An article in the New York Times about people who enjoyed a religious experience in a gym led me to think about the range of human quests for some sort of spiritual connection, and beyond that what such a spiritual connection might mean.
The Times article, “When Some Turn to Church, Others Go to CrossFit” by Mark Oppenheimer, reports on Harvard Divinity School researchers’ attempts to define religiosity in contemporary America.
Their project, which involves investigating possible spiritual associations beyond churches, took them to a CrossFit gym, where they interviewed Ali Huberlie, a Harvard Business School student, who told them, “CrossFit is family, laughter, love, and community.”
Spirituality in a gym may seem counterintuitive, particularly when most associate such organized exercise with an individual concern for bodybuilding and personal health. I was one who came to the Times article with doubt if not skepticism. So I opened my mind to find a larger perspective for the assumptions of the Harvard Divinity School study. The first thing that came to mind was what’s called a runner’s high, the documented neuropsychological changes that lead to feelings of profound contentment, euphoria, and bliss. Perhaps this state mirrors that of a spiritual experience.
The CrossFit franchise has 13,000 facilities and two million clients. Are all those people on stationary bikes and elliptical trainers finding a deeper state of being than just six-pack abs and cardiovascular fitness? The researchers suspect many are. The gym provides meaning in the lives of many members, filling a need in an increasingly secular society.
I assume many of those CrossFit gyms are within walking, cycling, or a short driving distance from a church, a house of worship. Why have so many of the clients chosen a gym instead of a church? This question led Harvard Divinity students Casper tel Kuile and Angie Thurston to collaborate on a report called “How We Gather.” It considers various examples of community building as an alternative to a house of worship. Thurston, in particular, is identified with a group of students at Harvard and other divinity schools called “nones,” committed to no organized religion or religious creed but still seeking spiritual meaning.
Coincidentally, two people close to me have in recent months involved themselves in searches for the “right” gym and church. Both tried several alternatives and—despite the many seeming differences between a place to work out and a place to pray—they both based their eventual choices on very similar criteria: the richness of the programs offered, the community of the people around them, and an ambiance that provided a sense of comfort and belonging.
Can these experiences be considered equivalent? Can a gym, too, be a spiritual place, as the Harvard Divinity students contend? These questions led me—a non-religious person—to consider what religion in America really means. A 2015 Pew survey reveals that attendance is dropping, particularly among Millennials, and that the unaffiliated are second only to Evangelical Protestants in the percentage of the population, slightly ahead of Catholics. But a 2014 Pew study concluded only 3.1% were atheist with another 4% agnostic.
How do we get from community to spirituality? Nones are seeking access to a higher state of being outside the beliefs and rituals of organized religion. What they mean by spirituality seems rooted in belonging to a community. I’ve seen this also in churchgoers who don’t pay much attention to doctrine and divinity. They find meaning in the congregation, the architecture, and the music, coming out of the service with a sense of being uplifted.
Lacking Pew’s vast opinion-gathering resources, I’m limited to such personal and anecdotal information. While admitting that most of the people I associate with fall into the “nones” category and also admitting no statistical support for this conclusion, I believe most of us want and need a connection with something larger than ourselves and with experiences that provide an access to a realm beyond the material. This might be called an aesthetic fulfillment, immersion in mystery, awe, or even mysticism, which one source defines as “spiritual intuition of truths believed to transcend ordinary understanding.”
My reflections on the Times’s CrossFit article reminded me of Ed Mooney’s Zeteo is Reading (ZiR) piece, “Nietzsche and Wittgenstein: Suicides, Folds, Tones, and Surfaces” published in late November. Mooney presents Wittgenstein as a troubled man who found “patches of serenity” not in any proofs of meaning or doctrine but in “wonder, amazement, immersion in music, in a landscape, in a striking, existentially transporting sentence.” (Someone who knows much more about Wittgenstein than I has informed me that Wittgenstein’s philosophy of religion is much more complex and, as I subsequently discovered from additional studies, debatable. Mooney cites as his source a 1997 book by Gordon C. F. Bearn, Waking to Wonder: Wittgenstein’s Existential Investigations. Because it appeals to me and because Bearn and Mooney have philosophical credentials, I’ll go with their conclusion.)
For me, it’s the immersion in music or language or a natural setting that rings true. I can provide my own examples: the first time I stepped out of a train at Grindelwald and faced the Eiger, a performance of King Lear by the late Morris Carnovsky where at the end the audience was too stunned for immediate applause, Miles Davis’s “My Funny Valentine” solo during a 1965 Lincoln Center performance, my first reading of Tender Is the Night. Wonder and amazement.
Mooney on Wittgenstein led me to revisit the French philosopher André Comte-Sponville’s Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. Comte-Sponville’s essential point is that “Renouncing religion by no means implies renouncing spiritual life” because “people cannot do without spirituality.” I wondered whether Wittgenstein provided an example of such spirituality, whatever his philosophical conclusions about religion.
It turns out that, rather than just an example of Conte-Sponville’s beliefs, Wittgenstein served as a fundamental source, helping Comte-Sponville toward his view that spirituality is mystical (in the sense of surpassing ordinary understanding). Conte-Sponville quotes the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: “There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself; it is the mystical.”
While denying a transcendent supernatural realm, Comte-Sponville argues that the absolute still exists. “If everything is immanent, then so is the spirit. If everything is natural, then so is spirituality. Far from precluding spiritual life, this makes it possible. We are in and of the world: spirit is part of nature.”
Being is mystery and humans live in its midst, the resulting spirituality achieved through experience rather than thought. For Mooney’s and Comte-Sponville’s Wittgenstein, this spirituality manifests in wonder and amazement. For Comte-Sponville, it’s in the unfathomable night sky. Such experiences allow us to break free from “the tiny prison of the self.”
The real question is whether people in a secular society are capable of discovering a God-less equivalent to a religious experience based on the premise of a divine being, a God.
Certainly, many members of Crossfit gyms, along with self-designated or just behavioral “nones,” believe they have achieved some kind of fulfillment, a personal connection to a realm beyond themselves through a piece of music, a view of the Milky Way, or a communal session with free weights.
— Walter Cummins, Zeteo Contributor
Walter Cummins teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing and MA in Creative Writing and Literature for Educators programs at Fairleigh Dickinson University. He published his seventh short story collection, Telling Stories: Old & New, in 2015.
Gordon C.F. Bearn. Waking to Wonder: Wittgenstein’s Existential Investigations. State University of New York Press, 1997.
André Comte-Sponville. The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. Translated by Nancy Huston. Penguin Books, 2007. Originally published as L’esprit de l’athéisme (Albin Michel, 2006).
Samuel G. Freedman, “Secular, but Feeling a Call to Divinity School.” The New York Times October 16, 2015. www.nytimes.com.
Ed Mooney. “Nietzsche and Wittgenstein: Suicides, Folds, Tones, and Surfaces.” Zeteo is Reading, November 22, 2015. www.zeteojournal.com.
Mark Oppenheimer. “When Some Turn to Church, Others Go to CrossFit.” The New York Times November 27, 2015. www.nytimes.com.
Pew Research Center. “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” May 12, 2015. http://www.pewforum.com.
Final image, at right, is from a depiction of hell appearing in the Hortus deliciarum, a medieval, illuminated encyclopedia compiled by Herrad of Landsberg at the Hohenburg Abbey in Alsace. Herrad’s work on the document began in 1167 in her convent. The manuscript was a learning tool for novice nuns.
The book is a compendium of knowledge pulled in from Arab and other classical sources and illuminated with more than 300 images. Herrad was an Alsatian nun of noble birth who is considered an early hero in the struggle to provide education to women. For more see The Hortus Deliciarum: A Medieval Encyclopedia, by Lazer Horse, November 12, 2014.