A 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 subject.
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 study.
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 might be.
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 mystical
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
... 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
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
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 particular
In 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
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
ennobled 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 Pinker:
... 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 else's experience.
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 true.
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 want to.
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 matter.
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
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
... 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
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
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 spirituality".
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 indefinitely.
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.
Before 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 falls apart.
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,
work and 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
 See 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,