In 1992, French philosopher Marc Sautet commandeered The Café des Phares to hold informal, participatory discussions about everything and anything from the nature of truth to the mysteries of death. During the café philosophique, as Sautet coined it, Sautet’s role only ever amounted to that of facilitator – not providing answers, but nourishing independent thought and organic dialogue between the café’s patrons. In his attempt to revive a Socratic method of public discourse, Sautet’s paratrooper pedagogical tactics gained widespread attention, were adopted by neighboring establishments, and eventually were held as public events in cafés internationally. Last week’s Chautauqua, hosted at the Linden Street Coffeehouse, borrowed the café-philo forum wherein Matt Frizzel and Kristin Seemuth-Whaley facilitated discussions. And the subject of their theme? One that eludes concrete definition and is the bane of existential crises: spirituality.
This informal approach to discourse is not something entirely foreign to Chautauqua (an Iroquois word for “two moccasins tied together”); for Chautauqua, as we know it, itself stems from an education movement that was all the sensation through the late eighteenth- to early nineteenth-century; a movement that also valued open, public education over strict, institutional revivalism. In fact, and may be not surprising, Theodore Roosevelt gave Chautauqua the distinct honor of being “the most American thing in America.”
To start things off, The Coffee Shop, generous enough to host and provide discounted drinks to students, was cranking out White Zombies en masse – which resulted in a veritable horde of highly caffeinated undergrads (I suppose it could be worse). Dylan Pitt and Mariah Mann of the Afterglow band performed a few unplugged renditions of songs from Afterglow’s oeuvre. As the espresso machine and steamer maintained a merciless and equally loud performance, we twenty-some students formed groups at tables while Matt and Kristin posed to each table a different question. Ours: “is spirituality required to have morality?” Although by no means polemical, the table was indeed immediately divided. Between me and four others and a woman named Kay Herring – the only member from the community that attended and for whom a discussion on spirituality must have been so important as to brave that aforementioned horde of caffeinated undergrads (kudos, Kay) – the ensuing discussion went something along the lines of this: you can have a moral code without being spiritual; atheists can uphold moral value. Sure, but isn’t the notion of atheism, in and of itself, slightly naïve if not contradictory? Whether it’s a deity, a kingdom, a principle, or just a good deed, don’t we all believe in something meaningful? Well, I don’t think you necessarily have to adhere to a certain religion to feel a sense of the spiritual, or, by extension, possess a moral code. Even if you might derive your moral conduct from an early exposure with religion, that doesn’t mean you can’t ditch the dogma but still uphold what you find morally right.
I’ll spare you the rest of the heady epistemological debate.
It’s important to mention here, or at least extrapolate, why someone might gravitate towards fostering a sense of spirituality, or adhering to a specific belief; in addition, what compels one to such an event? I felt like there was no worthier candidate to be asked than Kay. Catching up with Kay afterwards, her reasons were by no means trivial (not to mention, I was, essentially, related her own comprehensive autobiography of her experiences in the church and feminist critiques of noticeably male-oriented doctrine. Unfortunately, for length’s sake, I cannot include it. Suffice it to say that Kay is well-spoken, a true delight to talk to): “My mother and my father’s father were spiritual guides for me because each of them had had spiritual experiences that they shared. The idea that one might have a personal relationship with God seemed very natural. For the last two years I have been pursuing healing from terminal cancer through surgery, chemo, and radiation. I know that I have been blessed, but I feel an estrangement from God even while being very connected to religion. That sense of estrangement led me to the Chautauqua at the Linden Street Coffee House. I thought of it as a GU-sponsored community event rather than as a Graceland event. The ‘caffeinated’ students were welcoming and I found it easy to connect. I would have loved to have seen more community members sharing in any event like this, specifically because different life experiences bring variety and depth to the discussion.” Like I said: well spoken. Kay is right about community events. Particularly in rural towns like Lamoni, there is something especially enlivening about breaking the mold and sharing in our collective intelligence outside of the University’s walls.
Following discussion, a lucky spokesperson from each table was invited up to the mic to share their table’s answers, opening up further dialogue unto the rest of the participants. Next, Matt and Kristin distributed a spirituality typology sheet that they had cooked up themselves. These typologies – including, but not limited to, Religious or Traditional, Natural, Relational, Intellectual, Freestyle, and Aesthetic Spirituality – essentially try to reconcile an individual’s nuance experience(s) with spirituality with more universal, categorical terminology. For example, the first sentence under Relational Spirituality describes this individual as a “person who finds their connection to God or deep reality through relationships.” As compared to Intellectual Spirituality which identifies one as finding reassurance through the “basis of good evidence” for certain beliefs. I’m no doubt biased, for I most closely identified with these two categories; however, I couldn’t help thinking that this particular Chautauqua event was itself a relational and intellectually spiritual forum in which students and community members could not only cultivate a sense of collective identity and diversity (in opinions and faiths), but also open the channels of intellectual communication between differing perspectives.
Using the typology sheet as a foundation, the next course of discussion involved a series of questions that asked 1) what types of spirituality you related to, 2) which types do you have the most experience with, 3) which types of spirituality were unmentioned or not identified with at your table. Of course, human experience does not fit neatly into boxes (this was addressed by Matt and Kristin) nor do we always benefit from the reductive process of compartmentalizing it; and, as a result, a large portion of attendees identified with many if not all of the spiritualties. Interestingly, throughout my table’s discussion, Aesthetic Spirituality seemed to pop up a lot. To clarify, an Aesthetic individual finds spiritual meaning through “representative forms:” mediums such as art, literature, music, film, et al. I think this hit home for many of us at the table – being exposed to a liberal arts education and coming into contact with countless interdisciplinary means of representation, a lot of us understood how a piece of art moves us to or elicits from us a visceral, sometimes inexplicable emotional and spiritual response. For instance, and quite appropriately, it’s the mission of Afterglow to tease out the innate spiritual experience in otherwise secular music. It’s, perhaps, why some of us were glued to the pages of J.K. Rowling for the better half of a decade, or why I can’t seem to control the waterworks concluding my watching of The Lord of the Rings (which, trust me, I am ashamed of and typically have to resort to excusing myself as I shuffle and snuffle out of the room). In the midst of discussion, Kay, as a sort of off-the-cuff example, argued that Star Wars could be seen as a spiritual experience for some. Dylan Pitt, also a participant at my table, couldn’t have endorsed the notion more (and if you know anything about Dylan, this wasn’t at all unexpected).
Discussion came to an end, and I found myself far too caffeinated for 8:15 P.M. on a Wednesday night. Concurrently, I, too, found my faith in humanity restored as I watched and listened to not only the intellectual engagement with a topic that runs the risk of becoming dogmatic and unilateral, but also in absorbing the personal narratives and experiential understandings of those who so willingly and courageously shared insights and perspectives. Matt and Kristin opened the floor up to debate on the spiritual typologies – students and faculty members sharing their particular alignments in certain categories and expounding on how perhaps the typology chart is insufficient. One thing of immediate interest was the number of those who found commonality in a Religious or Traditional spirituality early in their life, but then, as life continued – new experiences were encountered, new perspectives gained, and new communities forged – their traditional spirituality was altered by either unapologetic rebellion or by finding methods to accommodate that change, or both. Through the roar of the spitting steam and espresso machine throat-clearing, Matt and Kristin gave closing statements. Our ears perked, Matt said: “Spirituality is like Star Wars. Knowing ‘the Force’ connects us to a life and power we share with all things and others. It simultaneously helps us connect more deeply with ourselves. That connection seems central to most people’s sense of spirituality. And, like ‘the Force,’ the more you get to know spirituality the more we can use it – let it shape who we are and our lives.”
“What are the odds of that!?” Kay said, both of us deja-vu-disoriented, looking at each other and acknowledging the coincidence that out of the entire Sci-Fi film canon, Matt chose Star Wars. Or, maybe in the end it wasn’t all that hard to believe. But we laughed, together, like we couldn’t.