Sunday, March 25, 2007

What is spirituality?

Defining this very important term is quite a challenge. Whenever I've taught courses on spirituality I've avoided giving students my own definition and instead have asked them to share with one another their own thoughts (an interesting and valuable exercise!!).

But recently I've decided that I think I need a working definition of my own in order to move forward with some of the work I am doing. Here is what I have for now:

Spirituality is about a person's relationship with sources, and communities, that yield ultimate meaning and truth for that person.

In a bit, I'll share some other people's definitions of spirituality, but first I want to highlight some things about my definition that distinguish it from many others. These differences say a lot about my own personal spirituality and theology.
  • First, I use the word 'relationship'. This says something about where I think spirituality happens -- it is in the spaces in between. In between people. In between a person and God. In between a person and the sources he or she finds Holy, whether those sources of the Holy be Holy texts (like the Bible!) or if they be from nature or even from the values and experiences of a secular organization. Also, in between a person and his or her people.
  • The immediately preceding sentence leads into the second thing that distinguishes my spirituality definition -- community. This is the place where many modern definitions of spirituality founder. Many such definitions imagine spirituality is something that only functions for individual people. But down through the wisdom of the ages, there has been no successful spirituality that did not have the relationship between the individual and a wider community at its core. Spirituality is about moving beyond a limited view where a person sees his or herself as the most important thing in the world. It is about realizing that we are part of something bigger and more important than our own lives and cares. We do that by joining together with other people and becoming more than just a lonely one, but rather part of a larger and collective One. For Judaism, this community of connection that frees us from the tyranny of being an isolated one is the people Israel. For classic Christianity, the community is "The Church."
  • The part of my definition that has the most in common with many others -- but that I think may the part that is farthest from plain English is the final words: "that yield ultimate meaning and truth for him or her." In a later posting I hope to discuss more about what exactly I mean by 'ultimate meaning' and this 'ultimate truth'.

Here are some other definitions of spirituality I've come across recently:

1. Association of American Medical Colleges (emphasis, mine):

Spirituality is recognized as a factor that contributes to health in many persons. The concept of spirituality is found in all cultures and societies. It is expressed in an individual’s search for ultimate meaning through participation in religion and/or belief in God, family, naturalism, rationalism, humanism, and the arts. All of these factors can influence how patients and health care professionals perceive health and illness and how they interact with one another.
Note the focus in this definition on the relevance to the intended audience -- that is, this definition understands spirituality primarily in relationship to physical health and healing. The definition focuses heavily on diversity in views and experiences of spirituality. It also includes the reference to 'ultimate meaning' that mine does, but does not include my reference to 'ultimate truth'.

The thing I like least about this definition is how long it is.

2. Shirley MacLaine offers a much shorter definition on her Web site:

To me, spirituality is the process by which we connect directly to the Divine.
Note the emphasis on direct connection. This is fairly typical of much New Age spirituality. The prominent role that I reserve for community seems to be lacking here.

Note also, that she uses the word 'Divine', something that I avoided in my own definition. I would have liked to have used Divine (=God) in my definition, so that it would read something like this:

Spirituality is about the process of connection with God and the with communities and Holy texts and traditions that are a integral part of that process of making that connection.
For most people (as I think most people do believe in God), I think this is a reasonable working definition. But, I also firmly believe that atheists can have a profound and highly developed spirituality. For me, the example that motivates me here is to think of some of the early Zionists who helped build the foundations for the State of Israel. Many of these people were atheists (or, at the very least, they had weak beliefs in God and religion), who nonetheless had a very strong sense of ultimate truth and meaning. For them, that truth and meaning was mediated through the people Israel. It was the health and safety of this people that motivated these Zionists. And they were clearly as motivated as the most pious God fearer. They did amazing things in service of what they believed in their hearts.

And, so, I broadened my definition to talk about sources of ultimate truth and meaning as opposed to talking about God.

3. Finally, here is the opening paragraph of Wikipedia's spirituality article:

Spirituality, in a narrow sense, concerns itself with matters of the spirit. The spiritual, involving (as it may) perceived eternal verities regarding humankind's ultimate nature, often contrasts with the temporal, with the material, or with the worldly. A sense of connection forms a central defining characteristic of spirituality — connection to something "greater" than oneself, which includes an emotional experience of religious awe and reverence. Equally importantly, spirituality relates to matters of sanity and of psychological health. Like some forms of religion, spirituality often focuses on personal experience (see mysticism).


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