I have always been fascinated with titles. When you read that sentence, you probably think of book titles. Certainly, most people would say that book titles are important. I would not disagree. But when you think about it further, there are many other kinds of titles.
Since I have paid off my old car, I have the title to that. It shows that I now own it. The bank owns the title to most of our houses. So apparently, a great deal of property comes with titles to show ownership. But not all ownership is individual. Some things are owned corporately. The college where I teach is a private school, so that means there is ownership. But it is owned corporately. The appointed trustees, in fact, oversee their ownership responsibilities. But no single person owns the campus or the buildings. The same idea pertains to national parks. All Americans, in effect, own Yosemite National Park. Even though it is in California (and I don’t live in CA), you and I and all of us own it.
Since I stayed in school long enough and did sufficient work, I was awarded a doctoral degree. So students can call me “Doctor.” That is a title. As the holder of a Ph.D., I am “entitled” to be thus addressed. I have a daughter who finished medical school and has the M.D. degree, so she also can be called “Doctor.” If you become sick, I suggest you call the right Doctor! I might care for you, but that might not be all you had in mind.
While this may be interesting, does it relate at all to spirituality? It certainly can. Let me begin with my own Quaker tradition and perspective. While I feel good about having the doctoral degree and appreciate the learning that happened while I studied for that degree, I feel uneasy when addressed as “Doctor.” This uneasiness betrays my own spirituality.
Titles can be descriptive and they can be symbolic. Let’s look at each of these functions for titles. I understand that my Ph.D. is descriptive. It describes the fact that I studied, passed tests, successfully wrote a dissertation and received the degree. I have a “diploma” to prove it. But that diploma is nothing more than a piece of paper. It signifies that I know something.
The spiritual question is whether anyone can trust this paper-diploma-degree that signifies that I know something entitling me to be called “Doctor?” Trust is a huge spiritual issue. You trust that piece of paper. You did not go to class with me nor did you see me graduate. That seems simple, until you remember that people can get online degrees from multiple websites for $25 and nearly instantaneously! Now we see how trust is at stake.
Some titles are a tease to lure us into a false sense of security. If we see a title, we may assume too much. Again, think of book titles that tease us to buy and read, but we actually purchase junk! Instead of edification, we are better off simply tossing it. The title was deceptive. I suppose someone might get a false M.D. and pretend to be in practice. Pretty soon that person (hopefully) will be discovered to be a quack. Again, the title is deceptive---untrustworthy.
I am not cynical about titles. They do have a function to describe and symbolize. What needs to be recognized, however, is the title is not the essence. Again, think about a book title. The essence of the book is the contents inside---the message. The title simply describes that content.
Now let’s put that in personal, spiritual terms. The essence of who I am is the “inside” of me---my soul or spirit. It is my character. It is defined by my actions. My Ph.D. does not change my essence. The doctorate did not change my spiritual character. That spiritual character is changed, developed and deepened by experience with the Holy One. It deepens through spiritual disciplines and compassionate action in a hurting world.
Billions of people have been spiritual without title. Some are canonized and are called “saints.” Most of us are just regular people trying to live life in God’s Spirit and bask in the gracious love of the Divinity. If we can somehow manage to be on this spiritual path, we will be entitled to much: blessings and perhaps more.