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Spirituality, Meaning, & the Meaning of Spirituality

Updated: Mar 4, 2021

What even is spirituality? Rachel asks that very question in one of this blog’s first posts, and gives her answer there too. It’s one of the fundamental questions of spiritual direction. Anyone seeking or giving spiritual direction is apt to stumble on it eventually, through education or reflection. Some just stub their intellectual toe and move on. But this post represents a slightly more extensive tumble—and since its subject is a bone we may need help chewing, we'll let previous research shine Sirius-light where it may. If by some stroke of luck what follows is illuminating, credit goes to that research.

Spirituality definition | Denver CO | Fratres Dei Spiritual Direction and Ministries

In 2016 researchers in Germany and the U.S. published the results of a formal investigation into the meaning of spirituality [A]. They based their investigation on a 2011 survey of Germans and Americans that asked, among other questions, “How would you define the term ‘spirituality’?” Approximately eighteen hundred different definitions came back, about forty percent German and sixty percent American. Quantifying these samples, they ran statistical analyses.

First they looked for categories of response, grouping similar categories together and narrowing the list down to just those that make the most sense of overall response patterns [B]. They found that ten basically distinct concept clusters [C] come under the heading of spirituality, almost always in some combination [D]:

  1. A keenly-felt connection to and harmony with nature, humanity, the world, the universe, or the whole of reality.

  2. Dependence on, intimate relationship or union with the divine; a part of religion, esp. Christianity.

  3. A search for one’s higher or true inner self, meaning, purpose; knowledge of these things; attainment of peace or enlightenment, esp. in terms of a path or journey [E].

  4. Holding and daily acting according to ethical values, especially in relation to others, one’s community, or humanity; a moral way of life [F].

  5. Faith or belief in transmundane forces, energies, beings, a higher power, gods or God.

  6. A noncommittal, indefinite, but intensely emotional, maybe loving sense that there is some thing(s) or being(s) higher than and beyond this world, this life, or oneself [G].

  7. Experience and contemplation of reality and the truth, meaning, purpose, and wisdom, esp. if considered beyond scientific or rational understanding, inexplicable and indemonstrable.

  8. Awareness of and attunement to another, immaterial or supernatural realm and its denizens (spirits, angels, ghosts, etc.); feeling their presence; using special techniques to perceive and interact with them (tarot, crystals, seances, etc.).

  9. Opposite religion, dogma, rules, traditions; unstructured, irreverent religious individualism.

  10. Individual or private religious practice; prayer, worship, or meditation; relationship-deepening or connection-fostering personal rituals and devotional acts.

Doing the same grouping and narrowing to unearth anything deeper, they found that all ten of these fall somewhere on three scales, which they therefore dubbed "the dimensions of spirituality" [H]:

I. Vertical vs. horizontal general terminology for transcendence [I]

II. Theistic vs. nontheistic specific terminology for transcendence

III. Individual vs. institutional mediation of transcendence

Finally they found that this analysis supports their larger research team’s theoretically-grounded hypothesis that 'spirituality' basically means:

  • Individually-mediated, experience-directed religion, esp. among religious nones [J]: i.e., religion oriented away from mediation by institutions, dependence on organizational structures and absolute authority claims, toward the immediacy of firsthand experience, emancipatory independence and value relative to the individual [K].

So much jargon cries out for explanation. But for the moment let’s step back to marvel at our fortune in having research like this. Its conclusions about the meaning of spirituality—at least the ten concept clusters and three scales—came through something nearer experimentation in a laboratory than reflection in an armchair. For some more jargon, this argus-eyed approach is what philosophers call a posteriori rather than a priori, and what ethnographers call emic rather than etic. As a result, we better see wrinkles in the meaning of 'spirituality', including internal inconsistencies that a cyclopic definitional scheme might smooth over, e.g., its being both a part of religion (2 above) and opposite it (10).

For starters then, we see that this definition of spirituality is tripartite, with three ideas to explain: “individually-mediated”, “experience-directed”, and “religion”. Since religion is the core concept, we’ll take it from there. That will lead us to the three scales of spirituality, ‘vertical vs. horizontal terminology’ (I above), ‘theistic vs. nontheistic terminology’ (II), and ‘individual vs. institutional mediation’ (III). “Individually-mediated” will come along with the third scale, leaving only “experience-directed” and closing remarks. Now where did I put my patience for dry exposition…?

If none of this jibes with your own sense of spirituality, all the better! We all have much to learn, and outliers—you whose lives are led under stones yet unturned by science—have much to teach us.

First "religion": For these researchers spirituality is actually a subtype of religion, despite frequent statements to the contrary. They define religion broadly as any socially constructed system of symbols and rituals that interprets transcendent experience in ultimate terms [L]. In this way, the term applies even to people who don’t consider themselves religious, including those who would self-describe as “spiritual but not religious”. But precisely what do 'transcendent experience' and 'ultimate' mean here? Transcendent experience—or simply ‘transcendence’—is any experience of “distance and departure from [the] everyday”, above and beyond the boundaries of ordinary experience [M]. More than just extraordinary, it exceeds our expectations of life and the world as we know it, e.g., by excelling in its class or defying classification (almost) altogether: the weirder and more wonderful, the more transcendent. As in other matters of judgment, there is an element of subjectivity here. While an exquisite sunset may be enough for some, for others it would literally take a miracle. So transcendent experience is often what we would traditionally call ‘religious experience’, but these researchers make the distinction that it only counts as religious if on interpretation it’s cast in ultimate terms. Turning to 'ultimate' then, here this is actually an elision of the bulky phrase "of ultimate concern or importance to a person," which they borrow from existentialist theologian Paul Tillich. As Tillich goes on to say, the ultimate is what “gives depth, direction and unity to all other concerns”—e.g., our answers to basic questions about the world and our place in it [N]. Bringing these ideas together, a merely transcendent experience becomes genuinely religious when we see in it something all-important to us, and it becomes full-fledged religion when we build around it a symbolic-ritualistic framework of beliefs and practices. One’s framework needn’t be grand or widely shared: it might be a slim private affair, like a single-person tent that’s as easy to pitch as to pack up and carry. Likewise a person can bring her religious interpretive lens to transcendent experience, or craft one afterwards just to come to terms with it. Either priority fits.

Before we move on to the next concept, let’s clear up some potentially misleading language in this definition of religion. To start, “socially constructed” here doesn’t necessarily mean ‘made up’, ‘fake’, or otherwise unreal. It just means that if nobody thought or talked about religion, there wouldn’t be any: its existence depends on its exercise. Likewise the claim that it “interprets” transcendent experience doesn't imply that it therefore misinterprets it. Indeed the opposite may well be true. Even elementary sense perception needs interpretation to become understanding: naked experience unclothed by categories or classifications is at best a muddle—e.g., in rounding an unfamiliar corner in the city or in coming out without warning on an open expanse in the country, when a sudden change of scenery produces a visual experience of undifferentiated shape and color, it’s all just optical nonsense until reason and intellect, as it were, catch up, and organize this sense data into a coherent picture: only then when interpretation goes to work does one finally know what she’s looking at. Although we may at times be apt to make meaning where there is none, often enough we find it right where it belongs. So this definition doesn’t debunk religion; it merely says that, assuming it has this experiential basis, it’s imbued with the meaning we give it, veracious or fallacious.