Last week I wrote about the challenges of categorizing spirituality or religiosity. Part of the difficulty lies in the porous nature of the two concepts; each seeps into and encroaches on the other. But another difficulty, one I didn’t touch on last week, is that both concepts are alive – metaphorically of course. They’re dynamic; the ways people and communities use the terms is constantly changing. They aren’t scientific categories, like mammal or friction, with precise definitions. Instead, they’re fluid. This makes the task of studying spirituality or religion challenging and exciting.
A prime example of the nebulous nature of spirituality is the Frequencies Project. This experiment, produced by the people at The Immanent Frame and Killing the Buddha (both worth checking out), aims to be a “collaborative genealogy of spirituality.” They collected reflections from scholars, writers, and artists on what they think of when they think about spirituality. Where a social scientist attempts to be precise and hone in on the concept, this experiment blows open the category and accepts the dynamic and fluid nature of people’s lived spirituality. And the result is fascinating.
Imagine you’re a biologist and you think you’ve found a new species of salamander. You work so hard to pin down the distinct characteristics of this slippery amphibian. You’ve counted the toes and studied the colors and think you’re getting close, when on a hike you come across a totally new salamander that fits your categories, yet is totally different. Your choice, as I see it, is dismay or excitement.
As a social scientist, when I come across something like the frequencies project, my choice is excitement. The thing I study is more wildly complex than I imagined. I trust survey tools, but I know they’re not comprehensive. So I delight to find people attaching their spirituality to everything from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water, to Coltrane, to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, to Wounded Knee, to tempeh (a soy product that’s like amped up tofu). Seriously, the list goes on.
The array overwhelms me, but I appreciate any approach that opens the category as widely as possible and takes people seriously. Given the nature of that which we want to study, this breadth is necessary. But I also trust the survey tools we use as social scientists, not to capture the phenomenon, but to begin defining the contours of spirituality and religion. In a true process of inquiry, a balance between the two is needed; therefore I think each should celebrate the other. Kudos to the Frequencies project – they’re definitely worth checking out.