June 30, 2009

Spiritual Advisors

Let's begin with a short quote from the Associated Press about Mark Sanford. I'm not writing about Mark Sanford in particular here, but I got to this point in the story and my B.S. detection meter began to spike:
Sanford also detailed more visits with Chapur, including an encounter that he described as a failed attempt at a farewell meeting in New York this past winter, chaperoned by a spiritual adviser and sanctioned by his wife soon after she found out about the affair.
The phrase that jumped out at me is this: "...chaperoned by a spiritual adviser...". Is there any context in which any prominent person has a "spiritual adviser" and things are going well? Oh, I'm sure there are religious people out there who will reflexively leap to the defense of a person called a "spiritual adviser" for no reason other than that it seems somehow religious and therefore good. But here, you've got some convincing to do before I'll buy into that idea.

First, since I disbelieve in the supernatural, I will tell you that the spiritual adviser is advising the subject person about something that is by definition not real. So right away, I'm thinking "charlatan." About the only way to rescue the spiritual adviser from charlatan status is to convince me that the spiritual adviser sincerely believes in the hokum he's pushing on the subject.

Second, the subject involved only seems to acquire a "spiritual adviser" in one of two contexts. Either the subject is already in the midst of a significant moral lapse -- in which case what the subject needs is an ethics adviser, not a spiritual one -- or the subject is trying to assemble a team of people to accomplish some sort of a goal.

If there is a moral or ethical issue that the "spiritual adviser" is there to act or advise on, then why not describe this person as simply an "adviser"? What does "spiritual" add to the description? Now, I've tried on many occasions to get people who believe in and claim to interact with the supernatural to tell me what "spirit" is, what it is to have a "spiritual experience," or otherwise to define this. No one has ever been able to do that in any way I have ever found meaningful. They are unanimous, though, in saying a "spiritual experience" is something different than an "emotional experience," and that one's "spirit" is different than one's sense of ethics. So within the community of people who attribute meaning to that which is "spiritual," I have been able to figure out that they're talking about something that is neither ethical nor emotional.

If that goal is not explicitly religious, then what exactly does the "spiritual adviser" bring to the team? If the goal is explicitly religious, why isn't the "spiritual adviser" described as an actual cleric of some kind?

Case in point, a real telephone call I got from a real prospective client many years ago:
Hey there, TL, I need a lawyer for my new business. Yeah, we're gonna do [business activity]. I'm getting a whole team together and I wonder if you're the guy to be a part of that team, I'd like to meet you and find out. The other team members? Sure, I got an accountant, and I got a marketing guy, and I got a spiritual adviser, I got everything but a lawyer. I think we need to incorporate. What, a thousand dollars to incorporate, you say? I don't have that kind of money after hiring all these other people!
(This was more than five years ago so of necessity I paraphrase based on memory. But the substance of this statement was really something my client said.)

If the dude hadn't spent money on a "spiritual adviser" to offer no substantive assistance with his [business activity], he might have had enough money to incorporate. From my perspective as the lawyer, I wasn't all that concerned about a thousand-dollar fee to incorporate (I would charge more than that now, and this episode is one of the reasons why) but it did bug me that the guy was deciding, right off the bat, to bring a leech on his business team. He didn't hire me because, of course, what he really wanted was for me to work for free. And Homey don't play dat.

And third, there's another point about "spiritual advisers" that I hinted at before. If it were a minister, priest, rabbi, monk, bishop, deacon, guru, altar boy, or someone else holding some kind of an actual clerical title, I might be inclined to respond to the subject associating with a "spiritual adviser" by understanding that the subject is a very religious person and has a psychological need for religious support in whatever they are doing. In the case of someone who is in the midst of a moral lapse, a clergy member can serve as an ethical guide as well as a "spiritual" one (whatever that means). But when someone describes a "spiritual adviser," that's a phrase that describes a lay person performing some sort of quasi-religious function.

If the "spiritual adviser" were an actual minister, someone who had been ordained by some kind of actual religious institution, the subject would identify the person as a "minister," not a "spiritual adviser," even if the minister were fulfilling the role of providing spiritual advice. To the extent that a religious person performs a service that has value for the subject, it would seem that one would prefer to have a professional doing that service rather than an amateur. Certainly the phrase "spiritual adviser" lacks the social legitimacy associated with being a formal member of the clergy.

So, a "spiritual adviser" says to me that we're talking about someone who is a) performing a service for which he has not been educated or recognized as having any particular skill, b) charging the subject money for providing this service, and c) who I assume knows full well that the service being provided is illusory. It gets me thinking of what is a very dirty word in the law, the word I call the "f-word:" fraud.

Again, you might think I'm being deliberately uncharitable here. Let me assure you it's not just because the subject matter is religious. I feel this way about a "talent manager" leeching off of a promising up-and-coming artist. I feel this way about a great many "business consultants" of dubious qualifications and training who provide services of uncertain nature to their victims clients. Same category as "spiritual advisers."

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