The politics of spirituality:

I hope you like circles

posted by Kerry Mitchell

I want to begin my contribution to this discussion on the politics of spirituality by highlighting the tension-fraught relationship between theoretical self-reflexivity and empirical study. The issue concerns the tendency to run in the circle of one’s own definitions, on the one hand, and the efforts to encounter the otherness of the world, on the other. I would like to suggest that this divide between running in circles and moving out into the world betrays an underlying unity, and not in an ontological sense, but rather as a result of historical circumstance. Specifically, I suggest that the circular and tautological character of self-reflexivity has become increasingly more prominent as a feature of the (“empirical”) modern world, and specifically of spirituality. And as the circular logics that ground themselves increasingly inform the make-up of both quotidian life and the broadest arenas of power and discourse, the opportunity to understand and explore the productive capacity of self-involvement grows increasingly ripe. Further, I would suggest that this ethos of autology resonates with certain political traditions that embed self-sufficient self-service into their conceptual armature, notably the liberal democratic one. Freedom and the self. Individuals that choose their own way, breaking away from tradition. Spiritual and not religious. It is in this sense that circular definitions of spirituality and more linear, “objective” studies of spirituality in the world can come together. If one admits the nebulous swirl of self-grounding groundlessness as a feature of the world and not simply a feature of (misguided) analysis, then one may come closer to understanding the social construction of spirituality and the role that spirituality can play in the formation of the polis.

I take as my foundation an interest in and commitment to understanding religiosity in its more unconscious, habitual, automatic, instinctive, and just plain unclear dimensions. I start here not only because of the implausibility of the image of the human as a theoretically transparent, self-aware, self-possessing entity (who believes that or ever did?), but because equally implausible, or at least incomplete, is the characterization of knowledge through terms of transparency, awareness, and possession. If one instead follows the lead of, among others, Herman Melville in his suggestion of the enormous, illusory, powerful, and spectral presences as the “defining” features of the current human condition, then an interest in religion will not look to its clearest dimensions but to its vagueness. And this has driven my interest in spirituality.

Inquiring into the politics of spirituality requires, in my view, an investigation of the way that instincts, tendencies, and proclivities shape and are shaped by political ends. I propose that the political effects or ramifications of spirituality can be “seen” in the most essential dimensions only in a back-handed way. Or perhaps this relationship between spirituality and politics is, in some of its most powerful dimensions, inherently obscure. That is to say, politics works on spirituality and vice versa through obscurity. The obscurity does work. So the question for scholars becomes, how does one study this obscurity without removing it? How does one study the power of obscurity as obscurity?

One can treat this question in the abstract, and others have done so thoroughly and quite well. I hope here to yield a certain concreteness to the back-handed manipulations that link the spiritual and the political. For this a case study can be helpful. In another piece I treated the techniques for managing spiritual experience in national parks. Here I turn to the self-reflections of park visitors on their spiritual experience, focusing particularly on the implications of that experience for their relationship to the collectivities of community, nation, and state.

In one respect, the characterizations of the spiritual dimensions of park experience accord with traditional categories. With regard to a biblical tradition, one respondent pointed to “the whole thing that God created that is just so amazing.” Or, as explained by another interviewee, “There is something about being in a national park, and you can see what God created without – with very few effects of man diminishing things, that it truly is more spiritual and more and more drawing you closer to God.” The numerous respondents that made reference to a creator or creation suggest the enduring power of shared story and belief for bringing people together and charging their lives with energy and significance. The spiritual experience framed in this way feeds back into the communities that disseminate these stories and beliefs (i.e., congregations) and into their sacred texts.

Diverging slightly but significantly from these traditional categories, a number of respondents found spiritual significance without reference to a creator, focusing more closely on the perceptual and perspectival shifts that park experience evoked. Here references to God took a broader form with no identifiable location in tradition, as it did for this “spiritual,” religiously unaffiliated respondent: “To me I think that when you’re out in nature like that, you’re one with God. It’s totally the closest I ever feel to him or her or whatever that spiritualness is. I just always feel a connection because it’s quiet and it makes you be quiet within yourself. So you get to really spend some quality time within.” Whether this sense of quiet referred to the concrete perceptual environment, a general perspectival shift that informs self-reflection, or a combination of the two, the primary emphasis lay in an experience recognized as individual and personal. Again mixing the perceptual impact of the park with more abstract shifts in perspective, another respondent stated, “I’m not alone in this, a lot of people feel connected with something powerful and great and mighty. You can describe it as God if you want to. It’s a feeling of awe. And also with the ocean—you just feel like there’s something so powerful and so wonderful. It’s very healing. It puts everything into perspective.” This respondent located her spirituality in a powerfully emotive and embodied experience. As for its social dimension, she left it up to the listener to fashion it as s/he chose. But here, too, the individuality of her experience locates her socially: she said that she “is not alone in this.” Her offer to leave open the identity of the transcendent thus became an orientation to others, part of a social code that labels her as a tolerant individualist. Or, more to the point, she displayed through her words a liberal sense of collective identity, one that did not reside in a sense of bonding with a group, but in an experience that each person had the freedom to interpret in her or his own individual way.

Whether displaying connection to smaller collectivities of congregations or larger ones of a liberal tradition, these relations of these expressions of spirituality to public life can be understood in relatively conventional ways. But I would highlight a subtler, more circular dimension to the shaping of spiritual experience, one in which the hand of the state, here manifest in the management of the park, operates strongly, obscurely, and in a very concrete way. Note the implication of a managed environment in the phrasing of one of the above respondents: “You can see what God created without – with very few effects of man diminishing things.” This respondent stopped short of asserting a state of “pure” nature in the parks, and in correcting himself he suggested the importance of management in allowing him to feel closer to God. In elaborating on his spirituality he commented on the importance of a person’s perceptual environment, particularly the way that the concrete demands on his attention within civilization (“there’s traffic and there’s people and there’s pollution and there’s the roads and your job”) distracted him from a spiritual focus. Even though he suggested that the parks offered a contrast to such an environment, the fact is that parks contain much of what distracted him in civilization. The difference, in addition to his release from the obligations of work, lies in the effectiveness of management in minimizing the sensory impact of traffic, and people, and roads.

Hints of the influence of management on spirituality can be seen in references to the atmosphere of the parks. One respondent said, “I just feel that national parks are just such a beautiful example of God’s handiwork and God’s creation. And even just driving into a park, somehow you can just feel that; it’s like you can breathe it in the air and you can hear it in the sounds around you.” The one-way design of the road leading into Yosemite National Park, to which the respondent referred, eliminates the need to deal with oncoming traffic and minimizes the attention demanded by traffic moving in the same direction. When this respondent referred to breathing and hearing a manifestation of God, one need not explain such a statement as a purely metaphysical claim. These metaphors of embodiment suggest an appreciation for the way the park is organized as a perceptual environment. This respondent suggested as much in her elaboration of her spirituality: “A lot of times we let the little things in life get us down or pile up. And when you’re standing in someplace that’s really majestic and just really beautiful, all that little petty stuff, like whether the mail came on time or not, just doesn’t matter. And so it’s much easier then to focus and clear your mind of the clutter. You really just get back in touch with your spirit and with God’s sense of beauty.” Traffic, of course, constituted some of the “little petty stuff” that this interviewee found as a distraction from spirituality outside the park. When management operated in such a way as to minimize this kind of distraction, it opened avenues toward self (“your spirit”) and God (“God’s sense of beauty”) at the same time.

Some respondents asserted a heightened sense of collective identity as Americans or an appreciation of government as part of their experience in national parks. But I would characterize these as the tips of the iceberg of the social and political significance of spiritual experience in the parks. The state works most powerfully in the parks through absences: through managing space in such a way as to remove or minimize polluting stimuli, including its own speech (interpretive panels and ranger talks obey a strict principle of economy, of not getting “in the way”). In those absences and silences, circles form. Perceptions of the environment, however intensively managed that environment may in fact be, turn into experiences of nature, self, and god. The political dimension of such experience is largely unspoken. But in its particular embodied characteristics, such experience is structurally dependent on a certain exercise of state power. In this way the politics of spirituality may have little to do with thoughts about elections or particular government officials. But it has much to do with creating a space for significant governmental presence in both personal and collective life.

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One Response to “I hope you like circles”

  1. avatar Rex Styzens says:

    To be sure, escape from urbanization can provide a sense of relief, and so the national park system is justified as a benefit to citizenry. Yet, neither government programs nor a romantic vocabulary taken from a religion of nature are necessary. Ample opportunities to achieve something similar can be found anywhere the night sky shows itself.

    The night sky also offers a corrective to the traditional identification of nature with peaceful perfection, if one is familiar with current theories of cosmological evolution. “Unspoiled” nature is a romantic conception, as Rousseau’s many critics testify, that still must debate with Hobbes’ lives that are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” That becomes evident to anyone whose vehicle happens to crush a small animal on the road or who notices the hawk circling overhead.

    So when appealing to the obscure, do we not need to distinguish between what is impulsive and incomplete and what is inclusive? Heidegger differentiates between vicious circles and hermeneutic reflexivity. He appeals to letting the world show itself to us, as it did to our ancient ancestors. That can be aided by park settings but in the larger context is less liable to romanticism. We need a vocabulary that is as yet unavailable. Abandoned, as we are, to technology, our resort to nature falls short of completion.

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