Immaterial observations

The Spiritual Quest
August 11, 1995

The Spiritual Quest is a substantial work, extensively researched and tailed with a massive 45-page bibliography. Its thesis is that "spiritual questing", a dynamic and future-orientated activity, is a universal and constitutive characteristic of all human beings. The case is argued in an interdisciplinary tour de force drawing on the research insights of anthropologists, psychologists, philosophers, linguists, ethnographers and others, as well as on the fruit of the author's own trans-global explorations. Torrance finds biological, psychological, linguistic and social evidence to support his argument; thereby pulling together more commonly distinct scientific and religious material in mutual support. The result is not entirely easy to read, being heavily laden with technical jargon. Sometimes it borders on eclectic indulgence, although there can be no question that it is packed with fascinating and detailed information.

As a book The Spiritual Quest functions on at least two levels. On one level, especially in the opening and closing sections, it offers a philosophical argument. There is a spirited attack on what the author perceives to be the dead end of structuralist and post-structuralist understandings of the world. He is committed to the search for an essential humanity, animal quaerens he calls it; and, when pushed to name the goal of the long search, he is not reluctant to speak of it as "the truth". He engages critically with Durkheim and Bergson, Freud and Piaget, Chomsky and Saussure, always resisting the relativism and the affirmation of the status quo which he finds implicit in much of their work. So, in conversation with Durkheim he writes, "Far from merely validating society's decrees, religion reveals the intrinsic incompleteness of all human attainments by holding out the possibility of an order transcending the approximative actual: the indispensable, if unreachable goal of an all-encompassing nomos, all-embracing communitas." Myth and ritual, it is argued, not merely strengthen and preserve the given order, but enable the creative management of conflict and change directed towards an open future.

I confess to being unconvinced by the overall philosophical strategy; but then I have been more strongly moved than Torrance by the post-modern spirit of the age. I like his use of the category of metaphor to express the dynamism of the quest, but I am suspicious that his use of biological and cosmological evidence occasionally feels too convenient to his purpose.

On another level, this book offers an immense wealth of ethnographic material which, although primarily chosen to support a philosophical case, is of great interest in its own right. The author claims to work deliberately in this way to avoid some of the distortions of interpretation in the apparent sophistication of what he terms "civilised analysis". Five central chapters document tribal cultures from Australasia, Africa, Asia, as well as North and South America.

I am convinced by the evidence that the majority of the world's cultures, and especially tribal cultures, do indeed generate ritual and mythological traditions which serve not only to maintain stability by recourse to the past but also to provoke creative development and change with an eye to the future. What I remain unsure about is whether it is proper to move from this phenomenological observation to an ontological affirmation concerning the essential humanum.

Two chapters which specially attracted my attention are built around the theme of "spirit possession". Much of the analysis of how such a concept finds a place within social structures is not new but, from a theological perspective, I found this one of the most creative and affirmative accounts of the role of possession and exorcism I have seen. Consistent with the thesis of the book, these take on a future-orientated transformative significance, and the phenomenon of possession becomes located fully within the structure of the spiritual quest.

As I hope is evident, this book has much to commend it; and its sheer diversity of content is likely to gain it a wide potential readership. I am only sorry that there is not a more satisfying conjunction between such a remarkable gathering of ethnographic sources and the central philosophical argument with which they are connected.

The Revd Richard L. Kidd is the principal, Northern Baptist College, Manchester.

The Spiritual Quest: Transcendence in Myth, Religion and Science

Author - Robert M. Torrance
ISBN - 0 520 08132 3
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - $35.00
Pages - 384

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