The Material Spirituality of Blindness and Money
John M. Hull
in Ruth Harvey (ed.) Wrestling and Resting: Exploring Stories of Spirit from Britain and Ireland, London, CTBI 1999, pp. 69-72
We have the spirituality which is in the interests of the people with whom we stand in solidarity. The wealthy and powerful are embedded within a spirituality which consciously or not contributes to maintain their interests in the world. This is because our spirituality, made up as it is of our self-ideals, our hopes and dreams, our interpretation of our place in the world and our relationship with others, together with our perception of the transcendent meaning of our lives, necessarily reflects our position in society.
For many years I did not know this. In my childhood and youth, I was enclosed within a spirituality which concentrated upon the personal presence of Jesus as I experienced him in the evangelical Christian faith. It did not occur to me that this spirituality had its own history. I just thought it was true.
Due partly to theological study and partly to a wider experience of life, I realised that the spirituality of my childhood was itself an artefact of my upbringing, an expression of a certain moment in the history of Christian faith, realised by me at a certain period of my own life. I began to be spiritually critical of my spirituality. Gradually, I adopted the spirituality of the theological lecturer, a mixture of critical commitment, enquiry, and an interest I in the personal growth of my students. I had a spirituality of meaning, in . the sense that my main understanding of Christian faith was that it offered meaning to our lives.
Then I went blind. I realised that my consciousness as a sighted person had not been absolute, but was limited and had given me a certain point of view upon the world. I realised that the Bible had been written by sighted people . and for sighted people, and that I as sighted had been embedded within this obvious spirituality, to emerge from which had not even occurred to me.
During those years I had become interested in false consciousness and self- deception as elements in spirituality. I was increasingly successful in my career, receiving several promotions, and rising to senior management in the institution where I worked. At the same time, however, I realised that false consciousness was creeping up my life like a rising tide. It became easier to see life from the top of the pile and more difficult to imagine it from underneath. It was blindness which saved me from completely succumbing to this fatal falseness. Facing every day a dozen frustrations and little humiliations, continually aware of my dependence upon others, alienated at the same time from an easy rapport with other people, I became increasingly conscious of the way that marginalised and disabled people experience the world.
Then it dawned upon me that the greatest spiritual force in the world today is money. Nothing so profoundly controls our hopes and fears, the imaginations we have of the good life and the way we mould our ambitions so as to attain it, as does money. I realised that as a blind person 1 had to have money and I understood how terrible was the plight of blind men with families when they did not have money.
Previously I had thought that spirituality comes down from above, from God, or from a supposed spiritual world, from another world which I had conceived of as being transcendent over the actual world in which I and other people lived. Now I began, slowly, to realise that spirituality comes up from below. I understood now that blindness was not only something that happened to your eyes or to your brain or to your body, but was a world-creating condition. Sight is also a world-creating condition, but sighted people do not usually realise this. They think the world is just like that. Now I understood that I was being compelled to live in a new world, a world created by blindness, where time and people and the difference between the conscious and the unconscious life were all reconstituted. This world was created by my blindness in the sense that it was projected from my blind body.
Spirituality, by which I mean the way we constitute our human relationships, our sense of time and space, our realisation of selfhood and so on comes up from below. These realities are created for us by the relationship between our bodies and the world, by the relationship between our lives and our bodies in the material context of life. Formerly a heavenly spiritualist, I now became a spiritual materialist.
Then I understood that what was true of blindness and its power to create a spiritual world was also true of money, which as the objective realisation of the human will and the concrete expression of relationships generates its own real world. Money creates its own culture. In so far as this money-culture influences our self-esteem, our scale of values, our motivations, our ideas of God, it can be said to produce a kind of spirituality. In so far as money has become the main instrument of exploitation and oppression, the spirituality of the money-culture which we have today must be denounced as a false spirituality, and a principal task of the Christian faith is to unmask the deceptions and especially the self-deceptions with which the money-culture conceals itself.
And so, gradually I felt my way towards a spirituality of justice. I came to see that the search for justice and the struggle against the forces of money which prevent universal justice is the way God is known. This is the transcendent element in our living, the particularities of concrete justice in solidarity with others.
Implementing this in my life presents me with a continual series of new falsehoods and further layers of self-deception. I seek to remove these by a series of tiny steps, each one of which restores my sense of spiritual balance. I know that these steps are only a beginning, but as a blind person and someone seeking, however feebly, to live an ethical life, I have learned a spirituality of taking one step at a time. This itself can be an excuse for not taking two steps.
However, beneath this I believe that I am somehow sustained by a love and a grace which is both smaller than me and greater than me.
It is smaller than me because it pays attention to every detail. The life of a blind person is crowded with details so small that sighted people seldom notice them. It is greater than me because it is the environment in which I live. The life of a blind person is set within realities like the stars, hills, cities which are almost too large to be realised.
When I discovered the marble altar in Iona Abbey, in the middle of the night, I found that there were jagged scratches on either side of which the expanse of polished stone stretched smooth as silk further than I could reach. This surface was made by people, but in the excoriations there was something older and deeper, a rock not cut by hands. Which was the small and which the great? The scratches were small and the surface was great, yet the altar was small and the rock was great.