Spiritual but not religious

Our monthly feature seeks to offer open-minded, clarifying, and meaningful responses to readers’ questions about spirituality. Send your questions to The Resident.

Q: Last month you addressed a question about the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and an early church controversy regarding the Son. What can you say about the Holy Spirit? The title of your column is “Spiritual but not Religious.” What do you mean when you talk about Spirituality?

Great questions! The terms “spirit, spiritual, spirituality” are especially challenging because we’re liable to bandy these words about assuming that everyone knows what we mean, when we may very well not be talking about the same thing at all. A quick check of one online dictionary offers 14 meanings for the word “spirit” as a noun, and two as a verb.

In Christianity, the term “Holy Spirit” has a technical theological meaning that has, predictably, generated many lengthy books – most of them impenetrable for lay Christians, and many unreadable even by professional priests. It would be a stretch to try to summarise even one of them in this short column, which is not intended to address only Christian theology in any event. Anyone who wants to know more about that can find me in church or, better yet, share a beer with me.

The word “spirit” [small “s”] often refers to what is regarded as the immortal soul of an individual human being – an idea that is not unique to Christianity – but may also refer to what we think of as divinities or demons or mere ghosts. The word does seem to hold a notion of the essence of a thing – some quality that is not comprehended by its purely physical existence. This results in the genuine split between materialists on the one hand and, well, spiritualists (many of whom would themselves reject the term) on the other.

Being in the spiritual camp, my impression is that most people have a deep-rooted feeling that their own existence is not fully explained by reference only to physical processes; and while we can argue about whether or not that’s “true”, we nevertheless can’t describe those processes in sufficient detail to help us understand why we long for the company of other human beings, or why we often treat one another badly, or what the meaning of suffering could be, or of what happiness might consist. How and why we search for answers to such questions is what I personally mean when I use the word “spirituality”. I hope this column sometimes helps!

The Rev. Reid Hamilton, St Vincent’s Church