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The emergence of spirituality studies as a subject of academic inquiry

"This new upsurge of spirituality is itself one manifestation of a world undergoing global transformation on a scale not known to humanity for many millennia. ... we need to bring new tools of investigation and exploration to this field of research. No one discipline ... will enable us to comprehend this new upsurge; it requires a multi-disciplinary analysis."

(Diarmuid Ó Murchu [1997] Reclaiming Spirituality

Dublin: Gateway, pp.viii & 13)

Photo: Cheryl Hunt - 'Everything Changes', Sheffield, UK           

Discourses and practices

Perhaps prompted by the approach of a new millennium, a new discourse about spirituality began to emerge in the 1990s. In 1995, Endean drew attention to 'the growth of spirituality as an academic subject in institutions of higher education, notably in faculties of theology', as well as to the fact that spirituality was 'proving an important basis for dialogue between Christians and adherents of other faiths' (p.87). Significantly, he argued that the driver of 'contemporary academic spirituality' was to  overcome 'the marginalization of human experience from the religious academy', to submit 'religious experience to critical scrutiny and [allow] that experience to enrich our reflective self-understanding.' (p.91). Endean acknowledges the important role of Sandra Schneiders in prompting the study of spirituality as a discipline in its own right, connected to, but not defined by, theology and religion. Challenging popular opinion she had argued a decade earlier that: 

... theology does not contain or control spirituality... [S]pirituality is not a subdivision of either dogmatic or moral theology . .. I find most convincing and clarifying the position that regards spirituality as an autonomous discipline which functions in partnership and mutuality with theology. (Schneiders 1986: 263)

As Schneiders recognised, however:

It is going to take some time to delineate precisely the subject matter of this new field and to distinguish it adequately from that of other fields but we know that we are interested in studying something that exists and that does not fit precisely into any of the existing fields of study. (Schneiders 1993: 15)

Ó Murchu (1997) later made a case for 'Reclaiming Spirituality' which, he said, had for too long been 'perceived as a sub-system or offshoot of formal religion' - despite the fact that 'Our spiritual story as a human species is at least 70,000 years old' and 'formal religions have existed for a mere 4,500 years' (p.vii). Tacey (2004) and Forman (2004) both subsequently identified and wrote about a rapidly-growing popular interest in spirituality, especially in the Western world. Tacey argued that it was nothing less than a 'Spirituality Revolution'. Forman described it as a massive 'Grassroots Spirituality Movement', which, 'unlike any previous religious revolution' was 'being developed by a huge, far-reaching yet largely disorganized body of ordinary people all over the world ...' (p.2). Certainly, the idea that one could be 'Spiritual But Not Religious' (SBNR) had begun to take hold. (See Erlandson, 2000, who is credited with popularising the term SBNR; and a later qualitative analysis of this phenomenon by Mercadante, 2014. Harvey, 2016, questions what difference the SBNR phenomenon makes to scholarly debate.) 

In terms of professional practices, acknowledgement of a spiritual dimension has always been embedded in the fabric of caring professions such as nursing, teaching and social work. However, as new thinking and discourses about spiritualty developed, researchers began to explore the implications for practice of professionals’ personal understandings of spirituality, including what ‘spiritual care’ and ‘spiritual development’ actually entail. 

In one of the early studies, Ross (1994) found that nurses mostly defined spiritual need in religious terms; she subsequently argued for a broader view of spiritual care as ‘putting the patient in the best condition for the spiritual realm to act upon him or her’ (p.36). Over the past decade, a collaborative European research programme has been exploring contemporary views/practices of nurses and midwives. Resulting in the development of new best practice standards for spiritual care education, its findings also add to a growing body of evidence affirming the importance of spirituality in promoting the health and wellbeing of individuals (McSherry and colleagues 2020).

In the context of schooling, having regard for the ‘spiritual development’ of pupils has long been a statutory requirement for state schools in England. Although this was once regarded mainly as the responsibility of religious education (RE) teachers, ‘spirituality’ is now embedded in much wider debates about whole-school development and community welfare. Stern (2009) describes how this has given rise to practical and collaborative explorations of ways in which the ‘spirit of the school’ itself can be identified, articulated, and developed. He subsequently explains how such exploration can be adapted for use in other professional settings (Stern 2018).

Charting the ways in which spirituality has been addressed in social work, and how they believe it has ‘come of age’, Holloway and Moss draw attention to ‘one of the early publications in the UK to tackle the subject’: it likened social work practice itself to ‘a spiritual voyage which involves promoting the growth and fulfilment of the user, professional helper, and the wider community’ (Patel et al. 1998: 11, cited in Holloway and Moss 2010: 3). Acknowledging commonalities between social work and education, Groen et al (2012) have since brought together conversations about spirituality in these fields and examine some of the issues related to practising and teaching from a 'spiritually sensitive' perspective. (See Rowson, 2017, for discussion about why use of the term 'spiritual sensitivity' may be preferable to 'spirituality'.)

There is now evidence within an increasing number of professions of a desire ‘to embrace spirituality and develop practices based on a less materialistic, more holistic worldview’, often prompted by recognition of the need ‘to surpass the ecological, social and ethical “mess” that modernity created’ (Zsolnai and Flanagan 2019: 3). According to Robinson (2010: 96, drawing on the work of Taylor, 1991), this 'mess' can be distilled into three issues: (i) a tendency towards narcissistic individualism and a corresponding loss of a sense of community and social cohesion; (ii) a loss of meaning and significance as instrumental reason has dominated at the expense of intuitive/heart-led modes of knowledge; and (iii) a sense of alienation and powerlessness in the face of complexity and bureaucracy in public life. This has all been compounded by ‘the xenophobic mentality so characteristic of modern nationalism’, and the devastation wrought by wars and neglect of the environment (ibid.).

Robinson argues that growing recognition of modernity's mess is leading to the development of a new ‘transmodern’ worldview. This is being driven by challenges from many directions to modernity’s emphasis on ‘only rationality as a way of understanding the world and of making moral, social and economic decisions’ (ibid: 97, original italics). From the direction of the social sciences, participatory research and practice is one such driver since it ‘unsettles, challenges and contests existing social and educational formations’ (Denzin 2006: x). Likewise, the concept of ‘multiple intelligences’ (Gardner 1983) has disrupted the view that ‘rational-analytical-intelligence is sufficient to guide us through life’ and, in consequence, studies of ‘interpersonal abilities, wisdom, creativity and spiritual development’ have become more commonplace (Robinson 2010: 98).

As Forman (2004: 2,4) predicted, the emergence and development of the ‘Spirituality Movement’ points to the need to 'integrate consciousness, soul, and spirit into our societal dialogues’. His suggestion that ‘its shudders may potentially impact every corner and sub-culture of our civilization’ has yet to be realised in the face of what Rowson (2017: 99-102) describes as the 'Meta Crisis' of our current times. As we live through the political and ecological turbulence and unpredictability that have begun to characterise the first decades of this millennium, it is imperative not only to ask the personal spiritual question 'Who am I, and who am I becoming?' but to recognise, as Rowson notes, that 'we come to know who we are by trying to fashion the world we want to live in' (p.125). 

It is the function of academic inquiry in the field of spirituality studies to explore the personal and professional beliefs, ideas and practices with which we try to fashion our world. Through such work we may come to better understand ourselves in all our many dimensions, including the spiritual.

"We cannot deny that problems still exist in the academy with respect to the new discipline of spirituality. The study of 'experience' still sends shudders through some esteemed professorial bodies! Nevertheless, the academic study of spirituality continues to gain ground, and attracts large numbers of quality students with a wide variety of research interests. Serious and critical engagement with the subject matter of this new discipline continues to grow, and exciting new areas of discourse are opening up to scholarly analysis. Its vocabulary is developing; primary resources and research tools are now more readily available; academic societies are providing a forum for exchange of ideas; and scientific journals in the field are of a high standard. The study of spirituality is increasingly facilitating productive interchange between global spiritual traditions, an interchange which is of benefit to all parties concerned. We are witnessing a renewal of interest in perhaps what is one of the oldest traditions in human history, namely, the transmission of spiritual wisdom. Interest in spirituality is an indication of a deepfelt desire within the hearts of women and men to find unity and wholeness, both individually and in society. Contemporary spirituality is no longer concerned primarily with the inner processes of the human being, but also with the very real needs of present society, including the need to preserve the planet."

(C. Kourie [2009] 'Spirituality and the University'Verbum et Ecclesia30 (1), p.169)


Denzin, N. (2006) 'Foreword' to Satterthwaite, J., Martin, W. and Roberts, L. (eds)  Discourse, Resistance and Identity Formation. Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham Books.

Endean, P. (1995) 'Spirituality and the University', The Way Supplement, 84 (Autumn), 87.

Erlandson, S. (2000) Spiritual but Not Religious: A Call to Religious Revolution in America. Bloomington: iUniverse.

Forman, R. (2004) Grassroots Spirituality. Exeter: Imprint Academic.

Gardner, H. (1983) Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Fontana: London.

Groen, J., Coholic, D. and Graham, J. (Eds) (2012). Spirituality in Social Work and Education: Theory, practice, and pedagogies. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

Harvey, G. (2016) 'If ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ People Are Not Religious What Difference Do They Make?', Journal for the Study of Spirituality, 7(2), 128-141.

Holloway, M. and Moss, B. (2010) Spirituality and Social Work. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Kourie, C. (2009).'Spirituality and the University'Verbum et Ecclesia30 (1), 148-173.

McSherry, W. and colleagues (2020) ‘Preparing undergraduate nurses and midwives for spiritual care: Some developments in European education over the last decade’, Journal for the Study of Spirituality 10(1), 55-71.

Mercadante, L. (2014) Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious. Oxford Scholarship Online.

Ó Murchu, D. [1997] Reclaiming SpiritualityDublin: Gateway,

Robinson, O. (2010) ‘Modernity and the Transmodern Shift’. In D.Lorimer and O.Robinson (eds) A New Renaissance. Edinburgh: Floris Books, 91-102.

Ross, L. (1994) ‘Spiritual care: The nurse's role’, Nursing Standard 8(29), 33-7.

Rowson, J. (2017) Spiritualise: Cultivating spiritual sensibility to 21st century challenges (2nd edition). London: Perspectiva.

Schneiders, S. M. (1986) 'Theology and spirituality: strangers, rivals, or partners?', Horizons 13, 253-274.

Schneiders, S. M. (1993) 'Spirituality as an academic discipline: reflections from experience', Christian Spirituality Bulletin 1/2 (Fall), 10-I 5.

Stern, J. (2009) The Spirit of the School. London: Continuum.

Stern, J. (2018) ‘The spirit of religious education’, Journal for the Study of Spirituality 8(2), 180-187.

Tacey, D. (2004) The Spirituality Revolution: The emergence of contemporary spirituality. Hove: Brunner-Routledge.

Zsolnai, L. and Flanagan, B. (eds) (2019) Routledge Handbook of Spirituality in Society and the Professions. Abingdon: Routledge. 

Adapted from Hunt, C. (2021, forthcoming) Critical Reflection, Spirituality and Professional Practice, Palgrave Macmillan, ch.7

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