a collaborative genealogy of spirituality

atmosphere, spiritual

by Gina Welch

Untitled by C. R. Johnson
Untitled by C. R. Johnson

“I wouldn’t say I’m a spiritual person.” This from a man I’d phoned as my expert witness on spirituality, Ray, a pastor I’d grown to adore and admire during my stint undercover at his church. “I don’t even like to say I’m religious.”

Well, great. When I’d emailed to see if Ray had any free time to tell me what spirituality was, he had kicked me a definition that lit up a rope of lights to the David Foster Wallace Kenyon College commencement address I so loved, and that connection had made me think he’d have answers.

The Kenyon address seemed to offer the antidote to the alienations of modern experience represented in such delectable detail in Wallace’s books—our love affairs with screens, the cognitive dissonance we construct to live with the senseless nightmares of existence: our appetites, pouring ceaselessly into the unfillable emptiness inside; the irrepressible feeling that we’re forever alone. The Kenyon address said, leverage up on something greater than yourself to meet those forces with a beam of compassion.

“What is spirituality?” Ray had written to me. “In short, the non-physical. Being spiritual means living for something larger than yourself.”

The echo there revived the hopeful feeling I’d had writing In the Land of Believers—that evangelical Christians and the rest of us were more the same than different.

But on the phone, Ray resisted talking to me about spirituality. Christianity, he told me, was “more like a relationship. Like the one I have with my wife. It’s a commitment to Jesus Christ. It doesn’t mean I get everything that I want. There’s certainly been a lot of days and a lot of heartache, but I tell you I don’t know how people live without it, all alone. He never promises to take me out of pain, but He does promise to go with me.”

God’s thereness and its relation to spirituality—perhaps I’m the last person who should try cracking this stuff. I don’t believe in any supernatural-type situation, no kind god with soft hands or angry god with whirling hair, no presence, no powerful witch with the face of a spider, no pulsing orb that knows our secrets and accepts us still, and even after two years undercover at Jerry Falwell’s church I still don’t even know what anyone means by spirituality. Once, when I rolled my eyes at his friendly invitation to watch a Christmas movie starring Nicholas Cage, my stepdad told me I wasn’t a spiritual person. What was that supposed to mean? That I was a snob? I talked too much? Couldn’t experience mindless pleasure? Was I a cynic? A bad hugger?

When people tell me they are spiritual, first I think of healing crystals and astral charts, a lock of white hair tied to the end of a stick, drum circles and dreamcatchers, the cosmic juice between us all, man, synchronicity as a sign of some kind of, like, churning force!

Shaking off the stardust, I turn to thinking that the Spiritual Person probably has cobbled together a set of private beliefs they don’t really feel like explaining. After one of my best friends almost died in a car accident, he custom designed a personal program based on the Beatitudes, Buddhism, and Emerson. It verges on genius, and it is a spirituality. Religion is a form you sign; spirituality is ideas. But if we each get to decide what spirituality means, what the freak is spirituality?

See how terrible I am at this? Spirituality is one of those annoyingly flexible words like freedom, a blankness that invites our self-centered definition to scribble itself all over the big dry erase board of its name.

In Andre Comte-Sponville’s excellent morsel of meditation, The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, he writes that “we are finite beings that open onto infinity.” That’s better. Let me request that you suppress the word spirituality for two seconds, and instead invite you to open onto the ethereal atmosphere between us, weather, vibes, the forever stuff, our flickering understanding of what connects us, and what connects us all to eternity. Sometimes it’s there, locking us into all the life around us, calling us to unbind the narrow corset of our own needs and serve the world with compassion, to transcend, to tap into what Wallace called the “mystical oneness”; sometimes it’s just us with our one aging slab of flesh and our bag of snack carrots and the flat screen in front of us.

Two questions: what does that unreliable connection thing do for us? And does a person need a higher power to stabilize it?

As far as I can tell, the main reason for finding a practice whereby you can refresh your connection to the forever stuff is that it sustains us in the bad places, and it helps us be resiliently our best compassionate selves, no matter what the circumstances. I struggle with this! Sometimes I feel downright selfish! Sometimes, when a person asks for a bite of my granola bar, this evil little voice inside says, What about ME?

The practice: I’m not about to throw down and say that religious people are any better at knifing their inner troll than the rest of us, but I can say that most of the people I’ve known who can levitate over their rolling moods and be the person they believe they ought to be practice religion. Ray was this way. He held out the same warm hand to everyone, always. When I told him I’d lied to him about being a Christian so that I could write a book about his church he was shocked, asked a few questions, sipped his soda, and forgave me. Maybe he could tell me about spirituality. Maybe he was the most spiritual person I’d ever known.

According to him, he wasn’t. But could he tell me—what was a spiritual person?

“A spiritual person is the searcher, the pioneer looking for the land of milk and honey. I’ve found the land of milk and honey, but I do have responsibility there. It’s hard! I’m not a robot. But when you’re committed, it’s easy to forgive. It’s easy to do the right thing.”

Can I extrapolate from this? Can I make an evangelical Christian’s version of spirituality approximate an atheist’s? I’ll try: maybe we can say that spirituality is the system we design to make doing the right thing feel easy.