A Review of "Dimensions
in Spirituality" by J. A. McLean
William G. Huitt, Ph.D.
An extended version of an article published in Dialogue and Alliance (1997)
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Jack McLean has written a marvelous book that outlines the breadth and magnitude of the study of spirituality. The book is based on his interpretation of Baha'i theology and supplemented with concepts garnered from philosophy, literature, history, psychology, and anthropology. From the author's perspective a human being is, in essence, a spiritual being and the search for a spiritual understanding and transformation of self provides the means for a more authentic knowledge of what it means to be human. This search for spirituality can best or perhaps only be understood as a person develops and implements a purposeful "life map for spiritual growth and development, one that often has to be worked out amid, and often thanks to, the trials of life" (p. viii). McLean wrote this book because he believes that knowledge and cultivation of the spiritual dimension of life is vital if one is to develop his or her full potential.
In the book's forward, the author states he will address two main concerns: 1) define more clearly the meaning of spirituality; and 2) outline a process of spiritual transformation. These flow from McLean's belief that purposeful and willful action based upon sound understanding form the foundation of spiritual development. The author's intention is not to be rigorous and definitive, but rather provide a "series of personal and preliminary reflections on the varied phenomena dealing with spiritual life" (p. vii). Individual's seeking empirical evidence related to human spirituality will need to look elsewhere. However, since science (the study of the material world) "makes no judgement about the types of phenomena which fall outside its domain" (p. 32), it is the author's view that this philosophical/reflective approach must play a dominant role in the study of spirituality.
McLean proposes that the study of spirituality consists of three interrelated themes: 1) as a quest for knowledge about ultimate, pressing and final questions, whether in metaphysical or more pragmatic, empirical form; 2) as a search for God; and 3) as the discovery of true self (p. 4). He states that the search for truth provides the foundation for each of these themes. Consequently, while there are a variety of patterns that have been suggested for spiritual development and transformation such as the gaining certain states of consciousness, seeking acceptance in a community of like-minded souls, or engaging in a spiritual quest where the individual learns to trust the promptings of the inner self, McLean proposes that the best method is an "independent investigation of truth" or the "independent and personal search for truth" (p. 3). And even though McLean's approach is more philosophical and reflective, rather than scientific and empirical, he states this approach "helps to bind together the scientist and religionist. Both are bound to search for all truth, both material and spiritual" (p. 4).
As we engage in this spiritual quest, McLean suggests we must search for, and investigate, first principles--"a comprehensive body of knowledge consisting of theological, philosophical and ethical statements which constitute both an interpretation of the cosmos and a practical remedy for the ills affecting humankind" (p. 6). One of these principles, as pointed out by Baha'u'llah, Prophet-Founder of the Baha'i Faith, is detachment from the world "as the spiritual prerequisite for the attainment of true understanding" (p. 12). This detachment, in the Baha'i understanding, "means at the same time attachment to God. More specifically, it means attachment to the will of God, what we perceive to be God's purpose for us, either in our individual life plan, or in the collective building up of a global world order" (pp. 17-18). In addition, Baha'u'llah "relates detachment and the knowledge of God with the knowledge of our true selves" (p. 21).
After reviewing several philosophical approaches to discerning truth, including idealism and realism, McLean states his belief that the writings of Baha'u'llah provide both the standard for belief (epistomology) as well as actions (ethics) and ultimate reality (metaphysics). He concludes "if we view faith in God as the beginning of spirituality and the search for truth as the fundamental prerequisite in the process of spiritualization, then through a belief in Baha'u'llah, spirituality takes an exponential leap" (p. 41). However, he does not rule out spiritual growth outside of a belief in Baha'u'llah; rather such a belief provides a more reliable and valid standard for judging truth than can be done without it. In addition, McLean shows how teaching the principles enunciated by Baha'u'llah is both a cause and an effect of spirituality. By engaging in the process of becoming more spiritual we can more effectively teach these principles; by teaching we can attract bounties which enable us to become more spiritual. Teaching, then, along with morning and evening prayer and providing service to humanity, become the primary means by which spiritual transformation occurs.
Other important aspects of a program for spiritual transformation include: 1) resolve to make spiritual progress (enlist the human will); 2) reading of sacred scripture; 3) daily meditation and reflection; 4) self-examination of the individual's conscience; 5) thanksgiving for spiritual progress; and 6) repenting of wrongs and resolving to do better. It is this "self-affirming concept that we are able to change ourselves" that the Baha'i Faith shares with the related Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (p. 77). This can be contrasted with the personal transformation process affirmed by Buddhism (illumination and psychological adjustment to suffering), Hinduism (release from the cycle of birth and rebirth), Taoism (liberate self from purposeful action and become one with the pre-established harmony of the universe), and Zen Buddhism (Satori: a brilliant flash of light that is achieved with illumination). McLean summarizes these different approaches to spiritual transformation thusly:
Generally speaking, the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Baha'i Faith emphasize law and morality and obedience to the will of God. Within Christianity there is a strong emphasis on spiritual rebirth, grace and the salvific power of Christ. The western faiths are typically dichotomous in their view of the individual and we find in them contrasts between body and soul, matter and spirit. By contrast, the Asian faiths emphasize more the unity and harmony of the cosmos as a point of departure and attempt to bring the individual into harmony with that pre-existent force. With these religions, there is no belief in a highly individualized self who struggle either with itself and/or against the universe" (p. 78).
Ultimately, one must choose which of these processes and goals of spiritual transformation one will follow. McLean does not provide rational or empirical evidence about which is the "best" method; he simply lays out his understanding of the process taught by Baha'u'llah and encourages individuals to take a first or additional step in the process of spiritual transformation.
McLean also outlines three models of how spiritual transformation takes place according to Baha'i scripture: the Lunar Phase Model of Illumination, the New Birth Model of the Awakening, and the model of the life of Abdu'l-Baha, eldest son of Baha'u'llah. In the Lunar Phase Model spiritual transformation is thought to occur in four phases:
1) During the first phase of the waxing moon, the cresent moon represents the believer's first turning to God.
2) In the second phase, the light intensifies when the believer recognizes the station of the Manifestation of God.
3) In the third phase, the moon of the soul gradually becomes fuller with the consistent and patient practice of spiritual virtues expressed in a life of service.
4) In the fourth, full moon phase, the soul comes to fulfill its true potential by being a full and 'perfect' reflection of the light of the sun (pp. 88-89).
The new birth model is most often associated with Christianity where the individual must believe in Jesus in order to break the bonds of the natural or material aspect of self and to be "reborn" as a spiritual person. This model is also specifically taught in the Baha'i Faith. McLean quotes Abdu'l-Baha in a passage reminiscent of scripture found in the Gospels:
"Until a man is born again from the world of nature, that is to say, becomes detached from the world of nature, he is essentially an animal, and it is the teachings of God which convert this animal into a human soul...As the babe is born into the light of this physical world, so must the physical and intellectual man be born into the light of the world of Divinity" (p. 90).
McLean proposes that these two models are complementary rather than mutually exclusive. From his perspective it is important to distinguish "the rapidity of the supernatural experience of being 'born again' from the much longer process of the transformation of character that comes by dint of human effort and which is beset with constant challenges" (p. 93). What is perceived as an abrupt conversion might be considered as part of a process that includes an attempt to struggle with some difficulty and an intentional search for truth.
The third model offered from McLean's study of Baha'i scripture is the life of Abdu'l-Baha. In fact, Abdu'l-Baha himself stated "...look at Me, follow Me, be as I am" (p. 98). According to Annamarie Kunz Honnold, who met Abdu'l-Baha and studied his life extinsively, there are three overarching spiritual attributes of Abdu'l-Baha: purity, kindliness, and radiance. She, as well as Shoghi Effendi, grandson of Abdu'l-Baha and Guardian of the Baha'i Faith, recite a litany of spiritual and ethical characteristics that exemplify Abdu'l-Baha. The value of studying His life is to review a practical demonstration of what it truly means to become a spiritual person and lead a spiritual life.
In the remaining chapters of the book, McLean reviews spirituality through the eyes of mystics, religionists, psychologists, anthropologists, philosophers, poets, writers, and others who have dealt with this topic. In each case McLean is thought provoking and original in his exploration of the various themes he has previously presented. For example, he juxtaposes Freud's, Jung's, and Frankl's views of the concept of the individual as spiritual being with those of philosophers Plato and William James, anthropologist Margaret Mead, and theologist Paul Tillich. He does this under the rubric of "spiritual anthropology" which he proposes could become a vehicle for a more widespread study of the spiritual nature of humankind.
I enjoyed this book immensely. Coming from a background more attuned to the methods of empiricism, I found myself constantly asking "What is the evidence for that statement?" and "How would one go about demonstrating that relationship?" As I considered these issues, I gained a deeper understanding of the concepts and principles the author was presenting. In addition, I also made some decisions to implement a specific suggestion or take an action I might not otherwise have considered. At least in my case, McLean's goals of contributing to an understanding of spirituality and encouraging readers to engage in a process of spiritual transformation were met.