Both the “religious” and the “spiritual” among us have this in common: a longing for inspiration
A friend recently asked me why I had remained a Christian while she, along with most of my high school classmates, had left both the church and her adolescent faith behind. After thinking about this for some time, I concluded that my fidelity to the confession in which I was reared was largely the result of the people who had befriended me, the communities I had been a part of—family, summer retreat centers, church-related colleges, parishes—and the charitable enterprises I had grown to admire and support. In other words, the Christian community, broadly understood, has sustained me in the faith over the years.
In truth, this discovery of the obvious came as something of a surprise to me. I had always assumed that theological conviction, liturgical practice, continued study, and private devotion largely explained my continuing fidelity. Instead, my social life has shaped my mind and spirit more than the reverse. While I acknowledge the artificiality of sharp distinctions among the social, intellectual, moral, and spiritual dimensions of life, there is no doubt in my mind that for me the interpersonal has been primary and the personal secondary in sustaining me in the faith. The Holy Spirit does indeed work in and through community.
At the same time that I was writing to my friend I was reading, as part of my daily prayer, a book that one of my daughters had given me for Christmas, Robert Ellsberg’s All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for our Time. My letter to my friend helped me to appreciate the striking contemporary relevance of Ellsberg’s 1997 work and to think about how best to use it in order to address one of our most persistently nagging religious issues: the perplexing relationship between spirituality and religion. From the vantage point of All Saints the issue simply dissolves.
Thousands of good religious people fret over what they take to be the decline of religious faith as measured by church membership even as there seems to be a concurrent rise in “spirituality.” The widely repeated claim, “I’m spiritual but not religious” has given rise to acute anxiety and no small amount of cynicism on the part of church-going folks. Many of them think of spirituality as a self-absorbed, improvised set of feelings and rituals with no systematic connection to any established set of beliefs or social practices. And of course some “spiritual” people can be fairly characterized in that way, just as some traditionally religious people can be fairly characterized as “Sunday morning Christians.” There are better and worse traditional religious practices, just as there are better and worse spiritual practices. All Saints simply ignores such often pointless and sometimes invidious distinctions and presents instead a series of robust portraits of inspiring lives from across the ages, from across religious traditions, and from among a large group of what many would today call “secular.”
Ellsberg’s book, in other words, evinces a capacious understanding of saints and sainthood that absorbs religion and spirituality indiscriminately into sanctity. Following an injunction from the writings of Simone Weil, Ellsberg set out to find the saintliness that his own time demanded. His search yielded a rather motley crew of people, including Vincent Van Gogh alongside St. Catherine of Alexandria, Gandhi alongside Sojourner Truth, Rabbi Heschel alongside Thomas Aquinas, Anne Frank alongside Fyodor Dostoevsky. “Previous models of sanctity tended to emphasize a world-denying asceticism; today,” Ellberg claimed; “we need examples of discipline and self-denial in service to the world and in solidarity with a suffering humanity.”
In his introduction to All Saints Ellsberg noted that we are “formed by what we admire.” At about the same time that he was compiling his list of saints, a new school of ethical reflection was arising within the broader field of virtue ethics that provided strong warrant for Ellsberg’s project and his claims about moral formation. What has come to be known as “exemplarist ethics” takes its somewhat awkward name from the supremely excellent human beings upon whom the ethic is based, called “exemplars.” Such people, according to the philosopher Linda Zagzebski (whose 2017 book Exemplarist Moral Theory offers the most complete account of this moral theory), stir admiration within us and inspire us to want to become more like them. We can succinctly distinguish between Aristotle’s virtue vocabulary and Zagzebski’s exemplarist vocabulary by saying that the former bases his moral theory on what human beings most desire—i.e., happiness or human flourishing—and the latter bases her moral theory on what human beings most admire.
The crucial thesis of exemplarist ethics has two parts. First, it posits that we commonly detect moral excellence and are moved to emulate it through the emotion of admiration. Second, it claims that admiration, unlike some emotions, is by and large trustworthy. Of course, as Zagzebski admits, the emotion of admiration is not entirely trustworthy. It can go wrong about who is and who is not worthy of moral admiration in a given case, though such errors in judgment can be corrected through the practice of self-criticism.
Because exemplarist ethicists are concerned exclusively with moral exemplars, Zagzebski excludes artistic and other kinds of geniuses from her three categories of those worthy of admiration. Although Ellsberg’s understanding of saintliness overlaps Zagzebski’s, he does include geniuses like Mozart largely on the grounds that although admiration leads often to virtuous action, it can just as often lead to awe. And for him, both emulation and awe are appropriate responses to saintliness. As Ellsberg readily admits, sanctity is always to some degree mysterious.
The elusive, sometimes controversial character of saintliness may well be one of its best features since mystery fosters inquiry into what sanctity entails, inquiry that needs to be attuned to the particularities of time and place, if we follow Ellsberg and Simone Weil. Yet even while we acknowledge the importance of context in determining sanctity, we at the same time marvel that some saints like Gandhi do seem to transcend time and place. The mystery of universals-in-particulars, the cultivation of awe, and communal discernment of moral exemplars: These are themselves the stuff of both religion and spirituality. Thus, the project of hagiography may to some degree constitute and inspire both religious and spiritual practices, perhaps reframing altogether our ordinary assessment of the religious condition of our time.
We should all unite in making the discernment and celebration of saintliness more widespread, less uneven in elaboration and intensity across Catholic and Protestant churches, and more systematically incorporated into educational practices both public and private. Both popular receptivity and the presence of institutional vehicles like the Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education (NetVUE) portend the possibility of a systematic renewal of “religious” life in our time.
Those who worry over the loss of anchorage within established religious traditions should nonetheless welcome efforts to arouse admiration for subjects who are worthy of it, in hope that when admiration leads to emulation, the emulation might well include affiliation with other like-minded people and communities, many of them religious in character. Those who are wary of organized religion should be excited by the prospect of being part of a large movement devoted to the discovery of sanctity in many forms and idioms. We hear on all sides calls for a new Reformation. And we should know by this time that the most enduring revolutions are made from elements ready-to-hand. Beginning this reformation by attending to sanctity through hagiography may be an idea whose time has come.
Mark Schwehn is Senior Research Professor in Christ College, the honors college of Valparaiso University, and editor of the second edition of Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be.