Non-religious spirituality

park benchIn this article, we read of a spiritual care encounter with a person holding a worldview derived from an empirical approach to the natural world, in order to reflect on the nature of non-religious spirituality and its implications for the spiritual care sector. Non-religious spirituality is examined as a genuine form of spirituality. What follows are excerpts from a paper by Dr. Christopher Turner of Stirling University.


Defining Spirit

Spirit, and therefore spirituality, covers, as the etymology of the words themselves suggests, multiple interactive natural processes that enable life, breath, and power, and can be understood on that basis as a pre-conscious function of the physiological processes that maintain the conditions under which life is able to be established and to continue (homoeostatic regulation). This is not a new thought. Theologian, physician, and philosopher Albert Schweitzer employed empiricism in the articulation of his understanding of spirit to posit the ideas that every living cell, every particle of matter, every quantum of energy participates in a collective preconscious “will to live amongst other wills to live”. Schweitzer’s understanding of life process as “will to live” led him to develop an ethics based on physiology, which he called “reverence for life”, the “first spiritual act”. Reverence is a word that invests a sense of meaning and value in its object. In Schweitzer’s view, the experience of reverence for life is spirituality appearing on the basis of nature alone; that is, empirically discernible. It is this understanding of spirit, and the spirituality emerging from it, that underlies this study and the suggestion within it that spirit is a phenomenon universally representative of life processes that does not require religious language or belief systems for it to contribute to meaning in those processes. It is the language of meaning, without the qualification of the category of “ultimate,” which we must depend upon in the claim that the perception of reality as natural, and nothing else, is spiritual. Those who live and flourish deriving meaning from an empirical perception of nature have a claim on spiritual life based purely on nature, and therefore can be recipients of spiritual care without recourse to religion. I assert that it is on this basis that people whose lives are shaped by derived spirituality may also be educated, and qualify, as spiritual care practitioners.

An Encounter with Natural Spirituality

At the end of a long day offering spiritual care at the transitional crisis housing facility for people seeking asylum at which I was working, I was ready to finish. Azar, one of the men I often conversed with, stuck his head through the door to my office and smiled.4 “Would you like to come for a walk, Christopher?” I looked at the clock. It glared back at me with a definite 4.55p.m. that triggered all my desperate hopes for a hot shower and an early night. I knew at this moment that I was not listening to my client. “Okay, a ten-minute walk?” I suggested, not without a sense of sceptical premonition. “Great, I’ll be back in a moment.” Ten minutes later, Azar re-emerged, equipped with a back pack, walking shoes, and a sense of purpose. I gave an inner sigh of exhaustion and left with Azar on the short walk to the park. Azar had escaped his country of origin in the hope that he could find a place to live that was free of the oppressive theocracy he had experienced there. I knew from previous conversations that he was an atheist. We reached the park and Azar invited me to sit with him at a picnic table. I was aware that my inner hold on an early night was being challenged. I knew I still wasn’t available to Azar, my inner self was in the car on the way home. I still wasn’t listening.

I sat down with Azar and he proceeded to set the table. Out of his backpack he produced a table cloth, two bottles of sparkling mineral water, two tomatoes, and two cucumbers, apparently the only fresh food available in the community fridge. There followed a wireless speaker, which he connected to his phone and was soon conveying an ambient music. “Will you eat with me?” he asked. “Certainly,” I said, and I was finally there with him. Azar and I talked about many things over the next hour or so at the park. We talked about our families, our hopes for the future, and our frustrations with whatever it was that we perceived to be hindering us. I was aware that Azar was in a much greater place of personal vulnerability than I was at the time, yet he was providing me with a warm hospitality.

I asked Azar what it was that gave him a sense of meaning in life. He explained that in his experience religion had only ever provided the justification for oppressive politics and social intrusion. Meaning, he told me, comes from the simple reality of living and dying. He described his life growing up on a farm. His family were, and still are, subsistence farmers. In that context, life and death are both necessary in the ecology of survival. Death has profound meaning, for death provides what is needed for the renewal of life. Mirroring this, Azar explained that he had hoped to live well, in a way that would promote life for family and humanity, and then to die well so that his body could return to the earth and nurture other forms of life when he is gone. As I sat across from this young man I recognised his understanding of the world as one derived from nature, broadly rooted in ancient Epicurean materialism, though he appeared to be unaware of that, and I recognised it as profoundly spiritual.

I came away from this encounter with Azar knowing that something mutual had occurred. Yes, I had, eventually, provided spiritual care by walking, conversing, and receiving his hospitality. I had equally received his provision of spiritual care to me, albeit without any conscious intention or formality on his part, through his offering of hospitality and his generous sharing of himself and his sense of meaning and life. I call it spiritual care, rather than a mere social encounter, on the basis of the intentional inter-subjectivity that characterised it as an encounter. Spiritual care, in this instance, began to genuinely occur when I was able to enter into Azar’s personal world with a sense of myself as a relating subject, with him, through the co-construction of meaning, as opposed to that of a professional care giver with something to provide for his edification, for example.

A Radical Secularity

In my encounter with Azar, the intersection of his hospitality and my reception of him as host generated a mutual recognition of the reality of spiritual depth in his story and in mine as we met one another. It is precisely this intersubjective intersection as relational spiritual care that moves me to write about the validity of the idea of an entirely derived spirituality and the possibility of a derived form of spiritual care. A derived approach to spiritual care is rooted in the aspiration to discover common humanity as the generator of meaning in our encounters with others. In this encounter, mutuality was the central factor determining whether or not spiritual care was taking place. Azar and I both created space for each other. In this sense, what occurred was secular spiritual care – care that creates space for difference. We were two people with very different stories and very different world views, creating space together in which our stories and world views could intersect, challenge, invite, and be catalysts for growth. There was no assumption in this encounter that Azar was in need of my spiritual care, or that I was the one in possession of the right spiritual tools with which to help Azar. If it were not for Azar’s invitation, I would not have received spiritual nourishment from his hospitality and his particular form of spiritual meaning in life. Equally, if I had not been able to bring my own tired self to the table, the table that eventually grasped my attention, our two irreducible selves would not have intersected. In this very concrete sense, every spiritual care encounter must aspire to a radical secularity.

A Homeostatic will to live
Today, neuroscientists Hannah and Antonio Damasio have found, in thinkers like Spinoza, the philosophical premonition of the emerging scientific evidence that emotion and feeling, as signifiers of consciousness, and therefore understood as signifiers of human spirit, are physiological messengers in the process of homeostatic regulation. The Damasios have worked together for decades, both observing and thinking about human physiology in the regulation of the conditions required for life to exist. The incredibly complex systems of neurological interaction within the organism, which form its capacity to respond to its environment and are known as the systems of homeostatic regulation, are in fact the generators of emotion and feeling that are so often equated with spirit.

The Damasios put forward the compelling hypothesis, with considerable empirical support, that what we have always known as spirit – consciousness, identity, emotion, and feeling – are all highly evolved elements of homeostatic regulation. The implications of this are that every living cell, every particle, every quantum of energy that underlies the structure of every living cell, has implicit within it a homeostatic “will” to live. Therefore, by virtue of the fact that Azar and I spent time being present to one another, listening to one another and eating together, we were offering one another the nurture of mutually caring spirit that was present in every cell of our organic reality.

The Nature of Reality and Human Flourishing

The articulation of meaning and ethical living derived from natural understandings of life that rely on the careful reasoning of philosophy and science as their key criteria is evidently not a new thing. Even this cursory list of world views representing the rejection of supernaturalism demonstrates that meaning in the non-religious perception of reality is spirituality rooted in millennia of derived approaches to understanding and engaging with reality. My argument is that world views such as these do constitute genuine spirituality, because spirituality can be conceived of without the “ultimate” and teleological elements that are inherent in every religious perspective.

The purpose of this brief survey of derived spirituality is to demonstrate that when religious ideologies, which characterise the majority of understandings of spiritual care and which persistently resist the idea that a person can be non-religious and spiritual, are set aside, an understanding and appreciation of the depth of meaning in the life of a person who might otherwise have been dismissed as “merely” atheist or “driven” by base material desire comes into view (Mannheim, 1936). What is discovered through the proximity of understanding is that atheism, for example, is almost always a deep concern to accept, with humility, humanity’s complete relation to and reliance upon its natural environment. We also discover that what is often characterised by the religious mind as base materialism is in fact an acceptance of humanity’s dependence on the nature of reality for flourishing life.

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men at park bench
Azar and I both created space for each other. In this sense, what occurred was secular spiritual care – care that creates space for difference. We were two people with very different stories and very different world views, creating space together in which our stories and worldviews could intersect, challenge, invite, and be catalysts for growth.

1. Dr. Christopher Turner is a Lecturer in Pastoral Theology and Spiritual Care at Stirling Theological College, University of Divinity, Melbourne, Australia. Christopher has over 20 years’ experience as a Baptist Minister and Spiritual Care Practitioner in the contexts of faith community care, aged care, and crisis care for people seeking asylum.

 

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