Spirituality and Flourishing


I am finding it harder and harder to come up with topics for this blog, but I am still working on it. Today, I am going to use some materials I prepared for an online class I am teaching. It compresses the sequence I gave previously over two years into a 10-week course and generally follows my first book, Sustainability by Design. In putting this course together, I now recognize, as I have written, that I got quite a few things wrong, some important and some not. I have tried to correct my use of sustainability and flourishing in this blog in recent posts; tonight I am going to write about another important error dealing with the way I treated spirituality.

The idea of care was central to my thinking about what changes need to be made prior to creating the possibility that flourishing will appear. It still is, perhaps even more critically. Care is the underlying structure of Being and makes us human beings rather than like other living species. We are unique in many ways. Care, in the ontological sense, is an active use of the word. It means to act toward the world intending to make it flourish, To do this we must learn and practice loving and compassion. We must also become exquisite listeners because, if we cannot hear what is missing in the world, we cannot exercise care. We cannot practice compassion unless we have a pretty good idea of what is missing from the other.

In Sustainability by Design, I developed a taxonomy of concerns. Concern is not the same as care, but can be used to categorize areas or domains that we should care about if we are to flourish. Concern is a mental state calling attention to actions that may be taken. It is close the casual way we use care to characterize a certain kind of mental state. Care in the way I have been using it is different; it is the mode by which we act in those domains. Caring always show up as some set of observable actions. I was not clear about this in the first book, but I was more or less on track. The categorization of concerns I developed was, on the other hand, seriously flawed.

I divided up the concerns under three major categories: care for myself, for other human beings, and for everything else. Phenomenologically, these three categories form a complete set of all worldly objects. I placed care for the spiritual in the category of self although I was aware of some unease at doing this, but I had no other place to put it that made more sense at that time. What I missed and have now corrected is that spirituality refers to out-of-the-world phenomena: things and experiences that have no material presence in the world. My former taxonomy did not make this very important distinction. It is an additional major domain.

Spirituality or transcendence, as some call it, referring to unearthly phenomena is distinctive on several grounds. Caring actions go forth, but do not trigger responses as do most cares in the world. Some claim to have their prayers answered, but these are special cases. The sites where and media through which spiritual experiences occur are frequently deemed to be sacred, meaning they are to be respected and not to be violated. Other rules also apply, but these seem to be the most important with respect to the model I am presenting.

Most of the world’s religions are grounded in some way on transcendence, but operate within structures that are worldly. There is no other way for humans to act toward transcendence as we are firmly planted in the world, and, unless we have an experience that takes us out of the world, our acts remain worldly. Religion is not the same as spirituality/transcendence, but is a set of rules and practices owing its existence to some transcendent event. One can take care of this domain through religious practices, but there are other ways outside of organized religions.

The Native Americans held Mother Earth to be the source of all things, to be held sacred and cared for through spiritual practices. They continually faced a moral dilemma needing to take materials from nature to survive, in essence, violating the sacred. They solved this dilemma by showing respect and gratitude in their acts of appropriation. They saw humans as merely a part of the web of life. The idea of web is important as it suggests that we are interconnected to some or all of the parts of the world. As our knowledge about the cosmos unfolds, some believe we interconnected to everything in the universe.

To be whole and flourish, one has to recognize and exercise care in this, the spiritual domain. It is part of the ground of existence of our species and is reflected in our language as a domain that has accompanied the development of Homo sapiens for as long as we have evidence about the nature of civilization. In this sense, it is no different from taking care of oneself or others. But it does have one important difference: the realization of [inter]connections is intrinsic to spirituality, and actions in this domain can make this understanding more present in our consciousness of the world.

A sense of connection to the other is essential in caring actions. If such a recognition is absent, caring is not possible. Interactions can take place but not caring actions. This sense of connection is largely absent in our culture. We are individualists, seeing the world as primarily resources for us humans. Increasingly, we take care of ourselves as if we were machines that need a little fuel and lubrication from time to time. We are removed from the outside world. Many children believe that milk comes from the supermarket. Connections increasingly come via the Internet, but lack the context and contact that makes connection meaningful. It is very hard, perhaps impossible, to truly care for someone lost in the emptiness of cyberspace.

Flourishing cannot come forth until we recover our sense of connection, both the idea itself and its manifestations in the world. We will not be able to care for many of the domains in my or others taxonomy. We can certainly learn to be more conscious. The special feature of spirituality is that it can speed up and deepen this process of recovery.