I once tried to craft a definition of spirituality that could be universalized. That is, the definition would not and could not be “owned” or dominated by any particular religion.
Purely objective. And utterly human.
For better or worse, I finally came up with this: “Spirituality is the intentional disciplines we undertake to realize, respond and bring witness to essential relatedness.”
Intentional disciplines: Significant spirituality presupposes some effort and intention on our part. We habituate ourselves to certain prescribed disciplines. Meditation, prayer, worship, sacrifice, piety, chanting, alms, fasting, study, mission, pilgrimage, ritual, marriage, music, art, dance, exercise — there are myriad forms of spiritual discipline. Only some are formal, “religious” activities.
But all spiritual disciplines attempt to express, strengthen and realize our fundamental relationships: self, others, cosmos, mystery. An authentic spiritual path is more than mere spontaneous enthusiasm or casual, intellectual observation.
Let’s unpack the definition:
To realize: A lot of things that are real are never realized. To realize is to bring to full expression. In authentic spirituality, we reach for what we believe to be real (our worldview) and we make it real in ourselves.
To respond: Authentic spirituality compels us to respond. When we realize we are related, we find that we must respond to our relationships. We serve, we seek, we redeem, we account, we repair, we reconcile, we protect, we do battle, we make peace. We must answer the “voice” we have heard. We are obliged (from the Latin obligare = “tied to”).
Bring witness: In word and deed we evidence our essential relatedness. We tell our story, yes, sometimes with words, but more often with deeds. The fast track of getting to know any human being is observing how that human being responds to his/her committed bonds of relationship.
Essential relatedness: I was unable to coin a meaningful definition of spirituality without presupposing an article of faith. In the case of my definition, I’m presupposing that people and cosmos are essentially related. I can’t prove that. It’s part of my spiritual worldview (my cosmology) leaking into my definition.
I can’t apologize, though, because I do think we are essentially related. We do not choose to be related to the mystery, the cosmos, to ourselves and each other. We are related.
All significant world religions and spiritual paths share common elements:
“In the beginning” … “Once upon a time” … “a child was born” …
Spirituality is contained in story. The story often includes a particular human life perceived to be unique and definitive of how life is and how life should be lived. For example, there is a life lived in history (Siddhartha) and then there is the collective response to that life lived (Buddhism).
The Bible, the Quran, the Deer Park Sermon, the Torah, Bhagavad Gita, petroglyphs — in sacred writings the stories and collective wisdom of spiritual paths are preserved and passed on.
The great world religions share basic concerns about violence, exploitation, dishonesty, theft and the breakdown of sexual boundaries. Religions postulate an “ideal” expression of our humanity and generally agree that we are incapable of realizing this ideal by the mere force of will. We sense what is good, but we cannot simply decide to be good.
Festival, ritual and tradition
The great world religions contain potent rites of passage, rituals that realize and celebrate relatedness, and traditions that mark a rhythm for the ebb and flow of life.
The great world religions express a primary concern for the especially vulnerable members of society — the poor, the sick, the disabled, the very old and very young, etc. And so, authentic spirituality includes the regular, sometimes ritual sacrifice of time, talents, energy, goods, service and money for the aid and protection of the “especially vulnerable.”
The thing I rather enjoy about my definition is that, even for people who swear they don’t have a religious bone in their body, well, there is still a very sense in which they can enjoy, nurture and grow an authentic spiritual dimension to their lives.
If your spirituality and/or your religion is not, at the end of the day, about tying you to fidelity in relationships, then I would wonder about its purpose and relevance.
Right relationships yield human wholeness.
How do you define spirituality?
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). Contact him at email@example.com.