What is spirituality?
"Spirituality, in whatever form it takes,
is a vital dimension of our humanity."
(Peter Gilbert [Ed]  Spirituality and Mental Health.
Hove, Sussex: Pavilion, p.42)
Photo: Roderick Hunt - Moon Ascending, Sea of Japan
A big question!
It is almost impossible to answer the question 'What is spirituality?' because the term represents so many different things to so many different people and cultures. Yet the use of the term is widespread and increasing.
'Spirituality' is used in a broad range of contexts including established religions and wisdom traditions; professional settings such as education, medicine, health and social care; leadership, management and workplace studies; as well as in healing therapies, life-coaching, and personal and professional development.
An internet search on Google in 2008, when the proposal to develop the Journal for the Study of Spirituality (JSS) was being developed, brought up 56,800,000 references to ‘spirituality’. In 2020 that number rose to more than to 730,000,000. A search of just one publisher's website in 2008 showed that they had published 1,402 journal articles with 'spirituality' in the title in the previous two years. There had been just 32 in a similar two-year period between 1967 and 1969. Fifty years later - between 2017 and 2019 - there were over 9,000.
A complex issue
Ursula King (2009) points out that it may be more helpful to ask what spirituality does rather than what it is. John Swinton (2020) also notes that reaching agreement on what spirituality is is less important than understanding what it does. He suggests that such understanding can be developed by considering what spirituality looks like as it is carried out within a particular area of practice, and whether its presence makes any difference. Although, as he says, it may appear 'counter-intuitive' to do so, Swinton advocates naming spirituality 'after the action' (p.12)
Simon Peng-Keller (2019) argues that the many discussions and confusions about what spirituality ‘is’ arise because it is a ‘travelling concept’. This is a term coined by Mieke Bal (2002) to depict a meta-concept that straddles time and cultures: she likens it to a 'living creature' which constantly generates new questions and considerations in different contexts, and becomes changed in that process. Peng-Keller charts the complex travels of conceptualisations of spirituality, particularly in the West, through ‘early and medieval Christianity, late-medieval and early modern mysticism, and romanticism (including Mesmerism and Transcendentalism)’ to what is sometimes seen as today’s ‘healthification’ of the concept. Drawing on the field of healthcare to illustrate ways in which the concept continues to travel, Peng-Keller notes that in ‘public health and interprofessional spiritual care’ there is now ‘a plurality of value-laden “spiritualities”’ and the ‘frame’ through which politicians, managers and practitioners view these has an impact upon their decision-making (p.87). What happens in practice settings as a result of these decisions, and of associated empirical research, then further influences the use of the term.
Not only is there a complex relationship between what spirituality is and does, but, as Ursula King (2009: 4) says: ’Like all other human experiences, spirituality exists primarily in the plural. It is thus much more appropriate to speak of “spiritualities” rather than spirituality in the singular.’
It is important to recognise, too, that understandings of spirituality are intricately entwined in cultural histories. Research in the field of spirituality studies, including the selection of methodologies and the interpretation of findings, may therefore be undertaken from a range of different perspectives. Fleming and Ledogar (2008: 47), for example, illustrate how and why ‘Spirituality is closely bound up with culture and ways of living in Indigenous communities and requires a more holistic or comprehensive research approach’.
Cultural histories also influence how the relationship between spirituality and religion is viewed. O'Murchu (1997) notes that 'Spirituality tends to be perceived as a sub-system or offshoot of formal religion'. Drawing on 'knowledge accumulated by cultural anthropology and the history of religious ideas', however, he argues, that 'Spirituality is, and always has been, more central to human experience than religion' (p.i). More recently, in a study of 'contemporary spiritualities', Stefania Palmisano and Nicola Pannofino (2021) argue that religion and spirituality are simply 'different but interrelated ways of experiencing the sacred' (ch.1); however spirituality often becomes defined 'according to the prevalent religious culture' (ch.3). They provide an analytical model which 'examines the “social field” of spirituality, populated by both religious and secular actors, and elements of cooperation and conflict' (ch.2).
What approach does the Journal for the Study of Spirituality take?
An underlying premise of the Journal for the Study of Spirituality (JSS) is that:
"Human beings are essentially spiritual creatures because we are driven by a need to ask 'fundamental' or 'ultimate' questions … to find meaning and value in what we do and experience."
(Zohar and Marshall 2000:4).
JSS recognises that many people seek guidance and resolution for such questions within religious traditions and teachings while others prefer to do so within a humanistic framework, often shaped by principles of social justice; and that some may reject the language of spirituality altogether but espouse what might be called ‘spiritual values’ in their lives and work. It also recognises that there are dimensions of spirituality to which predominantly cognitive answers about ‘meaning and value’ cannot easily be found, including lived-experience of awe and wonder.
Bal, M. (2002) Travelling Concepts in the Humanities: a Rough Guide. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Fleming, J. and Ledogar, R. (2008) 'Resilience and Indigenous Spirituality: A Literature Review', Pimatisiwin 6:2, 47-64.
O'Murchu, D. (1997) Reclaiming Spirituality. Dublin: Gateway.
Palmisano, S. and Pannofino, N. (2021) Contemporary Spiritualities: Enchanted Worlds of Nature, Wellbeing and Mystery in Italy. Abingdon: Routledge. [Summary}
Peng-Keller, S. (2019) 'Genealogies of spirituality: An historical analysis of a travelling term', Journal for the Study of Spirituality 9:2, 86-98.
Swinton, J. (2020) 'BASS ten years on: A personal reflection', Journal for the Study of Spirituality 10:1, 6-14.
King, U. (2009) The Search for Spirituality: Our global quest for meaning and fulfillment. Norwich: Canterbury Press.
Zohar, D. and Marshall, I. (2000) SQ: Spiritual Intelligence. London: Bloomsbury, 4.
(Cheryl Hunt, University of Exeter, UK. November 2020)
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