The Air at the Top of the Bottle

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Defining “Spiritual”

January 1st, 2010 · 4 Comments

I’m puzzled by the word “spiritual.”  I understand it as a noun, meaning a genre of vocal music.  But as an adjective, it has me stumped.

When I meet someone who spatters his or her sentences with it, I sometimes ask what it means.  She or he usually refuses, often with projectile hostility.  One woman retorted that since I read Darwin, I was incapable of nuanced thought.  This was a clue: perhaps it meant boorishness, or an aversion to defining terms.  I met similar responses from pseudo-skeptics, those odd folk who beat the drum so loudly for a “scientific investigation of the paranormal,” when I asked what they meant by “scientific” and “paranormal.”  “I’m not going to play that game,” was a typical reply.  This led me, then, to infer that “spiritual” referred to the same reductive anti-intellectualism so prized by pseudo-skeptics.  (Parenthetically, let me clarify that “beat the drum” is figurative; otherwise someone is bound to take it literally, and protest that he or she doesn’t even own a drum.  This may seem over-cautious, but it’s not.)

My dictionary here (a humble Webster’s Collegiate) defines “spiritual” as “of or relating to sacred matters.”  This is no help.  Sacred matters include fasting, feasting, asceticism, Christmas shopping, massacres, soup kitchens, the civil rights movement, the Ku Klux Klan, liberation theology, ethnic cleansing, self-immolation, heretic-lynching, scholarship, book-burning, celibacy, orgies, monogamy, polygamy, and, apparently, everything else humans do.  The definition is so elastic as to be linguistically useless.

But there is, fortunately, another clue: the etymology.  The word “spiritual” evelved from the Latin “spiritus,” meaning wind.  This makes sense.  Pythagoras forbade beans because they contain the spirits of the dead, who then seek release from our digestive tracts.  Then, too, the “joyful noise” of Psalm 100 becomes specific; “out-of-body experience” comprehensible; “inspiration” and “afflatus” no longer vague abstractions.  And “fundamentalist spirituality” is, no doubt, wind from the fundament.  “Flatulent” is as good a definition of “spiritual” as any; and flatulence, obviously, can accompany any of the above sacred matters.  And, like drum-beating, it can be taken figuratively as well. 

We here in the Ullage Group wish you a spiritual 2010.

(Posted by Doug Skinner)  

Tags: Education · Language · Mysteries

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Lisa // Jan 2, 2010 at 12:06 pm

    Doug, if you want to call my wind the voice of God I won’t argue. In fact, I may very well be a favored mouthpiece for Divine wisdom.

  • 2 angela // Jan 4, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    Wikipedia sheds no more light on the subject:

    Spirituality is relating to, consisting of, or having the nature of spirit; not tangible or material. Synonyms include immaterialism, dualism, incorporeality and eternity.

    Spirituality is traditionally associated with religion, deities, the supernatural, and an afterlife. It may include existentialism and introspection, and the development of an individual’s inner life through practices such as meditation, prayer and contemplation.

    I prefer heathens to believers and am utterly baffled by people who claim to be spiritual…unless they buy you drinks, they should be avoided if possible.

  • 3 mamie // Jan 4, 2010 at 8:48 pm

    I made a delicious black-eyed peas dish to bring prosperity for the New Year. It heartens me to think that the prosperity will be beckoned by spirituality!

  • 4 Doug // Jan 5, 2010 at 1:03 am

    Personally, I prefer spirituality to be confined to private contemplation and to houses of worship. But I am resigned to the imperfection of this world, and realize that this is not always possible.

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