. A chaplain provides pastoral (spiritual) and emotional support for “guests” in the hospital without limiting to the chaplain’s own religious preference.

If a patient has stated a religious preference, one of my first questions when I enter a patient’s room is “It says on my list that you are a [Faith community name], is that correct?” (That’s not really a throw-away line as occasionally the admitting clerks will misunderstand—especially when a patient is admitted through the Emergency Department and may herself be in too much pain and distress to be clear.) Even among those who have stated a preference, the answer most often is “Oh. I was brought up as a XXX, but I don’t believe that anymore.” If there is no stated faith community, I am there as a spiritual and emotional support–though my initial question will be different.

As a small child during World War II, and afterward as a teenager, I frequently heard that “There are no atheists in foxholes.” The hospital patients are emotionally “in foxholes,” many of them fearing their futures—or their end, and I assure you that there are atheists in foxholes.

I am certainly not saying that these people don’t have spiritual and emotional needs. They do, and we do everything we can to support them, regardless of their religious affiliation. In fact, we speak of ourselves as “spiritual and emotional support providers,” whenever we feel that a patient will be put off by the word “chaplain.”

Clue number two:

For more than fifty years, my heart has resonated to the line in Jeremiah 1:5, “Before I formed you in your mother’s womb, I knew you.” (My resonating heart is not cognitive, but “meta-cognitive.”) I don't have to "believe" in a literal bible to find it a great source of spiritual metaphor. (And some not so great stuff too.) I have a sense of calling to love people, not just individuals, but also the whole human community and to further social justice in the political arena. Politics is from the Greek word “politika” and it means the way the people govern themselves. Though some, but not all, of our politicians have besmirched the word, politics is truly a high calling and even in this age of cynicism about politics, we can look to some of our politicians with admiration.

The biblical passage, Genesis 1.1 and following, is often translated as “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and the earth was without form and void.” But the original Hebrew can also be translated that at the beginning the earth (The whole universe except the heavens) was in chaos, without form and void). God began the work of bringing order and life to this chaos, eventually creating humanity as a partner in this process.

Clue number three:

Cosmological and particle physics are increasingly discovering the basic structure of material reality. They are, however, also pushing into a level of reality which is beyond “material.” Make no mistake, I am a novice and a layperson at this, but I read popularizations that have been “vetted” by those who know the legitimacy of the books I read and approve them—Not the uninformed pseudo-science ideas of “What the Bleep Do We Know”, but actual, recognized physicists like Brian Greene, Brian Swymme, Michio Kaku, etc.

My professor in seminary, who taught what we used to call Old Testament (And now, more properly call “Hebrew Bible” or “Tanakh.”) was a great scholar, a part of the group of translators which produced the Revised Standard Version of the bible. Dr. Muilenburg was fond of hyperbolically saying that “God speaks Hebrew.” I have the temerity today to disagree. I think God speaks mathematics. Every advance in human knowledge of physical and psychological reality is made with mathematics. Yes, psychology studies human and animal behavior, but the results would be meaningless without statistical methodologies based in mathematics.

Of course, particle physics and cosmological physics are similarly only possible because of mathematics.

Clue number four:

Increasingly what traditionally has been designated religious or spiritual has been discovered to be pre-scientific doctrine and dogma. Beginning before Copernicus and Galileo, the “what and how” of reality is better described by science than by religion. But the “why” is only amenable to a different kind of answer.

This has led some to become militant (fundamentalist?) anti-theists. (See definition above) They rant and rave against religion and spirituality. Of course, there is much against which to rant and rave. Conservative doctrinal and dogmatic religions keep providing more and more ammunition against themselves.

The ranters and ravers are mistaken however, if they believe that they have proven their conceit. When the question is “How does something occur” or “By what process or mechanism can we achieve a particular physical goal” then certainly a questioning enquiry will reveal better answers than any scriptural compendium or any doctrine. On the other hand, when the discussions move to questions of purpose, values, ethics and other “why” subjects, there is a much broader field of inquiry where ancient metaphors sometimes contain deep wisdom.

Clue number five:

The oft-quoted statement of Albert Camus, the 20th century French existentialist philosopher, that "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Why not commit suicide?" is a good starting point from which to consider spirituality. If life begins in pain and discomfort, as it does for every new born child—that’s why the first utterance of a newborn is a cry—and it ends in pain as, without morphine, it surely does for most people, and if along the way, much of most lives is frequently lived in discomfort, pain and illness, then there is a good argument for the absurdity of life.

Of course Camus has a response to this absurdity. Each person must create, discover or choose a reason for existence. The quest for that purpose for existence is a part of the larger spiritual quest.

Camus wrote that statement in his 1942 monograph, The Myth of Sisyphus. In 1942, Camus found his “purpose” in the French Resistance and the fight against the Nazi occupation and evil. Afterward, Camus’ purpose took other forms. It was not a static spirituality.

In his, The Courage to Be, Paul Tillich speaks of committing to a “ground of being”, which I believe is the purpose for existence, the reason for not committing suicide that Albert Camus was stating. It is a spiritual quest. The ground of being may be god, but it may equally be a struggle for human growth and social justice—perhaps the same thing.  Perversely, it may also surely, be the pursuit of personal gain, another kind of god. Furthermore, the Ground of Being, like Camus’ purpose, is not static. It is dynamic and changing in response to the awareness, reality and discernment of the person.

This pursuit, this Ground of Being on which we stand, is not merely a par of spiritual quest. It is at the heart of spirituality.

Clue number six:

Spiritual seems to be the only term to apply for the feelings of awe that many have when faced with the majesty of the Rocky Mountains, the power of the rushing Mississippi or Amazon Rivers, or the wonders of Alaska. It is also the feeling and emotion of reverence at the birth of a baby or at the memory of a loved one.

Spirituality seems also marked by the profound sense of gratitude which so many have when they recognize the many gifts they have received at the hands of the universe. It has nothing to do with recognizing a supernatural being, but the gratitude is for the gifts and in total disregard of the designation of the giver. The gifts are still the same, from wherever they come.

Clue number seven:

You tell me.

Clues Not Prescription

To be sure, these are clues, not descriptions of spirituality; not proofs of God; nor the certainty that leads to hubris. The fact is that even with all these clues, we still don’t know what we mean by the either of the words “Spiritual” or “God”. Many try to “sell” this spiritual practice or that, this book of certainty or that; this scripture over that; this doctrine or dogma or that. What it would better lead to is replacing hubris with humility, and acceptance in love in place of ostracism and separation.

The great Vietnamese Zen monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, has proposed a new word, “Inter-being.” We Inter-are with all life. That is a truer spirituality; perhaps a truer god.