Spiritual Intelligence: What We Can Learn From the Early Awakening Child
By Marsha Sinetar
Orbis Books, 214 pp.

Acute self-awareness, moral elevation, a sense of destiny--if your child has these, she may display spiritual intelligence. She may also be spiritually intelligent if she's failing school, experimenting with marijuana, and locking herself in her room.

How can you tell the difference? Not with the help of Marsha Sinetar's new book "Spiritual Intelligence." Sinetar promises us that we can improve our own spirituality by observing the "selected patterns of behavior" exhibited by spiritually gifted children; thus the subtitle of her book, "What We Can Learn From the Early Awakening Child." Spiritual intelligence is a fascinating concept, and Sinetar's book makes a praiseworthy effort to describe a type of awareness that doesn't fit into the easy mold of IQ tests and good grades. But ultimately, the effort fails, thanks to the bewildering variety of "behavior patterns" that the spiritually intelligent display. After telling us that spiritual intelligence involves a number of intriguing (but vague) qualities such as "inspired drive and effectiveness" and "a present-centeredness that orders existence," Sinetar gets down to the business of describing what the lives of the spiritually gifted actually look like:

"The spiritually intelligent may possess a strong self-image. Or not. They may 'feel good' about themselves. Or not. They may, as I did, seek an early independence by disengaging emotionally from an elder who frightens, suffocates, abuses, or manipulates them. Or not. Autonomy may blossom in the twinkling of an eye, or develop gradually. They'll display bold intent and zany humor. Or be timid. Or grave as stones. They might feel enthused. Or depressed, nearly asphyxiated by their troubles."

In other words, they sound pretty much like the rest of the world.

Sinetar writes glowingly that spiritually intelligent children are "our world's most novel thinkers," with imaginations "alive with the presence of ideals" and "leadership power" that is "evident, even in youth." But immediately she ducks: "No judgments, please: We're not talking 'better.' We're talking different.... No single size, shape, or rule of conduct fits all." In fact, the book is peppered with examples of spiritually intelligent children who lock themselves in their bedrooms to keep siblings away, who have "employed anger (e.g., fierce grimaces and clenched fists)" to keep parents at a distance. Children who rebel, fail at school, and reject rules can also be spiritually intelligent. Antisocial behavior is fine; Sinetar assures us. "Spiritually intelligent youngsters might even shy away from parents or close friendships. Not to worry: Early awakeners are not ax-murderers...." But Sinetar's guidance won't enable you to tell whether your tattooed dropout is a budding Dylan Klebold or a young Joan of Arc.

This persistent vagueness is probably inevitable, given Sinetar's basic philosophy of spirituality: It is entirely internal, rising from "an intrinsic seed of wisdom ready-made and whole" within each person. External ideas about God and spirituality are dismissed as "antilife," imposed from the outside. Sinetar's model is her father, who refused to tell her if he believed in God. "He answered that because parents too easily sway their young in any direction it was my job to fathom my own heart. Satisfied, I gladly took on the grandeur of that task."

If spirituality is only a matter of fathoming your own heart, describing how it looks in other people's hearts (and lives) becomes a contradictory and useless exercise. Although Sinetar refers several times to "Christian mysticism" as the basis for her own ideas, orthodox Christian spirituality relies heavily on the external disciplines (prayer, Word, contemplation) that give seekers a common framework. Sinetar's spirituality is so intensely personal that, when you've finished this book, you're likely to find yourself alone with your own heart and no guidance--just as you were before you picked it up.

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