Review by William G. Huitt, Ph.D.
Published in Dialogue & Alliance, Spring 1997
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 Bahá'í 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). It is McLean's belief that an individual engages in a process of spiritual development by connecting a sound understanding (internal potential) to the external world through purposeful and willful action (actualizing potential.) Thus, the author has two goals: to define more clearly the meaning of spirituality and to outline a process of spiritual transformation. McLean wrote this book because he believes that knowledge and cultivation of the spiritual dimension of life is vital if one is to develop one's full human potential.
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, it is the author's view that since science (the study of the material world) "makes no judgement about the types of phenomena which fall outside its domain" (p. 32), 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) the 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 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 argues that this approach "helps to bind together the scientist and religionist. Both are bound to search for all truth, both material and spiritual" (p. 4).
McLean suggests that a fundamental aspect of a spiritual quest is to 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 Bahá'u'lláh, Prophet-Founder of the Bahá'í Faith, is detachment from the world, "the spiritual prerequisite for the attainment of true understanding" (p. 12). This detachment, in the Bahá'í understanding, 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). As such detachment and the knowledge of God are intimately connected 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 Bahá'u'lláh 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 Bahá'u'lláh, spirituality takes an exponential leap" (p. 41). However, he does not rule out spiritual growth outside of a belief in Bahá'u'lláh; 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 Bahá'u'lláh 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 the resolve to make spiritual progress (enlist the human will); the reading of sacred scripture; daily meditation and reflection; self-examination of one's conscience; thanksgiving for spiritual progress; and repenting of wrongs and resolving to do better. It is this "self-affirming concept that we are able to change ourselves" that the Bahá'í 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). 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 Bahá'u'lláh and encourages individuals to take a first or additional step in the process of spiritual transformation.
In the remaining chapters of the book, McLean outlines three models of how spiritual transformation takes place according to Bahá'í scripture: the Lunar Phase Model of Illumination, the New Birth Model of the Awakening, and the model of the life of Abdu'l-Bahá, eldest son of Bahá'u'lláh. He then goes on to review 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?" But 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.