Spirituality without God
You don’t have to believe in God to be spiritual. People who produce great art, wonderful music, sensational ballet, memorable opera are all spiritual in their own way. So are those who breed beautiful animals, who cultivate lovely plants and who put together sensational shows like the Chelsea Flower Show. Anyone who takes pride in what they do is spiritual. Which means, of course, that we are all spiritual at one time or another, in one way or another. Not everyone recognises it. When did you last spot a spiritual event, a moment perhaps or an hour? If you can’t remember, may I suggest you look out for one soon? There are lots around.
So what is the spirit of humankind? There are many definitions. ‘A sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves, which typically involves a search for meaning in life’. Or ‘the very core of a person’s being, the essential seat of their existence’. But I prefer my own ‘A yearning to be better than we are’. Whether it be kinder, cleverer, more skilled, more powerful or just a better gardener, the wish to excel – not for earthly glory but for personal achievement – is the spirit of the human being. There is an element of it in everyone. It can be warped. It can be used wickedly. But the yearning itself is strong and essentially spiritual.
To see love in hands held with sincerity, to hear a violinist achieve the perfect pitch she has been aiming for for the whole of her life until now, to watch a child blossom into maturity, to help an old person make use of their remaining years, all this is spiritual. Mankind is an animal but an animal with spiritual feelings. Is this an asset or a liability? It allows for pain, and not just of the moment but pain anticipated as well as pain remembered. It also enables us to have those moments of bliss we feel from time to time for no particular reason. We rationalise them into ‘all’s right with the world’ but they come from somewhere deeper than comfort and tidiness.
In fact, so spiritual are these moments that trying to codify them into words doesn’t do them justice. So they may be purely physiological and not spiritual at all. People have tried to replicate them with drugs and other sensation-causing systems. Hallucination can, I am told, be very pleasant but I do not think drug-induced pleasure is worth the price the body must pay. Besides, loss of self-control is not a sign of spiritual strength but rather of weakness. Spirituality is success.
When are the times we might experience the spiritual side of our nature? Religions think that presence in a sacred place with readings from traditional texts and meditation all help to provide it. Our better natures can be appealed to in such settings and the community of them is something we miss if we don’t join them. Faith is often the basis of these, and those who have it are fortunate. But faith got rather warped along the way and many who might have stuck with it dropped out for perfectly good reasons. Those who did still find a gap.
We all find spirituality in different ways. The stunning remark made by an 18 year old many years ago has never left me, ‘Religion is religion, my faith is my own’ she said. The more I have thought about it, the more I realise that it is a profound saying. Wisdom is not the exclusive prerogative of the old. We are at liberty to have faith or not. All options are acceptable.
My own route to spirituality is to acknowledge what I don’t know, to marvel at the immense order associated with DNA but to recognise that its existence is proof of evolution and to hope that whatever spirit we have established in our lives lasts beyond the grave in some form or another. I see no evidence of that yet but I am very content with the spirituality of beauty, kindness, wonder of the world and ability to ‘think beyond the single need’ as John Steinbeck put it in The Grapes of Wrath. Perhaps our memories are enough spirituality anyway.
I find my God in the eyes of the people I meet. Such a varied and interesting lot, all searching in their own way for some truth they haven’t yet seen. As Good Pope Francis said ‘If someone is searching for the Truth who am I to judge him’.
If we can find a sense of connection to something bigger than ourselves, help others to see a meaning in life and discover what is truly at our core, we have discovered our own spirituality.
It is surely enough.