SPIRITUALITY is back, if ever it went away. Sam Harris, one of
the leading advocates of the new atheism, published a "guide to
spirituality", Waking Up, last year. Then there is
Sanderson Jones, co-founder of the highly successful Sunday
Assembly, who argues that one of its main tasks is developing a
language for spirituality. He describes himself as a "humanist
mystic", and feels a "spirit in life" which transcends the
Now, a proudly secular institution in London, the RSA, has
published a long report, Spiritualise: Revitalising
spirituality to address 21st century challenges (Leader
comment, 2 January). The report argues that spirituality needs to
play a greater part in the public realm, because, without it, human
beings are unable to draw on the depth in life which is required to
tackle seemingly intractable problems, from unfettered consumption
to climate change. (The full report is available at
The author, Jonathan Rowson, consulted widely with more than 300
people of many faiths and none (including, I should add for
transparency's sake, me).
This new curiosity about spirituality immediately raises
hackles. There is a discomfort with the S- word itself, a feeling
that "spirituality" is a vague term (as if "religious" were not).
The charge is that it is ethically unengaged, intellectually
incoherent, personally embarrassing, sentimental, and passive. One
wag consulted by Rowson noted that, when he heard the expression
"spiritual but not religious", he described himself as "religious
but not spiritual". Last week's affirming Church Times
leader still noted that the report did not escape the trap of
treating spirituality as a largely individual matter.
The report recognises these difficulties, and makes them a
starting- point. Rowson argues that the very vagueness of the term
may be an advantage. It is one of those words, like "soul" or
"sacred", that don't die, for all the railing against them, because
they capture something that is crucial for human beings - crucial,
perhaps, for the reason that it can't be precisely captured. The
word can, therefore, hold a space that might withstand the
onslaught of materialist values, and the tendency to pin down,
exploit, and instrumentalise. If no one owns it, no one can claim a
monopoly over it.
As for the charge of individualism, I would argue that this is
also a strength of the report. Rowson's main motivation for
thinking about spirituality is that it is needed to tackle
important social issues, by means of personal growth. His
professional life in policy development has taught him that,
without individual transformation - expressed in the great
spiritual injunction to "know thyself" - the big problems stay
largely untouched. For Christians, you might say that, unless you
and I are prepared to risk the happiness of the poor, the meek, the
hungry, and the pure in heart, we may well be actually perpetuating
the collective issues that face us.
THE new exploration of spirituality might also help to dissolve
the religious barriers that are felt to exclude because they
tightly define belief in God or Jesus. Religion itself could come
to be seen as "a secure base from which to explore, not a fence
beyond which lies infidels", as Elizabeth Oldfield, the director of
Theos (and another of those consulted), put it.
Similarly, I wonder whether many religious people are
uncomfortable with a serious, transformative spirituality, because
of the demands it would make on them as individuals. Church of
England religiosity currently seems to be taking a highly
extraverted and paradoxically this-worldly turn. It is energised by
a concern for the socially excluded and materially marginalised, as
no doubt it should be. But such matters can also serve to keep the
challenge of Christianity safely in other people's lives, thereby
sidestepping the question whether we ourselves are dying each day
to live more in Christ.
Related to the personal issue, spirituality should be a mission
issue too. After all, if the mood music about spirituality has
changed, it is also clearly true that a majority of people have not
stopped believing in God or that there is a spiritual dimension to
life. What has changed is the sense that the Church of England has
much to offer when it comes to exploring those depths. As the
Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, recently put it in
an interview with the philosopher Jules Evans: "The real trouble
with the Church is not that it has retrograde social attitudes. . .
It's that it's spiritually incredible."
For all the valuable campaigning on issues of social justice, if
the Church does not know and communicate the feeling that life is
rooted in a source deeper and more compelling than the everyday,
then it has lost touch with its wellspring, and its days will look
increasingly numbered. The RSA report - and the new interest in
spiritual depth - is, I believe, implictly a challenge to us, and
to our Church.
Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist and writer in London. He
also teaches at The Idler Academy.