Making the Unbearable Bearable through Existential Spirituality

Making the Unbearable Bearable through Existential Spirituality

R. Scott Webster (Deakin University, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-1955-3.ch004
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Abstract

In this chapter the case is made that spirituality can indeed have a significant impact upon practical life. Existential spirituality refers to the way one gives meaning and purpose to one's life. The value of spirituality is best appreciated when one's life undergoes an existential crisis, particularly when a worldview, which was assumed to give sense to one's life, no longer has the legitimacy it once had. When a religious, traditional or customary doctrine or worldview loses its authority through an existential crisis, the individual often experiences nihilism. This can often make an experience of hardship quite unbearable because one's suffering is unable to reference any grand narrative or framework of meaning to give sense to one's situation. Using Kierkegaard's three stages of existence, it is argued that making one's spirituality more authentic by taking personal responsibility on an individual level, might be able to make unbearable experiences more bearable.
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Spirit, Spirituality, And The Religious

It can sometimes be difficult to take spirituality seriously, especially regarding its potential role or impact upon ‘real’ practical life in the ‘here and now’. One of the problems that has contributed to this is a tendency to reify what we understand by ‘spirit’. Doing so, leads to questions such as what is the ‘stuff’ which spirit consists of? Is it partly divine? Is it immortal? From the Greek term pneuma and the Latin term spīritus we understand that spirit refers to a life-giving breath of vigour and as such it is not a ‘thing’ but rather is more like a life-giving ‘force’. Consequently, spirituality can be understood to refer to the desires, interests and purposes which energise us, and also give inspiration to our existence. Consequently, spirituality is not a commodity that we can obtain, but it refers to our very being where, for example, being either full of spirit or being spiritless can be aspects of the manner or the way in which we participate in living our lives and facing our challenges.

In addition to avoiding reification in order to take spirituality more seriously, it is also important to recognise that spirituality is not dependent upon religion (Webster, 2009). Spirituality refers to the ultimate meaning and purpose for life and it can often appear religious. However, it is important to recognise that spirituality is not identical with religion because spirituality is pertinent for all persons – both the religious and the non-religious. Religion can tend to represent a particular body of doctrine which an adherent can obtain and so it can be related to epistemology. Smith (1978, p. 20) usefully recognised that the Latin religio, being the root for ‘religion’, has a much “more stable history” as an adjective rather than as a noun substantive concept. Hence other derivatives such as relegare and religare refer to the manner in which activities – such as worship – are undertaken.

In a similar sense, Caputo (2001, p. 43) has identified that in the Middle Ages the term religio was understood to be a virtue and hence it is more ontological in nature because it refers to the attributes of people rather than statements of knowledge or beliefs located beyond people usually in sacred texts. This understanding has led him to state elsewhere that “to be ‘religious’ in its deepest sense is to be a searcher, living in search of something” and he contrasts this with those who “are satisfied with the reality that sits under our noses” (Caputo, 2007, p. 38) who are not questioning, doubting or grappling.

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