Saturday, January 19, 2013

Spirituality, Secular and Religious


I attended a workshop not long ago that was held at one of our local hospitals on the relationship of emotional intelligence to the spiritual well being of patients and care givers.  It was aimed with a double edged sword at medical personnel, therapists, pastors, chaplains, and others for whom the emotional and spiritual well being of patients/clients is important.  One edge was to help them sharpen their understanding of what patient/client care means.  The other edge was to help them hone their understanding of what is essential for their own self care.  For what it’s worth, it was the second workshop I’ve attended that was presented by Dr. Paul Crampton of the Adventist Health Care System, and he is not to be missed if he’s in your area.  He’s an outstanding teacher whose broad understanding of science and theology reaches far beyond denominational lines.  

Crampton spent the majority of his time guiding the audience through the practical application of Emotional Intelligence (Daniel Goleman, et al.) to self care and care of others, but he began and ended with tying it to the spiritual dimensions of emotional and physical health care in and out of the hospital setting.

There was one problem, not with him, but with some in the audience.  When asked by him about the importance of spirituality in their lives and work, the several who responded equated spirituality with religion and prayer from a personal Christian perspective.  There was nothing wrong with that.  Spirituality is very personal, and we Christians should not be shy about claiming the Christian spirituality that nourishes us in essential ways.  But I understood these several persons to equate their understanding of spirituality to be exclusive as to what is, or should be, normative for both the workplace and greater community.  It reminded me of voices lamenting that we are no longer the Christian nation that we once were, something with which I have little sympathy.

It revealed a narrow definition of spirituality, and missed several important characteristics of it.  The first, and most obvious, is the large population who claim to be spiritual but not religious.  We can’t just toss them off with a “pffft” and dismissive wave of the hand.  Those people are our patients, clients, and sometimes the strangers checking out our churches.  The second is the growing number of us who may be religious, but not Christian.  The third, and the one I want to explore a bit, is the ambiguity of the word spirituality itself. 

After four decades of observing a wide variety of workplace cultures, I’m convinced that almost every regular gathering of persons has a spiritual dimension.  The spirituality of a workplace, for instance, is how the cultural ethos of the group is expressed.  There is something in the air, so to speak, that cannot be defined by any management or sociological measure, but is sometimes captured by writers and poets.  If I’m right, spirituality is ubiquitous, and, however personal we claim it to be, its origins are social.  Even hermits discover the core of what spirituality means to them in social situations.  St. Antony of the Desert, or, more recently, Thomas Merton, being cases in point; their profound spirituality may have matured in the desert or hermitage, but it had its origins in the spirituality of corporate worship, and they were compelled to return to society to share what they had learned. The point is that spirituality has deep social roots, and most any regular social gathering (including work) has a spiritual dimension to it.

Moreover, this spirit of the group can be said to be acted out by rites and rituals not found in any policy or procedure manual, yet is well understood by most who are part of the group.  It is, in a sense, the religion of the place.  Spirituality is always present in every regular group, but it is not always religious in our normal way of thinking about religion.  I doubt if the firefighters with whom I minister would ever think of the corporate spirituality they share as a religion, but each shift has exudes a certain spirit that makes it different from the others, and part of that spirit is acted out in rituals that have a strong liturgical flavor, so that it becomes a sort of secular religion: a religion without overt mention of God or the sacred, and yet it speaks to something deeply spiritual.  

I think we too often assume that spirituality is a good thing to be encouraged.  I’m not so sure.  Spirituality, whether secular or sacred, can be positive or negative, tending toward healthy or toxic environments.  Think of the cult movie “Office Space” as an example of a toxic spirituality and the Errol Flynn version of “Robin Hood” as a healthy spirituality.  If you are too young for an Errol Flynn movie, try most any episode of Star Trek.  I’ve used the movie “The Caine Mutiny” in management training as an example of the psychology of workplace dynamics, but in recent years have also seen it as an exploration of spirituality that lurches between healthy and toxic, with Lt. Greenwald’s (Jose Ferrer) final speech as the prophetic utterance of sacred truth.

What that means is that when talking about spirituality, we need to be more precise in defining the dimensions of it.  Otherwise we are tempted to assume that what spirituality means to us is what it means to others.  We cannot assume that some people are not spiritual because they don’t share our religion.  We cannot assume that some people are not religious because they claim to be so.  And we certainly cannot assume that the religious spirituality of another faith tradition is more or less like ours, just expressed in a slightly different way.  

If spirituality is important to patient/client care, and I think it is, then care givers need to explore a bit to discover how a patient/client expresses his or her spirituality, and that may take some patience because the word spiritual is loaded with assumed meaning.  

A patient/client who lives most of his or her time in a healthy spiritual environment provides a base from which to begin integrating that spirituality into their emotional and physical well being.  As a Christian pastor and chaplain I have no reservations about building on that healthy spiritual environment to introduce God into the conversation, not as a means to evangelize, but as a matter of full disclosure.

A patient/client who lives most of his or her time in a toxic spiritual environment provides a challenge that may be impossible to overcome in the short time given for pastoral care as a chaplain, but at least the few moments of time together can be an example of what a healthy spiritual environment can look like. 

NPR ran a series not long ago on young people in D.C. area who have turned away from religion, and even from any admission to being spiritual.  Almost all of them expressed a form of gentle envy of those whose religious spirituality helped them cope with life.  Most of them were unaware of prayer that was not a grown up version of sitting on Santa’s lap asking for things, or of prayer that was other than just talking to themselves.  Apart from my firefighters, the people I deal with are not bright young adults from D.C.. More likely they are in emotional turmoil, poor, not that well educated, and relatively unsophisticated.  Whether young urbanites from D.C. or the poor and troubled from a small rural city, they are the ones coming through the E.R. doors, sitting with folded arms in the back of the church, and seeking non-psychiatric help from pastoral counselors and chaplains.  Whether they say it or not, they are spiritual.  They have and practice a spirituality.  Any meaningful conversation about that has to start from where they are rather than from where we are.  We cannot know where they are if we don’t ask and listen non-judgmentally, and yet from our own places of healthy spirituality, which, as Christians must be well grounded in the sacred soil of our religious traditions.  

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