What is spiritual?

You can talk about ‘spiritual’ things today, even ‘spirituality’, but what do we mean? There is a variety of views about exactly what constitutes spirituality. To cut to the chase, J.A.Wiseman (2006) observed four approaches:

a. Spirituality is about Ultimate Meanings.
b. Everyone is Spiritual
c. Spirituality is about an experience of transcendence
d. A body of interpretations can be called a particular kind of spirituality

Spirituality is about Ultimate Meanings

Spiritual Life occurs when a person is ‘consciously striving to integrate one’s life in terms not of isolation and self-absorption but … toward the ultimate value one perceives’;[1] This definition suggests that ‘spirituality’ is happening where people are managing the meanings or priorities of their life, including the integration of ultimate values for their life. The question of integration leads to the second category, perhaps the most common use.

Everyone is Spiritual

Spirituality is a fundamental dimension of a human being, whether conceived as the whole of or as part of the person. This definition is usually conceived as an inward focus that is separate from the appetites of ‘the flesh’ or the structures of rationality in intellectual or public life. Perhaps an experience of ‘going beyond words’, this points to experiences of deep connection, such as between creatures, between human and nature, between human and divine and between the material realm of life and the spiritual realm of life. This leads to the third category.

Spirituality is about an experience of transcendence

Spirituality is the lived experience of striving for transcendence, for wholeness with others, however these terms are understood. ‘To talk about “the spirit” is to discuss what gives life and animation to someone.’[2] It is the experience of searching, ‘thirsting’ is a common metaphor. Central to this category, therefore is the focus on sources and resources, such as ‘spirituality of nature’. It is not all quest, but as Richard Woods defines, an experience of transcendence: ‘[Spirituality] is the self-transcending character of all human persons, and everything that pertains to it, including, most importantly, the ways in which that perhaps infinitely malleable character is realized concretely in everyday situations.’[3] This definition suggests that experimentation is typical, as distinct from holding a body of beliefs, even a body of beliefs of one’s own construction. Kaldor (2003) stated that transcendent experiences can just as easily arise from a person’s body of beliefs as vice versa, and that this is what has long been the experience of theology.[4] Alister McGrath said: ‘Spirituality is the outworking in real life of a person’s religious faith- what a person does with what they believe.’ This brings us to the fourth category.

A body of interpretations can be called a particular kind of spirituality

Spirituality can also be described as an academic discipline that studies that experience described in (c). This definition suggests that human quests for meaning can be grouped and common practices analysed, even grouped for the purpose of study, adding ‘ism’ to the end of things, and defining ‘worldviews’. It has a useful place. Such worldviews need to be acknowledged, as in ‘Buddhist spirituality’.[5] They have grown together as an aid to identifying the helpful and unhelpful aspects of one’s current practice and interpretation, and to provide ways for sustaining that spirituality as experience, as meaning, as values and priorities. In other words the goal of this definition is to support all the other definitions above. For many, the way they talk about spirituality is anything but academic, they may even hate the thought of being categorised, may even imagine that they are not subject to any philosophies or assumptions, but nonetheless their views, as assembled, are ‘a spirituality’. People may or may not seek coherence within their own views, but they usually value a valid congruence between experience and idea or metaphor. This validation enables further exploration.

In much of the western world, spirituality is often confused with ‘mysticism’. As the definitions below show, it may be confused with ‘irrational’ in a way that reduces mystical experience to the esoteric and unusual, say in visions, ecstasies, levitation or similar:

1: A religion based on mystical communion with an ultimate reality

2: obscure or irrational thought.[6]

Another source is similar: A philosophy based upon spiritual intuition that is believed to transcend ordinary sensory experiences or understanding.[7]

Thus, to some degree, mysticism and spirituality have been as synonyms , sharing a focus on the inward experience of ultimate realities. Collectively, Mysticism is a set of disciplines for learning to remove all barriers to the fullest experience of the divine in which thoughts, emotions, doctrines, actions and even the sense of self is lost in Union. ‘The mystic speaks with God as a person with a Person, and not as a member of a group. He lives by an immediate knowledge far more than by belief; by a knowledge achieved in those hours of direct, unmediated intercourse with the Transcendent when, as he says, he [sic]was in “union with God”.’[8]

Doctrine and Experience

Underhill (1920) sets out to look for commonalities in the conscious experience of mystics in many religious traditions. She finds unity not as theologians but in their experience of the divine: ‘…to communion with (the soul’s) source, the Absolute One. There you have the mystic’s vision of the Universe…’[9]. She favourably compares the Upanishads of Hinduism, where Brahma is ‘other than the known and above the known’; medieval Christian mystics including Richard of St Victor, Ruysbroeck and Jacopone da Todi experiencing ‘the glorious and Absolute One’ who is ‘above reason and without reason’ though not others.[10] She concedes that some doctrines are more help than others in reaching that point but that the art of mysticism is primarily not about doctrine.

In her day, Underhill was mostly concerned to counter the reductionist psychological view of ‘ecstatic religion’ arising from the work of William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience. (So too does Egan (1982) who spends two chapters on ‘Psychological Approaches’ to mysticism.) However, in her speed to bridge the gap between ‘transcendentalists’ like Barth and Brunner, and ‘immanentists’ with their pragmatic activism in charitable churches, she conflated what Egan (1982) later kept separate. ‘There seems to be an experiential – not merely interpretative – difference within Christianity between enlightenment and love mystical experiences.

St Ignatius’ famous vision on the banks of the Cradoner River is an example of Christian enlightenment through which he became ‘another man’. St Teresa of Avila’s famous ‘transverberation’ experience of being pierced by God’s love is different from her Christian enlightenment experience of how all things are in God’.[11] Thus a ‘unitive’ experience, as later lauded by Dom. Bede Griffiths, had already by Underhill been distinguished from the transformative experience of mystical love.

In the post-modern era, where more credence is given to non-rational experience, McIntosh (1998) can cite a few sources from the early 1990’s who are beginning to theorise (theologise?) respectfully about mystical experience. It represents a step away from the custom among modern theologians of making far too little of the mystics’ relationship with God, and the custom among contemplatives to discover meaning only from their experience. Perhaps both wings of the bird are needed for flight – theology and experience, both head and heart.[12]

Presence and Connection

Because of this four-fold definition of ‘spirituality’, and the similar history of ‘mysticism’, scholars often attempt to define something even more essential. James Wiseman follows Bernard McGinn when he suggests that ‘presence’ is a more useful category for describing the unifying characteristic in the various forms of spirituality or mysticism: ‘the preparation for, the consciousness of, and the reaction to what can be described as the immediate or direct presence of God.’[13] Likewise, Alister McGrath borrows from Brother Lawrence (c.1614-91) to affirm the concept of spirituality as the aim to ‘practise the presence of God.’[14]

In the case of those whose conception does not include God as personal being, but an ultimate life force, the sense of presence would be a sense of ‘connection’ with the whole universe. Kaldor (2003) quoted a wide ranging UK survey which found ‘connection’ to be a powerful concept in various formulations of spirituality – ‘keeping in touch with, relating with, being filled with, engaging with, coming closer with, moving towards, and union with the Divine, in whatever way the Divine is envisaged, theistically or non-theistically.’[15]

All four areas of the above definition are held to be important in the experimental nature of contemporary spiritual searching (see later appendices). One particular formulation of the essence of spirituality at one point in a person’s spiritual journey may be an inhibitor at another point.

While it is popular to set the existentially rich concept of ‘spirituality’ over against ‘religion’, ‘bible’ or ‘dogma’, the comments above show that they can be mutually supportive spiritual pursuits, simply when they are seen as such. When one is thought to trump the other both decay.