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On Spiritual Capital

On Spiritual Capital

In a recent op-ed, David Brooks highlights the work of Lisa Miller, a professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University concerning our innate spiritual capacities and the importance of cultivationg our spirituality

Miller’s core argument is that spiritual awareness is innate and that it is an important component in human development. An implication of her work is that if you care about social mobility, graduation rates, resilience, achievement and family formation, you can’t ignore the spiritual resources of the people you are trying to help.

Miller defines spirituality as “an inner sense of relationship to a higher power that is loving and guiding.” Different people can conceive of this higher power as God, nature, spirit, the universe or just a general oneness of being. She distinguishes spirituality, which has a provable genetic component, from religious affiliation, which is entirely influenced by environment.

Miller’s work finds a link between depression and spirituality, that is especially prevalent in adolescents

Spiritual awareness, she continues, surges in adolescence, at about the same time as depression and other threats to well-being. Some level of teenage depression, she says, should be seen as a normal part of the growth process, as young people ask fundamental questions of themselves. The spiritual surge in adolescence is nature’s way of responding to this normal crisis.

“Taken together,” Miller writes, “research supports the idea of a common physiology underlying depression and spirituality.” In other words, teenagers commonly suffer a loss of meaning, confidence and identity. Some of them try to fill the void with drugs, alcohol, gang activity and even pregnancy. But others are surrounded by people who have cultivated their spiritual instincts.

If Millers hypothesis is correct, it suggests that an important effort needs to be made by the church to reach out to young people and their care-givers if we are to nurture spiritual health.  Does it also suggest that the laissez-faire attitude that many parents have to the church participation of their teen children might need to be re-thought?



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Peter Faass

Used the Brook’s op-ed piece discussing Miller today in my sermon. I think she is on to something important , even though she is only re-stating ancient Biblical truths into modern psychological terms.

Philip B. Spivey

Peter: I’m very curious to know, where we can find this kind of thinking in the Bible. I’d enjoy knowing that there is a theological basis for these observations.

Philip B. Spivey

I am very pleased that the Cafe has invited Dr. Miller to the table because I think she’s really on to something.

I’ll make two observations from my own experience:
1. At the earliest ages, children experience their parents (or guardians) as God. That’s a tough obstacle to overcome, because the parents we know (or knew) did not always induce “…an inner sense of relationship…that is loving and guiding. For some, it has been very much the opposite.
2. I believe there are two kinds of spirituality. One is a spirituality of hope, faith, cooperation, generosity, patience and love. The other is a spirituality of fatalism, competition, covetousness and aggression. In simple terms, the first kind of spirituality is the kind our Church strives to cultivate while, at the same time, existing “in the world”. The second kind of spirituality is that “of the world”, i.e., that associated with Evil. It’s the kind of negative spirituality that perverts religious traditions.

Children and adolescents (and adults) must navigate these dual realities throughout their lifetime. If we leave to chance with our children, you know what choice will prevail—not because they are essentially sinful, but because the negative spirituality (which I term it) of our society provides a concrete social ladder that is easy to follow. Worldly spirituality provides so many fast-moving distractions that fascinate— Christian spirituality can’t compete.

We must provide our children with time to slow down and learn the joy of quiet reading or listening to music; the joys of listening to nature; the discipline of “listening” in our human relationships; and particularly, time to cultivate the gift of discernment for (and listening to) the voice of God.

How is this achieved? There’s no magic. Give the child a respite from worldly cares and guide him through his own “Secret Garden”.

Re: Depression. The absence of a mature spiritual identity will lead to serious depression for anybody of any age. Children and adolescents have a particular challenge because their spiritual life hasn’t reached maturity. As Dr. Miller suggests, these breaks in psychological, social and spiritual self-confidence are easily filled spiritual junk food; over time, spiritual junk food hardens. Early-and-frequent trips to the Secret Garden may prevent this.

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