views updated May 08 2018


Spiritual concerns, experience, and development become increasingly important for many people in middle and later life. Beginning around age thirty-five or forty, as age increases, so does the proportion of people who are consciously involved in an inner exploration of the meaning of their existence and their relation to the universe. Such people are often engage in practices that heighten the possibility of spiritual experiences. In addition, those who experience spiritual levels of consciousness often feel called to serve, and spiritually rooted service takes many forms.

Important concepts

As used here, spirituality refers to an inner, experiential aspect of being. Spirituality is a region of awareness within which people experience, not just think about, a higher power, the absolute, God, Allah, Nirvana, Yahweh, Cosmic Consciousness, Christ Consciousness, the Void, or whatever label is used for that which is not an object but which instead forms the undivided ground of all being (Huxley). Spirituality can also refer to actions arising from spiritual experiences.

Spiritual experience can occur at several levels: physical, emotional, cognitive, and transcendent. Spirituality is a quality that can infuse experience in a wide variety of settings. Spiritual experience can be both transcendent and immanent: it can be both an experience of transcending worldly concerns and an intense present-moment perception that the ground of all being permeates all things. The essence of spirituality is an intense aliveness and deep sense of understanding that one intuitively comprehends as having come from a direct, internal link with that mysterious principle which connects all aspects of the universe.

There are many spiritual traditions, each of which has its own unique language and concepts concerning the nature of the ultimate, the path that must be followed to experience the ultimate, how spiritual realizations are confirmed, the nature of spiritual enlightenment, and the implications of spiritual understanding for ordinary human life.

In most spiritual traditions, mysticism lies at the heart of spirituality. Mysticism refers to transcendent, contemplative experiences that enhance spiritual understanding. Mystical experiences can occur during intentional practices designed to create openings for transcendent experiences, such as Christian contemplative prayer, Zen meditation, or Sufi dance; or they can occur in the process of living a lifestyle that is conducive to transcendent experiences, as in contemplative gardening. In either case, contemplative or transcendent knowing is associated with spiritual experience.

Transcendence refers to contemplative knowing that occurs outside the boundaries of verbal thought (Wilber). Although transcendence can refer to increasingly abstract thought, contemplative transcendence involves transcending thought itself. Mystical experiences of transcendence can be brought into thought, but they do not originate in thought or sensory perception.

Organized religions are social groups or social institutions that have theological and behavioral doctrines, ministerial or clerical authority, and ritualized social worship. Of course, individual members can and do internalize both the theological beliefs and the behavioral prescriptions and proscriptions associated with their organized religion. But individuals often have their own unique interpretations of the tenets of their religion as well.

The relation of religion and spirituality is in the eye of the beholder. Many people use the two words as synonyms and see no difference between them. Others use religion to refer to a sociocultural program for developing spiritually and for bringing spiritual realizations into everyday life, and they use spirituality to refer to the inner experiences that arise from trying to put such programs into practice. Most people see spirituality as a broader term that includes a greater variety of experiences than they would include under religion. Some people attach little or no importance to organized religion but at the same time see themselves as very spiritual persons.

Spiritual development

In the view of spirituality presented here, enlightenment is a result of spiritual development. However, it would be a mistake to assume that progress toward enlightenment is linear or predictable, or that enlightenment is always total. Many people describe their spiritual journeys in terms of alternating periods of crystal-clear enlightenment and periods of struggle. But a person who has experienced absolute enlightenment, however briefly, knows that enlightenment is a real possibility in a way that those who only think about or aspire to enlightenment cannot. Enlightenment has two important aspects: a capacity to be intensely present without preconceptions or judgments, and constant awareness of oneself as being permeated by the ground of all being.

In 1944 Aldous Huxley published The Perennial Philosophy, in which he offered persuasive evidence that basic views about the nature of human spirituality espoused by the mystical strains of each major faith group, Eastern or Western, could be traced to a common underlying set of understandings about the human spirit that originated in India thousands of years ago. According to this view, personal realities are always incomplete pictures of spirituality; intuitive, mystical connection with the ground of being is superior to merely thinking about the ground of being; the human spirit has a divine nature and a person can come to identify with that universal Self rather than with the personal ego; and the ultimate purpose of spiritual development is to experience no separation from the ground of being.

Thus, spiritual development can be defined in terms of movement toward ultimate possibilities, and the highest regions of spiritual development occur in the development of a capacity that allows consciousness to transcend the boundaries of body, language, reason, and culture. Movement toward ultimate possibilities means movement from simple imitative and dependent spiritual thought and behavior; toward a personal mental picture of spiritual issues that integrates both inner and outer life experiences of spirituality; toward subtle, contemplative, and transcendent understanding of the common ground of both inner and outer life experiences; toward being fully united with the ultimate ground of all being. Spiritual development is a process of transcendence that could be seen as a continuing spiral of increasingly broad understanding and experience of oneself and the universe.

Some who write about spiritual development emphasize the continuing nature of spiritual development. For example, Zen master Joko Beck sees spiritual development as something that grows out of the daily practice of sitting meditation and bringing present-moment consciousness to everyday life. Enlightenment is not something you achieve. It is the absence of something. All your life you have been going forward for something, pursuing some goal. Enlightenment is dropping all that. But to talk about it is of little use. The practice has to be done by each individual. There is no substitute. We can read about it until we are a thousand years old and it wont do a thing for us (Beck, p. 5). Also, Attention is the cutting, burning sword, and our practice is to use that sword as much as we can (Beck, p. 32). In this view the process, not progress or achieving levels of spiritual understanding, is the focus.

Others view spiritual development as having identifiable stages. For example, Fowler conceived of adult spiritual development as having the following developmental stages: an individual-reflective stage in which the self begins to turn from external sources of spiritual authority, and toward the development of an internal moral and spiritual orientation that has personal meaning for the individual; a conjunctive stage characterized by greater acceptance of paradox and ambiguity, a deepening sense of understanding, disillusionment with the overreliance on logic and rational thought that typifies the individual-reflective stage, and a more open attitude toward religions or views of spirituality other than ones own; and a universalizing stage involving a rare willingness to give up oneself and ones life to make spiritual values a reality in the social world. Fowler felt that there was a link between life stage and spiritual development, with the individual-reflective stage being likely in young adulthood and the conjunctive stage developing in midlife and later. He did not think that many people reached the universalizing stage.

Wilber saw spiritual development as progressing from an emphasis on sensory knowing in childhood, through various levels of rational knowing in early adulthood, to contemplative knowing, beginning in midlife. For example, children often have their first mystical experiences through sensory sources, such as communing with nature or listening to sacred music or seeing an awesome sunset. Later on, adults can experience tremendous inspiration through their minds, from written and spoken words, scarcely aware that the silence between and around those words may be crucial to their feeling of spiritual connection. As people continue on their spiritual journey, most develop some sort of discipline, a repetitive activity that allows them to transcend their self-consciousness to experience a serenity of inner being.

Moody and Carroll described five stages of spiritual development: the call, the search, the struggle, the breakthrough, and the return. The call occurs when one experiences an inner yearning for connection, or deeper connection, with the spiritual Self. The call may initially be a feeling that there is an empty part of oneself; later it may be a feeling that the spiritual aspect of oneself is not yet fully developed. The search involves finding and exploring a spiritual path. The search may occur in the context of a traditional religion, or it may involve an exploration and sampling of many sacred traditions. The struggle often involves overcoming the egos resistance to meditative or contemplative practices aimed at transcendence. Beginning meditators often experience profound discomfort from the countless objections and obstacles the mind creates to prevent the experience of quiet mind. Breakthroughs occur when the obstacles or objections to transcendence have been overcome, even if the overcoming is temporary. However, once people experience pure mindfulness and transcendent consciousness, they are likely to remain motivated in their intention to be open to experiencing these qualities as part of their awareness.

When people develop transcendent awareness, they do not typically drop out of the world. Instead, they continue their customary lives, but their perspective on those lives is transformed. The return involves bringing the spiritual insights gained through transcendence into the world. The form such service takes depends in large part on the spiritual path chosen. A path of devotion can lead back to being an exemplar of devotion. A path of insight and understanding may come back in the form of being a teacher or a leader. One characteristic that all who have broken through share is the capacity to see the world from a nonpersonal perspective that is open, unselfish, honest, trustworthy, compassionate, and clear-minded, among many other qualities. Quietly bringing these qualities to all that one does in life can be a powerful effect of the return.

Moody and Carrolls progression is not meant to imply that there is just one course to complete, and then one is enlightened. Rather, it is a cyclic process through which one becomes more and more enlightened by going through the entire process they describe whenever one experiences a call for deeper development.

But how does one know that ones spiritual experiences are authentic? After all, the human mind is quite skillful in leading one to misperceive all manner of phenomena. First, millions of men and women over thousands of years and in a wide variety of historical eras and cultures have reported having experienced a universal presence as a part of themselves. This inner experience is reported as a direct connection that bypasses the verbal mind and therefore is less susceptible to personal or cultural bias. Second, spiritual communities serve an important function by collectively reflecting on individual spiritual experiences. Sharing of spiritual experiences and insights within a spiritual community is an important protection against mistaking a subtle ego agenda for spiritual realization.

Age and life stage in spiritual development

Aging does not inevitably bring spiritual development, but aging and the cultural concepts of what is appropriate or expected in later life stages do alter the conditions of life in ways that can heighten awareness of spiritual needs and can stimulate interest in a spiritual journey. Of course, physical aging and mental aging are not unitary phenomena. Different individuals can experience quite different age patterns in terms of what changes occur, at what age, and at what rate. Differences in genes, environment, society, and culture combine to produce a staggering variety of individual experiences of physical and mental aging.

Popular stereotypes of aging portray it as a process of decline, but for most people, at least prior to age eighty, aging is a relatively neutral balance of gains and losses that is experienced as a gentle slowing down that allows them to maintain their preferred lifestyle.

What does change significantly is interest in an inner journey. Numerous scholars have observed that middle and later life involve an experience of increasingly transcendent aspects of inner life (Alexander et al.; Erikson et al.; Thomas). Achenbaum and Orwoll tied the development of wisdom to an increasingly transcendent attitude toward oneself, toward relationships with others, and toward worldly aims. As age increases, many people perceive themselves as having increasingly transcendent attitudes. They take more delight in their inner world, are less fearful of death, and feel a greater connection to the entire universe (Tornstam; Atchley).

A study of active spiritual seekers among a representative sample of people born during the baby boom found that 62 percent of active seekers were middle-aged or older, and most felt that People have God within them, so churches arent really necessary (Moody and Carroll, pp. 133134). These findings affirm the ancient wisdom among groups as diverse as the Navajo and the Jewish cabalists that a person must be age forty to begin serious spiritual study. Many spiritual traditions assign special significance to age or life stage in terms of increased receptivity to spiritual development.

Social aging is mainly an experience of release from the heavy responsibilities of midlife. Launching ones children into adulthood and retirement are seldom experienced as life crises; instead, they are experienced as newfound freedom, and many elders use this freedom as an opportunity for increased spiritual reflection. As age increases, many individuals live an increasingly quiet lifestyle conducive to contemplation.

By late middle age, most adults have long since discovered that the modern prescriptions for life meaningmaterialism and social achievementdo not meet the needs of the soul. In later adulthood, many people find that their attention shifts from competition toward affiliation and from self-centeredness toward generativitycare and concern for younger generations. By late middle age most adults have struggled with the challenge to life meaning that can come with the death of people with whom they had close personal relationships. If materialism, social achievement, and social relationships are not predictable sources of meaning in life, what is? This type of meaning question is more common and becomes more salient as people move into the last half of life (Moody and Cole). The lack of reliable social answers to meaning questions can be a powerful impetus for an inner, experiential quest for meaningfor a spiritual journey.

Although a large proportion of aging adults report being on a spiritual journey, by no means do all aging people follow this pattern. Some have a philosophy of life based on everyday humanistic principles, and see little need for spiritual or religious validation. They feel no call toward a spiritual journey but are nevertheless vital and involved. Others are so stuck in their habits of thinking and behaving that there is little chance for the kind of openness that is a prerequisite for a spiritual journey.

Evidence that spiritual growth is common in later life includes gradual increases with age in the prevalence of self-acceptance and perceptions of ones life as having integrity; service to others, especially community service and providing long-term care to family and friends; and interest in the young. This information comes from studies of earlier cohorts who have passed through the stages of later life. With their exposure to the recent heightened cultural interest in spirituality, upcoming cohorts of elders may be even more interested in spiritual journeys as a focal point of later life.

Increased perceptions of life meaning and integrity, service to others, and generativity all require an attitude of transcendence and a measure of selflessness. They suggest that growing older can represent a return home to the silence from which one came, and that on the way home, a nonpersonal state of consciousness may be gradually uncovered by conditions common in later life: a quiet mind, a simplified daily life, and a let-be attitude toward the world. The deepening spirituality of later life is often subtle and nondeliberate; it may occur naturally and spontaneously as a result of the physical, mental, and social processes of aging. Thibault described the conditions under which many people experience aging as a natural monastery.

Robert C. Atchley

See also Religion; Wisdom.


Achenbaum, A. W., and Orwoll, L. Becoming Wise. International Journal of Aging and Human Development 32 (1991): 2139.

Alexander, C. N.; Davies, J. L.; Dixon, C. A.; Dillbeck, M. C.; Druker, S. M.; Oetzel, R. M.; Muehlman, J. M.; and Orme-Johnson, D. W. (1990). Growth of Higher Stages of Consciousness: Maharishis Vedic Psychology of Human Development. In Higher Stages of Consciousness. Edited by C. N. Alexander and E. J. Langer. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. Pages 286341.

Atchley, R. C. Continuity and Adaptation in Aging. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Beck, C. J. Everyday Zen: Love and Work. New York: HarperCollins, 1989.

Erikson, E. H.; Erikson, J. S.; and Kivnick, H. Q. Vital Involvement in Old Age. New York: Norton, 1986.

Fowler, J. W. Weaving the New Creation: Stages of Faith and the Public Church. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1991.

Huxley, A. The Perennial Philosophy. In The Song of God: Bhagavad-Gita. Edited by S. Prabhavananda and C. Isherwood. New York: Penguin Books, 1944. Pages 1122.

Moody, H. R., and Carroll, D. The Five Stages of the Soul. New York: Anchor Books, 1997.

Moody, H. R., and Cole, T. R. (1986). Aging and Meaning: A Bibliographic Essay. In What Does It Mean to Grow Old? Edited by T. R. Cole and S. Gadow. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1986. Pages 247253.

Thibault, J. M. Aging as a Natural Monastery. Aging and Spirituality 8 (1996): 3, 8.

Thomas, L. E. The Way of the Religious Renouncer: Power Through Nothingness. In Aging and the Religious Dimension. Edited by L. E. Thomas and S. A. Eisenhandler. Westport, Conn.: Auburn House, 1994. Pages 5164.

Tornstam, L. Gero-Transcendence: A Theoretical and Empirical Exploration. In Aging and the Religious Dimension. Edited by L. E. Thomas and S. A. Eisenhanlder. Westport, Conn.: Auburn House, 1994. Pages 203229.

Wilber, K. Eye to Eye, 3d ed. Boston: Shambhala, 1996.


views updated May 21 2018


SPIRITUALITY is the concern of human beings with their appropriate relationships to the cosmos. How the cosmic whole is conceived and what is considered appropriate in interacting with it differ according to worldviews of individuals and communities. Spirituality is also construed as an orientation toward the spiritual as distinguished from the exclusively material. This entry considers classic spiritualities, contemporary spiritualities, and spirituality as an alternative to religion. By the end of the twentieth century spirituality, long considered an integral part of religion, was increasingly regarded as a separate quest, with religion being distinguished from secular spiritualities. A predilection to speak of having spirituality rather than having religion indicated a change in worldview and a transition from exclusive religious traditions to inclusive, overlapping expressions of commitment to world and community.

Classic Spiritualities

Each religion has a characteristic way of living in the world. Each embraces an attitude and outlook rooted in its particular worldview and has developed a set of disciplines that assists devotees in pursuing their relationship to the cosmos. Thus, one speaks, for example, of Islamic spirituality, Christian spirituality, indigenous Australian spirituality, or Hindu spirituality. By spirituality one denotes the characteristic sentiments and way of life of those who were born into, or came to embrace, a particular tradition. Thus, Crossroad Publishing's series, World Spirituality: An Encyclopedic History of the Religious Quest, which treats spirituality as essential to religious traditions, has published volumes on world religions and on indigenous religious traditions. However, recognizing the trend that emerged in the second half of the twentieth century of not confining spirituality to religious contexts, the series includes volumes titled Modern Esoteric Movements and Spirituality and the Secular Quest. In a preface, the series editor, Ewert Cousins, states:

The series focuses on that inner dimension of the person called by certain traditions "the spirit." This spiritual core is the deepest center of the person. It is here that the person is open to the transcendent dimension; it is here that the person experiences ultimate reality. The series explores the discovery of this core, the dynamics of its development, and its journey to the ultimate goal. It deals with prayer, spiritual direction, the various maps of the spiritual journey, and the methods of advancement in the spiritual ascent. (Olupona, 2000, p. xii)

Spirituality regarded as a dimension of religious expression may describe the sensibility and practices of schools, orders, or denominations within a tradition. Spiritual leaders and scholars of Christianity distinguish approaches to the spiritual life of various Catholic and Protestant groupsfor instance, Jesuit spirituality, Franciscan spirituality, Anglican spirituality, and Calvinist spirituality. Each spirituality employs resources of the Christian tradition (Bible reading, sacraments, prayers, good works) to develop a life based on the example of Jesus Christ and the New Testament. Similarly, each of the schools and movements within Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam has its characteristic spirituality.

The difference between classic spirituality and those who claim to have spirituality but not religion is not so much a disagreement about what constitutes spirituality. The latter may agree with Cousins that spirituality has to do with "the deepest center of the person" and with experiences of "ultimate reality." Both see spirituality as a way of situating the self in the world. However, while the practitioners of classic spiritualities see spirituality is an aspect of religion, those on contemporary spiritual quests do not limit it in this way. Moreover, they may see their spirituality as an alternative to religion.

Contemporary Spiritualities

Contemporary spiritualities combine practices of particular religious traditions with concern for the global situation and the life of the planet. Like classic spiritualities, approaches to spirituality that were developed in the last quarter of the twentieth century are also concerned with cultivation of the self and have generated many volumes on self improvement. Contemporary spiritualities are pluralistic and diverse; they search for a global ethic, are concerned with ecology, encourage the cultivation of healthy relationships, support feminism, and pursue peace.

In A Spirituality Named Compassion and the Healing of the Global Village, Humpty Dumpty, and Us (1979) Matthew Fox pointed toward spirituality as an alternative to religion and, indeed, as resistance toward traditional religion. Fox was concerned with compassion as the mode of spirituality that the world needed. Aware of regional and international conflicts, some of them provoked by religious differences, he sought to discover how the members of the global community might learn to live and survive together. "Now that the world is a global village we need compassion more than evernot for altruism's sake, nor for philosophy's sake or theology's sake, but for survival's sake" (p. 11). Thus, from within his Roman Catholic heritage, Fox began to promote what he said was "a spirituality named compassion," a spirituality that did not belong to a particular religious tradition, but that could be adopted by anyone genuinely committed to the world community. "Survival's sake," as Fox put it, is also the focus of those who, with him, advocate an ecological spirituality. For them it is not only the survival of human communities that is at stake, but also the survival of animal and plant populations and of the earth itself. "Green spirituality" has increasingly become part of religious traditions. David Kinsley, in Ecology and Religion: Ecological Spirituality in Cross-Cultural Perspective (1995), showed how concern with the environment becomes part of ongoing religious commitments, building on and reinterpreting the resources of existing traditions and, perhaps, adding to them. This was the concern, too, of the Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions when in the late 1990s and early 2000s it conducted a series of conferences on "Religions of the World and Ecology." The participants reflected on the literary, doctrinal, and ritual resources that help traditions to think about and respond to the earth. Many of the contributors recognized that religions stand in need of dialogue with each other and with the disciplines of science, education, and public policy. An openness to other traditions and disciplines is a characteristic of many spiritual quests at the turn of the century.

Some, though, have sought not so much to expand traditional religious spirituality to incorporate environmental concern as to abandon traditional religious beliefs and practice in favor of commitment to the environment. Faithfulness to earth as their home, and solidarity with the creatures of the earth as their community, shape their orientation toward the world. Some call their quest and their commitment spirituality rather than religion. With a broad definition of religion, environmentally concerned spirituality could be seen as a new kind of religionan ecological religionbut such terminology at the beginning of the twenty-first century was still in the making. All religion may have been turning to ecology as some people left behind more organized forms of religion and adopted more flexible and personal forms.

Classic spiritualities prescribed practices to help the person come closer to the ideal upheld by the religion. The self-cultivation aspect of contemporary spirituality has been presented in much popular writing, including that of Thomas Moore. In the early 1990s his trilogy on the soulthe first volume called The Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life (1992), the second Soul Mates: Honoring the Mysteries of Love and Relationship (1994), and the third The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life (1996)were on the New York Times best-seller list. His later works have also been popular. Moore advised readers and workshop participants to attend to relationships, to cultivate a sense of place, and to make time for music. Many people who belong to organized religions and many who do not have found his nonjudgmental approach and encouragement of authenticity in daily life appealing. Yet, he has suffered scathing criticism by those who see his work as pandering to self-indulgence.

Contemporary spirituality contended with the many changes the world underwent in the second half of the twentieth century. James Conlon, the director of the Sophia Center in Culture and Spirituality at Holy Names College in Oakland, California, wrote in The Sacred Impulse: A Planetary Spirituality of Heart and Fire (2000) of a new vision of the world and of ways of living authentically within that vision. Expressing hope for where this would lead he asserted:

This new vision will involve a synthesis of the wisdom of science, mystical and prophetic traditions, women, indigenous peoples, and other groups that have not previously been heard. We will strive to create a culture that will foster new energy and a zest for life, a culture based on interaction and choice, identity and purpose, images and stories, values and structures that will give renewed expression to harmony, balance, and peace. This will be a culture that celebrates diversity and pluralism at every levelpluralism revealed in the lives and stories of people and groups whose diversity is manifest in language, lifestyle, temperament, economics, and a capacity for inclusion. (pp. 3031)

Spirituality as an Alternative to Religion

Among people who say that they do not have a religion but do have spirituality are some who say they once had a religion but that they outgrew it or it let them down. In North America and elsewhere, affirmation of spirituality while criticizing religion has been particularly evident in New Age groups, but has been seen, too, within traditional religions as their members search to become more attuned to contemporary circumstances. The shift in terminology that led people to say that they do not have "religion" but do have "spirituality" marked a change in consciousness, representing both a rejection of the perceived shortcomings of religionsuch as inflexibility, dogmatism, and authoritarianismand an embracing of spiritual paths that are both individual and inclusive. Moreover, this shift in terminology pointed to new visions of the world.

Those who wanted spirituality, but not religion, desired to develop themselves in their own ways. They embarked on a quest for authenticitya quest with promise and problems. The promise lay in the potential for genuine engagement with the world in which they lived, with their own being, and with whatever they considered sacred. The problems were the dangers of self-indulgence and self-delusion against which classic spiritualities warned their devotees. The latter-day emphasis on the self may be at odds, for example, with classic Christian spirituality, which expects the Christian to be selfless in love and good works, and with the Buddhist emphasis on overcoming the self. Reflecting on the fact that many people pursue their spiritual quests without relationship to organized religion James J. Bacik urged respect for, and use of, classic religious ways when he wrote: "Individuals who pursue spiritual growth without benefit of traditional religious wisdom are in danger of adopting faddish approaches or muddling along without a clear goal or a disciplined regimen. Even those who seem to be making good spiritual progress may be missing opportunities for even greater personal growth" (1997, p. viii).

The discourses of religion and spirituality represent different, but often overlapping, understandings of self and world. The language of "religion" points to the shared past of particular groups as a basis for living now. It includes well-honed doctrines and disciplines. It tells devotees how the world is and how they should live in it. Many of the new spiritualities are eclectic, adopting texts and practices from various sources to fashion something that works for the individual. Eclecticism can be offensive to those from whom it borrows. Workshops in the United States that use Native American traditions have drawn the ire of Native people who object, for example, that their purificatory sweat lodge ceremonies have been removed from traditional social and religious contexts and inserted into the New Age seeker's repertoire. Native American scholars, including Christopher Ronwanièn:te Jocks, have called appropriators of indigenous traditions, such as Carlos Castenada and Lynn Andrews, to task for their distortion of Native traditions.

The late twentieth-century discourse of spirituality reflected the struggle of people seeking authenticity and wanting to affirm a meaning to life, but not willing to concede control over meaning to religious institutions. The disavowal of doctrine may, indeed, be a hallmark of their spirituality. Among emerging forms of spirituality were New Age, Wiccan, feminist, twelve step, and earth spiritualities. Many, too, saw spirituality expressed through sport, music, art, and other aspects of cultural life. Thus, jazz, with its improvisational direction, was seen as a manifestation of the spirit of the twentieth century. Not everyone who sought spirituality joined a group, while others went from group to group or belonged to several simultaneously. Seekers of spirituality, usually committed to authentic living, may exhibit great courage in pursuing a life that is faithful to family, friends, and environment.

At least since Friedrich Nietzsche (18441900), modern Western culture has spoken of the death of God or the absence of God. As the theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg noted in his Taylor lectures at Yale Divinity School, "Talk about the death or the absence of God points to the fact that the interpretation of the world, as well as the behavior of human beings in the everyday life of modern culture, gets along without reference to God" (1983, p. 71). Similarly, it seems that many human beings can get along without reference to religion, the system that in Western cultures is built around commitment to God. Roots of secular spirituality in Western cultures can be found both in ancient Greek philosophy and in Enlightenment thinkers who were concerned with linking the self to the larger whole without recourse to religion. While the classic usage of the term spirituality remains, the term has broadened so that in popular usage spirituality has become something that one might embrace not as a discipline of religion or as a characteristic style of religion, but instead of religion. Spirituality has come to denote a realm of concern with nonmaterial life that may include both religious and secular attitudes. Given the increasing scholarly attention in conferences and publications to the role of spirituality in contemporary culture, it is clear that the academy has recognized spirituality as a subject of study both within and independent of the study of religion.

See Also

New Age Movement; Religious Experience.



Cousins, Ewert, ed. World Spirituality: An Encyclopedic History of the Religious Quest series. Crossroad Publishing. New York, 1985. As of 2003, there were twenty-five volumes.

Payne, Richard J., ed. The Classics of Western Spirituality series. Paulist Press. New York, 1978. As of December 2003, there were 107 volumes in this series, most concerned with aspects of, and figures in, the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions.

Tucker, Mary Evelyn, and John Grim, eds. Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions, Religions of the World and Ecology series. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Mass., 1997. These volumes highlight the nature spirituality that is part of all religious traditions and the challenges to traditional spiritualities occasioned by awareness of the environmental crisis.


Albanese, Catherine, ed. American Spiritualities: A Reader. Bloomington, Ind., 2001.

Bacik, James J. Spirituality in Action. Kansas City, Mo., 1997.

Conlon, James. The Sacred Impulse: A Planetary Spirituality of Heart and Fire. New York, 2000.

Dean, William. The American Spiritual Culture: And the Invention of Jazz, Football, and the Movies. New York, 2002.

Fox, Matthew. A Spirituality Named Compassion and the Healing of the Global Village, Humpty Dumpty, and Us. Minneapolis, 1979; reprint, San Francisco, 1990.

Fox, Matthew. Creation Spirituality: Liberating Gifts for the Peoples of the Earth. San Francisco, 1991.

Gottlieb, Roger S. A Spirituality of Resistance: Finding a Peaceful Heart and Protecting the Earth. Lanham, Md., 2003.

Jocks, Christopher Ronwanièn:te. "Spirituality for Sale: Sacred Knowledge in the Consumer Age." In Native American Spirituality: A Critical Reader, edited by Lee Irwin, pp. 6177. Lincoln, Neb., 1997.

Kinsley, David. Ecology and Religion: Ecological Spirituality in Cross-Cultural Perspective. Princeton, N.J., 1995.

Moore, Thomas. The Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life. New York, 1992.

Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Christian Spirituality. Philadelphia, 1983.

Plaskow, Judith, and Carol P. Christ, eds. Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality. San Francisco, 1989.

Wuthnow, Robert. After Heaven: Spirituality in America since the 1950s. Berkeley, 1998.

Mary N. MacDonald (2005)


views updated May 23 2018



The term spirituality is at the center of much debate on the shape and meaning of religion in the modern, or post-modern, world. Yet the term defies an easy or singular definitionit is an attitude or principle that inspires, animates, or pervades thought, feeling, or action, to quote Random House Websters Unabridged Dictionary (2nd ed., 1997). It is worthy of note that both the verbs and the spheres of activity to which the verbs point in this definition vary. Beyond spiritualitys broad sweep in thought, feeling, and practice, all pointing to the inner, subjective world of religion, spirituality is also viewed as having emerged, as Ursula King points out, as a general code word for the search of direction, purpose, and meaning related to the deepest dimension of human existence and is thus no longer exclusively based on an a priori theological standpoint, but is rooted in a search, in experimentation, questioning and exploring (1998, p. 96).

Writing more than a century ago, the American psychologist William James (18421910) privileged this inner space in his classic definition 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. James distinguished this personal, experiential element within religion from the theologies, philosophies, and ecclesiastical organizations [that] may secondarily grow up around the experience ([1902] 1985, p. 31).

Viewing religion broadly as a transcendent and often transforming experience, he left open the form of the experience itself and the devotional object at the center of that experience. Spirituality is thus the primary and motivating quality of religionwhether the religion in question, writes Catherine L. Albanese commenting not specifically on, but in keeping with Jamess outlook, is organized or of movement status or mostly individual; and whether it involves God, or other-than-human guides and spirits, or the center of the Self, or an almighty Nature, or an Ideal held to be worth living or dying for (2001, p. 11).

Spirituality thrives in the context of a living religious tradition; indeed, the latters constituent elements of symbol, doctrine, myth, ritual, text, and story all shape an experiential religious world. Belief and practice embedded within tradition keep alive a sense of transcendence, sacrality, and ultimacy. Put differently, religion is a symbolic and linguistic system that by its nature is powerfully evocativeit triggers experiences and emotions and at the cognitive level defines a meaningful universe including proper strategies of action. Encoded signs and symbols are the means by which experiences not only are generated but are described, even recognized and labeled, as religious. Historically, the major world religious traditions have relied upon symbolic forms for breaking outside of the profane world and into an alternative reality known only through its ecstatic qualities and interpretive frames. Even within contemporary, more secular social settings, research suggests that those persons most involved in their religious traditions are more likely to report having strong religious experiences (Yamane and Polzer 1994, pp. 125).

More appropriately, we should speak of spiritualitiesemphasizing the pluralsince they vary by tradition and social and personal circumstance. Monotheistic, and typically highly monarchical religious traditions such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam image God as a distant powerful being, as a male, kinglike lawgiver and judge, and locate the central human problem as one of sin and guilt as measured against divine standards. Emphasis is upon what Marcus J. Borg describes as a performance model of spiritual practice, of trying to meet the requirements God expects (1997, pp. 6271). Hence the dominant God is somewhat more distant as traditionally conceived. But in the many Hindu and Buddhist traditions with their numerous gods, male and female, or no god, stress is upon devotion and meditation in quest of inner peace, joy, and liberation. There are many spiritual paths toward a higher consciousness through the cultivation of experiences of connection, belonging, wholeness, and selflessness. Eastern spiritual diversity thus stands out in contrast to the more monotheistic Western styles.

Religious symbols, belief, and community generate spiritual energy, but social factors shape the form the spiritual dynamic will take. As Max Weber (18641920) observed, the spiritual styles and theodicies for ruling elites differ markedly from those who are either weak and powerless or socially mobile. The spiritual dynamics of elites typically focus more upon the blessedness and naturalness of the existing order; the powerless on otherworldly rewards that should come in the next life; and the socially mobile on the importance of getting ahead and doing well. Metaphysical spiritualities acknowledge these same features of the natural order but usually without fullblown justifications for dominance. Minorities are often, though not always, characterized by otherworldly spirituality. At times they are motivated spiritually by religiously inspired ethical ideals to engage in struggles against oppression and inequality, an obvious example being the civil rights movement led by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. (19291968). Rooted in the African American Christian experience, King exposed the gap between ethical ideals and social injustice; addressing a deep psychological dissonance between ideals and practice, he thereby mounted a spiritual protest without having to resort to the use of violence as a means of bringing about constructive social change.

In the contemporary world, spirituality takes increasingly diverse forms in response to changing social and cultural realities. One emerging pattern is described as post-traditional, characterized by the searching and experimenting Ursula King speaks of. Individuals acting with a great degree of autonomy explore spiritual truths from many sources, mixing and matching elements to their own choice. High levels of exposure to religious diversity contribute as well to a mixing of the codes. Cross-national research in Western countries suggests that this pattern holds broadly for the post-World War II (19391945) generation (Roof et al. 1995), and especially so in the United States. Seeker-oriented spirituality is compatible with life in modern, rapidly paced societies. Also, in these settings, ties to faith traditions are often weak. Social and religious conditions thus make for a thriving spiritual marketplace where innovative entrepreneurs compete with one another in defining spiritual needs and in supplying meaning and practiceall intended to assist the individual in his or her spiritual journey. Drawing upon the spiritual resources available to them, both within and outside of organized religion, people assume a considerable amount of self-direction in cultivating their spiritual lives.

A distinction between spiritual and religious is becoming more commonplace in advanced modern societies. Within the United States, for example, the number of people claiming to be spiritual but not religious is estimated variously (but with differing empirical measures) as 14 percent (Roof 1999) and 31 percent (Wuthnow 2005) of the adult population. To be religious implies faith in God or the divine, participation in institutionally based practices, and respect for the teachings of a tradition; to be spiritual puts emphasis upon the experience of connectedness, relationship, or oneness with God/Christ/a higher power/the sacred/nature and appreciation for personal growth and inner awareness in ones life journey. Various empirical measures of self-rated religiousness and spirituality are increasingly used by social scientists as a means of taping these differing responses. Self-rated religiousness is related to attendance at religious services and orthodox belief, whereas self-rated spirituality is associated with mystical experiences and New Age beliefs and practices, particularly among those with higher levels of education and income. An expanding body of research links these two to a broad range of social, psychological, and behavioral correlates, particularly in areas of psychotherapy, child-rearing philosophy, and lifestyle research (see Zinnbauer et al. 1997).

Research suggests that the vast majority of those claiming to be religious are also spiritualindeed, the spiritual lies at the core of religious life. But if the post-traditional spiritual quests described above represent shifting styles of individual religious expression, a second pattern might be called retraditionalizing, or the deliberate cultivation of spiritual meaning through committed religious life and practice. Described as engaged spirituality, this effort is deeply grounded within congregational religious life and thus is less individualistic in style, and seeks to combine spiritual depth with social concern and responsibility (Wuthnow 1998; Stanczak 2006). A third, quite different pattern is the neotraditional response, or the attempt at reconstructing and enforcing older religious beliefs and values throughout a sociopolitical order. Protesting the erosions of modernity, efforts such as these typically arise in close alignment with political ideologies and mass movements, as with the mobilization of the Religious Right in the United States or the rise of radical Islamic militants in various parts of the world. Spirituality of this kind arises out of a remythologizing of narratives of God, people, and nationality in search of religious certainty and a more secure moral universe.

SEE ALSO Fundamentalism; Religion


Albanese, Catherine L., ed. 2001. Introduction. In American Spiritualities: A Reader, 115. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Borg, Marcus J. 1997. The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith. New York: Harper.

James, William. [1902] 1985. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New York: Penguin Classics.

King, Ursula. 1998. Spirituality in a Postmodern Age. In Faith and Praxis in a Postmodern Age, ed. Ursula King, 94112. London: Cassell.

Roof, Wade Clark. 1999. Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Roof, Wade Clark, Jackson W. Carroll, and David A. Roozen, eds. 1995. The Post-War Generation and Establishment Religion: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Stanczak, Gregory C. 2006. Engaged Spirituality: Social Change and American Religion. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Wuthnow, Robert. 1998. After Heaven: Spirituality in America since the 1950s. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wuthnow, Robert. 2005. America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Yamane, David, and Megan Polzer. 1994. Ways of Seeing Ecstasy in Modern Society: Experiential-Expressive and Cultural-Linguistic Views. Sociology of Religion 55 (1): 125.

Wade Clark Roof


views updated May 14 2018


In the contemporary context, the term spirituality has a vast spectrum of meanings. It can refer to an interior journey, to the practice of prayer and meditation, to faithful and righteous living, or to a general commitment to authenticity and self-awareness. The term originated in the Roman Catholic tradition, but has been embraced by many Protestants as well as Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Taoists, Confucianists and even secular persons. Indeed, many today claim spirituality while renouncing institutional religion.

Spiritual practice

Prayer, ritual, and meditation remain central spiritual practices across religious traditions. Yet, the notion of what constitutes a spiritual practice also is expanding. Spirituality does not mean simply the interior life or religious discipline. Rather, spirituality relates also to social action, ethical choice, family commitments, friendship, work, and politics. Thus, both private and public practices form the human being and can be spaces for spiritual expression and growth. Indeed, some are defining spirituality so broadly as to include a wide range of contemporary secular practices. One may point, for example, to the 1996 book Spirituality and the Secular Quest edited by Peter Van Ness, which includes chapters on scientific inquiry, sports, psychotherapy, the arts, ecological activism, and holistic health practices. These expansive understandings of spirituality rightly avoid a narrow focus on interiority and counter an otherworldly or individualistic notion of the spiritual life. Yet, as the words spiritual and spirituality are applied to a wider range of beliefs and practices, their meanings can become diffuse and vague. This situation calls for careful theological and philosophical exploration of the wide-ranging meanings of the terms in specific cultural and religious contexts.

Contemporary persons embrace spirituality because they seek to live more deeply, to connect with the ultimate, to find meaning in ordinary activities and the experiences of fragmentation, moral challenge, grief, illness, and death. Spirituality can be understood as the universal human desire for self-transcendence, as Christian theologian Sandra Schneiders writes in her 1986 article "Theology and Spirituality: Strangers, Rivals, or Partners?" (p. 266). Such a broad, anthropological perspective attempts to provide a general, inclusive understanding of spirituality that can speak to the wide range of practices and worldviews that fall under the heading of spirituality. Such definitions of spirituality enable dialogue and even shared practice in pluralistic settings. Thus, for example, the editors of Crossroad Publishing's World Spirituality series arrived at a shared definition applicable to studies in everything from Native American to Jewish to Buddhist to Confucian spirituality. As stated in Ewert Cousins's preface to each volume, authors would focus on the discovery of "the deepest center of the person . . . [where] the person is open to the transcendent dimension; it is here that the person experiences ultimate reality."

Yet, every definition of spirituality reflects a theological perspective and an historical and cultural context. Thus, more theologically explicit and context specific definitions of spirituality are important. Christian spirituality, for example, could be understood as life in the Spirit of God, a path in which one walks as a disciple of Jesus Christrevealed by the Creator in historywithin the community of the church. Buddhist spirituality has been defined in terms of "cultivation" that leads, according to the Buddhist monk Rahula Walpola, to "the attainment of the highest wisdom which sees the nature of things as they are, and realizes the Ultimate Truth, Nirvana" (Yoshinori, p. xiii). One then would explore how the particular contours of these paths take shape differently in diverse cultures and historical periods. For indeed, history and culture shape how humans understands themselves, the nature of the ultimate, and the relationship between the two. For example, medieval notions of a hierarchy of spiritual pathswith the celibate path being higher and more perfect than the lay pathreflected a hierarchical social order as well as a specific theological tradition. Scientific discoveries challenge traditional understandings of prayer and divine agency. Contemporary spirituality strongly reflects the "turn to the subject" and the powerful influence of therapeutic perspectives.

Spirituality and the practice of science. As understandings of spirituality widen, science can be understood as a spiritual practicean attentive search for understanding of the intricate and extraordinarily complex world around us (or within us). The practice of science merges the power of reason with the humility and curiosity needed to see beyond the self. Whether tracing the working of the neuron or investigating the organization of the universe, scientific inquiry requires discipline, awareness, and creativity.

Spirituality and health. While Western medicine has become highly secularized, there remains a strong academic and popular interest in exploring connections between spirituality and health. This interest takes two forms. One is the general insistence on the relatedness of body, mind, and spirit. For example, Robert C. Fuller notes that the holistic healing movement seeks a natural renewal of physical well-being through an individual's own psychological and spiritual energies (Van Ness, pp. 227-250). These practices need not claim a metaphysical reality responsible for healing. The second kind of interest presupposes a higher beinga life-giving Creatorthat sustains or restores bodily health. Studies have found a correlation between prayer and religious beliefs and effective coping, resilience, and healing (e.g., Oxnam et al.; Levin and Schiller). The question is whether spiritual practices simply benefit one's mental outlook and physical condition or whether they effectively draw supernatural power upon the body.

Spirituality and faith healing. Diverse religious traditions long have believed that a divine being can cure illness. Faith in God enables human beings to convey God's healing touch or combat evil forces. Many Christians, for example, believe that spiritual practices such as prayer, exorcism, and anointing can restore health as Christ is chronicled as doing in the Gospels (e.g., Mark 6:13). Christian Scientists make faith healing the center of their belief system and maintain as a principal tenet that true understanding alleviates disease. Adherents to Buddhism, Shintoism, and Daoism often wear amulets to ward off illness. In different ways, various spiritual practices orient one toward the divine healing power.

Study of spirituality

The study of spirituality must be an interdisciplinary enterprise. It draws on multiple fields in order to understand the human quest for the ultimate and the practices that open one to truth and wisdom. The study of spirituality incorporates theology, history, anthropology, psychology, neurophysiology, medicine, literary studies, and the arts. In the early centuries of Christianity, spirituality and theology were integrated and inseparable. One could not seek knowledge of God without praying and meditating on the scriptures. With the rise of scholasticism in the Middle Ages, theology in Western Christianity gradually became understood as a conceptual science distinct from ascetical or mystical life. This was an unfortunate separation of science and spirituality, a separation resisted in Eastern Orthodoxy and one that some contemporary scholars, such as Philip Sheldrake and Mark A. McIntosh, are reconsidering.

Spirituality has also suffered from misunderstandings about the relationship between the spiritual and the material. Within Christianity, for example, the spiritual too often is seen as that which is beyond or even opposed to the physical, the body, and the material world. It is worth reviewing the meanings of the term spirit in the Jewish and Christian traditionsa complicated subject, for this term has multiple meanings in different texts. With this caution in mind, one may note that in the Hebrew Bible the term ruah refers to the breath or spirit of God, a life-giving force. In the New Testament, pneuma (Greek) or spiritus (Latin translation) refers often to the Holy Spirit or the animating principle of the human being. To be a spiritual person, then, is to be infused with the life, the breath, of the divine. The Letters of Paul contrast pneuma to sarx (Greek: flesh). This distinction has been interpreted as pitting the spirit against the flesh. In reality, the texts contrast those things that are "of the Spirit" to those things that are counter to God. To live "in the Spirit" is not necessarily to reject the physical, but to live according to the will of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. Certainly, Christian theology has perpetuated deep ambiguity about the value of the physical. While a dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual persists in numerous religious traditions, contemporary writers in spirituality also promote more holistic notions of spirituality. Widespread interest in such practices as yoga and Tai Chi demonstrate a hunger to integrate spirituality and physicality. Spirituality refers to an authentic and holy life in all its aspects. Thus, spirituality incorporates holy treatment of, or relationship to, the body and the physical world. It also includes a lively curiosity about the material world.

See also Mysticism; Prayer and Meditation


bass, dorothy, ed. practicing our faith: a way of life for a searching people. san francisco: jossey-bass, 1997.

green, arthur, ed. jewish spirituality: from the sixteenth century revival to the present. new york: crossroad, 1987.

hanson, bradley, ed. modern christian spirituality: methodological and historical essays. atlanta, ga.: scholars press, 1990.

levin, jeffrey s., and schiller, preston l. "is there a religious factor in health?" journal of religion and health 26 (1987): 9-36.

mcintosh, mark a. mystical theology: the integration of spirituality and theology. oxford: blackwell, 1998.

oxnam, thomas e.; freeman, daniel h. jr.; manheimer, eric d. "lack of social participation or religious strength and comfort as risk factors for death after cardiac surgery in the elderly." psychosomatic medicine 57, no. 1 (1995): 5-15.

schneiders, sandra. "theology and spirituality: strangers, rivals, or partners?" horizons 13 (1986): 253-274.

sheldrake, philip. spirituality & theology: christian living and the doctrine of god. maryknoll, n.y.: orbis press, 1998.

van ness, peter, ed. spirituality and the secular quest. new york: crossroad, 1996.

wolfteich, claire e. american catholics through the twentieth century: spirituality, lay experience, and public life. new york: crossroad, 2001.

yoshinori, takeuchi et al., eds. buddhist spirituality: indian, southeast asian, tibetan, and early chinese. new york: crossroad, 1993.

claire e. wolfteich


views updated May 11 2018


Black North American spirituality lies at one end of a topographic continuum, a continuum composed of African diaspora-and-homeland religions and cultures. At the other extreme lie the African homelands of black peoples forcibly relocated to the Americas during almost four hundred years of the Atlantic slave trade. The intermediate sectors of the continuum comprise other cultures of the African diaspora, intermediate because black cultures in South America and the Caribbean exhibit stronger continuity with African traditional religions. Most obvious are Yoruba continuities in Haitian Vodou, Cuban Santería, and Brazilian Candomblé.

In this schema the Atlantic world constitutes the best ethnographic and historical context for understanding the nature and development of African-American spirituality. Europe and Britain are components of this world, too, of course. A triangulation of the Atlantic, then, comprising Africa, the New World, and Europe, represents not only commercial exchanges inaugurated in the slave trade, but also multiple sources of new spiritual traditions.

A minimal set of categories for delineating black North American spirituality, in terms of its multifaceted secular and religious expressions, includes aesthetic, ecstatic, and iconographic or "iconic" features. Compare W. E. B. Du Bois's description of black religion as "the music, the frenzy, and the preacher." The disparate religious traditions involved are predominantly Christian (Protestant and some Catholic), but also Islamic and Hebraic, folk or indigenous, spiritualist and other sectarian traditions, and even neo-African. Some aesthetic features are common throughout the diaspora, while other ecstatic and iconic features are heightened in certain traditions and thus demarcate contrasting modes of spirituality.

Musical expression is so central that it provides paradigms of creativity for other domains of black culture (e.g., improvisation, call-and-response). "It is only in his music," James Baldwin declared, "that the Negro in America has been able to tell his story." That story has multiple "scores," Ralph Ellison has further disclosed: "Often we wanted to share both: the classics and jazz, the Charleston and the Irish reel, spirituals and the blues, the sacred and the profane" (Smith, 1989, pp. 387, 389). Indeed, the desire to link black America with cultural expressions from other sources sometimes transcends even ethnic oppression, and perennially revitalizes spiritual experience.

In addition, such bicultural proficiencies reflect a performance rule characterizing ritual and communication processes in the diaspora. "Style-switching" (Marks, 1974) is the musical alternation between codes that signify black or African cultural contents and codes indicating white or European contents. It can also signal ritual transitions to spirit possession and trance phenomena in both religious and secular contexts. A psychosocial or cognitive basis for this aesthetic feature of African-American spirituality is the "double consciousness" articulated by Du Bois's phenomenon: the intersubjective experience of being both African and American. To generalize: Modes of expression (oral or musical, literary or dramatic, religious or secular) can alternate between forms identified as Afro-American, or "black," and polarized forms identified as Euro-American, or "white."

Spirit possession and ecstatic phenomena typify black religious expression in the New World. Many observers attribute the prominence of ecstatic behaviors in ritual, worship, and everyday life to a common African heritage in which possession "was the height of worshipthe supreme religious act" (Mitchell, 1975). Parallel Euro-Christian practices allowed this African predisposition to adapt to the predominantly Protestant ethos of North America through the revival traditions of white Baptists and Methodists. Thus, Albert Raboteau (1978) has described spirit possession as a "two-way bridge" that enabled black Americans to "pass over" from African to Christian ecstatic expression.

A similar claim connects European magical traditions to African-American thaumaturgy and pharmacopoeia (e.g., conjure, as discussed below). Finally, ecstatic phenomena occur in secular performance and ritualized group interactions involving political movements and social and entertainment events. For example, Henry Mitchell (1975) has suggested that possession and trance behavior occur covertly in jazz clubs with comparable cathartic and therapeutic effects. Ecstatic performances by black preachers and other orators are renowned, and bear shamanic commonalities with American revival preaching generally.

On the other hand, not all African-American spirituality is ecstatic in character. Rastafarian spirituality, displacing possession phenomena with revelatory discourse and poetic biblicism, offers a Jamaican exception. Such examples distinguish the other major spiritual dimension expressed by black North Americans: the iconographic or "iconic" dimension. The term connotes the contemplative tradition in Western spirituality, in which not only pictorial but also textual iconsmost notably biblical narratives, symbols, and figuresmediate divine significations and transcendent ideals.

African sources of this imagistic propensity comprise a "ritual cosmos" or ancestral worldview, in which "one must see every thing as symbol" (Zuesse, 1979). While (1) an iconic spirituality can be distinguished from (2) emotivist or ecstatic forms of spirituality, it is not necessarily (3) rationalist and discursive in the tradition of the European Enlightenment. Yet it can accompany either of the latter (2, 3) in modes that are iconic-ecstatic (for example, shamanic oratory) or iconic-analytic. Perhaps the spiritual-intellectual discourse of the African-American mystical philosopher Howard Thurman best exemplifies both combinations.

The major instance of iconic expression in black North American spirituality is the figural tradition that improvisationally employs biblical types to configure black experience: Moses (liberator), Exodus (emancipation), Promised Land (destiny). Black religious figuralism emerged in slave religion and bears traces both of Puritan typology and the magical folk healing-and-harming tradition of conjure. Conjure practitioners reenvision and transform reality by performing mimetic (imitative) and medicinal operations (using roots, herbs, etc.) on "material metaphors." Conjurational employment of biblical figures as experiential metaphors operated as recently as the 1960s civil rights movement, in which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. represented himself as a Moses and configured the movement as an exodus.

Secular examples include iconic uses of democratic texts and their ideals as found in the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence. Together these secular and religious vectors account for the "biblical republicanism" that black North Americans share with their compatriots. Even black nationalists and Pan-African political movements (e.g., Ethiopianism and black Zionism) derive from the missionary uses of such Bible figures as Ethiopia and Egypt. Black Muslim and black militant figuration of (Babylonian) exile or captivity in America converge with the Rastafarians' poetic iconography of postcolonial oppression. The iconic dimension, it is evident, conveys liberating and creative energies for future transformations of religion and culture.

See also Candomblé; Religion; Santería; Voodoo; Yoruba Religion and Culture in the Americas


Marks, Morton. "Uncovering Ritual Structures in Afro-American Music." In Religious Movements in Contemporary America, edited by Irving Zaretsky and Mark P. Leone, pp. 60134. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974.

Mitchell, Henry H. Black Belief: Folk Beliefs of Blacks in America and West Africa. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.

Raboteau, Albert J. Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Smith, Theophus H. "The Spirituality of Afro-American Traditions." In Christian Spirituality III: Post-Reformation and Modern, edited by Louis K. Dupré and Don Saliers, pp. 372412. New York: Crossroads, 1989.

Wilmore, Gayraud S. Black Religion and Black Radicalism: An Interpretation of the Religious History of Afro-American People, 2d ed. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1983.

Zuesse, Evan M. Ritual Cosmos: The Sanctification of Life in African Religions. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1979.

theophus h. smith (1996)


views updated May 11 2018


Although the word "spirituality" was originally a Christian one, derived from the Pauline definition of whatever was under the influence of the spirit of God, its roots were planted firmly in the Jewish tradition of God's abiding presence. Until the twentieth century, religiousness and spirituality had similar meanings. In fact, many non-Western languages have no separate word for spirituality. Modernity, the growing distrust of authority, and the rise of secularism have contributed to shaping our present understanding of these words as different though related concepts.

The uncertainties of modernity have created problems that, for many, are no longer solved by traditional religious institutions. These concerns involve issues of identity, meaning, and a general loss of faith in authority and moral order. Authority's response to the attempts of 1960s activism to bring about peace, justice, and equality shocked many adolescents and young adults out of comfortable conformity. This period of disillusionment occurred at a time in the lives of baby boomers when people typically seek meaning and direction and contributed to a growing distrust of institutional authority and traditional leaders and solutions. But though many of these children of modernity were disillusioned and distrustful of tradition, they did not stop searching. A search for direction in a time of crisis is part of what makes us human.

In A Generation of Seekers, Roof (1993) argues that baby boomers are a generation of educated and active seekers who have rejected traditional religion and forms of worship. Having experienced estrangement from cultural institutions, this generation consists of middle-aged spiritual nomads on a search for personal meaning. Joined by the Generation Xers, they have developed a highly individualistic spirituality. Heelas (1996) points out that this personalized rather than institutionalized spirituality is to be expected in modernity, where a key aspect is a shift from an external locus of control to an internal one. When meaning and stability are no longer to be found in the world around us, the individual is forced to search within. Thus, for many, the self rather than the church or temple becomes the major spiritual resource. This gives spiritual meaning to some of the widely held concepts of modernity, such as the importance of autonomy, the search for authenticity, self-responsibility, and immediacy, and makes them accessible to all. The new, democratized spirituality can be seen as a cultural resource.

But if authority cannot be trusted, how does the self recognize truth? How does it strip away the layers of meaning embedded in our social institutions and in the ways we have been taught to think, behave, and be? For many, reason is not enough. No longer trusting what they have been taught to be true, these seekers turn to the spiritual truth that comes from their own subjective experience, and they privilege experience over belief and reason. Spirituality thus becomes both democratized and experiential.

The contemporary search for identity and meaning in experiential spirituality is holistic, grounded in lived experience and praxis rather than existing outside of it. Humans experience with their hearts as well as their heads, and with all their senses. This is where contemporary spirituality differs from the traditional otherworldly, ascetic practices of the past. If spirituality has reached a crossroads, as some theologians declare, this is where the road divides. One path, though individualistic and experiential, continues to be otherworldly, as can be seen in the popularity of "rapture" films of the 1980s, where Christians awaited the destruction of the world and their removal to a transcendent paradise. A further example is the world-denying spirituality of Heaven's Gate, where believers, some of them castrated, committed mass suicide in the belief that they would be transported to a spaceship above the earth's surface and take on "heavenly bodies."

Rather than otherworldly, the second path in the road is in and of this earth. Here, matter is imbued with spirit. The dualisms inherent in Cartesian philosophy are rejected. Spirituality is radically embodied. These dualisms are not limited to those of spirit and matter, mind and body. King (1993) points out that until fairly recently, a spiritual person was usually one whose spiritual practice included upholding and even reifying gender roles. The spiritual quest was traditionally a male journey, while for women spirituality often revolved around issues of obedience. Religion, as the guardian of this profoundly dualistic, otherworldly spirituality, saw the world, pleasure, and the human body as impediments ranging from distasteful to dangerous. However, beginning with the second wave of the U.S. women's movement in the 1960s, the cry "the personal is political" was quickly joined by "the spiritual is political." Feminist writers, artists, and theologians began to point out how the act of demeaning the body is profoundly linked to the societal demeaning and oppression of women. Male-dominated religions typically associate men, the mind, and culture, and place these in opposition to women, the body, and nature. When they also emphasize transcending the body and nature, the subjugation of women is given religious mandate.

While gender dualism is still much in evidence in many but not all groups' spiritual worldviews and practices today, the dichotomizing of spirit and matter is increasingly challenged. Pentecostalists, for example, affirm the body as a feeling, sensing self and privilege an experiential stance that is both communal and empowering. Creation spirituality places primacy on a nondualistic interconnectivity that is body-based and earth-based. New Age spirituality focuses on a radical holism that is an experiential, individualistic search, not for salvation but for self-actualization. Practitioners of Goddess or Gaian spirituality believe that both the body and nature are sacred and sources of spiritual revelation. Because of this, the divine is understood as immanent, and the erotic is celebrated as the interlinking life force in everything. It is creative energy empowered. From Native American spirituality these practitioners borrow the concept of the interdependent web of life in which humans are a very small part.

These groups are among the many that experience the divine in this manner. Different from religion though not entirely unrelated, contemporary spirituality is individualistic, experiential, embodied, nondualistic, and celebratory.

See alsoCreation Spirituality; Ecospirituality; Feminist Spirituality; Masculine Spirituality; New Age Spirituality; Spiritual Path; Spiritualism.


Griffin, Wendy, ed. Daughters of theGoddess:Identity,Healing,and Empowerment. 1999.

Heelas, Paul. The New Age Movement. 1996.

King, Ursula. Women and Spirituality:Voices ofProtestand Promise. 1989, 1993.

Roof, Wade Clark. A Generation of Seekers:TheSpiritualJourneys of the Baby Boom Generation. 1993.

Wendy Griffin