What is “Spirituality”?

(This is Neil) This post isn’t about liturgy, but perhaps an even more tangled issue: spirituality. I suspect that many of us, whether in pastoral ministry or not, have heard the phrase, “I’m spiritual but not religious.” This claim usually means that the person in question lives according to certain deeply felt values and meanings in the light of which specific religious doctrines and rituals, while useful at particular times, can’t be considered as generally obligatory. Obviously, this claim can and should be interrogated. Does the “spiritual” person grasp that the self is estranged from God and needs to be disciplined by specific religious doctrines and rituals to overcome distractions and avoid the real danger of fantasy and self-deception? When does “spirituality” become nothing more than a form of consumerism?

But while the claim, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” is problematic, we shouldn’t uncharitably assume that it is necessarily superficial or that it reflects “postmodernism.” We also shouldn’t suppose that “spirituality” lacks any historical antecedents at all. It is true that the concept of “spirituality” doesn’t have very deep roots in the history of Christian theology, although it has etymological origins in the Latin spiritualis and the Greek pneumatikos. And, as the historian Leigh Eric Schmidt has pointed out, only one American publication before 1800 had “spirituality” in its title, and that was a collection of hymns to be sung in community, not anything like a guide to the interior “spiritual” life. But, as Leigh Eric Schmidt also points out in a very interesting short article (sub. required), our use of the word “spirituality” comes to us from 19th century American Protestant liberalism.
This means that the language of “spirituality” does come, perhaps inevitably, from a particular religious tradition, and, should we choose to use it, we are – consciously or not – in dialogue with American Protestant liberalism. We might now want to retire the word “spirituality” and remove ourselves from a fruitless dialogue. Or we might find this dialogue to be profitable – I lean in this direction, since Catholicism and American Protestant liberalism have, to some extent, a common patrimony (see my post here for an example). But, in either case, we should be more aware of the meanings of “spirituality”: it is not a neutral term.

Leigh Eric Schmidt points to six characteristics that “came to define spirituality as it was given form and substance in the matrices of religious liberalism”:
1. “An aspiration after mystical experience.” Schmidt tells us that this concept of mysticism became universalized. Thus Robert Alfred Vaughan’s Hours With the Mystics (1856): “It is a state of thinking and feeling, to which minds of a certain temperament are liable at any time and place, in occident and orient, whether Romanist or Protestant, Jew, Turk, or Infidel.”
2. “An emphasis on practices of solitude, prayerful retreat, and sustained meditation.” This led, Schmidt writes, to the re-imagining of Christian models of holiness.
3. The belief that the transcendent “is immanent in each person and in nature and is not necessarily mediated through institutions, clerics, sacraments, catechesis, or rites.” The transcendentalist Thomas Wentworth Higginson claimed, in his “My Creed So Far As I Have One,” that awareness of God could come from “the art of a prayer-book; it may equally well be in the depth of a personal experience to which all prayer-books seem an intrusion. It may be in a church; it may equally well be in a solitary room or on a mountain’s height.
4. “A cosmopolitan spirit that emphasized the appreciation of religious variety and the ecumenical pursuit of unity amid diversity.” Higginson elsewhere wrote, “When we fully comprehend the sympathy of religions, we shall deal with other faiths on equal terms.”
5. “An adventuresome embrace of the seeker’s endless curiosity, though paired with a nostalgic longing for the finder’s clarity.” While the term “seeker,” originally used in 17th century heresiology, was popularized by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Circles” (1841), Schmidt credits the 20th century Quaker Rufus Jones with encouraging its use to describe a “general disposition toward searching and questing.”
6. “An ethical commitment to justice-producing reforms that manifested itself in various progressive visions of ‘social salvation’ – from abolitionism to women’s rights to labor relations.” Schmidt sees this as the root of the model of “ethical mysticism” that has, in its somewhat improbable and unwieldy canon, figures such as Tolstoy, Gandhi, Schweitzer, Dorothy Day, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Howard Thurman.
Four questions for you, patient reader: Should we speak of “spirituality” (or should we intentionally return to speaking of “spiritual theology” or “ascetical theology”)? If so, what might it mean? Is “spirituality” always connected to the tenets of 19th century American Protestantism?
And, perhaps most provocatively for this blog, has liberal Catholicism been shaped to any extent through the unknowing adoption of these six tenets of “spirituality”?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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11 Responses to What is “Spirituality”?

  1. On mysticism: its roots go very deep in Christianity – at least back to the Desert Fathers. And of course, if you go back into Christianity’s Judaic roots you also find it. Furthermore, while we have no purely historical information about Jesus, it’s easy to surmise that he may well have been speaking from out of such experience himself. (What was he doing in the desert forty days and nights? “I and the Father are one…”)

    And of course, monastic life has continued to play a major role in major Christian denominations without being at odds with the rest of the church. I don’t see a tension between contemplative prayer or meditation and other religious practices and believe it’s possible to view it this way only if one hasn’t personally had this kind of experience or read up on it with authors who aren’t reacting against it – i.e., who are well informed about it. William James’ classic The Varieties of Religious Experience is a good place to start.

    I do notice (NOT in your post, which is thoughtful) a lot of ignorant, shrill anti-mystical experience blogging by people who, for reasons I can’t fathom, clearly find it a sort of threat without knowing anything about it – for example, I’ve read over the top stuff about Thomas Keating, who wrote about the centering prayer, having been possessed by Satan!

    “Mystical” to me is an unfortunate term. James instead refers to this kind of experience as “monistic,” which doesn’t mystify it and points to one of its main features: a sense of unity with a larger reality that people sometimes interpret as God and sometimes as being itself.

    Finally, all religious experiences and practices that individuals perform outside a ritualistic or liturgical context simply don’t belong in one and the same category, despite the fact that the word “spiritual” gets attached to a wide variety of stuff. Just because the ruminations of Shirley McLain and Madonna can be found in the spirituality section of the bookstore alongside the Baghavad Gita and the writings of Walpola Sri Rahula on the Buddha doesn’t mean they’re truly in the same league or category…

  2. Liam says:

    “I’m spiritual but not religious” is, in my experience, more of a negative statement than an affirmative one in the sense it is directed more at what is being disclaimed than what is being embraced. And the disclaimer often can be self-contradictory.

  3. Louise Lewis says:

    I am no expert, nor am I one to judge. (Okay I’m human, so I guess I am guilty of that from time to time.) My comment comes from my experience in interviewing lots of folks…and hearing the “spiritual not religious” phrase given as part of their answer to my question. And, fortunately, it has always been from the positive side.

    I’ve come to understand that many people use that phrase to mean that no matter if they disagree with or have left some of the teachings of their earlier religious upbringing, they still choose to focus on the spirit of what was once taught: Love one another as I have loved you.

  4. Neil says:

    Dear All,

    Thanks for writing. A couple things:

    1. In response to Paul Maurice Martin, I would agree that that mysticism and the monastic life have long and important histories in the Christian tradition. I would also agree that one can unfortunately find a great deal of ignorant anti-mystical blogging.

    2. But I would suggest that the language of “spirituality” represents a real divergence from those traditions. Not a complete rupture, but a divergence.

    3. I would also suggest that William James, brilliant as The Varieties of Religious Experienceis, manifests this divergence. There, he speaks of religion as “the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine.” This construal of religion as individual “feeling” means that James tends to ignore the institutional and intellectual aspects of religion.

    4. Liam is right that “I’m spiritual but not religious” can be a negative statement, reflecting alienation from the institutional church. But why does it take this form? I would still submit that this language of “spirituality” is at least in the background. I do take the point that people can use the phrase in different and even “self-contradictory” ways.

    5. Louise Lewis can also be right to suggest that the phrase can be used to express alienation or dissent. But why don’t people then say something like, “I am a liberal Catholic,” or “I am a progressive Episcopalian” or something like that? Once more, I think that the appeal of the label “spiritual” comes from 19th century American Protestant liberalism. Furthermore, I would submit that the belief that various religious traditions can be reduced to the spirit of “Love one another as I have loved you” manifests the sixth characteristic of “spirituality” that I’ve tried to describe above.

    Again, I am very grateful to you all for your helpful comments. I hope that this quick response does them some justice.


  5. rose says:

    Following phrases has been extracted from Soulcurrymagazine.com, this article clearly depicts the difference between religion and spirituality, and role of spirituality,,

    “Life in itself is complete and the moment we say spirituality, it has every thing to do with your each moment of life. This is as I see it, this very life is there only because the spirit is there. This very moment which is pulsating, throbbing, why? Because there exists a spirit in life. Religion has named this existence in all different kind of words and all sort of symbolic languages have been used. But the Truth is this: none of the words can sufficiently explain what existence is? Because it is beyond words and periphery of the mind to perceive what exactly is truth. That’s the reason all enlightened masters have always felt this sheer helplessness, that even they have spoken so much yet the truth remains unsaid…”

    I have read this article at http://www.gurumaa.com/spirit-in-life-everyday-spirituality.php

  6. Anne says:

    We need to take heed when we hear someone say “I’m spiritual, not religious” or “I can do this alone. I don’t need the structure.” I try to ask why that so? Are those of us who remain within a structured religion to blame? Or, is it that the ever changing popular culture sees no value to structure where God is concerned. Maybe they see religion as hypocritical when it comes to practicing what you preach. Could be the rules are too strict..and other reasons and excuses. However, I don’t view this as always a negative thing. It seems to me that the Spirit does indeed work in mysterious ways. No one has exclusive rights to the Spirit. Could this be a way of awakening our limited minds to improvement?

  7. Neil says:

    Thanks for your generous replies.

    I think that Rose’s definition illustrates the problem that I want to identify. Although I don’t know very much about soulcurrymagazine.com, I think that we can assume that the definition is meant to immediately “seem” right to American readers – no empirical proof is given for it, after all. And the reason that it might “seem” right is because of the tradition of “spirituality” that comes from American Protestant liberalism and has prepared the way for it.

    I think that the definition is very problematic from the view of Christian theology. It suggests that “spirituality” has to do with particular feelings or “pulsating” moments of consciousness, which are then imperfectly reduced to (and perhaps fossilized in) words or symbolic languages. My sense is that the Christian theologian would suggest that certain experiences are bound up with – and, indeed, only made possible by – specific words or symbolic languages. Furthermore, these experiences require a subjectivity that has necessarily been formed by specific beliefs and practices.

    For instance, see Thomas Williams’ discussionof the difference between St Augustine’s experiences at Milan and Ostia, and how the difference very much depends upon Scriptural language and the possibility of sacramental relationship.

    As Anne says, religions can be hypocritical and excessively strict. Furthermore, we can say that the Holy Spirit is present and active in non-Christian cultures and religions.

    The problem, though, is when we accept “spirituality” as a neutral or scientific term. Even if we are motivated by tolerance, it simply isn’t that.

    Thanks again.


  8. As I recall, C. S. Lewis wrote a lovely little book entitled Studies in Words. In it, he showed the gradual changes in meanings of a number of words in English, each of these having an important bearing on modern thought. Words such as “Mind”, “Freedom”, etc.

    As I also recall, a 20th Century Catholic writer (unfortunately, I am suffering a “senior moment”, and cannot remember his name) did something similar in his study of the word “Enthusiasm”, in his book of the same name. It would appear that something like this change in meaning has also affected words such as “spiritual”, to our detriment.

    I thank Neil for his drawing attention to this problem. I would suggest that the answer to the problem would be a reading of the Fathers on the matter of the pneumatikos aner, or the spiritual man. A good beginning might be found in St. Seraphim of Serov’s On the Spiritual Life.

  9. Neil says:

    Thanks, Bernard. Your “20th Century Catholic writer” is Ronald Knox.


  10. Jim McK says:

    The distinction in “I am spiritual, not religious” is an ancient one: “I demand mercy, not sacrifice.” etc. St Paul uses a form of the idea when he puts spirit and law in contrast, as in the letter kills but the Spirit gives life. In some ways, it is the basic issue of religion, “is matter all there is? What more is there?”

    The difficulty in religion is keeping the two elements combined, so that the sacrifice expresses mercy, the letter and spirit combine in words, the materials of life point us to what is greater.

    There will always be those who try to set these things against each other, dissing the institutional to exalt the Spirit. The Catholic way has been to see the institution as the means of discovering the spiritual, thus the use of “spirituality” for “ascetical theology” or the particularities of individual religious movements.

    Other particular traditions that grappled with this issue almost certainly have influenced modern usages, so the recourse to 19th century Protestatism is helpful. But I think it is a more basic issue that we still struggle with. History forms us while we try to express ourselves.

  11. Pingback: The Problem With Hierarchy « Catholic Sensibility

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