Background to the Conference Theme
The first BASS (now INSS) conference in 2010 was entitled Spirituality in a Changing World. This was followed, in 2012, by Spirituality in a Fragmented World and, in 2014, by Spirituality in a Challenging World. The sequence of titles points to the direction of global change - and why the 2016 conference asked the question 'Can Spirituality Transform our World?'. Revisiting those titles as we discussed what might be the most appropriate theme for the 2023 conference, we wanted to hold on to the notion of 'transformation' and the role of spirituality within that process, particularly within a world that seems to have changed dramatically since 2010.
We realised that, over the past three years in particular, the number of email, text and other messages that we have sent and received containing a sentence such as ‘I hope you are well in these uncertain times’ has been quite remarkable. Underpinned by the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, humanitarian crises caused by war and natural disasters, concerns about climate change, and the consequences of increasingly polarised and divisive politics, ‘uncertainty’ seems to be a key characteristic of our times. It is manifest in issues associated with mental health, resilience and wellbeing, and plays out in relationships between individuals and within families, communities and nations. Spirituality in an 'Uncertain World' therefore seemed an obvious title for our forthcoming conference. Our intention is to provide a space in which to consider the place of spirituality in current circumstances, together with the methodologies and methods best suited to its study, and the implications that spirituality studies may have for professional practices and personal development.
The conference will be held outside the UK for the first time - in Ireland. It is interesting to note, therefore, that the anxieties many people are now expressing about world affairs resonate with the words of the famous Irish poet, W.B. Yeats: ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world/ … / The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.(1) Yeats wrote these lines in 1919, in circumstances not dissimilar to our own: the ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic was having a devastating impact across the world, the Russian Revolution was unfolding, and political divisions within his own country were exploding in violence. Heavily influenced by mystical imagery and believing that human affairs move in cycles, Yeats felt that these events heralded the birth of a new era – but one in which the future of humanity was bleak. It is tempting to suggest that our present ‘Uncertain World’ is a manifestation of that bleak future. Old certainties relating to both science and religion have been shaken; political leaders have emerged who seem to lack moral conviction and compassion; and the ‘passionate intensity’ of voices, on local streets and on the internet, stridently proclaiming personal opinions and attacking those of others have resulted in physical and mental harm. (How) does spirituality fit into all this?
It has been suggested that such turmoil is itself a harbinger of a new era; that a period of ‘breakdown’ of old ways of seeing and being in the world is necessary before a collective ‘breakthrough’ to a different kind of future can take place.(2) A vision of what that future might involve began to take shape in 1969 when a photograph of the Earth taken from space during the Apollo 8 Moon Mission was released.(3) It caught the public imagination and became a potent symbol and driver of a newly-emerging, holistic, worldview. This involved new ways of understanding and researching the universe - including ourselves and our relationship with the planet – and began to challenge existing scientific and religious orthodoxies, the political regimes that had been derived from them, and the ways in which these had helped to construct individual identities and knowledge. Describing a personal transformative experience arising from a deep sense of connectedness with all things, triggered by his own view of the Earth on a return journey from a moon landing, American astronaut, Edgar Mitchell, explained why he thought such challenge was necessary. He said:
I realized that the story of ourselves as told by science—our cosmology, our religion—was incomplete and likely flawed. I recognized that the Newtonian idea of separate, independent, discrete things in the universe wasn’t a fully accurate description. What was needed was a new story of who we are and what we are capable of becoming [emphasis added].(4)
It is arguable that ‘Spirituality, Critical Reflection and Professional Practice’ are vital components of this new story and are giving shape and impetus to it. It is a story which recognises interconnectedness and interdependence, the inseparability of ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ experiences, and the possibilities of ‘becoming’ in ways that transcend materiality and our current understanding.(5) For example, a major research project in the UK in 2011 began from the premise that ‘Spirituality’:
is about the fact that we are alive at all … it’s about our ‘ground’ in the world rather than our ‘place’ in the world. … The primary spiritual injunction is to know what you are as fully and deeply as possible.(6)
The scene for such research had already been set in the 1980s by a rapidly developing and widespread interest in ‘personal and social transformation’,(7) and, in professional contexts, in how practitioners might be enabled to reflect on, and speak in their own terms about, the theories and values underpinning their practice, including how these might best be enacted.(8)
Building on such developments and their incorporation into the training programmes of a number of professions, the concept of ‘Critical Reflection’ involves a two-way process: looking ‘inwards’ to explore and articulate the processes of one’s personal meaning-making, and how this translates into values, theories and actions; and then, informed by what one has learned, looking ‘outwards’ towards the social, professional and political contexts in which one lives and works - with a view to making a positive, practical, difference where it is needed.(5) The notion of ‘critical’ reflection is closely associated with a philosophical approach which seeks to identify and challenge hegemonic and power structures that are inimical to social justice and compassionate care. Thus, the concept and practice of critical reflection:
… revolves around the idea that reflective abilities will not only improve the quality and effectiveness of professional practices in nearly all fields of endeavour, but that there is also potential for greater contributions to ‘human flourishing’.(9,10)
What ‘human flourishing’ actually means, and the extent to which it involves the flourishing of that which is non-human, including the planet, is a moot point. Aristotle (384 -322 BCE) understood it as living and doing well in ways which fully express one’s human capacities.(11) A recent book exploring the concept cites two questions posed by the uncle of a severely disabled child: ‘What are we meant to be?’ and ‘Why are we so far from what we’re meant to be?’ It points out that ‘Answering such questions requires rich resources of scientific insight and of spiritual wisdom’.(12)
The aim of the 2023 INSS conference is to enrich these resources further, as well as to contribute to the continuing development of the field of spirituality studies.
1. ‘The Second Coming’, see: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43290/the-second-coming [Accessed 25/06/2022].
2. Russell, P. (1984/1991) The Awakening Earth. London: Ark.
3. ‘ Earthrise’, see: https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/apollo-8-earthrise [Accessed 26/06/2022].
4. See: https://noetic.org/about/origins/ [Accessed 25/06/22].
5. Hunt, C. (2021) Critical Reflection, Spirituality and Professional Practice. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
6. Rowson, J. (2017) Spiritualise: Cultivating Spiritual Sensibility to Address 21st Century Challenges (2nd ed.). London:
7. Ferguson, M, (1981) The Aquarian Conspiracy: Personal and Social Transformation in the 1980s, London: Routledge &
8. Schön, D. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. New York: HarperCollins/Basic Books
9. Fook, J. et al. (Eds) (2016) Researching Critical Reflection: Multidisciplinary Perspectives. Abingdon: Routledge, p.1.
10. Ghaye, T. (2010) ‘In what ways can reflective practices enhance human flourishing?’, Reflective Practice, 11:1, pp.1-7
11. Crisp, R. (Trans.) (2000) Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
12. Briggs, A. and Reiss, M. (2021) Human Flourishing: Scientific insight and spiritual wisdom in uncertain times. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.
(Cheryl Hunt, 7 July 2022)
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