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Which Religion? Whose Spirituality?

Monday, 6 February 2012  | Doug Hynd


Browsing through a questionnaire on social attitudes at the start of my long march through a PhD, I was brought up short by some questions that invited me to assess my religiousness and/or spirituality. The problem is that I don't consider myself very religious, or very spiritual for that matter. The difficulty is that both terms are used generically, without clear definition,as though we all knew what the essence of religion and spirituality respectively are. Unfortunately, for anyone wanting to use the terms this way, there is no such thing as a "religion" and no such thing as a "spirituality" without further qualification. The question we need to ask (with appropriate apologies to Alasdair MacIntyre) is "Which religion? Whose spirituality?" As the question implies, both religion and spirituality at the very least, need some form of qualification before I could even begin to think about, contemplating giving any sort of an answer to the above question.


The issue of specifying which gods we are worshipping is important, because as Rowan Williams pointed out in his address

Analysing Atheism, Unbelief and the World of Faiths, the early Christians were in a very significant and life-threatening sense not religious.



... to understand what atheism means, we need to know which gods are being rejected and why. Thus an early Christian was an atheist because he or she refused to be part of a complex system in which political and religious loyalties were inseparably bound up. 'Atheism' was a decision to place certain loyalties above those owed to the sacralised power of the state.


Simon Barrow in What Difference Does God Make, makes clear, drawing on the work of Nicholas Lash, why "individual religiousness" is not really the point.



Before modernity, the term ‘gods’ was understood, correctly, as a relational one, designating whatever it was people worshipped – gave ultimate worth to. It resided in occurrences, activities and patterns of behaviour – not concepts. Explains Lash: “The word ‘god’ worked rather like the word ‘treasure’ still does. A treasure is what someone... highly values. And I can only find out what you value by asking you and by observing your behaviour… There is no class of object known as ‘treasures’… valuing is a relationship.”

However, with the dominance of instrumental reason, ‘gods’ became, correspondingly, things (objects, entities, individuals) of a certain kind, a ‘divine’ one. Analogously, the ‘home territory’ of God-understanding shifted from worship (the assignment of worth-ship) to description (the assignment of properties). It became a metaphysical enterprise rather than a matter of appropriate relationship. The difference is that the former has to make claims about essence or ‘being’ (of a person, a thing, or ‘god’) in order to find it meaningful. The latter does not, though it needs a good idea of what it speaks.

This double shift of meaning and affection fundamentally corrupted and disabled the modern comprehension of ‘God’ – because God is, logically and necessarily, beyond definition (delimiting) and categorisation. God is most definitely not a ‘thing’ belonging to a class of things called ‘gods’.[10] “Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists all have this, at least, in common: that none of them believe in gods”, says Lash. Therefore religions are best considered ‘schools’ in which people learn properly to relate to God precisely by not worshipping any thing – not the world nor any part, person, dream, event or memory of it.


Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, nationalism and even atheism offer specific, and in varying ways overlapping and competing schools, in what it is to be and live humanly in the world in which we find ourselves. Spirituality, like religion is never generic. And in the account of religion that I am arguing for the substantive difference between "religion" and "spirituality" begins to disappear, in so far as spirituality is expressed in differing, and non-generic ways of learning to live in relationship to the world.


The key difference is that "spirituality" is seen as differing from "religion" in being less tied to institutional structures and intellectual formulations. This outcome is what we might expect if the move in public identification from "religion" to "spirituality" is the result of the deconstruction of Christendom. This process has generally fallen under the label of secularization, a process which is notably been played out in the geographical areas of the world shaped by Christendom.

In the light of this development, this whole approach of the sociology of religion needs to be reconsidered. Its underlying assumptions, being powerfully shaped by its relationship to Christendom’s dissolution and the rise of modernity, is in need of deconstruction. An awareness of this raises serious questions about the explanatory usefulness of ‘spirituality’ for thinking about mission and church growth strategies. Without appropriate caution, uncritically adopting the language of ‘the decline of religion’ and ‘the rise of spirituality’ could simply result in the perpetuating the problematic stories of Christendom and modernity in our ecclesiology and practice of mission.

But whose spirituality should we be seeking to draw on in the face of a world powerful shaped by widespread violence, hyper-mobility and the addictions of consumerism? I would argue that the Anabaptist tradition, as an early witness against problems inherent in Christendom has much to offer, especially with its commitment to the practices of peacemaking and community building. Such a spirituality as we continue to "practice" it out may well have an unsettling quality to it so far as our engagement with the prevailing Australian culture goes. Should that really be so surprising? A careful reading of the Gospels give us no reason to expect anything different.

Doug Hynd is a former senior public servant, and currently a PhD student in theology at St Mark's National theological Centre






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