One More Nail in the Spirituality Coffin

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:

  1. Eckhart Tolle
  2. Dalai Lama
  3. Wayne W. Dyer
  4. Thich Nhat Hanh
  5. Deepak Chopra
  6. Louise L. Hay
  7. Paulo Coelho
  8. Oprah Winfrey
  9. Ken Wilber
  10. 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.

5 thoughts on “One More Nail in the Spirituality Coffin

  1. Is spirituality the issue here, Joseph, or the political economy it enacts itself through at this time? Spirituality (as if that is a coherent “thing”) has always been “paid for”; it has always been enacted in the commercial realm of its time, as must any endeavor/enterprise to sustain itself.

    Admittedly, spirituality, for all its pronouncements for growth and transcendence, has also been terribly conservative in its inclinations to rest into the structures of the market place and the deeply unconscious assumptions of self and other, self and Source that under gird any economic system. Our times are no different.

    And even though many of our present day gurus/priests/change agents come out of the 60’s surge of challenge and address of capitalistic practices, they too had to find their way to sustainability without clear and present alternatives to the present commercial realities they operate in. Perhaps for all their talk of transformation and transcendence we should expect them to have penetrated the complexities of late-stage capitalism, but that simply is not the case, and really only amounts to our own expectation and projection of a responsibility we all share.

    Your criticisms leveled in your blog and amplified through your LOHAS article are great starts, and I’m also stimulated by the ideas put forth here: http://integralpostmetaphysicalnonduality.blogspot.com/2011/03/capitalisms-existential-crisis.html .

    Spirituality and political economy are certainly integrally connected, and we must go very deeply within as well as without to explore our own unconscious rootedness in the fundamental drives within us we’ve been born and bread into that make us complicit in perpetuating capitalist practices. To leave my note with a small taste, I leave you with this quote from Christian Arnsperger drawn from that site:

    “The brilliant and diabolical logic of capitalism plays on the confusion between ‘needs’ and ‘cravings.’ That’s why we run after consumption and accumulation. Consequently, it’s a system that creates repetitive compulsions for most of us – in any case, for those who have the means to treat themselves to certain things – and that simultaneously creates structural inequalities.”

    ‘Preciate your work, always,

    Eric

    1. Hi Eric

      I’d want to unpack the political from the literal economy here (while acknowledging how they are intertwined). I don’t think it’s inevitable that spirituality (whatever that is) has to work within a literal economy. That it appears inevitable to those with even a developed and critical sense of economies demonstrates how deeply the market has embedded itself in our fabric of reasoning.

      So no, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with spirituality per se, but when the field of meaning that functions around the term becomes unavoidably market- and product-orientated, I think the only sensible option is for it to be jettisoned. Obviously, I’m imposing what I perceive to be an “appropriate” field of meaning around whatever kernel of truth I perceive to exist in the term “spirituality”: but, hey, I’m free to do so 🙂

  2. Hey Joseph,

    Each sentence in that first paragraph would be a lot of work to unpack, and I wish you had the time and inclination to put your incisiveness to them. Good stuff there I’d love your elaboration upon. And each one reflects the complexity of the issues involved that I thought your opening blog glossed.

    Your second paragraph, however, seems to reveal you’re not really ready to go into the differentiation I offered, for whatever reason. Moreover, you know the difference between the freedom to do something and its appropriateness. You’ve certainly got the right to impose your appropriate field of meaning around spirituality, but that’s not the same thing as being right in doing so.

    So, OK, this may not be your time for wanting to go into this more, but I’d look forward to what you have to say when you do.

    1. Fair enough, Eric: these posts and comments are notes and sketches rather than fully formed arguments.

      Thank you for allowing a rather half-baked response for the time being: like the Stevie Smith poem, it’s a time of “not waving, but drowning”.

  3. Got it and hang in! Your stuff’s great, and I appreciate the effort it takes to do it all.
    Eric

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