Spirituality as Spirit and Spirituality toward Spirit:

A Dialogue with Derrida
Transforming Theology Theoblogging Project

Continuing the project of blogging through Philip Clayton’s Adventures in the Spirit (Fortress, 2008) – Chapter 16

There is a growing segment of the population that considers itself “spiritual but not religious.” By that they mean that they’re spiritual people, but they have no use for organized, institutional, traditional forms of religion. More often than not the object of this rejection is Christianity since it is and has been the primary form of religion in the Western World since the time of Constantine. My conversations with people who embrace this idea take a fairly eclectic view of spirituality – a rather new term (I remember Martin Marty speaking to this several years ago in a presentation made in Santa Barbara). It’s a little bit of this, and a little bit of that, a very individualistic mix of ideas and practices.

It is this debate about spirituality (or spiritualities) that came to mind as I read this second to last chapter of Philip Clayton’s book. He engages philosopher Jacques Derrida in a conversation about spirit and spirituality – using two German words: Geistig and Geistlich. The conversation is set in the broader conversation about the boundaries that lie between spirituality/theology and science. Clayton notes that in the minds of many theology, especially due to its encounters with science, “has grown old, somewhat lame, now weakened by the usurpation of his former powers, resting in his rocking chair at the edges of the action, no longer at the center of attention, sometimes a little melancholy, ready though to reminisce and to share his stories with anyone who will listen” (p. 245).

That picture of tottering theologian has been challenged in recent years by some who have sought to reengage science, but from a different vantage point than before. Of course, the science itself has changed – it’s not the “science of Bacon, Laplace, Bertrand Russell, A.J. Ayer, or even Karl Popper.” In order to make this engagement possible, Clayton suggests turning to Derrida, and through him to Martin Heidegger (neither of whom I’ve read in any real way). But according to Clayton, the key is to move from spirituality, which is rather nebulous, to Spirit, which has a strong particularity to it.

Derrida takes up a dichotomy set forth by Heidegger between calculative thinking and meditative thinking. The first is domineering and the second is acquiescent. One is concerned about efficient causes, and the other underlying physical laws. Calculative thinking objectifies the world (p. 247). The contrast here moves over to the contrast between science and spirituality, the former of which had been dominant for years, but more recently, spirituality, if not Spirit, has begun to assert itself. Thus, meditative thinking is beginning to emerge.

But what is spirituality? And how does it relate to Spirit? Thus, we’re back to the difference between Geistig and Geistlich – Spirit and Spirituality. And in this day, spirituality is deemed the more important. Indeed, its value is found in its breadth, it’s freedom from metaphysics – to cover just about all that humans do – with no particularity necessary. But, Clayton does not believe that such a thing will be able to withstand the challenges of science, without – Geistig – Spirit. We need both vertical and horizontal dimensions. Thus, the value of panentheism, for it provides for both.

To put this another way, theism tends to think of God’s relationship with the world soteriologically, that is, God enters into the world to save us from this or that. Clayton wants us to see this ontologically, so that the world always remains “within the being of God” (p. 251). That is, we should think o f the “divine Spirit as remaining intrinsically and pervasively present within the world, so that it’s within the divine that ‘we live and move and have our being’” (p. 251 – Acts 17:38).

The title of this book is Adventures in the Spirit, but the question that has long been with the Christian faith is the nature of the Spirit – the largely undefined third person of the Trinity. Clayton wants to give some definition to the Spirit, a “new theology of the Spirit,” one that is connected with the emergent science.

“Its roots lie in the one natural world that surrounds us and of which we are a part. As the ‘stuff’ of this world becomes organized in more and more complicated ways, new properties emerge. Although their existence is dependent on the properties of the underlying particles, their behavior is irreducible to any of its underlying levels. Hence the nature world evidences the emergence of genuinely new properties. At each emerging level, new structures are established and new causal forces are at work. One extends the structure of emergence downward to address questions of fundamental physical law, but one can also extend it upwards to come to a better understanding of consciousness, mind, and spirit. The emergent causal levels thus help to elucidate the meaning and semantic range of the idea of Spirit.” (Pp. 252-253).

What is he doing here? He’s providing us with a way to integrate our understandings of the Spirit and the natural world. He’s inviting us to decompartmentalize. While Spirit doesn’t “reduce to matter,” neither does it “float happily on summer breezes, cut adrift from all empirical moorings” (p.253). Even as Bultmann sought to demythologize the biblical story, Clayton and others are seeking to “re-enchant” nature.

“The beauties of our planet and the richness of its life forms are not distant expressions of a far-off and distant God. They continue to manifest the divine presence” (p. 253).
Our tendency, in the face of the challenges of science, is to retreat into a protective area that is science free, but Clayton wants to liberate us from our fear of this challenge. I’m not sure I completely understand all the ramifications, but I see the value of the dialog. What I appreciate about Clayton is that he’s not trying to change science to fit religious needs – Creationism and Intelligent Design. He’s not trying to fill unresolved gaps with God – but rather seeks to see the way of the Spirit as the flip side of what science is talking about.

To find this new direction, we must take a turn away from the Western focus on perfection and purity, and turn east with Derrida. Therefore, bringing together “the metaphysics of the Spirit” with panentheism, we have a “framework for theology that has both systematic coherence and a sufficient fit with science to avoid contradiction with its core results.

“Such ideas struggle to make the trembling transition from the geistlich – the human spiritual quest – toward the (always preliminary language of Geist or Spirit, where that quest finds its proper home.” (P. 245).

I haven’t read Heidegger or Derrida, so I can’t speak to their views. I can only speak to this journey, one that is challenging me to rethink the relationship of science and faith, but at the same time understand that the human spiritual quest needs a home – the divine. We still see the Source through a mist. The lines are blurred, but there is a direction to go. So, our journey continues, content not simply with the human quest, but a longing for its fulfillment.


Tripp said…
awesome. i think you have done such an outstanding job with this book. you have even highlighted the features that will preach. thanks
George said…
We need both vertical and horizontal dimensions.

That is an interesting statement because it fits nicely with something else I've read.

As humans, as egos, our default mode is horizontal perception, which is space-time. It seems the challenge is to transcend the ego, replace our horizontal perception with vertical perception, where we give ourselves over to Spirit who mediates communication with God. The more time we spend in vertical perception, the less time we spend serving our egos, and the more time we spend serving God through the Mind of Christ.

Since we can't experience vertical and horizontal perception simultaneously, shifting to vertical perception requires a temporary collapse of time. It does not necessarily remove our awareness of the physical world (prayer and meditation), although it can do that, as well. I think collapse of time and loss of physical awareness, both, is something we would experience in divine revelation. However, I believe the day-to-day challenge is to live in the moment (the vertical) as much as possible because God, being infinite and eternal, is also timeless and, therefore, can only be experienced when we are in a state of timelessness.
John said…
"There is a growing segment of the population that considers itself “spiritual but not religious.”"

I do a double-take every time I read this. I can't say that I have ever spoken to someone who professes such a spirituality. Foundational to this alleged spirituality it seems to me is the basic presumption of a divinity, whether acknowledged or denied. It seems to me that you cannot entertain the notion of the spiritual without at the same time accepting the existence of the metaphysical. Yet I perceive that most who profess this spiritualism, by denying religion, either dismiss the relevance of God or deny the existence of God altogether.

This is about as absurd as denying the existence of a force of nature called electricity while watching television.

If one acknowledges the existence of a spiritual/metaphysical plane a plane which is by definition perceivable only through personal revelation then one must allow for the reality that others genuinely perceive the existence of divinity on that plane.

I think also you have an intellectual and spiritual obligation to check your revelation against those revelations/spiritual experiences of others to ascertain that you are not merely delusional and to deepen your own understanding of what you are experiencing.

I suppose one could assert that one's own idiosyncratic revelation of a personal and exclusive metaphysical plane is the only genuine experience of the metaphysical in all of human history, but that WOULD be delusional.

I am curious how proponents of spirituality define what or who inhabits the metaphysical plan as well as the range of possible activities which take place there.

Anonymous said…
I highly recommend REINVENTING THE SACRED: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion, by Stuart Kauffman, who is a professor emeritus of biology — a philosophy major, who got the MD degree before going into research. His theology continues a conversation begun by B. Spinoza, but carries the ball forward in a compelling fashion.

Anonymous said…

I think they just simply admit they don't know. It's one way to go, but sort of lonely. I have been there and never worried that God, if he existed, would punish me.

George, your comments are interesting. Is there a source?

David Mc
George said…
I can't say that I have ever spoken to someone who professes such a spirituality.

Yet I perceive that most who profess this spiritualism, by denying religion, either dismiss the relevance of God or deny the existence of God altogether.

How did you do that?

I think also you have an intellectual and spiritual obligation to check your revelation against those revelations/spiritual experiences of others to ascertain that you are not merely delusional...

Based on that, Jesus was merely...
John said…

You ask: "How did you do that?"

I am sure I have spoken to people who feel this way, it is just that the conversation has never drifted into this sphere of discussion.

My specific perception in that regard is based on what I read. I read that such people believe in a non-physical dimension or plane (the spiritual world) and yet they often deny the existence of, or relevance of, divinity (an entity which other believers in the spiritual dimension assert resides in such plane.

It seems contradictory to assert a belief in the dimension where God resides and then dismiss the possibility that God exists at all.

I think that addresses your question.

I could not understand your second point so I can't respond.


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