Saturday, May 24, 2008

Cambridge Observations, no. 2

I'm back home after a week at Harvard University where I attended a course on "the art and practice of leadership development." The course was led by Marty Linsky and Ronald Heifetz, who co-authored Leadership on the Line. It was a fascinating week: the course served to model teaching leadership development through "case-in-point" methods. Throughout the week, the students (mainly professional leadership/organizational development trainers and faculty) struggled to figure out what "the work" was--in many ways demonstrating the same disequilibrium and disorientation that many face in the work place.

What was even more interesting was the range of people in the room. It was an international group with people from Israel, Dubai, Denmark, Wales, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Austria, Chile, Argentina, and Australia. There were three people from explicitly religious organizations (Alban Institute; the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts; and me). There were people who worked at universities and in national and state governments.

There were a number of good conversations outside the classroom. One recurring theme that came up when people starting talking religion was a fairly common distinction between "religion" and "spirituality." Once people discovered a little bit about my background--as a Presbyterian minister and Seminary dean--some would invariably say, "Well, I don't like religion because it puts me into a box; it judges me. But I value spirituality highly."

My public response, since we were engaged in polite conversation, was that the best of the Christian tradition has sought to distinguish itself from "religion." Religion typically comes with a message of moralism--do this and you will live. Biblical Christianity comes and says, your only hope and comfort is believe in Jesus Christ and you will live. Even when this was said gently and kindly, it was enough to lead them to change the conversation.

But my more thorough response would be to raise the points of Ludwig Feuerbach against their conception of spirituality. After all, Feuerbach argued strenuously that God was simply the projection of human ideals. If "spirituality" is merely a projection of myself, then it seems more intellectually honest to admit the fact, give up the charade of "spirituality," and move toward a thoroughly closed-box universe with a concomitant behaviorist psychology.

One reason most people can't make that move is because, as Calvin pointed out, there is a "seed of divinity" or a "sense of the divine" that points to something truly beyond ourselves. Feuerbach's attempt to rid the universe of reality in itself (i.e. God) fails to account for this. Even more, Christianity stands or falls on the fact that, as Francis Schaeffer put it, God is there and God has spoken. This objective reality beyond ourselves has moved toward humankind through Scripture. And this revelation offers as a comprehensive, coherent, and compelling worldview that makes sense of reality.

Another reason most people can't move with Feuerbach is that a closed-box universe supported by a rigorous Hegelian philosophy and evolutionary science can't produce an account of the apparent "randomness" and "purposelessness" of human existence. All it can logically come up with is the "will to live"; but why do humans have the will to live? And why do bad things happen? Where does evil come from? Why do we seek justice? And scores of questions besides. Only Christianity through biblical revelation can provide a compelling account of these questions.

It strikes me that if those who want to reside with "spirituality" were to take Feuerbach's challenge seriously, it would force them to reckon with the real choice: not between religion and spirituality, but between a biblical account of the world and our place in it versus a purposeless, meaningless, and deterministic universe. But these are hard things to say in polite conversation.


carpediem365 said...

Very helpful summary, Sean Had to have been a challenging. yet rewarding week.

Ed said...

That sort of non-response gets under my skin. What does that even mean-- "I value spirituality highly"??

I agree with your assessment of the futility of the concept. But frankly, it bothers me that we even allow people to get away with this sort of vacuous reasoning.

What does it mean to be "spiritual" absent of some belief in spiritual reality? This is not any different from the "faith in faith" conundrum: someone claims, "my faith gets me through." Faith in what? In yourself? In the tooth fairy?

I frequently use this analogy in teaching about this problem: if you're dying of thirst and you come upon a hose and drink, what is it that is saving you from death? Is it the hose? Or the water coming through the hose?

Faith in faith (and blind "spirituality") is belief that the hose is what saves. But how does that work out? "I've got my hose-- so I'm safe. As long as I'm carrying my hose, I can brave the harshest desert." Right-- that might carry you through until you actually need it.

The analogy works further, too: what is the hose attached to? Can that thing (that it is attached to) actually deliver what you need? Or will it deliver poison instead of life-giving water?

It seems to me that the "I value spirituality" claim is really a request for just enough rope to hang oneself.

Eutychus said...

"But these are hard things to say in polite conversation."

And there really IS a place for "polite conversation!"