Dimensions in Spirituality
Author: J. A. McLean
Publisher: George Ronald, 1994
Review by: William G. Huitt
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).
McLean wrote this book because he believes that knowledge and cultivation of the spiritual
dimension of life is vital if one is to develop his or her full potential.
In the book's forward, the author states he will address two main
concerns: 1) define more clearly the meaning of spirituality; and 2) outline a process of
spiritual transformation. These flow from McLean's belief that purposeful and willful
action based upon sound understanding form the foundation of spiritual development. 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, since science (the study of the material world)
"makes no judgement about the types of phenomena which fall outside its domain"
(p. 32), it is the author's view that 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) as a 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
the 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 states this approach "helps to
bind together the scientist and religionist. Both are bound to search for all truth, both
material and spiritual" (p. 4).
As we engage in this spiritual quest, McLean suggests we must 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 "as the spiritual prerequisite for the attainment of true
understanding" (p. 12). This detachment, in the Bahá'í understanding, "means at
the same time attachment to God. More specifically, it 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). In addition,
Bahá'u'lláh "relates detachment and the knowledge of God 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 (epistemology) 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:
1) resolve to make spiritual progress (enlist the human will); 2) reading of sacred
scripture; 3) daily meditation and reflection; 4) self-examination of the individual's
conscience; 5) thanksgiving for spiritual progress; and 6) 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).
McLean summarizes these different approaches to spiritual transformation thusly:
Generally speaking, the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity,
Islam and the Bahá'í Faith emphasize law and morality and obedience to the will of God.
Within Christianity there is a strong emphasis on spiritual rebirth, grace and the
salvific power of Christ. The western faiths are typically dichotomous in their view of
the individual and we find in them contrasts between body and soul, matter and spirit. By
contrast, the Asian faiths emphasize more the unity and harmony of the cosmos as a point
of departure and attempt to bring the individual into harmony with that pre-existent
force. With these religions, there is no belief in a highly individualized self who
struggle either with itself and/or against the universe" (p. 78).
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.
McLean also 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. In the Lunar Phase Model spiritual transformation is thought to occur in four
1) During the first phase of the waxing moon, the crescent moon represents
the believer's first turning to God.
2) In the second phase, the light intensifies when the believer recognizes
the station of the Manifestation of God.
3) In the third phase, the moon of the soul gradually becomes fuller with
the consistent and patient practice of spiritual virtues expressed in a life of service.
4) In the fourth, full moon phase, the soul comes to fulfill its true
potential by being a full and 'perfect'
reflection of the light of the sun (pp. 88-89).
The new birth model is most often associated with Christianity where the
individual must believe in Jesus in order to break the bonds of the natural or material
aspect of self and to be "reborn" as a spiritual person. This model is also
specifically taught in the Bahá'í Faith. McLean quotes Abdu'l-Bahá in a passage
reminiscent of scripture found in the Gospels:
"Until a man is born again from the world of nature, that is to say,
becomes detached from the world of nature, he is essentially an animal, and it is the
teachings of God which convert this animal into a human soul...As the babe is born into
the light of this physical world, so must the physical and intellectual man be born into
the light of the world of Divinity" (p. 90).
McLean proposes that these two models are complementary rather than
mutually exclusive. From his perspective it is important to distinguish "the rapidity
of the supernatural experience of being 'born again' from the much longer process of the
transformation of character that comes by dint of human effort and which is beset with
constant challenges" (p. 93). What is perceived as an abrupt conversion might be
considered as part of a process that includes an attempt to struggle with some difficulty
and an intentional search for truth.
The third model offered from McLean's study of Bahá'í scripture is the
life of Abdu'l-Bahá. In fact, Abdu'l-Bahá himself stated "...look at Me, follow Me,
be as I am" (p. 98). According to Annamarie Kunz Honnold, who met Abdu'l-Bahá and
studied his life extinsively, there are three overarching spiritual attributes of
Abdu'l-Bahá: purity, kindliness, and radiance. She, as well as Shoghi Effendi, grandson of
Abdu'l-Bahá and Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith, recite a litany of spiritual and ethical
characteristics that exemplify Abdu'l-Bahá. The value of studying His life is to review a
practical demonstration of what it truly means to become a spiritual person and lead a
In the remaining chapters of the book, McLean reviews 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?" 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