PLAIN GUIDE TO ..
As the Church continues to
fade from the consciousness of Western societies, large numbers of people
turn to alternative forms of religion. In these forms - as in the Church
itself - the terms "spiritual" and "spirituality" are
in increasing use. But what do they mean? Very few are attempting to
answer that question.
This is inevitably an outsider's summary. I must confess at the start
that I don't have a spiritual life - or if I have, it doesn't resemble
what some others talk about. Like
everyone else, I do have preconceived ideas and prejudices on the
This attempt at understanding spirituality will not, I hope, be
understood as a demolition job. I think of it rather as an attempt to turn my analytic way of approaching the world (I'm often
accused of being too "intellectual", whatever that means)
towards an approach which seems often expressed in purely emotional
tones. That "something" seems to be beyond
me. It slips between my fingers when I try to grapple with it. When I do
"spiritual exercises" with others, I either go to sleep or get
impatient. I wonder at the closed eyes and expressions of
enjoyment or even ecstasy I perceive around me.
Recognising that I think about my feelings while another large group
of people feel about their thoughts, I nevertheless suggest that someone
had better start thinking about spirituality. Note, though, that some
people refer to "the sacred" in place of the more commonly-used
"spirituality". I take the two to be coterminous.
My personal view begins with an observation:
I'm biased against any interpretation of life, the world and the
universe in dualist terms. By that I mean a
perception which divides reality into two sections.
One is the
physical. It can be weighed, measured and described. It is the
subject of science and of analytical disciplines like history and
archeology, to name only two of a vast array of modern fields of
The other is "spiritual". I'm told that it exists
essentially separate from the physical. Some say it runs
"parallel" to the physical. Others insist that it is part
of the physical but, so to speak, embedded into it or intertwined
with it. It appears to require certain sorts of behaviour to get in
touch with or participate in it - such as prayer, meditation, song
and suchlike. Some advocate diet, yoga exercises, swinging crystals,
massage and a number of other techniques to better enable us to
access the spiritual.
A Dictionary of Christian Spirituality on my bookshelf contains a large number of articles
about Asian spirituality, discernment of spirits, glossolalia,
love-feast, nature mysticism, the psychology of spirituality, St Thomas
Aquinas and Zen, to select but a few at random. Such dictionaries are
useful for a broad summary of a subject. This may explain why there is no entry for
the "spirit" from which I suppose spirit-uality is
derived. Nevertheless, without this reference I have no way of knowing what the authors think a spirit
The "Spirituality" entry says that the word describes
... those attitudes, beliefs, practices which animate people's
lives and help them reach out towards super-sensible realities ...
[and which is] an irreproachable term defining the life of prayer and
discipline with perhaps a hint of "higher levels" and
This explanation is clouded somewhat later in the article (written by
the Editor) when it remarks that spirituality is not always good.
Adolf Hitler was a spiritual being, a man, more than most,
"possessed"; yet his spirit was surely evil.
There is no explanation of what the "spirit" is which
invaded the person of Hitler. We are told that a certain Alexander
Schememann (an Orthodox Church theologian) substitutes "Christian
life" for "spirituality" because
... the latter term today has become ambiguous and confusing. For
many people it means some mysterious and self-contained activity, a
secret which can be broken into by the study of some "spiritual
Other religious traditions have, it seems, flowed into and flavoured
the Christian stream of spirituality - in particular Buddhism, Judaism
and Islam. In Buddhism, Nirvana is an enlightenment experience in
which there is a deep, "oceanic", awareness of a cessation of
thought and action, in which an intense inner stillness occurs. It is
the fruit of the deepest possible detachment. The way to achieve perfect
detachment involves long practice of dispassionate introspection, which
generally requires guidance. The goal of Nirvana resembles, I think,
the mystical goal of awareness of and unity with
God which medieval and other Christians stress. Buddhism's
emphasis is on detachment as a pre-condition to Nirvana.
My impression is that the modern concept of "spirituality" has evolved
away from the medieval concept into
a synonym for one's life pattern. That is, spirituality is thought of as
including every aspect of a
person's life - mental, emotional and physical. Some seem to think,
however, that a "spiritual life" is lived mainly when it is separated from the world of action. This distinction I can understand.
When you and I are deeply involved in selling a product, bargaining
about a strike in the factory, balancing the books in time for month-end
or trying to catch a terrorist, not many would say we're deeply into our
Taking a different line, the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says that the meaning of the word "spirituality"
has not been satisfactorily defined.
It is used to refer to people's subjective practice and experience
of their religion, or to the spiritual exercises and beliefs which
individuals or groups have with regard to their personal relationship
However, these attempts to define "spirituality" fall at
the first hurdle when the course is opened up to a wider field. In 1907
the famous pioneer psychologist William James wrote The Varieties of
Religious Experience, now an abiding reference point for his
successors. In it he sought to "combine the religious
impulses with other principles of common sense" in covering the
nature of humanity's "spiritual" experiences. James made a key
observation - one which might account for much contemporary scepticism
of matters spiritual:
Modern psychology, finding definite psycho-physical connections to
hold good, assumes as a convenient hypothesis that the dependence of
mental states upon bodily conditions must be thorough-going and
He calls this hypothesis "medical materialism". He rightly points out,
however, that unless medical materialists can demonstrate exactly how bodily
states produce mental consequences, their theories are null and void. To
prove their case they would have to describe in great detail how, for
example, a reported mental image or chain of thought relates to
physical changes in the entire system of one human being. We now know
that this would be so complex a description that it will probably always
be beyond us. To do the same for every unique person on earth is
obviously impossible. And until we can achieve this link, it will not do to insist that St Paul had an epileptic seizure on
the road to Damascus, or that Joan of Arc experienced visions brought on
by tuberculosis. It is impossible to link any behaviour with any
addition, says James, even if such a link can be found it cannot judge
that any one inward state of mind is superior to any other. It is only
valid to say, for instance, that my construction of the woman I am in love with is
likely to differ from the constructions of everyone else.
Nevertheless, medical materialism has, I think, profoundly affected
the way ordinary people think about things spiritual. Once psychology
has been taken on board as a viable model for individual physical-mental
processes and (as in social psychology) the interaction of those
processes with society, a metaphysical or semi-metaphysical model tends
to lose its efficacy.
Steven Pinker recently put his horse into the race with a
thoroughgoing debunking of the traditional "spiritual"
standpoint. He managed to
jump some of the hurdles rather better than most by proposing that, in
his words, "... the mind is a naturally selected neural
computer."  First, our minds are the
outcome of a very long process of the selection of the fittest in the
evolutionary process. They are therefore limited in their scope by the task of surviving that process.
Put another way, we can't do things we're not selected to do, and more
than an albatross can do what a whale does. Second, the mind (Freud's Ego)
has developed to be ruthlessly logical. It therefore has no essential need for
either the arts or religion. Emotions get in the way of good thinking. The welfare of individuals and groups is
best forwarded by a rational evaluation of survival options, not by
feelings or creative imagination.
At the end of his book,
however, he acknowledges that his case is weakened if people are in fact
by the arts, humour, philosophy and religion. These seem to have no
adaptive value - and yet ...
... members of our species do mad deeds like taking vows of
celibacy, living for their music, selling their blood to buy movie
tickets, and going to graduate school [university] ...
He wants to know why "... a mind would evolve to find
comfort in beliefs it can plainly see are false ..." such as
spirits, devils, the resurrection of the dead, life after death and God.
Putting aside his judgement, given without reason, that such are indeed
false, his question has a point. Humanity has always greatly treasured art and
religion in both simple and complex forms. How can such things
help us in our daily endeavours to survive and prosper?
Pinker thinks that our religious beliefs help us cope in various
ways. First, they
help us (misguidedly) avoid real but intractable problems we face in the physical
world. So we ask God to suspend laws which govern the weather when
we pray that a drought will be broken. Second, we refuse to acknowledge
that we're puzzling about problems to which there may be no solutions.
Our brains have not developed over the millennia to solve certain kinds of problem, writes
... the mind of Homo sapiens lacks the cognitive equipment
to solve them. We are organisms, not angels, and our minds are organs,
not pipelines to the truth. Our minds evolved by natural selection to
solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not
to commune with correctness or to answer any question we are capable
He adds that he thinks that what has happened over millennia is that
we have managed to chip away at this intractable kind of problem. In the process we have
found solutions to some parts of our questions. But in the process we
have confirmed insuperable difficulties with other parts.
A third coping mechanism is a type of reductionism. Neurologists propose that
we should eventually be able to watch ourselves thinking, although our
technology is too crude for that at present. At first sight this is a
promising way ahead. So, for example, A Newberg and E D'Aquili have
shown that certain reportedly mystical states can indeed be seen on a
brain scanner and made sense of by linking them with certain commonplace
and well known mental tasks .
But this turns out not to be a solution. If anything has been demonstrated it is
that there is no way of proving that any particular brain activity is
linked with an event or object "outside" the brain. The best
we can do is to record that a person reports thinking about a
tomato, for example, when a number of particular regions in the brain show increased
blood flow or electrical activity on a brain scanner. We can't be sure
that every time anyone shows even the identical brain pattern they also are
in fact thinking
about a tomato, whatever a person reports. Similarly, we may know exactly what parts of the brain
"light up" when a person is doing something
"spiritual" but we can't correlate that for certain with anyone
The more obscure the problems and solutions, the more likely are
horses to fall at the jumps. All the above may not help you or I
understand what we mean by spirituality, but the lack doesn't
necessarily invalidate the experience.
Rudolf Otto is sometimes thought of a
someone who has successfully thought his way through to an experiential
answer . He proposed that the "idea of the
holy" (for my purposes here I take "holy" to be contained in the wider concept
"spiritual") is a first principle. That is, it is self-evident
- an a priori category of the mind, a cognition which arises in
the mind from principles native to the latter. We are all capable of the
idea of the holy, what he called the numinous - but that idea has to be awakened "... through
the instrumentality of more highly endowed natures". To illustrate, our a priori sense of the numinous is rather like art. We
can all paint, but only a few can conceive and execute really great
paintings. (I might add that some can be taught to paint pictures - but
it doesn't work for me.) Again, it is like the a priori statement that 2 + 2 =
4. (Note: It doesn't make sense to say "an a priori statement"
in this case. There is only one 2 + 2 = 4.) Some great mind realised this sometime in the past. But such creative
ideas are beyond most of us. We have to be taught them. But once we have
been so taught, we recognise that a priori truths are inherently
To one who has no experience of what Otto addresses, I can only
suppose that I am somehow deficient in this area - a spiritual moron. On
the other hand, it may be that Otto has not in fact given us a genuine
idea of what spirituality is. He probably recognised this particular weakness
in his argument because he
suggested later in life that the numen can be inferred by its results in our
lives - goodness, completeness, substance and so on. In this sense the
numinous is as objective as it is subjective.
I answer that if Otto is correct, I should be able to tell which
particular examples of human goodness derive from spirituality (the
sense of the holy) and which derive from some other human function. Do
those people who are spiritual inevitably exhibit behaviours we call
"good" while those who are not spiritual don't? Surely some
non-spiritual people might also behave well. If so, from what source does their
good behaviour spring? An implication is that Otto must claim that all goodness and completeness
derive exclusively from the numinous - and I don't think he wanted to do that.
None of the above
have got me very far. I am still unable to
differentiate between a spiritual person and a non-spiritual person
except insofar as each claims or denies certain subjective experiences.
However, I am able to relate to reports of internal experience which
might be called numinous. I think I may have occasionally in my life been in some sort of
ecstasy, a state which appears to accompany the numinous. One or two ecstatic experiences have been distinctly sexual in nature; others have
been closely related, as far as I can tell, with my state of health and
the surroundings I was in at the time. Put it this way: I have never had
an ecstatic experience in a dentist's chair. But I have no way of
knowing that my experiences derived from or were related to anything
external to me. Indeed, the probability is much greater that they were expressions
of the functionality of my overall state as an electro-chemical system
at a certain time - to express "spirituality" in concrete terms
with which "spiritual"
people seem uncomfortable.
Lest I seem too determinedly sceptical, I had better add that I value
these experiences highly. It's just that I don't need to call them
"spiritual" and don't really understand why anyone else should
It remains to consider the rather scant output of some who are
considered experts in the field of spirituality. I have not come across
another attempt to discuss this subject quite in the way I have done here.
This may tell me that I have merely got it all very wrong. Or I may be
one of those for whom the very categories included in the subject
"spirituality" are of little use - rather like a colour-blind
person who wonders what others see in a flock of gaily-coloured birds
apart from their vigorous movements.
I have searched among the 700 or so books on spirituality in our
library for a definition of spirituality. None, as far as I can tell,
think it worthwhile to explore this territory, except in passing. So I have had to turn to
writing which does deal, albeit very briefly, with some aspects of the
Soundings in Spirituality is a short booklet which includes
the heading Descriptive Definitions of Spirituality .
The authors qualify their offering from the start by asserting that
definitions of spirituality depend upon the person doing the defining.
This amounts, it must be said, to a re-definition of a definition.
Normal language regards a definition as a formulation
of words which make as clear and unambiguous as possible what is the essential
nature of a person or thing. In other words, if you and I agree that
something is green we have both defined an aspect of it. But unless we
go on to specify what "it" is so that an onlooker will be able
to distinguish it from all other objects, we have failed to define it -
though we will certainly have described it or aspects of it.
Descriptions are never enough. One can go on for ever
listing aspects of something and get no closer to the
essential characteristics of the class of things to which a
particular thing belongs. I can describe in great detail the motor car in my driveway.
That description will not tell me even what a vehicle is, never mind
what a passenger vehicle is.
Not surprisingly, each of the descriptions (for that is what they
are) in Soundings is different. One interests me more than the others because it
indicates what may eventually turn out to be a definition. Spirituality
... embraces all of life ... It is at the heart of our efforts to
be human. It is the seamless robe in all our roles ... 
and, along similar lines,
... spirituality is not limited to a concern with the interior life
but seeks an integration of all aspects of human life and experience.
At this point I may venture an interpretation of what I think
spirituality might refer to. The booklet describes briefly a range of
spiritualities - African, Celtic, Lay, Monastic, Radical and
"Time-Out" to name a few. Each is, I suppose, a type of
spirituality because it uses a particular focus rather than because it
is generically distinct from all other types.
If so, a core meaning should
be detectable in all the types. Perhaps this core can be fashioned into a working
definition. A caveat is essential here. I must make do
with the brief summaries in this booklet. Alternatively, perhaps I must plunge
much deeper into each
type of spirituality to discover the golden thread.
I am able to isolate only two aspects of all 21 examples given in Soundings:
All appear to counsel a class of behaviours useful and perhaps
necessary in the pursuit of spirituality. These methods, as far as I
can tell, involve (to coin a phrase) withdrawal in order better to
engage in life. They include behaviours such as silence, prayer,
meditation, worship, song, dance, listening, "spiritual"
reading, poetry, keeping a journal, story-telling, retreats, study
of the Bible and theology, service of the poor and oppressed,
monasticism, pilgrimages and even feminism.
Some of the examples are phrased in ecclesiastical jargon, impenetrable
to all but the initiated. One such is labelled "Evangelical
An essential element common to all seems to be the aim of renewing "the divine image" for a "life of
self-expenditure" - a phrasing which I take (at rather a
stretch) to imply withdrawal in order to engage.
Somewhat weak in this respect are "African
spirituality" and "Native American spirituality".
Both are deeply rooted in nature. The former stresses community and
"experience of the divine while one remains on earth"; the
latter "concerns itself with the way humans live together"
and "an appreciation for silence and solitude".
A strong element detectable in all but the summary of
Evangelical spirituality was a striving towards balance in all
things - between individual and group, life and nature,
prayer and work, silence and noise, stillness and dance, solitude
and community, stability and change. The list could be expanded
A particular focus for this sense of balance seems to be nature in
all its glory. Celts, for instance, are referred to as living in
"a sacral environment" which is "never world-negating
but totally world-affirming". Nature is perceived as always in
balance. Even its movements are part of a balancing mechanism.
The above are potential reins with which might guide us towards a
definition, however inadequate. I suspect that those involved in spirituality may not much like
this attempt. They may protest that to define spirituality is to shackle
it. So perhaps they will feel
more comfortable if I first approach the endeavour obliquely.
I do that, it
should be noted that Soundings doesn't overtly mention what is usually
called the supernatural. While there is reference to "spirit"
as an apparently non-material dimension of humanity, it doesn't seem to follow that
"spiritual" connects, as it were, with an other-worldly
dimension. This may be a saving grace for those who can't think of a
supernatural realm in addition to the universe or somehow intertwined
with it. It might also be noted that, despite this, entries
referring to Church-related spirituality assume the supernatural.
In attempting to present a very brief outline of how
"spirituality" might make sense to others like me, the
starting point must necessarily be one which assumes a humanity
"come of age". That is, it takes as granted that we are in the
sometimes agonising process in the 21st century of weaning ourselves
from traditional paradigms. Two aspects of the
ancient world are honoured as having served humanity well throughout its
brief (in cosmic terms) existence - authority as derived from the past,
and nature as divided into the natural and the supernatural. But it seems
to me that they are useful only to an
increasingly small minority in the West. Different conclusions have
taken their place:
Authority is no longer thought of as derived from the past. History may present us
with lessons and insights. But we no longer decide between true and
false because there is a claim to have received the truth
direct from God in times past. A truth is accredited because it has been derived
from a process of questioning and because a good consensus has
evolved. It follows that all truths are provisional upon further questions and answers.
None is absolute .
Nature is now regarded as a unity. It is not fragmented into segments or
dimensions. It is not dualistic. What is
invisible to us is so because our senses cannot register it, not
because it is of an order entirely different from that of which we
are a part. Just as each of us is a self-contained open system,
maintained in equilibrium, so also is our planet. Though we can't be
certain, it appears that consistency demands that the universe
("everything that exists") is a closed system. Logic in
turn demands that if it is an open system, our modern-day knowledge
Those considerations out of the way, a remarkable book by Anthony Storr proves a good starting
point for a somewhat oblique approach to a definition of spirituality. He
addresses an area of life not much stressed nowadays. Solitude 
challenges a widely-held contemporary position that only good
interpersonal relationships hold the key to happiness. On the contrary,
creativity are just as vital to human endeavour, says Storr. Many of the most
dedicated and inventive of our forbears have, contrary to modern
convention, been loners.
Storr's pivotal theme is that the capacity to be alone yet fruitful
is a sign of maturity, not of pathology. It is nonsense to suppose that
solitary people are either unhappy or neurotic. We are all geared
towards both the personal and the impersonal. Solitude is a valuable
resource. He writes:
Man's adaptation to the world is largely governed by the
development of the imagination and hence of an inner world of the
psyche which is necessarily at variance with the external world.
This rings a loud bell with the similar approach of Buddhism, in
which detachment from relationships is a principle of fulfillment and
The final chapter of Storr's book is entitled The Desire and
Pursuit of the Whole - which brings to mind the balanced unity which
Soundings suggests is distinctive of spirituality. Any sense of
harmony between our inner and outer worlds - what some talk of as an
"oceanic feeling" - is always brief and impermanent. Storr quotes
When from our better selves we have too long
Been parted by the hurrying world, and droop,
Sick of its business, of its pleasures tired,
How gracious, how benign, is Solitude. 
A feature of contemporary spirituality is temporary separation from
life's normal pursuits and busyness through retreats, quiet days and the
like. Getting away from normal life is, I suspect, a common way of
viewing spiritual things. The attempt to balance spirituality as a whole
by insisting that it is as much concerned with every other aspect of
life is understandable in this context. "Radical
Spirituality", for example, is presented by Soundings as
"... a synthesis of action and contemplation ... in order that
God's will may be done on earth".
A problem with any synthesis which attempts to make spirituality an umbrella
concept covering the whole of life is that by doing so it can't be
differentiated from life itself. If spirituality is to be equated with
life, then why bother to talk about it?
I have to take it, therefore, that spirituality is something which embraces
or covers all of life but is not itself life. If that's true, then what
is spirituality? Is it a method, an orientation or a goal? In the
absence of a satisfactory definition (no doubt through my ignorance) I'm
forced to suggest the following:
Spirituality is an orientation which distinctively seeks to better
embrace life in its fullness through methods which help individuals and groups
to develop a deep, mature and lasting harmony
between their inner and outer worlds.
Orientation It is a general category, not a
specific one. It isn't useful to describe characteristics of spirituality.
Similarly, limiting it with theological, organisational or behavioural boundaries is to
diminish or even kill it.
Distinctive Spirituality can't simply be subsumed under
a catch-all umbrella such as "life". It is possible to
define it and therefore to say that certain orientations are
spiritual and others are not. For example, this definition of spirituality
leads to the conclusion that wealth as a life goal may not be
"spiritual" because it implies lack of a balanced life.
Seeking There is no set of absolutely right parameters
or paradigms to describe spiritual behaviours or thoughts. At all
levels it is a journey or search, always unfolding, never finished.
Betterment Spirituality seeks to improve our engagement
with every aspect of life, to enhance our involvement and avoid too
narrow a focus.
Harmony A life which demonstrates imbalance
between inner (subjective) and outer (objective) aspects is
immature, shallow and lacking in harmony. Certain methods, often
involving temporary solitude, promote harmony, depth and maturity.
Of course, a definition doesn't make for spirituality. But perhaps it
will help those who need definition to reach a reasoned perspective.
 Ed. G S Wakefield, SCM
Press Ltd, 1984
 Ed. F L Cross, OUP, 1997
How the Mind Works, W W Norton, 1997
 Why God Won't Go Away,
Ballantine Books, 2001
 The Idea of the Holy, Galaxy, 1960 (1923)
 Soundings in Spirituality, G Cashmore and Joan Puls, ESP,
 Quoted from Every Bush is Burning by Joan Puls
 I write a day after the news (London Times, 21 February,
2004) that mathematician Stephen Hawking has now given up on his hope
that a "theory of everything" will one day be found. He is
reported to have affirmed that new truth will always open up before us.
His "theory of everything" isn't the same as the Unified
Theory much sought-after by physicists and claimed to have been
formulated recently by Superstring Theory
 Harper Collins, 1997
 The Longer Poems of William Wordsworth, J M Dent & Sons,