‘Facing’ Spirituality

Peace, one and all…

Of late, I have been reading as voraciously as I can around the broad topic of spirituality – specifically, what it is, what it is not and what it means in our complex 21st century world.  I have also had the opportunity to discuss some of these issues with others, both online and in the real world.  I value such conversations deeply, as I am convinced that, in many important respects, meanings are formed through discussion.  That is, our initial, provisional meanings are fleshed out in respectful conversations with others.

This is why I have been particularly enjoying David Ford’s excellent book on Christian theology: Self and Salvation: Being Transformed.  Although, as yet, I have only had the chance to read the first couple of chapters, it sets out a lively and interesting framework for exploration.  As such, I wanted to share a couple of paragraphs from this work.  I found them profound, as well as beautiful.  Enjoy…

‘We live before the faces of others.  Some are there physically, others in memory or anticipation.  We have been formed face to face from our earliest days, deeper than conscious memory.  A baby is welcomed – amazed gratitude, hugs and kisses, feeding, anxious oversight, eyes meeting, the first smile, accompanying singing and speaking, friends and relatives come to see.  It is a face exactly like no other, mark of individuality and uniqueness, constantly moving and changing.   But who is it like?  It is part of genetic history, features formed by race and family, a one-off that constantly displays its origins, the type of continuity with novelty.

Already too it is part of cultural history, has been involuntarily taken into a particular family, society and period.  What meanings are already played out in these first encounters?  How is this particular baby received and understood?  What are the habits and customs, the codes and influences, which are distilled into communication with this new person?  What does it mean to be firstborn?  Or female?’ (p. 17)

‘How are you related to your face?  Why does that sound a rather odd question?  Partly because it does not ring true in separating face and self.  Yet it would also seem odd to identify face and self.  Obviously, you are more than the outside of part of your head.  Yet that last phrase is clearly inadequate as a description of the face.  To meditate on the face is to find an approach to a range of key questions about the self.  The face often seems to be a pivotal ‘interface’ between two aspects of the self’ (p.19)

Links to previous posts:

Ma’as salama,
Abdur Rahman

4 thoughts on “‘Facing’ Spirituality

  1. Another book to add to my reading list! I’d recommend Ford’s “The shape of living” too.

    I’m also interested in the relation between spirituality and religion and I am fond of the following quote by Norman Fischer who is a Jew and a Zen Buddhist. It puts across the dynamic between the two nicely:

    “The word religion, it seems, stands for established traditions; it stands for doctrine and belief, rules and proscribed practices, rites and rituals, the authority and sanction of tradition and the past. Religion is weighty; this is good – weight brings gravity – but it is also bad – it pulls you down, making it harder to fly.

    Spirituality is something else. It’s about experience, about feeling. It’s personal and heartfelt. It involves practice and belief to an extent, but the emphasis is on what happens and how it feels rather than on what is supposed to be performed and how that is supposed to be understood and interpreted. If the centre of religion is the church, the scripture, the doctrine, the structure, the centre of spirituality is the person, the feeling human heart. The strength of spirituality is the lightness and sensitivity of its reality – if you are open to it, it’s there for you, as real as a breeze. But its lightness is also its weakness – yes, it helps you fly, but you might just keep going. Lacking the ballast of tradition, spirituality tends to float us off high into the clouds, where we can easily lose track of ourselves. Clearly then what we are after is a combination of these two elements. We want a religion that holds us and deepens us, along with a spirituality that lifts us and feeds us the food we need.”

    “Calling, Being Called” in “Beside Still waters – Jews, Christians and the Way of the Buddha” (ed) Kasimow, Keenan & Keenan.

  2. Peace Ray,

    I know what you mean! So many books and so little time (and spare money)!!! 😉

    Thank you for this quote. It is really beautiful, and equally, deeply profound. Insha Allah, I will look out for the book itself. I really like this description of the difference between religion and spirituality. Holding and feeding are two great metaphors.

    I think you’d like Self and Salvation. I’ve been reading it over the weekend and it is, in essence, an extended meditation on the face and what it means for salvation, religion and inner life.

    How would other Buddhists talk about the distinctions between religion and spirituality? Is this an appropriate question?

    Abdur Rahman

  3. Well I am happy to talk of Buddhism as a religion and faith though this was not always so. I think Buddhists in the West, especially converts who came to Buddhism through meditation practice, would take issue with calling Buddhism a religion at all. They may prefer to speak of “a way of life”, a philosophy, a practice… but would distance themselves from “religion” and quite often, from the more devotional aspects of Buddhism. This probably says more about their prior experiences of the faith within which they were brought up.

    Pureland Buddhism speaks a lot about “grace” and “other power” and I think i would find it easier to talk about my own faith to Christians (and Jews and Muslims!) than to some of me fellow Buddhist converts! I think we would have a shared understanding of the experiences of God and the Spirit though we may use differing language and devotional practices.

    In the west I think that religion has become synonymous with organised dogmatic institutions telling you what to believe. I think a lot of antagonism, I’m thinking of the more extreme “new atheists” now, is towards a God and a faith that i don’t recognise and believe in either. A caricature almost. Words such as “faith” and “religion” can carry such baggage for some people. This is sad. maybe we need to be more creative in our dialogue with such people to get beneath the labels and misunderstandings.

    Namo Amida Bu


  4. Peace Ray,

    Thank you for an interesting response. The word ‘religion’ is often raises more issues than it solves I’ve found. It is usually given as a translation of the important term ‘din’ in Arabic. This term is used to describe Islam – al-din al-Islam. It contains a number of the ideas referred to by ‘religion’ but it is far broader. Indeed, it really connotes the idea of a way of living and relating to the divine. Because Muslims often translate this word as religion without thinking more widely about the differences, it sometimes creates problems of understanding.

    I have read some Pureland texts myself (the names of which escape me at present). I too was very struck by the devotional quality of these texts (which, as I recall, refer to Amitabha) – very, very different from what I had thought of as Buddhism previously.

    I’d be very, very interested in having a conversation with you about what constitutes ‘grace’ and ‘other power’ within your tradition.

    My best salaams to you and yours…

    Abdur Rahman

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