Spirituality, Religion, and Faith -- a (Diverse) Catholic Perspective
The words spirituality, religion, and faith, are often used interchangeably. When they are used to connote or denote a specific form of theistic phenomenon, more often than not, the term 'spirituality' is usually used to suggest the more individualistic aspects of God-focused thoughts and actions, the word 'religion' is more often used when discussing the issues of a particular traditional strain of philosophy regarding the divine essence, (such as the phrase 'the Catholic religion') and the notion 'faith' is often referred to as a schema of belief that may or may not be communal or individual -- in other words, to say that one has faith in God means that one has a belief in God.
Given the modern focus on the individual as opposed to the communal experience -- in fact, one might even say, given modernity's self-centered and self-consumed times -- 'spirituality' is often the most interesting religious term to modern ears, as opposed to religion itself, or "faith." This is true not only of the popular self-help books topping best-selling charts of nonfiction book sales, but even for those believers who identify as members of the modern Catholic world community. According to the beginning of the Catholic scholar Michael D. Guinan's article on "Catholic Spirituality" for Catholic Today magazine, "spirituality is the in thing these days."
In other words, even for more traditional Catholics, of which Guinan counts himself as one of their number, spirituality has become such a American cultural buzzword that the ideology of spiritual self-fulfillment has infiltrated even aspects of traditional Catholic culture and practices. Guinan continues, half-in disbelief and half in approval, "religious books and articles dealing with spiritual topics abound. Retreats of all sorts are gaining in popularity. Sales are brisk for taped lectures and retreat conferences. Everywhere one can find a range of personal growth and human potential programs."
Why is this so? The author hopes it is because "people are interested in living fuller, deeper, more personal human lives. Today there is a great hunger and thirst for more authentic spiritual life, in short, for spirituality." Interestingly enough, even in the words of Guinan, although his article takes great pains to define the communal as well as the individualistic nature of Christian spirituality, in this sentence aligns the personal side and sphere, the nature of human religious Catholic life with a seeking of authentic spirituality, rather than as something contrary to the communal Catholic tradition of faith and doctrine.
However, the author of this article goes on to quickly add that it is crucial to remind the reader, "Christian spirituality, though, stresses that we begin with the gift from above from the Holy Spirit of God." In other words, Christian spirituality, even the experience of personal growth, is still an 'our' experience for the Christian, and particularly the Catholic Christian in the context of the religion of Catholicism and the systematic theologically directed faith of the church. "You could even define Christian spirituality as 'our life in the Spirit of God' or 'the art of letting God's Spirit fill us, work in us, guide us.' But what is this Spirit and how does it work in us? A look at the Spirit in Scriptures points the way."
Spirituality for a Catholic, thus is not simple, or even not so simply self-actualization in a modern fashion. It is crucially attached to realizing the Catholic religion in context. It implies an older and more coherent focus upon a tradition. In contrast to notions of generalized religion, even if modern spirituality may be more individualistic in nature than expressions of faith in the past, in the case of Catholic spirituality must not be rendered so mystic and so personalized that the idea of what is communally spiritual is lost. For instance, even though spirit is defined as a wind or a breath, in the Christian and Jewish tradition, that animates the individual consciousness and physical body, the Holy Spirit is seen as the 'father' of Jesus, one of the three founding elements of the Trinity, and thus every personal spiritual essence is connected to a larger, divine body and conceptualization of the world.
The spirit and spirituality for Guinan are virtually synonymous. Spirituality and seeing a personal relationship with God ultimately, through the Catholic religion and through one's faith-based belief in the Church, unites the believer with the conception and continuing ministry of Jesus. "The Holy Spirit," the author writes, makes us "holy," not a holiness of achieving excellence in the pursuit of one's individual understanding of the Bible and of God. True, Guinan allows, at the conclusion of his article for a plurality of visions of spirituality, but ultimately sees these pluralities as cohesive in nature when they are Christian and Catholic in a positive fashion.
In contrast, Paula J. Carlson and Peter S. Hawkin's literary anthology of Listening for God subtitled Contemporary Literature and the Life of Faith, presents a plurality of spiritualities in a much more fragmented form, through the different voices of different authors. Perhaps because much of the anthology takes the form of fictional explorations of individual artists the plurality endorsed by Guinan is thrown into much sharper and harsher relief than the theologian's more abstract rhetoric. "There are no agnostics in the cradle," ironically proclaims the protagonist of one of the authors in the anthology, but not all of the characters of the different authors presented find God through any kind of religion in a conventionally faith-based, much less communal manner. Some of the protagonists do so in a purely personal and private fashion. (12) "The Lord hates a betting boy as much as one who wiggles and whines," sniffs another character in the same excerpted story, suggesting that an overly rigid code of Christian ethics regarding religion is not condoned by the author or the anthologizing pair of editors. (14) However, by presenting such a fragmented perspective, ironically the anthology presents a more conventional, albeit more contemporary vision of spirituality, namely that spirituality is a personal relationship with God alone, and thus might be slightly superior to the notions of the divine as they are expressed in codes of religious ethics and schemas of faith, as opposed to more experiential and felt moments of lived, individualized spirituality. In other words, the structure of the anthology endorses the common, really secular and Protestant notion that what is spiritual, individual and supposedly 'more unique' is better than experiences had in the context of the religious collective and what is exterior in terms of faith and belief.
Of course, as the Catholic theologian Richard McBrien points out, all Biblical and theological considerations regarding even the definition of "faith" or schemas of belief are historically, temporally and culturally bound. The fiction presented in Carlson's anthology is a product of a particular cultural moment in time, much like Guinan's assertions of the pluralities of spirituality that form a Catholic whole are good. The individualized nature of today's society influences the emphasis on spirituality in different aspects of even one of the oldest faith traditions, in a modern religious context -- in other words, all religions are 'local' i.e. culturally and historically bound, even Catholicism, which claims to transcend all cultures.
Catholicism currently attempts to incorporate notions of the personal and 'spirituality' into its more collectivist notions of belief and the need to have a religious community as well as an individual, personal experience of God because of the current state of culture. (McBrien 22-23) McBrien goes on to note that "real faith, living faith, if you will, exists always and only in cognitive, (more or less) reflective, (more or less) scientific state." Yet "faith exists always and only in some theological form." (23) In other words, the impetus of belief or spiritual…
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