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Human Flourishing, Art, and the Nature of Spirituality

Buddha statue sky

In the previous article, I described my view that modern spirituality often fears the truth, because people’s use of spirituality is “overstretched”: people put forward spiritually-based answers to too many types of questions, damaging the credibility of spirituality as an answer to anything.

I also argued that the remedy is to define the spiritual “field of study”: the set of questions which belong to spirituality itself, and the knowledge and wisdom to be discovered in exploring those questions.

So the key question is: What truth can and should spirituality reveal? This article starts to outline what I believe is the answer to that question.

The Core Question of Spirituality

I believe that the purpose of spirituality is to answer the question:

What is it, and what can it be, to live as a human being?

Written out more fully, I believe the core question of spirituality is:

What beauty, truth, worthiness, and power are inherent in being alive as a human being, and how can humans more and more powerfully embody those qualities?

Similarity with Arts

Defining spirituality as “the art of human life” could be a very powerful metaphor for understanding its nature and purpose.

I believe spirituality is much more like an art than it is like a science, a philosophy, a line of logical inquiry, or any other type of knowledge. In particular, I believe that defining spirituality as “the art of human life,” or “the art of being human,” could be a very powerful (although not perfect) metaphor for the nature and purpose of spiritual knowledge.

The core question of spirituality is very similar to the question at the core of any art. Dance, for example, asks something like: “What beauty, truth, worthiness, and power are inherent in human movement, and how can humans more and more powerfully express those qualities?” Or simply “What is it, and what can it be, to dance?” The main distinction between dance and spirituality seems to be that dance is about expressing something and spirituality is about embodying something; I’ll explore this in a later article.

Contrast with Sciences

The sciences work to uncover objective, external truth.

Spirituality’s core question is quite different from that of a science. For example, physics does not ask anything like, “What beauty, truth, worthiness, and power are inherent in physical reality, and how can they be more and more powerfully expressed?” Or “What is it, and what can it be, to exist in physical reality?”

Instead, physics asks: “What occurs in physical reality, and what rules govern those occurrences?” Physics contains a lot of beauty, truth, worthiness, and power; however, these qualities are not the purpose of physics, and they’re also not how we judge whether a particular scientific discovery is true. In physics, the truth is whatever accurately describes empirical phenomena—whatever else might be true about it.

Economists don’t mainly work to personally embody better economic systems, in the way that spiritual people work to embody spiritual ideals.

Similarly, economics (practiced as a social science) does not ask, “What beauty, truth, worthiness, and power are inherent in the human exchange of goods and services, and how can they be more and more powerfully expressed?” The main question is more like, “By what rules does human exchange function?”

Economists might also ask, “How should human exchange function?” However, the answer to this question would be either philosophical (a discussion of economic ideals), or empirical (a discussion of the results gotten by existing economic systems). In neither case would the answer be individually embodied. In other words, economists don’t spend most of their time working to personally embody more and more desirable forms of economic organization, in the way that a spiritual person works to embody spiritual ideals.

For both physics and economics, the emphasis is clearly on uncovering an objective, external truth. This is true throughout the sciences, and it is quite different from spirituality’s emphasis on connecting with—and developing one’s own ability to embody and express—an alive, inherent truth within oneself.

The Specifics of Spiritual Knowledge

In the previous article, I also asked the following more specific questions about spiritual knowledge:

  1. What is the aim of spiritual study? (What is the purpose of learning spiritual truths?)
  2. What is the nature of spiritual knowledge? (Are spiritual truths scientific, logical, or subjective by nature, or something else?)
  3. How can we judge the truth of spiritual knowledge? (What should lead us to accept spiritual statements as true: If they are scientifically accurate, logically rigorous, or subjectively convincing, or is there some other criterion?)
  4. What tools should we bring to spirituality? (What methods can we use to engage in the process of exploring spiritual truth?)

I will start to sketch out what I believe to be the answers here. In each case, I believe the answer confirms spirituality’s similarity to art.

1. Spiritual Study Exists to Promote Human Flourishing

We study spirituality to learn to manifest our potential as human beings.

We study spirituality to learn to manifest our potential as human beings. This potential—the inherent beauty, truth, worthiness, and power of human life—is “human nature in the positive sense,” or “what being human is and can be.” For brevity, I’ll refer to manifesting this potential as human flourishing.

A later article will describe what I believe “human flourishing” in the spiritual sense encompasses; for now I’ll draw some basic boundaries. First, it does not mean flourishing in every way a human can flourish. Being able to bench press 500 pounds is obviously flourishing in the physical sense; but is not necessarily a spiritual attainment, nor is it necessary for spiritual flourishing.

Rather, spirituality seems to consistently focus on questions such as: What is a good human life? How can we be happy? What should life feel like? How should we approach the world and other people? Living—embodying—the ideal answers to these questions is human flourishing in the spiritual sense.

Similarity with Arts

The arts share spirituality’s focus on connecting with, nurturing, and expressing one’s natural potentiality. For example, for a musician, “the study of music” generally means “how to express, ever more deeply, one’s musical potential.” Musical study is connected with “the nature of music” in the positive sense: with exploring and expressing the inherent potentiality of music itself, and of oneself as a musician.

Spirituality is much like music, with one’s own life as both the instrument and the instrumentalist.

In this sense, spirituality is very much like music, with one’s own life as both the instrument and the instrumentalist.

Contrast with Sciences

By contrast, “the study of biology,” “the study of mathematics,” or “the study of economics” all imply discovering an external, objective set of truths and their useful applications. They are more like mining an existing resource or exploring an existing landscape (the body of objective truth being the resource and landscape) than they are like the artistic process of nurturing a thing into an ever more powerful expression of itself.

2. Spiritual Knowledge is Twofold: Human Flourishing Itself, and the Tools to Bring It About

The nature of spiritual knowledge is twofold. First, there is human flourishing itself: spiritual knowledge personally embodied by individuals. Second, there is the practical knowledge of how to transmit human flourishing. In other words, spiritual knowledge consists of:

  1. Spiritual attainment or embodied spiritual knowledge: human flourishing; spiritual truth as personally embodied or exemplified by an individual.
  2. Spiritual teachings or instrumental spiritual knowledge: teaching tools to impart spiritual attainment.

Spiritual Attainment

Spiritual attainment is an embodied knowledge, a knowledge one internalizes and becomes.

Spiritual attainment is not an empirical or logical knowledge, or any sort of knowledge one simply learns. Rather, it is an embodied knowledge, a knowledge one internalizes and becomes.

An example of spiritual attainment would be a person who embodies universal compassion. Flourishing in this way is “knowledge,” in the sense that it results from a learning process; but it is embodied knowledge, in that a person has not merely learned it as an external fact, but has become it and is actually manifesting it directly.

Spiritual Teachings

Spiritual teachings are “know-how” for helping people achieve spiritual attainment.

Spiritual teachings are knowledge about how to develop human flourishing in oneself and others. This knowledge is also not empirical or logical by nature, but applied or pragmatic: “know-how” for helping people achieve spiritual attainment.

For example, a spiritual teaching (from the Buddhist tradition) to help encourage universal compassion might be: “Realize that all beings suffer and want to be happy.” This is not best understood as a philosophical position, a logical conclusion, or a scientific theory, but as a crystallization of the pragmatic knowledge that contemplating suffering and the desire to be happy encourages compassion in oneself and others. When we attain an attitude of universal compassion, we become the human flourishing that the spiritual teaching points to.

In the extreme, a person may fully embody a set of spiritual teachings. In Buddhism, for example, a person who attains enlightenment becomes a full embodiment of the Buddhist teachings, in the sense that he or she embodies the aim of the teachings themselves—which is to transmit enlightenment.

Similarity with Arts

The arts function similarly. Knowledge of musical training—such as practice exercises and particular approaches to music education—is instrumental knowledge; it does not exist for its own sake, but exists with the aim of creating embodied knowledge, personal musicianship or “musical flourishing.”

Musicianship itself is an internally cultivated body of personal knowledge. Developing it does rely on the objective laws of music (such as the different scales) as a scaffolding, but is actually an extremely individualized, personal process of exploration and development. That process is also intimately involved with one’s overall inner landscape, since much of musicianship is about learning to express one’s humanity (for example, emotions like joy or sadness) through one’s playing.

In sum, musicianship—musical flourishing—is more something one grows within oneself than something one learns as a body of exterior truth. One develops one’s “inner musician,” and its ability to express inner truths through musical language; and when one plays, one directly expresses this embodied knowledge.

Contrast with Sciences

In the sciences, by contrast, the emphasis is on external, objective truth which one learns, not internal and embodied truth which one becomes. A great physicist can do fantastic things with the laws of physics, and has indeed spent immense time nurturing “the inner physicist.” However, that inner physicist’s job is not primarily to express inner, felt truths (for example, beauty or sadness), but to develop a constantly deeper and more intimate relationship to external, learned truths (for example, the behavior of subatomic particles).

Put more succinctly: the aim of spiritual training is embodying one’s human nature in the positive sense. The aim of musical training is expressing one’s inner musicianship. The aim of physics training is understanding the laws of physics. These distinctions persist whichever art or science one examines.

3. Spiritual Truths are True if They Exemplify or Lead to Human Flourishing

Spiritual attainment is “human virtuosity,” and spiritual teachings teach human virtuosity.

Spiritual truths are best evaluated not by scientific, logical, or other evidence, but by whether they either exemplify human flourishing (in the case of spiritual attainment) or bring about human flourishing (in the case of spiritual teachings).

Spiritual Attainment

Spiritual attainment is “human virtuosity”: human flourishing, embodied and enacted directly by an individual. It can be as small as listening sympathetically to a friend in need, or as large as living life with total fearlessness and compassion, or totally at peace.

Spiritual attainment is true, in that it directly expresses the true way of being human.

Spiritual attainment, of any type, is true in that it directly expresses human nature in the positive sense. For example, acts of courage and kindness carry the felt sense, “That person is a true human being”—despite our knowledge that cowardice and cruelty may be equally prevalent.

Similarly, a burned meal feels “wrong,” and a delicious meal feels “true to the art of cooking”—despite both meals, in one sense, being equally representative of the results that cooks sometimes attain. This is because the “true” art of cooking involves potentiality: what cooking can and should be, not just what it is in a given instance, or what it is on average.

Like a delicious meal, spiritual attainment carries its own truth—it directly expresses the true way of being human, what being human is and can be. And like tasting a delicious meal, one must only be able to appreciate spiritual attainment to immediately understand it as true.

Spiritual Teachings

Spiritual teachings are true if—and because—they encourage human flourishing.

Spiritual teachings teach human virtuosity, and they are judged by their effectiveness as teaching tools. In other words, spiritual teachings are true if—and because—they encourage human flourishing.

One corollary is that a statement can be true as a spiritual teaching—meaning helpful in bringing about human flourishing—and false in other senses. For example, the Buddhist teaching “All beings suffer” is a great aid to compassion for many people. It is a true spiritual teaching, because it points students toward their own potential for embodying spiritual truth—whether or not science confirms that all beings (even, say, clams) do in fact suffer.

For something to be true as a spiritual teaching does not make it true outside of the spiritual project.

Conversely, spiritual truths are confined in their scope. For something to be true as a spiritual teaching does not make it true outside of the spiritual project, which is to encourage human flourishing. For example, “All beings suffer” is a spiritual truth—but it must be assessed as a statement of objective truth before it is used for certain other purposes, like policymaking or textbook writing. Do clams really suffer? The answer is more important if our goal is to revise national food policy than if it is to cultivate universal compassion on the spiritual path.

Similarity with Arts

The means of judging artistic truth is much like the means of judging spiritual truth. Like spiritual attainment, artistic attainment—embodied artistic truth—vouches for itself as being true. A clumsy ballerina and a graceful ballerina are both ballerinas. However, the graceful one is better manifesting balletic truth: ballet as a way of manifesting the beauty, power, and expressive potential of human movement, or “what ballet is and can be.” A graceful ballerina’s dancing, what we might call “the true art of ballet,” is true in that it directly expresses artistic truth.

For instrumental artistic knowledge—artistic training know-how—truth is “whatever works.” If you are a singer, truth in vocal instruction is anything that makes you a better singer: whatever makes you flourish musically.

Again, this truth might even be false in other senses. For example, your vocal teacher might tell you “the notes are flowing water” to teach you legato phrasing. This statement is not literally true, nor is it intended as an artistic statement in itself. Rather, it is a training tool, designed to communicate experientially to help you unlock your potential as a singer. If this tool reliably makes students better singers, then it is true within the context of vocal instruction: we would agree that the teacher was right to teach it, would feel comfortable if it were added to a vocal training curriculum, and so on.

Contrast with Sciences

The spiritual and artistic definitions of truth are, again, quite different from that in the sciences. Scientific truth is judged by its logical consistency (in the formal sciences) or its power to predict empirical observations (in the natural sciences). In either case, it is not judged by its expression of any sort of human potential, or, in general, by any consideration of its consequences for the humans who study it.

4. The Spiritual Path Explores Direct, Subjective Experience

The spiritual path consists primarily of the deeply subjective investigation of direct experience.

The spiritual path consists primarily of the deeply subjective investigation of direct experience. Spirituality, like art, has meaning only to and among human beings. As such, both the spiritual language and process are inherently human—tied to, and concerned with, the inner experience of being alive as a human being—rather than objective, scientific, or logical.

Many spiritual terms only make sense in the context of the human experience.

Many spiritual terms, like “wisdom,” only make sense in the context of the human experience. “Wisdom” is not empirical; it cannot be observed in the physical world. (Imagine using scientific instruments to detect the wisdom of an asteroid!) Put differently, “wisdom” is an experience, an inner, inherently human apprehension of the world. Similarly, terms like “beauty,” “contentment,” “suffering,” “peace,” and “clarity” have no meaning if considered outside of experience. These are inward experiences, and so the language of spiritual exploration is and must be subjective and human.

Similarity with Arts

Arts exist only because they provoke inward responses in human beings.

Arts, like spirituality, have no reason to exist but that they provoke inward responses in human beings. For example, music is simply the controlled production of sound waves, and painting is simply the controlled reflection of light off a surface. Nothing sets them apart from any other physical phenomenon, except for the human language of meaning that they encode. (To state the obvious: a computer would just as readily record trash cans banging together as a beautiful string quartet.)

Put differently, there is nothing to spirituality and art but their human component, and that is why subjective investigation takes precedence as the means of exploring both.

Contrast with Sciences

Science does not study the inner, felt world, but the outer, observed world.

Spirituality and the sciences examine two very different sets of phenomena. Science does not study the inner, felt world, but the outer, observed world. For this study, science uses empirical data—data that retains meaning even without presuming a specific observer. For example, a tree’s mass is an objective fact that remains meaningful outside the process of experiencing it; its “beauty,” however, is not, since beauty is nothing but an experience.

Because of this focus on empirical truth, science uses empirical tools: things like microscopes that expand the observability of the universe, and conceptual structures like theorems and equations that organize disparate observations into coherent patterns. Even psychology, to the extent it’s a science, relies on objective measurements to study the human mind: records of observable behaviors, brain wave patterns, self-reported distress scales. To the extent that psychology deals with human experience on its own terms—visceral, subjective, unobservable—and using direct subjective exploration, it is not truly a science, but a humanistic study shaped and reinforced by scientific knowledge.

In Conclusion…

In this article, I’ve tried to lay out my basic perspective on the nature, aims, and limits of spirituality. I hope to elaborate on this perspective, why I believe it, and what its implications are, in future articles. In the meantime, thanks very much for reading, and if you have any thoughts I’d love to hear them in the comments below!