It wasn’t that many years ago that I was quite happy with the word “spirituality”: I even put it in the title of the journal I founded, Journal of Men, Masculinities and Spirituality. But every month that goes past makes me less and less comfortable with it; with every month that goes past its meaning shifts, its value haemorrhaging.
When spirituality is taught in the university, its current manifestation is described as the “subjective turn” where folks turn away from external sources of authority and values towards themselves. This is not necessarily a bad thing if those subjective and individual values are more useful than the external and cultural values left behind. However, more often than not, what defines contemporary spirituality is not the “subjective turn” but the “corporate turn,” where spirituality is reduced to a range of products and services sold to an unwitting audience who believe their purchases enable their spiritual development. I have written about this in the article Lohas and the Indigo Dollar: Growing the Spiritual Economy, and would also recommend reading Jeremy Carrette and Richard King’s book Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion for further discussion on this topic.
One excellent example of this trend comes in the recent edition of the Watkins Review and their 100 Spiritual Power List, the top ten of which comprises:
- Eckhart Tolle
- Dalai Lama
- Wayne W. Dyer
- Thich Nhat Hanh
- Deepak Chopra
- Louise L. Hay
- Paulo Coelho
- Oprah Winfrey
- Ken Wilber
- Rhonda Byrne
The striking commonality across the 100 on the list is their ability to shift product. If these people really are significant in the spiritual development of sentient life on Earth we are in woeful trouble. There are a number of people on the list I have written about in the past who are problematic, to say the least. There are also those I have witnessed at work in the flesh, and even one or two I know in person: it is not an encouraging list.
Of course, people will say “ah, but this about those people recognised in the public domain, not necessarily those who are most representative of ‘genuine’ spirituality.” But this only consolidates the bankrupt nature of the common understanding of the word: equating air time and sales with spiritual significance, influence and “power” (which itself is a troubling word in the context of the spiritual).
As is often the case, I end up sounding a bit Richard Dawkins, as if there is something inherently corrupt and deceitful about the spiritual, which is not (should not) be the case. I am firmly supportive of spiritual worldviews, but no longer of the word “spirituality.”
The time has come for anyone interested in meaningful conversations about what is loosely described as “spirituality” to abandon the term and seek a new vocabulary that is not tainted by the seemingly inescapable co-opting power of sales and marketing. This may sound like an impossible task, but remember it wasn’t that long ago (20 years?) that people referred more to the word “mysticism,” and this was largely supplanted by “spirituality.”
If we want to rescue “spirituality” we need to evolve our language and meaning faster than the co-opting habits of financially-minded and “power” individuals: these grubby people tend to be surprisingly limited in imagination, so I suspect it may not be as difficult as it sounds.