Presbyterian Peacemaker Emphasizes the Essence of Spirituality

Dr. Bob Hansen and Dr. PHOTO BY JIM MALVEN.

Dr. Bob Hansen and Dr. Vartkes Kassouni. PHOTO BY JIM MALVEN.


Ordained reverend Dr. Vartkes “Kass” Kassouni visited Westminster last week as part of the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, a program in which Presbyterian leaders travel around the world sharing concerns about peace and justice and providing insights aimed at inspiring greater faithfulness.

Kassouni, who immigrated to the United States from Cyprus in 1949 and has since held various leadership roles in Presbyterian churches throughout Southern California, gave three presentations during his campus visit. Drawing on his Armenian descent and experience helping to form the Armenian Evangelical Union of North America, Kassouni focused on Armenian faith and culture in two of his presentations. His most highlighted talk, however, was Thursday’s noon lecture, The Essence of Spirituality, in which he discussed the meaning of spirituality and how we can and should express our spirituality.

During his presentation, Kassouni defined spirituality as “positive relationships between a person and God, others, the environment and oneself.” He contrasted this term with religion, which he defined as “the organizing of one’s relationship with God and developing guidelines and practices.”

Kaitlin Rosholm, ’17, the primary coordinator of Kassouni’s visit, said she found this definition of spirituality “really interesting.”

“Personally, [spirituality] is something I’ve been exploring this past year, since January or so, and working in Jamie [Haskins’] office, I’ve learned that spirituality and religion go far beyond what’s in a church building, and it has much further reaches,” Rosholm said. “When he was talking about spirituality in regards to the environment — that is something I hadn’t even thought of until I heard Jamie talk about it with one of her students, and he brought it up here.”

The main message of the discussion was that we should strive to master four balancing acts: corporate versus private devotion, emotion versus thought, joyful acceptance of God’s good word versus careful stewardship avoiding entanglement in the accumulation of possessions, and the desire for quietness and a relationship with God versus a desire to live out our faith in service.

Out of the four, Kassouni focused most on corporate versus private devotion, warning of the dangers of both sides.

He said that religion, labeling it “the formal practices and belief systems, prevents anyone from experiencing spirituality.”

But, he also said spiritual isolation is dangerous.

“I think there is a tendency today for people to develop spirituality and do that on their own and not be in tune with others,” he said.

“Interacting with the community of faith is very important,” Kassouni continued, adding that it must be done in a constructive, rather than destructive, way. He also pointed out that corporate spirituality, or spirituality practiced in community, does not have to be part of a religion, or a society that creates restrictions.

“True spirituality is freeing, rather than enslaving, but religion intends not to be freeing, but rather, enslaving,” he said. “It’s interesting; it’s paradoxical.”

“The struggle for freedom goes on everywhere — inside your own church, as well as inside the world in which you exist all the time,” he said. “In the church I grew up in, there were very strict laws that we had to accept that were not the Gospel.”

Kassouni also talked about the truth of spirituality.

“The truth of spirituality is where spirituality is experienced or demonstrated in positive and uplifting relationships, versus destructive relationships,” he said. “The truth that Jesus taught us when he said, ‘You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free” gives us in our spirituality. Otherwise, we are enslaved, so to speak; we are made prisoners of other thought systems that are destructive.”

Essentially, Kassouni feels that religion is often restricting towards both outsiders and insiders but that private spirituality may be restrictive to outsiders and is not meaningful in the sense that it is not shared or communicated with others.

When asked about the importance of spirituality, he said that spirituality is not a choice, as everyone is inherently spiritual in some way.

“One is spiritual, whether one wants to be or not,” he said. “It depends on what way that spirituality is experienced.”

Kassouni’s hope for students is that they “develop a faith that is very meaningful to them” and engage in “some kind of worship in community,” regardless of whether that community is a church.

Kassouni’s visit was coordinated by members of Spiritual Life and Dr. Bob Hansen, organizational leadership program coordinator.

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