I hang out with a pretty spiritual crowd, which is somewhat surprising when you consider that I am among the most godless, irreligious, spiritually vacant people on earth. Most people draw a distinction, of course, between the specific notions of theism, which I categorically reject, and the more encompassing idea of “spiritualism.” What fascinates and perplexes me is the increasing tendency of many self-described spiritual seekers to define spiritualism so broadly that I no longer know what the term really means.
Spirituality should have, at its base, a belief in “spirit” — that is to say: a mystical, non-empirical faith that worldly matters are influenced, if not controlled, by forces beyond our ken. Few people who write about spirituality, however, can resist the impulse of casting a broader net. Whether this stems from the bubble-headed (but kindly) desire for inclusiveness or the equally bubble-headed (and narcissistic) desire to demonstrate that all good people are like them, I can’t say. What should be obvious, however, is that “spirituality”, never an easy concept, becomes all-the-more useless the more crap is thrown within its definition.
Wavy “New Age” spiritualists are not the only offenders when it comes to dumbing-down the otherwise legitimate and precise language of metaphysics and rendering it all-but-useless. How many times have we heard that “God” does not mean “first-mover” or “omniscient, omnipotent being” but, rather, that God is: beauty… wisdom… in all of us… in everything… fill-in-the-blank. It is not always the fluff-minded who engage in this sophistry. No less a genius than Gandhi-ji loved to proclaim that “God is truth.” That may make for nice poetry; but it isn’t very helpful theologically.
In this ideologically fractured and Balkanized world, it always produces a warm-fuzzy to come up with a notion that we can seemingly all embrace. But we should not be so tolerant of this impulse to universalize by co-opting the meanings of existing, useful words. If “pizza” were to be included within the definition of God, I might have to grudgingly concede my theism. (I have an abiding belief that pizza exists and even have faith in its curative powers.) But will we have succeeded in increasing the fold of believers or simply have made it impossible to speak of God in a meaningful way?
Because a non-defining definition of spirituality has the lovely ideals of inclusiveness and universality at its heart, those who engage in this practice fail to see that it can be personally offensive. I suppose I travel in particularly mush-brained circles, but several times a month I have people who barely know me insist that I am “deeply spiritual” because I occasionally emerge from my den of self-absorption long enough to do something nice for someone else. They intend this as a compliment, of course; but I have no desire to be included in their cult of self-righteousness and do not enjoy hearing this over-and-over.
Spiritual seekers will have found the higher plane they are looking for when they realize that not all ethical, right-thinking people believe exactly as they do. This is a far more empathetic, tolerant, and pluralistic notion than the false universalism they seem to strive for.