Is There an Experience of Spirit?

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I think that by “spirituality” we usually mean something metaphysical — beyond the three dimensions of space and one of time. People have had weird experiences that don’t seem to fit this four dimensional reality.

In the West we are said to live in a secular world. There are ways in which this is obviously true. For example, church attendance is steeply declining in many English speaking countries and in Europe.

The US is a demonstration that the secular world is not identical with the West. The US is a decidedly religious society. It is most obviously Christian, but also, from the second half of the 20th century, it has welcomed other faiths.

Much depends on what we mean by ‘religion’ or ‘faith’ or ‘spirituality’ and the cluster of words we use to discuss these things. In Australia (where I live), there is a famously atheist radio host (Phillip Adams) who asserts that an atheist spirituality is possible.

I think that by “spirituality” we usually mean something metaphysical — beyond the three dimensions of space and one of time. People have had weird experiences that don’t seem to fit this four dimensional reality. I don’t have in mind scientific experiences but much more mundane things: someone knowing that their beloved is on their way home minutes before they could possibly hear them, or a friend of mine answering the phone with the caller’s name before they had spoken (they could do this before the advent of caller ID). These sorts of things don’t rate as scientifically conclusive, but they do tend to be personally convincing.

I don’t wish to denigrate these experiences or the conclusions we draw from them (I don’t see why a laboratory is a privileged place of experience), but I do want to point out why some people don’t find this a convincing argument for a metaphysical dimension to life. In Christian theology this argument is known as ‘the god of the gaps’. That is, a gap in our knowledge is filled by God. Once it was thought that God made the weather, but now we have such extensive knowledge of wind flow and so on that we can predict the weather a few days ahead with reasonable accuracy. The gap in our knowledge has been filled, and so this god shrinks in the role they play in the world.

For the examples I used above, it is possible in principle that we will find another form of waves or particles that mean ‘remote sensing’ is an entirely physical phenomenon. It may turn out that these experiences are not metaphysical but simply physical phenomena we don’t understand yet. The metaphysical/god gap will no longer exist.

This is where the believers usually accuse the atheists of having a faith. The atheists believe that we will find a physical explanation for currently unexplained phenomena. The believers assert that this too is a kind of faith. Even if this is true, it doesn’t meet the problem of the god of the gaps.

Believers who wish to use the ‘god of the gaps’ argument have a problem with expanding knowledge. They seem to be against expanding knowledge of the world because this will decrease the realm of god. The Christian critique of the ‘god of the gaps’ approach is that this is a very strange kind of god. The god of the gaps is hostile to knowledge and truth; clearly this is not an all-knowing god. This god wants people kept ignorant. This god looks very much like a controlling church hierarchy writ large.

(Whether expanding knowledge of the world is always positive is perhaps questionable. We can no longer not know how to make a nuclear bomb.)

The only alternative to the ‘god of the gaps’ (where god is used as a synonym for what we don’t know) is to bring god into what we do know. We need to be able to talk about a god that we experience. We need to be able to have a sense of spirituality.

There have been various attempts to describe the experience of spirituality. In the West there are now attempts to study the experience of spirituality not only in neuroscience but also in departments of Religious Studies, and some Psychology Departments, amongst other places. Beyond the academic approach there are the vast riches of the various religious traditions. The descriptions of spiritual experience in these traditions are vast. Even in one tradition (the one I know best is Christianity), spiritual experience is described in a great variety of ways.

This variety can lead to the question of whether we mean one thing when we talk about ‘spirituality’. Perhaps the word fools us into thinking that we are talking about one thing when we really mean lots of different things (in the Christian tradition the spirituality of St Ignatius is quite different to that of Hildegard of Bingen, for instance). In response to this variety there are also attempts to define the one meaning of ‘spirituality’; attempts in the modern West have included things like an ‘oceanic feeling’.

All this brings me to, by what you may think an unnecessarily circuitous route, my own experience. The experiences I call ‘spiritual’ are moments of an elated calmness; at these times I feel a sense of wholeness, at once centred and grounded, and a feeling of lightness.

I would like to hear from you about ‘spirituality’. Do you have experiences you are happy to call ‘spiritual’? If so, how would you describe these experiences? And do you think they have to do with something/someone outside your self? I’d like to hear from you too if you think spirituality is simply delusion. Have you had any strange experiences that you feel you don’t understand at the moment but think will one day be explained? I look forward to hearing your thoughts and experiences in the comments to this post.

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