Why a recovery of 'Spirituality' might be giving us what 'Religion' has lacked
Has a rekindled interest in spirituality helped us see that change is something we need for ourselves, rather than just something we should want for the world?
The swish Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) have just published a freely available report, written by Dr Jonathan Rowson, titled Spiritualise: revitalising spirituality to address 21st century challenges. As the name suggests, it argues that as we bed into this new century, spirituality should play a greater role in the public realm.
As can be seen with initiatives like The Sunday Assembly, i.e. ‘the atheist church’, and the writings of Alain de Botton, many who hold to a humanist/naturalist worldview are increasingly also wanting to affirm the importance of a ‘spiritual depth’ to life.
Of course we could take a raincheck here and have a little chat about the potential intellectual incoherence of that kind of position. But for now I wanted to highlight an interesting observation from one of the report’s contributors. Writer and psychotherapist Mark Vernon gives a suggestion for why people might not be finding such ‘spirituality’ in the church:
I wonder whether many religious people are uncomfortable with a serious, transformative spirituality, because of the demands it would make on them as individuals. Church of England religiosity currently seems to be taking a highly extraverted and paradoxically this-worldly turn. It is energised by a concern for the socially excluded and materially marginalised, as no doubt it should be. But such matters can also serve to keep the challenge of Christianity safely in other people’s lives, thereby sidestepping the question whether we ourselves are dying each day to live more in Christ.
Essentially the thought is that ‘religion’ can act as something of a ‘fig-leaf’, to use Michael Horton’s phrase, covering up an unwillingness to personally change. It’s a perceptive point. The hustle and bustle of external religion can be an avoidance strategy. Change is something we campaign for out-there, but it’s not something we often stop and think might be necessary in the depths of our hearts.
Of course, take a quick jaunt through Mark’s gospel and you’ll not only encounter this religiosity personified, but you’ll also find a Jesus who, rather refreshingly, calls us to instead respond to him, a person, with a personal surrender and trust.
But given the claims Jesus makes, it’s worth noting that ‘spirituality’ also has potential to be something of a ‘fig-leaf’.
We might well be eager for personal change; we may have felt a ‘divine discontent’ with ourselves as the way we are, or an internal hunger for ‘more than this’. But why do we often assume we know what to do with this longing, rather than choosing to listen to the One who said “Come to me, and I will give you rest”?
It seems we can stomach talk of God, or even spirituality, but do we prefer to keep the person of Jesus at arm’s length? Horton puts it well:
We want to find “the spiritual,” perhaps, but the last person we want to meet up with is the God who is always there, for he knows what we are really like…
Why do you think spirituality seems to be increasingly popular?