I will start my letter with a bit of a confession: I really do not like the terms “Spirituality” or “Spiritual.” There are a lot of reasons for this, not the least of which were some folks that I knew who would use spirituality as an excuse to do something that they knew they probably should not be doing, in the case of college, smoking pot!
Interestingly, when I went to seminary my image of “Spirituality” was not fixed. Though people did not use spirituality as an excuse to get high, the spirituality talk was something that focused very inwardly, and was dangerously judgmental. It was like a language of those who were in and got something out of certain spiritual practices and if you did not get anything from it, well, you must not have been blessed.
Over the years I have heard terms like “I am spiritual, but not religious.” When I ask people what that means, the response is typically unclear, not in a searching way but as if they did not even understand what it meant. This frustrates me to no end and furthers my dislike for those words.
The problem is that words have power and religious words through history have exhorted that power over many people in very difficult and dangerous ways. When we think about spirituality, this becomes even more dangerous because often, because of human nature, we have an intolerance of the fact that different people experience spirituality in vastly different ways. Also, not everything spiritual is necessarily helpful or good (i.e. those in college that got stoned in order to find their spiritual core).
The funny thing about the day of Pentecost is that when the spirit comes down upon the crowd, the spirit does so in both equal yet different ways. In that all could hear but in their own tongue and those who spoke did so, without knowing what they were saying.
The fact of the matter is that all Christians and arguably all people are spiritual beings. We are guided and nurtured through the spirit and have been given that gift. But, and this is a very big thing, that gift is not all about ourselves; in fact, it is only about ourselves to the point that it frees us from worry and helps us connect to God. But that spirit is far more about how we connect with others and continue to grow in our faith.
In other words, spirituality and spiritual cannot be done completely in isolation of a community or based solely on what one individual thinks is good and right. The very simple reason is that we need both the witness of others as well as to share our witness with others.
Being honest, my aversion to the words are the words themselves, not what they are really about. Unfortunately, the baggage that is associated makes me reluctant to be open to different spiritualties or even the pursuit of spirituality. After being made to feel inferior because of my different spirituality in seminary, I did not really actively seek out that side of my faith until I accidentally ended up in a spiritual writing class with Barbara Brown-Taylor.
Some of you may know who she is; I did not when I signed up for the class, which is strange for Presbyterian Pastors because she is one who has written so much about contemporary spirituality and the church and is well-read in most Clergy circles. Anyhow, through the class and her prohibition of a few words like; Journey, Spirituality, Spiritual, etc., I began to connect in a very direct way to the spirit than I had ever before. It was a special moment, and I really began to understand how the spirit was working in me and how I could connect that with others.
It saddens me, though, that it took so long to get to that point, all because of the baggage of those words. The fact is that we are all spiritual and that it is an important connection to God, but like many of our words that has become clichéd through misuse or overuse. We need to reclaim these words so that they can be used as a full expression of the faith we seek.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen