Rev. Brendan C. Cook
Spirituality. A word that means so much to so many people. Life defining, life changing concepts can be bound up in that one word. But how is it defined? What does it mean? How does one approach understanding the many concepts comprised in that one word? Though many have attempted to do so, and many systematic approaches have been developed, it is my belief that defining spirituality is at best an exercise in frustration.
Why, after taking such a superbly prepared and well-informed course, would I argue that defining spirituality is surely an exercise in frustration? Quite simply because the definition of spirituality is highly individual. There may be elements of commonality within what is commonly thought of as spirituality, but the specifics are defined and determined by the individual in question.
How many times have we, as ministers, heard the following: “I’m not really religious, but I do consider myself spiritual,”? When we hear that, what does it really mean? Is the person atheist? Agnostic? Anamist? All of the above? None of the above? Some of the people we meet in our ministry may fall into some, or even all, of these categories at some point in their lives. They may not even be sure themselves where they stand, or may not be able to precisely define their belief set or system. And that’s perfectly fine!
As ministers, it is our job to develop an understanding of the process of developing spirituality. A scientist, for example, may not believe in God in the traditional sense, or even consider him/herself a spiritual person. But they may have a clear sense that they are part of something greater than themselves; a part of the Universe which they are striving to understand through their science. As cogently argued in the lessons of Defining Spirituality, science is itself a religion of a kind and scientists are its priesthood. The evolution of this worldview, its components and influences, are essential for a minister to understand.
A grasp of the evolution of Western thought is, as the course makes plain, essential for every minister in today’s world. Defining Spirituality provides a clear, concise understanding of the major underpinnings of modern Western thought, which is especially useful for those who may not have had exposure to such a depth and breadth of ideas and ideological influences before. The course makes clear how modern thought and modern spirituality are inter-related.
Likewise, however, every minister should have a solid understanding of Eastern thought and philosophy as these both can heavily influence those who declare themselves spiritual and not necessarily religious. Eastern thought, with ideas dating back thousands of years, has become part of the modern American mindset over the last 40 years and been widely embraced by those who do not find fulfillment in traditional religious practice. In order to define spirituality and not be frustrated in the attempt, it is clear that we must define it as broadly as possible and seek to learn and understand as broadly as possible.
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