Book | A Sociology of Spirituality edited by Flanagan and Jupp

imageFlanagan, Kieran & Jupp, Peter C. A Sociology of Spirituality. Aldershot, England; Burlington, VT: Ashgate. 2007.

The Editors — Kieran Flanagan and Peter Jupp

from the book jacket:

“The emergence of spirituality in contemporary culture in holistic forms suggests that organised religions have failed. This thesis is explored and disputed in this book in ways that mark important critical divisions. This is the first collection of essays to assess the significance of spirituality in the sociology of religion.”

My Thoughts

This collection of essays explores how and if spirituality, and the emerging prevalence of spirituality that is detached from organized religion, can be studied in the field of sociology. This is an interesting question since much of the impetus behind the formation of sociology as an academic discipline was to dislodge the study of human social/political movement from the dominance of theology and the apparent bankruptcy and Medieval moorings that came with it. This dislodging was considered to be a harbinger of the eventual total collapse of organized religion in the West. Now that more people in Western/Modern culture are expressing themselves as either (a) spiritual but not religious, or (b) finding a deeper spirituality within their organized religion, the challenge is presented to discipline of sociology to figure out how to empirically examine this phenomenon.

This book does not answer the question. The editors admit that “the collection has generated far more questions than it answers. A vista worthy of sociological exploration has been opened out and in the study of spirituality new issues, new interpretations and new characterisations of culture and religion emerge.” (260)

I found three essays particularly interesting and helpful for my research.

“Spirituality: Some Disciplinary Perspectives” by Peter C. Holmes.

He explores how spirituality has become an important part of several academic disciplines: psychology, medicine and healthcare, religion, anthropology, education, and the business world. Ironically, sociology is the slowest discipline to take up the task of studying spirituality.

Holmes asks preliminary questions before discussing the particularities of each discipline. He says,

“we must decide whether we believe in the existence of spirituality, and if we do then the academic question is whether it is possible to study it at all. Many have traditionally seen spirituality as a mystery. If we do see spirituality this way, then we have a choice. Either we acknowledge we cannot study it directly because of its intangibility. Alternately, we accept the study of spirituality at a corporeal level, but only through its outcomes and symptoms. In accepting this latter option we are also acknowledging that current academic tools are unable to study the incorporeal essence of spirituality.” (23)

Holmes also provides a provisional definition of spirituality. Spirituality is “the human search for meaning, particularly relationally, and that for many today this incorporates a supernatural/corporeal dimension that suggests many of us have discovered we are more than our physical biology.” (24-25)

“Georg Simmel: Religion and Spirituality” by Ivan Varga.

This essay explores the sociology of a somewhat neglected pioneer in the field: Georg Simmel. Varga begins the essay with an observation and question:

“Why does spirituality occupy an increasingly important place in people’s lives, whether they belong or not to a church? In my view, this is mainly because in modernity or postmodernity the individual is increasingly de-rooted, that is, deprived of the traditional cultural significants; the individual is–to paraphrase Sartre–‘thrown into choice’, and collective memory is becoming ever more fragmented. In order better to understand these developments, in particular the development of new forms of spirituality, Simmel’s ideas on the distinction between religion and religiosity are of paramount importance. His views on the role religion plays in society and in the life of the individual were shaped by his social theory.” (146)

Varga proceeds to offer a concise overview of Simmel’s social theory. I found this interesting because I think it relates to relational ontology, the both/and of individual and group, and the development of my own MeWe Principle. Varga states,

“In Simmel’s view there is a tension between the individual and the social. Sociation (Vergesellschaftung) is the process through which an individual becomes a member of society. In this process the individual recognises the other and through the other his or her self. Sociation as a process includes individuation. But it also involves a tension between association and dissociation whereby the individual, who belongs to a group or to several groups, asserts his or her individuality thus counteracting the tendency towards homogenisation. Simmel admits that there are a few exceptions to this process, such as monks in a monastery. For him, society was neither an entity in itself nor a sum total of individuals. Rather, he viewed it as specific interactions of individuals who create the forms in which they constitute the groups that make up society. Thus society is a dynamic process involving individuals in their interactions within and amongst groups.” (147)

Simmel distinguishes between religion and religiosity. Varga picks up on this distinction and names it as a possible reason for the recent growth in spirituality and its detachment from organized religion. Simmel says, “Life wishes to express itself directly as religion, not through a language with a lexicon and prescribed syntax. One could use an apparently paradoxical expression and say: The soul can find faith only by losing it. To preserve the integrity of religious feeling, it must shake off all determined and predetermined religious forms (Simmel 1968b (1918): 24).” (155)

Varga concludes,

“Simmel anticipates not only the changes in the dynamic of religion but also of the human condition in postmodernity. The spirit or ‘soul’ of modern culture, with its open-endedness and at the same time restrictive nature, places a burden on the individual who must navigate between the Scylla of rapid technological and social changes and the Charybdis of finding a meaning of life amongst the competing worldviews. Simmels’ emphasis on spirituality and quest of an overarching meaning also explains the stubbornness of religiosity in a world that is secularised in its institutions.

“The Zeitgeist of the postmodern culture fosters the individual’s striving for ‘self-realisation’, but it is discordant with the constraints created by the irreconcilable conflict of objective and subjective culture. Simmel, however, acknowledges that this polarity is an essential element of the progress of culture. His analysis of the possibilities of the individual’s potential within the asymmetry of the objective and subjective culture helps us to understand the role of spirituality and its relation to church-oriented religion.” (158)

“The Embodied Spirituality of the Post-Boomer Generations” by Richard Flory and Donald E. Miller.

These authors interviewed over 100 members of congregations that represented two types of Generation Xers who were finding their spirituality within an organized religious expression. The first kind they labeled “reclaimers” because they have abandoned the symbol-less religion of much the mega-church evangelicalism and are finding deep spiritual meaning in the older, traditional, liturgal spaces and practices. The second group they labeled “Innovators” because they are creating their own forms of liturgical practices within organized communities.

Both groups hold certain things in common. First, they betray the predictions of Bellah, et alia, that the spirituality of this generation is individual and nomadic. These post-boomers are finding their spirituality as a journey, yes, but a journal embodied in community. Secondly, this community is not limited to the introspection and individualization of other forms of spirituality. Flory and Miller call their spirituality an “Expressive Communalism.” The individual finds oneself in community, but the purpose of the community is for the good of the larger, “other”, community through acts of social justice and communal participation.

I found this interesting because I believe this is a good picture of what a missional community could, and possibly should, look like. Spirituality is the purpose of the church as it expresses the imago Dei of relationality. This relationality is the missio Dei as the particular individuals are formed in the Expressive Communalism of the journeying community.