Soulless and Soulful Spirituality

Recently it has become fashionable to paint religion and spirituality with quite different brushes – religion being represented as dark and oppressive and spirituality as either benign or potentially life-enhancing.  As usual, reality is more complex.  While religion can foster dogmatic rigidity, prejudice, and intolerance, at its best, it can connect us back to the roots of our existence and shared humanity, bring us in touch with the mystery of our being in relation to the transcendent, and offer a uniquely valuable resource for healing our brokenness and aligning us with the transcendent.

How, then, are we to judge spirituality?  After four decades of studying how spirituality relates to human development I have come to conclude that spirituality does not always make people more deeply human and whole. Honesty forces me to conclude that the spiritual path can lead to an escape from a robust commitment to reality, the repression or dissociation of sexuality, disconnection from the emotions, alienation from the body, and increasing distance from one’s unconscious depths. Too easily, spiritual practices lead to increasing identification with those of one’s own religious tribe and an ever-weakening sense of solidarity with all humankind. Too easily, spirituality involves a narcissistic me-and-God relationship that insulates us from, rather than sensitizes us to, the problems of our world. Too easily, it is associated with a focus on beliefs rather than on being. Too easily, it directs us away from life rather than toward a genuinely deeper, fuller, and more vital life. And although these problems are not restricted to religious spiritualities, it seems to me that it is the religious forms of spirituality that are often most vulnerable to these dangers – Christian spirituality being no exception.

Sometimes I encounter writers and speakers who describe us as human beings on a spiritual journey. I think this is true, but I think it is equally true that we are spiritual beings on a human journey. Both journeys are crucial, and each should complement the other. Any religion or spirituality that seeks to make us less than, more than, or other than human is dangerous. Humanity is not a disease that needs to be cured or a state of deficiency from which we need to escape. The spiritual journey is not intended to make us into angels, cherubim, seraphim, gods, or some other form of spiritual beings. It is intended to help us become all that we, as humans, can be.  And our spirituality can and should help us become more deeply human and more fully alive.

St. Irenaeus, the second century Bishop of Lyons, understood this well.  His famous declaration – Gloria Dei vivens homo – proclaimed that the glory of God is men and women who are fully alive, fully human.  This was a high point in the Christian understanding of the importance of being human, a point so removed from the center of contemporary Christianity that it might almost sound heretical.  Could it possibly be true that being human is a good thing, neither a sign of failure or weakness nor a lack of spirituality?   Is it even conceivable that wholeness, not simply holiness, honours God?  Is it possible that there could be an alternative to living carefully so as to avoid sin while pursuing the elusive goal of perfection?  And could that alternative really be as simple as being and becoming deeply human and fully alive?  It does sound too good to be true!  It might even make one wonder how Irenaeus was ever declared a saint after making these assertions so central to his teaching.

Spiritual paths and practices that distance us from what it means to be a human are not good for humans. We might, therefore, describe them as soulless.  In contrast, soulful spirituality supports the human developmental journey.  Quite simply, it is good for human well-being.

To describe a person’s spirituality as soulful is not to identify it with one particular spiritual path.  Soulful spirituality is not a path but a way of walking the human path.  It is a way of living that orients the individual toward life as it is encountered in their body and in the flow of their lived experience.  It is a way of living out of the depths of our being that orients us to the potential heights of our becoming.  Soulful spirituality channels our vitality in a way that integrates and orients us toward the transcendent.  It guides our response to our deepest longings and provides the framework within which our life becomes meaningful.  It can never be reduced to practices, but it shapes our lives and in that sense, must be lived, not simply believed.  It is a way of living that is essential if we are to become fully human.

Christian spirituality can be either soulless or soulful.  The same is true of Buddhist spirituality, New Age spirituality, eco-spirituality, 12 Step or any other spirituality.  Soulful spirituality is living out our spiritual journey in a way that helps us become deeply and authentically human.  It is the spirituality that St. Irenaeus had in mind when he spoke of the priority of humans becoming fully alive and the spirituality that Jesus had in mind when he said that he had come so that we might have abundant life.

Photo by Steve Hammond – Flickr Creative Commons

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