Towards a Definition of Spirituality and Pentecost

What do we mean when we describe a feeling or experience as “spiritual”?

In a You Tube conversation with Pyrrho 314, Matt Segal (Footnotes to Plato, see my blog roll) makes some comments towards a definition of Spirituality. I felt we didn’t quite get to grips with it on that occasion and wanted to explore my thoughts on the subject here. I quote Matt’s comments to me as a starting point and also to be sure I don’t misrepresent him:

“I meant those sorts of sublime “transcendental” (in the Kantian not in the Yoganandian sense) experiences we sometimes have when we consider not just the beauty of the environment around us, but the strange fact of our own awareness of that beauty. So in other words, we are taking in what is all around us, as well as the fact that we as conscious minds are there to take it in. We perceive the objective, and perceive that we are conceiving of it from a subjective perspective. Something recursive like that… This sort of “doubling up” tends to evoke a feeling I’d want to call “spiritual.”

I don’t want to get bogged down in what Matt (and Kant) means by “transcendental experience”, either of them could run rings round me philosophically. The problem with Matt’s, explanation here for me is not the use of the word “transcendental” but the use of the word “sublime”. What makes the experience “sublime”? It can’t just be that “sort of doubling up” because I think I could subjectively reflect in the way he describes when considering something ugly or traumatic like a road accident or the recent shooting in Santa Barbara for example. I also note that these sublime experiences are a response to “the beauty of the environment around us” but this again begs the question; what makes it beautiful? I am left feeling that the spiritual here is being reduced to an intellectual function of some sort; “doubling up” sounds terribly like the “re-entrant” neural processes or neural “synchronies” that neuroscience correlates with meaningful conscious experiences. If for a moment I accept that Matt’s description of this reflective observation is as he says it is, and perhaps my linking it to Neuroscience is unfair, and that the environment is “beautiful” to this observer then I still want to say that what makes the experience of reflection spiritual/sublime is a whole series of beliefs and values that facilitate their particular interpretation of the experience.

In the background as I write there is playing on the radio Mozart’s piano sonata in G. It is in my opinion beautiful and very distracting but if I pause and reflect on it I might end up thinking (it would be in character with my musical taste) that it is not as beautiful as a Beethoven piano sonata; it’s a little too frilly and baroque to really hit a “sublime” moment for me. And while I would be happy to listen to it and enjoy it for its great artistic worth, I doubt I would have a “spiritual experience” as a result and if I did, then it would take some explaining with reference to something else. For example, I might have made love to someone special while it was playing when I was a student, or it was my mother’s favourite piece. “Something else” would have to be included to explain it being spiritual. This might also be the case if it was in fact Beethoven and not Mozart. It really is unbelievable now they are playing Beethoven: Pathetique Sonata (BBC Radio 3 Sunday 25th. May, 1330 hrs. Check it out). I felt a kind of welling-up inside, very emotional, it could have been a bit tearful if I had let it take over me and as I stopped to listen the music flooded my whole being with pleasure. Definitely I think this was a sublime moment but was it spiritual? Was the reflection Matt talks about missing? Well it may have been but if it was then it wasn’t necessary to the sublimity and I don’t think it would have made it “spiritual” if I had indulged it either.

In two weeks time western Christianity celebrates Pentecost, the anniversary of Jesus’ sending the Holy Spirit to the Disciples and it seems to me that this is a description of a “spiritual experience ” par excellence. I would like to reflect on this story for a moment. The account of this event is not in the Gospels. It is in Acts 2 v 1-11, but written, most scholars agree, by Luke, the Evangelist. The name “Pentecost” was that of a Jewish festival which took place at this time (the word is Greek for fiftieth) and when I was at school we never referred to it by this name; it was always “Whitsun” or “Whit Sunday”. (I have no idea what the origins of that name are!)

The first condition that one has to be aware of when reading this story is that the disciples, according to the Gospels, had been promised this coming of the Spirit by Jesus himself, so to quote Matt’s friend Pyrrho, they were “primed” for the event. They may have consciously forgotten of course, who knows, but they had a framework in which to place the strange events, and to make reference to Pyrrho again, the event held “meaning” for them as a consequence. Pyrrho suggests that maybe “meaning”, or something being “meaningful”, is perhaps a condition (necessary but not sufficient perhaps) for it being spiritual and I like that idea. Then, the story goes, something “sublime” and “beautiful” happened; I would like to say “awesome” as perhaps including the meaning of these two words and adding a suggestion of fear:

“…suddenly they heard what sounded like a powerful wind from heaven, the noise of which filled the entire house…and something appeared to them that seemed like tongues of fire; these separated and came to rest on the head of each of them. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak foreign languages as the Spirit gave them the gift of speech.” (Jerusalem Bible, 1966)

I love the imagery in this story, the Spirit being the wind; the modern Greek word for wind is “anima” similar to the Latin word for “soul” and nearly all the creation myths have the “wind” as the primal fertilising force in the waters of the Earth; then the fire as a symbol of transformation. Transformation or some kind of changed state seems essential to this experience in the story. They were all together in one room the story says and we can easily imagine that in the light of the loss of their leader and dangerous political events they were perhaps afraid. But one result of the experience was to go out into the dangerous city and preach in tongues. A feeling we tend to describe now as being “inspired”. And most of us at some time or another have had feelings of creativity which owe a little to this feeling of something coming from nowhere, something we didn’t think we possessed to help us in the act of creation.

I would like to suggest then that these two conditions found in the story are part of what we might term “spiritual” experience: it must seem to have meaning and it must produce some kind of change, mental or physical or more commonly both. In this respect the Beethoven piano music came very close. It had special meaning for me in the sense that I had listened carefully to it in the past and could understand and appreciate it to some extent; in short I immediately recognized it for what it was. And as I explained there was a physiological change in me of a deeply emotional kind; I felt tears well-up etc.

Though of course this story is “religious” I don’t think the conditions of spiritual experience it illustrates and that I have outlined so far need apply only to a “religious” experience. The factor that makes this story religious, is I think not simply the fact that I have taken it from the scripture of one of the great religious traditions but it is rather the fact that it involves the exercise of “faith”, we usually say “religious faith”, and this involves belief in some kind of paradigm or framework that gives the world and/or ones life meaning. So we are back to Pyrrhos’ “meaning” condition but with a twist of the lemon rind of belief in the cocktail.

I use this seemingly flippant metaphor of “lemon rind” for good reason. It seems not very necessary and can be kind of bitter and yet I think it is the essential finish to the ingredients. It is bitter because we don’t like to have to admit to, what is commonly thought of as, the non-scientific and religious ingredient in our modern spirituality. It doesn’t go down well in mixed audiences. And yet I would claim (like Matt and many others I suspect) that most of our human reflective or even thoughtful experiences include it in some respect. I remember my undergraduate philosophy reading including a book by Israel Scheffler, “Conditions of Knowledge” (1965), he was a professor at Harvard, in which he claimed that to know “x” involved three conditions:

I have evidence for x

I believe x

And x (i.e. x is true)

As undergraduates we all disagreed with the truth condition (we had all read Popper) but no one contested the belief condition!



2 thoughts on “Towards a Definition of Spirituality and Pentecost

  1. Hi Tony,

    Perhaps my account of “transcendental” experiences–where we become conscious not only of our environment, but of our being conscious of being in such an environment–is not properly “spiritual” in the fullest weight of that term. It is a rather abstract and maybe too intellectual take on things. Let me simplify by reiterating the point I made at the very end of my discussion with Pyrrho: spirituality, or the “spiritual feeling,” arises not so much as a result of our experiencing this or that particular thing or event–not because we experience ‘what’ there is–but rather because of our coming to experience the fact ‘that’ there is anything at all. This shift of our attention from the particular qualities of experience to the fact of experience as such seems to me to be quite spiritual. Now I am admittedly trying to define spirituality in such a way that any hint of religiosity has been boiled off. I’m not doing this because I think religion is nonsense. I think there is something profoundly important about the many other forms that spirituality takes within a religious context. I’m only trying to find a more phenomenologically rarified definition of spirituality in order to make it clear to atheists and nonreligious types that they, too, might be spiritual or have access to spirit. Spirituality is intrinsic to human consciousness, in other words. We needn’t link it with any particular religious tradition or experience. But I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone who is open to a more full-blooded religiosity from defining spirituality in their own way (within limits, of course: there are certain forms of religious spirituality that involve “sacred violence” that I’d want to argue against).


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