My Spirituality – What Use Is It?

A comment thread elsewhere took a tangent. I was asked this:

“How does your new found wisdom assist in the betterment of the human condition?”

The “new found wisdom” should be read with a slightly sarcastic tone, I suspect, but I figured it would make an interesting post.


As well as the obvious tribal ‘belonging’ that all identities provide, religion is important because it provides the framework for our spiritual experiences. “Spiritual” is a problematic word, because it is so strongly associated with religion or the supernatural, but there isn’t an obviously better one.

I have had and still have spiritual experiences: I expect you do to. I was taught certain stories for interpreting these: that certain feelings corresponded to the Holy Spirit, certain behaviours were worship, certain events answers to prayer, certain motivations God’s calling, certain propensities temptations, and so on. Because the spiritual experiences are important to us (they are to me, I’m sure to you too), the stories we get told about what those experiences “really are” become critical.

The Spiritual and the Story

Nobody experiences God directly. They have an experience, which they then interpret through the stories they know about God, either specific or general.

When a Sufi is transfixed in worship, they are enthralled to Allah, when a Wican does likewise it is to the Goddess. When a Voodun speaks in tongues it is possession by a Loa, when a Pentecostal, it is the Holy Spirit.

In fact, the kind of story you know guides the kind of experience you have. Many Christians I know cannot speak in tongues, because they don’t have the doctrinal (i.e. story) framework to allow it. Where I did, so I could. And now I understand how it works I still can.

But to most people the story is very strongly linked to the experience. So much so that someone denying your story feels like them denying you even had that experience. If I say “there is no God”, you hear “I think those important and deep experiences you had of God were either faked or delusions”. Which is clearly wrong, and you know it.

Separation and Enlightenment

So we should try, as a species, to unlock the story from the actual experience.

The stories could still be a way to induce the experience. I certainly do that – I can guarantee I’ll have a certain type of spiritual experience at midnight mass this Christmas. I have a different kind of experience when I meditate, or pray, or hug a tree.

But understanding the reality of the connection between the two is very liberating. It means you are free to experience the same transcendence through the ritual and practice of other faiths, or to develop the skills to induce it without any interpretation, if you can.

It gives a new appreciation for the real world, the amazing cosmos we inhabit, the beauty and savagery of other pepole, and the infinite creativity of the human urge to interpret their spirituality in stories and doctrines. And (if you’re interested in the bible and early Christian history like I am) it gives you a new level of appreciation for the bible and Christian doctrine.

Were it widely understood, I do think that would benefit humanity. There are things that would benefit more, of course, but still, I can’t help but see it as a net positive.



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12 responses to “My Spirituality – What Use Is It?

  1. O Smith

    I believe spiritual experiences and emotional ones can be confused when we are moved by any event based on our background, upbringing, or culture – our story. People might become emotional at a football game, concert, or funeral based on their affinity to the team, singer, or deceased.
    Grief, joy and sorrow can be expressed through the psuche as well as the pneuma. As a person who obviously knows the bible, you know it makes a distinction between the soul (the seat of our emotions) and our spirit. Maybe you don’t except that man is a tripartite being, spirit, soul and body. A person’s religious fervor might not be a spiritual experience. Jesus told the religious women at the well: “you worship that you know not… the true worshipers would worship in spirit and reality”. Having said that, I do agree
    that our emotional and spiritual expression find their source in what we have internalized, except when they don’t.
    O Smith

  2. Ian, I agree. Though I don’t use the word “spirituality” even when I was a Christian. In that sense I viewed all my reactions (and you know my list) as emotional, kinesthetic, cognitive and such. I viewed many experiences as weird, but never a “spiritual”. But when I listen to how others use this word, then indeed my experiences (as you say here) were “spiritual”. So maybe, unlike O Smith, I only have a soul and a body by his standard, and never had a “spiritual” experience as his last sentence sentence seems to imply.

    I don’t have the tripartite model (body, soul, spirit) — I probably have a mono-unpartite view (body). I’ve been accused of being soulless, but never spiritless.

    When I lived abroad, I saw the mentally ill expressing themselves in religious images and ideation. Here, schizophrenics may think they are Jesus, in Pakistan it was Mohammed, in India it was Krishna. I think that is part of what you were saying too.

  3. Sorry, forgot to follow.

  4. I certainly have had profound esthetic and emotional experiences. I simply can’t tell whether they are the same as what other people call “spiritual” experiences, and if not, what exactly the difference is – other than the stories we attach to them. Until someone explains this in a way that I can understand and apply, I cannot honestly claim to have had or care to have “spiritual” experiences.

  5. Ian


    Thanks. Yes. I think talking about personal experiences is tough, because we can’t be sure we can point to something and check that the person we’re talking to uses the same word. So the category of experiences I would label “spiritual” definitely isn’t that same as “emotional” – in fact I note that though many people use “feeling” language about religious experiences, some use others, like “knowing” language (“I came to know God more fully”, or “I suddenly knew I was one with the universe”).

    … (+ @sabio)

    The idea of a tripartite ontology is just a model or framework for interpreting one’s experience. We just have experiences, but we could choose to interpret them as finding their foundation in body, soul and spirit. One might develop a sophisticated set of criteria for partitioning one’s mental life into those categories: to be able to determine if an experience is ψυχή, πνευμα or σῶμα. And one may, in turn, use those categories to determine if an experience is sacred or not. But none of that makes those categories true or real (we have some tools for finding out what is objectively real [i.e. what could be said to be real for all people] and the soul and spirit fail that test). Someone with a different ontology would form different categories. Personally the tripartite ontology doesn’t do anything useful for me. I am a dualist, but not in the mind/body kind of way, in an objective/subjective division.

    … + @allogenes

    As for the issue of folks who haven’t developed these experiences through religion, I appreciate fully that “spiritual” might be a meaningless category. The set of experiences that a religious person calls spiritual, they do so precisely because grouping those experiences to make a category is important to them. If you’ve never been religious, then having them grouped together might not be useful – they might sit in separate categories for you, with no need to identify them with one another in any way. So I totally see why you wouldn’t care to think of them as spiritual.

    In my experience (but, I am a sample of one), there are certain patterns of experience which I have had in a secular context, but which a religious context has been better at providing more reliably, frequently and intensely. For example, the transcendent experience that many religious folks describe, was a feature of my religious experience, and for me has been harder (but not impossible) to induce in other contexts. My religious practice over many years has meant that I am now able to access it quite easily. Speaking in tongues is another experience (it is both a physical act and an associated experience) which I’d have never come across without religion, but which turns out to be quite simple to access as a post-Christian.

    I therefore suspect there are certain states that are more closely associated with religious action than others. And to some extent, whether you value those states might influence whether you could be bothered about being religious (again, ignoring the belonging aspect), I suspect.

  6. O Smith

    Maybe it boils down to what you believe, or want to believe.
    I want to believe in saviour and I want to believe that the bible
    is true. I want to believe that this innate urge common in all human
    societies to commune with God can give us the answer we all, to
    some degree, seek… the meaning of human life. I chose to endeavor
    not to be wise in my own conceit (no sarcasm intended) but trust
    we are much more than we know. Maybe I’m just a bit to simple for
    you men on this blog. I don’t have to be right, but I have to be real.
    My faith gives me an assurance and a peace that all my other studies
    could never produce. Hit me back if ever you find the need for some
    simple answers to life’s questions. I love the scripture, it is so simple.
    If you are hunger for answers, Jesus said I am the bread of life.
    Are you still groping in the dark for truth, He said I am the light of life.
    Are you thirsting to find meaning and purpose, Jesus says; He is the
    water of life. I know this is not deep enough for you brothers, but I don’t
    need deep when I’m hungry, thirsty, and in the dark.
    O Smith

  7. Your post and the discussion reminded me of the Jill Bolte Taylor TED Talk.

    I wonder if ‘accessing’, to use your word, the spiritual realm is a matter of learning more about the workings of the brain.

    I’d like to hope there can be a wider association for the word ‘spiritual’ than religious or supernatural experience (but yea, I realize the unlikely adoption of it). If Jill’s experience can suggest that it might involve a different ‘operating system’ kicking into gear in our brain then maybe that’s a better starting place than putting a label on it and thinking we’ve got it all figured out?

  8. Ian

    Thanks O, sorry we’re not in the same room with this conversation. The problem with blog comments is that you say a lot before being able to check if your partner is with you. So we end up sailing past each other rather than connecting. It is common enough on here.

    “Hit me back if ever you find the need for some simple answers to life’s questions” Given that most of us on here have been there I think we probably all know the simple answers very well!

    “I love the scripture, it is so simple.” I’m glad you find it so. It can be for a while. Over time you will find certain problems (a genealogy doesn’t line up, Matthew has the resurrection in a different place to Luke, John’s crucifixion is on a different day to the others, etc), and you’ll find Christian writers to give you more complex gospel stories to bring them together (“actually this complicated story is what actually happened, and you can see how each gospel could have just reported a subset of that and ended up with what we read”). And, no doubt, you’ll believe the justifications. Eventually, however, although honest people might say that the bible is still true, it is hard to hold that it is simple.

    “I want to believe in …. I don’t have to be right, but I have to be real.” Do you not think that “wanting to believe in something” is probably not a great place to start if you want something real? Strikes me as quite dangerous, and even if not dangerous, quite likely to lead one astray. Think of all the horrible ways you could fill the gap in that sentence. “I want to believe in … I don’t have to be right, but I have to be real.”

    “I know this is not deep enough for you brothers, but I don’t
    need deep when I’m hungry, thirsty, and in the dark.”

    The depth isn’t the issue for me. It is whether it is true. The truth is very simple, but we just love to spill pixels analysing it to death around here. There’s plenty of places on-line that analyse Christian doctrines to minutiae too.

    Those of us who have found bread, water and light in Jesus, but then have moved on to see how and why Jesus provided it, have no desire to see people hungry, thirsty or dark either. But neither do we wish to see people enslaved by untruth as the cost of ridding themselves of it. Especially as there is a much better alternative. And on that, fundamentally, is much much simpler.

  9. Ian

    Thanks Andrew, I’ve enjoyed that TED several times. Psychology is definitely really complex, so I agree, it will be interesting to find out more about the states our brains can get into and how. I think that conversations about what “spiritual really is” are a little fruitless though, in the same way that conversation about what a “chair really is” can get pointless.

    For me I want to ask: all the people who claim to have spiritual experiences as part of their religion — are they describing the same kinds of experience (I think clearly they are), and can those experiences be accessible without the religion (again, yes). I’m happy to let people who have spiritual experiences decide which experiences qualify — I’d rather not try to establish an objective standard.

    And for me, this all raises an important point: if the effects of religion on a person can be duplicated without that religion’s stories, doesn’t that say something about first the necessity, and second the evidence for that story?

  10. John Clavin

    I see spiritual as the unseen connections between human beings. Sometimes called the collective unconscious. A flock of birds or a computer flocking algorithm is also spiritual to me.
    I feel more spiritual when I am emotionally connected to the human race, or at least emotionally similar subgroups of the human race.

  11. kartik

    what a rubbish man

  12. Ian

    What a thoroughly constructive comment, thanks!

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