By Philip Sheldrake
“Spirituality” is a word that defines our era. The fascination with spirituality is a striking aspect of our contemporary times and stands in stark contrast to the decline in traditional religious belonging in the West. Although the word “spirituality” has Christian origins it has now moved well beyond these – indeed beyond religion itself.
What exactly is spirituality? Unfortunately it’s not easy to offer a simple definition because the word is now widely used in contexts ranging from the major religions to the social sciences, psychology, the arts and the professional worlds of, for example, healthcare, education, social work and business studies. Spirituality takes on the shape and priorities of these different contexts.
However, in broad terms “spirituality” stands for lifestyles and practices that embody a vision of how the human spirit can achieve its full potential. In other words, spirituality embraces an aspirational approach to the meaning and conduct of life – we are driven by goals beyond purely material success or physical satisfaction. Nowadays, spirituality is not the preserve of spiritual elites, for example in monasteries, but is presumed to be native to everyone. It is individually-tailored, democratic and eclectic, and offers an alternative source of inner-directed, personal authority in response to a decline of trust in conventional social or religious leaderships.
If we explore the wide range of current books on spirituality or browse the Web we will regularly find that spirituality involves a search for “meaning” – the purpose of life. It also concerns what is “holistic” – that is, an integrating factor, “life seen as a whole”. Spirituality is also understood to be engaged with a quest for “the sacred” – whether God, the numinous, the boundless mysteries of the universe or our own human depths. The word is also regularly linked to “thriving” – what it means to thrive and how we are enabled to thrive. Contemporary approaches also relate spirituality to a self-reflective existence in place of an unexamined life.
How is spirituality to be supported? The great wisdom traditions suggest the adoption of certain spiritual practices and it is this aspect of spirituality that attracts many contemporary people. Forms of meditation, physical posture or movement such as yoga, disciplines of frugality and abstinence (for example from alcohol or meat) or visits to sacred sites and pilgrimage (for example the popular practice of walking the “camino” to Santiago de Compostela) are among the most common. The point is that spiritual practices are not merely productive in a narrow sense but are disciplined and creative. A commitment to the regularity of a spiritual discipline like meditation gives shape to what may otherwise be a fragmented life. Many people also experience their creative activities in art, music, writing and so on as spiritual practices. Classic practices are all directed at spiritual development. Thus, meditation may cultivate stillness or attentiveness but the great religious traditions such as Buddhism or Christianity also relate such practices to personal transformation – whether in terms of personal ethics or increased social responsibility. Over time meditation may facilitate a growing freedom from destructive energies that inhibit healthy relationships. Such a growth in inner freedom makes us more available and effective as compassionate presences in the world.
It follows from this that, as the great traditions emphasise, spirituality is actually concerned with cultivating a “spiritual life” rather than simply with undertaking practices isolated from commitment. It offers a “value-added” factor to personal and professional lives. So, for example, in a variety of social contexts spirituality is believed to add two vital things. First, it saves us from being purely results-orientated. Thus, in health care it offers more than a medicalised, cure-focused model and in education it suggests that a holistic approach to intellectual, moral and social development is as vital as acquiring employable skills. Second, spirituality expands ethical behaviour by moving it beyond right or wrong actions to a question of identity – we are to be ethical people rather than simply to “do” ethical things. Character formation and the cultivation of virtue then become central concerns.
Finally, is spirituality simply a passing trend? Current evidence suggests a growing diversity of new forms of spirituality as well as creative reinventions of the great traditions. The language of spirituality continues to expand into ever more professional and social worlds – for example urban planning and architecture, the corporate world, sport and law. Most strikingly there are recent signs of its emergence in two contexts that have been especially open to public criticism – commerce and politics. Equally, the Internet is increasingly used to expand access to spiritual wisdom. So, on current evidence, spirituality appears to be less of a fad than an instinctive desire to find a deeper level of values to live by. As such, it seems likely not only to survive but to develop further into many new forms.
Professor Philip Sheldrake is currently Senior Research Fellow in the Cambridge Theological Federation (Westcott House), Honorary Professor of the University of Wales, and a regular visiting professor in the United States. He is also a member of the Guerrand-Hermès Forum for the Interreligious Study of Spirituality. For over twenty-five years he has been a leader in the field of spirituality as an interdisciplinary area of study. He is author of a dozen books, including Spirituality: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, November 2012).
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Image credits: Yoga session at sunrise in Joshua Tree National Park – Warrior I pose. Photo by Jarek Tuszynski, 2008. Creative Commons License. (via Wikimedia Commons); Buddhist monks meditating on Vulture Peak. Photo by unknown Wikimedia Commons user. Creative Commons License. (via Wikimedia Commons).