Spirituality in a World of
"Fields within Fields within Fields ..."

By Eugene Fontinell, professor emeritus of philosophy of Queens College, CUNY, and the author of Toward a Reconstruction of Religion (Doubleday, 1971) and Self, God, and Immortality (Temple University Press,1986).


How delightful it is to be invited to express my view of "spirituality" in one thousand words. I am thereby commissioned to practice one of my specialties - making outrageous overgeneralizations and oversimplifications and blaming the editors (May the Holy Light shine upon them!) for denying me the space to make the distinctions, refinements, and qualifications which are called for.

One of the striking ironies of the present age is that there has been/is arising a phenomenal resurgence of materialism while at the same time a variety and diversity of spirituality claims are proliferating. What is startling about the emergent materialisms is that they are not coming from physics, which earlier in the century dealt what appeared to many to be a death-blow to classical materialism. Rather, they are emerging from the biological and cognitive sciences. As regards the latter, strong A-I proponents are secure in their faith that we will in the "near" futures see computers arise "who" can not only calculate but also feel. When that happens, as one of the leading believers has recently noted, they will be just as deserving of "rights" as old-fashioned humans are.

In the biological sciences, the genetic codes are someday to be not only enumerated but also "cracked." Already there has surfaced the hypothesis which attributes happiness to the presence or absence of a particular gene. Can the discovery/creation of faith, hope, and love genes be far off? If and when such an age of gene-creation arrives, those still talking about spirituality will have a standing equivalent to that of the Flat Earth Society. In the meantime (now), we are witnessing a veritable flood of spirituality claims from a variety of sources - from Eastern, Western, African, indigenous peoples, among many others. And such spirituality proponents are to be found among some of the most respected intellectual figures of the day.

Although there have been a few significant efforts to reconcile the scientific and nonscientific perspectives and claims, the more dominant tendency is simply to juxtapose them. We are in danger of relapsing into a mode of ontological dualism, into that "partitioning of territories" lamented by John Dewey at the outset of the century, in which "facts" are the domain and responsibility of the sciences and "values" that of philosophy and religion. How are we to avoid this dualistic abyss? My ploy, aided and abetted by thefts from a variety of sources but principally from a mode of Jamesian\Deweyan pragmatism, is to jettison the worlds of both "matter" (body) and "spirit" (soul) in favor of an ever-moving constellation of distinct, interrelated, and overlapping "fields" of energy or activity. In this framework, both materiality and spirituality are metaphysical metaphors constructed for the purpose of orienting us within this "blooming, buzzing confusion" which we refer to as the world or reality.

Having put my key metaphysical presupposition on the table, let me pose the bottom-line pragmatic question: What boots it? What difference does it existentially make whether we speak in terms of a world of continuous, interrelated, overlapping, interdependent, transacting fields, or one in which we have ontologically different worlds of matter and spirit, mysteriously joined? Of course, the most obvious difference is that my presupposition dissolves (not solves) a problem that has bedeviled Western thinkers to some extent from its earliest moments, but most acutely since the modern scientific revolution and Descartes's radicalization of the mind\soul\body split. Due to space limitations, I will be forgiven if I do not attempt a detailed description of the variety and diversity of responses to this problem. Most of us, however, are aware, at least at an impressionistic level, of what some of the most significant responses have been. In the philosophical realm, both idealism and materialism claim solution by dissolution - idealism gets rid of matter and materialism gets rid of spirit. In the religious\moral realm, until quite recently, the two worlds were presupposed and the ultimate problem\task was how to get out of one - the lower, material world - and into the other - the higher, spiritual world. Evoking a moral-arena metaphor, the task was to live with the body and material goods insofar as this was necessary but continually to struggle to keep our focus upon the higher, spiritual world and the values associated with it. Needless to say, this perspective gave rise to numerous articulations. In the world influenced by Christianity, at least, they ranged from seeing the material world as evil, as the source of all temptations, continuously to be opposed and struggled against, to viewing the body and the material world as morally indifferent realities to be used by the soul for its spiritual enhancement. The former view has, of course, been the dominant if not the exclusive view until quite recently. There has been/is emerging, both from within and outside traditional religious communities, numerous efforts to overcome the isolating and de-energizing effects of hierarchical dualism, while not accepting the reductive materialisms which are also taking on new life.

One of the most significant new perspectives, attracting both those within and outside formal religious communities, is that which has been designated "ecotheology." Let me simply - oversimply - state what I consider the minimal requirements for any ecotheology that merits consideration and development. Negatively, it must not become mired in the problems, touched upon above, which accompany metaphysical or ontological dualism. Further, it must not lose a dimension of significant distinctness and difference between those modes of activity metaphorically designated "material" and "spiritual." Finally, it must not so identify the divine and the earth\universe that it eventuates in or is indistinguishable from an unrefined, sentimental pantheism. Positively, it must affirm a significant mode of continuity between the human, earthly, and divine fields of activity. This continuity must make possible, indeed make necessary, creative transactions not only between similar centers of activity but between diverse centers, narrower and wider. More specifically, human centers of activity must have possible consequences not only for human and earthly activities but perhaps also for divine activities. Only in some such way, I would suggest, can those who locate their mode of spirituality within a religious context and community avoid the charge independently made by both Nietzsche and Dewey that religion is de-energizing in that it distracts humans from the concrete, creative tasks which are related to the enrichment and development not only of the human community but indeed of the world - and perhaps, I would add, even of God.

My conditions for a viable ecotheology are the same as those for any viable philosophy of spirituality - indeed for any morality or religion. My fundamental metaphysical presupposition for any and all of these has already been touched upon: that what we refer to as the world or reality is best and most fruitfully described as "an ever-moving constellation of distinct, interrelated, and overlapping 'fields' of energy or activity." A crucial character of this world, as indicated, is "continuity," a continuity which allows for and indeed brings forth a rich and diverse plurality, incorporating a significant but nonisolating distinctness among all fields of activity while avoiding any smothering "identity" or individual person-obliterating "absorption."

Given such a world, it must be asked whether spirituality is any longer a useful category, even understood as a symbol or metaphor? Does it not carry too much negative baggage - its abstractness, its contrast with the "active" life, its association with ghosts, spirits, magic, bizarre claims? All the baggage, of course, is not negative, for it is also used to designate dimensions of depth and vital enrichment in acts and works of art as well as in a multiplicity of individual and communal activities ranging from the love of others to heroic acts of self-sacrifice, whether expressed in religious or moral terms. In any event, as Tillich noted years ago, we can neither will into nor out of existence significant human symbols. Symbols\metaphors, however, may die but the richer ones neither die nor remain static. Instead, they are reconstructed and this, I suggest, is what is happening and hopefully will continue to happen with spirituality; not because as a term or a metaphor it is particularly important, but rather because, however haltingly and inadequately, it has served to keep humans open to and aware of dimensions of reality and modes of life that, though elusive, have energized humans both individually and communally, thereby avoiding the ever-present threat of vital impoverishment. It is such a threat that James suggests cannot be met by materialism, which, he contends, "will always fail of universal adoption, however well it may fuse things into an atomistic unity, however clearly it may prophesy the future eternity. For materialism denies reality to the objects of almost all the impulses which we most cherish" The Will to Believe [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979, f.p. 1897], 71).

In conclusion, let me simply state that with the particular reconstruction I am suggesting, one is more comfortable speaking in terms of spiritual life or spiritual experience. These terms, I believe, keep the focus more on the concrete. Even here, however, the pragmatist might not consider the term "spiritual" indispensable. What is indispensable are those fruits which emerge from both individual and communal human activities. Do they enrich us, deepen us, open us to new possibilities, and offer the hope of fulfilling our most profound yearnings? Do they extend and enrich our sense and experience of that "more" which James insists characterizes all levels of human experience. It is when humans are confronted with that widest and most encompassing "more" that they are led to invoke such terms as "spirit" and "spiritual." It is also here that humans have been and will likely continue to be divided on the character of this "more," that widest reality and mode(s) of activity within which we live and move and have our being-becoming. Hence, this "more" has been diversely expressed as a personal God, a collectivity of gods or spirits, nature, Gaia, the universe, Being, or Non-Being.

Copyright of Cross Currents is the property of Association for Religion & Intellectual Life and its content may not be copied without the copyright holder's express written permission except for the print or download capabilities of the retrieval software used for access. This content is intended solely for the use of the individual user.  Source: Cross Currents, Winter 1996-97, Vol. 46 Issue 4.