What is Spiritual Fitness?

What is spiritual fitness? We talk about it all the time, but what does it really mean?

The answer depends on whether you are asking the padre because you want the guidance of his church or if you are asking the padre because you think he has something to offer you even though you don’t share his faith commitments.

What we do as religious leaders contributes to “spiritual fitness,” but I don’t think it exhausts what either the Army or its chaplains mean by “spiritual fitness.”

I know some chaplains believe that the only answer to this question that matters is the one that best represents their faith traditions. That’s the one they share with their coreligionists (as they should) and that’s the one they share with everyone else. “If you don’t want my faith answer, don’t ask me the question.”

Perhaps, then, “spiritual fitness” is just the aggregate of what each chaplain does individually as leaders within their own faith communities. If that’s the case, then let’s stop talking about “spiritual fitness”. “Spiritual fitness” is an Army need; without the Army context, I would probably never use the term as a pastor. Theologically, I would frame the issue quite differently. I certainly don’t preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, lead worship and teach the word to make my congregants fit some Army definition of “spiritually fit.” My church determines the purpose and goal of my ministry, not the Army.

And then there’s the fact that while the Army really doesn’t care what kind of spirituality  gives you the strength to get through the day, religious faith claims are inherently exclusive. From a faith perspective, the question – which I will not answer here – is this: can a practice that makes one “spiritually fit” in the do-your-job-here-and-now sense turn out to be spiritually harmful in the long run – in its eternal effects? Supporting free exercise of religion isn’t the same as supporting everything done by those exercising their religious freedom.

So on what basis can we have an honest, shared discussion on spiritual fitness that is not ultimately built on specific faith claims? I’ve read a lot of descriptions of spiritual fitness, and quite frankly, a lot of it is not helpful – primarily because I don’t buy into the underlying foundations.

To begin our conversation, we need a place to stand that is consistent with our individual faiths commitments, but shared among people of all religious faiths – even secular humanists and conscientious altruistic atheists.

One place to begin, I think, is actually with Army doctrine. FM 1 (The Army) talks a little about the warrior’s character. FM 6-22 (Army Leadership) describes the character of Army leaders in some detail. Soldiers who are spiritually fit – in the shared Army sense of that phrase – possess these character virtues. Whether or not to “buy into” these virtues isn’t really open for discussion for Soldiers – or their chaplains.

But why should we call this “spiritual” fitness? What makes these virtues “spiritual”?

Let me here differentiate between transcendent virtues and instrumental virtues. A business may tell its workers, “Our partners treat everyone who walks through the door like a king.” Everyone understands WHY the business promotes this as a virtue: it helps the company make money (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Few people come home from work, however, thinking that their employers have the secret to life’s meaning or that all of life is to be lived by company virtues.

In one sense, Army virtues are company virtues. Every soldier understands that the Army wants them to be spiritually fit – resilient, ethical, committed, confident, compassionate, etc. – because that helps the Army accomplish its mission.

Soldiers and family members have come to expect, however, that chaplains are more than just “company men.” We stand for something that transcends the Army and even the nation. We are for both “God” and “country” – but these are not equals in their authority.

The foundation of “spiritual” fitness is the commitment to honor the dignity of every human life, to care for every wounded spirit, to nurture holistic well being in every person – not because it puts another rifle out on patrol, but just because human beings are of intrinsic value. We cultivate virtues of character not just because that solves problems for the Army, but because it is absolutely and unconditionally the right thing to do. And we do this for everyone in our care.

This is, I think, our professional military chaplain “ethos” that cuts across denominational lines. It is reinforced by our chaplain “mythos” – the controlling narrative that tells us who we are as a branch. Perhaps this gives us a foundation on which we can build a common understanding of what spiritual fitness really means in the context of a secular military environment.