Spirituality, Meaning, & the Meaning of Spirituality
Updated: Mar 4
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.
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]:
A keenly-felt connection to and harmony with nature, humanity, the world, the universe, or the whole of reality.
Dependence on, intimate relationship or union with the divine; a part of religion, esp. Christianity.
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].
Holding and daily acting according to ethical values, especially in relation to others, one’s community, or humanity; a moral way of life [F].
Faith or belief in transmundane forces, energies, beings, a higher power, gods or God.
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].
Experience and contemplation of reality and the truth, meaning, purpose, and wisdom, esp. if considered beyond scientific or rational understanding, inexplicable and indemonstrable.
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.).
Opposite religion, dogma, rules, traditions; unstructured, irreverent religious individualism.
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.
The terminology of our interpretation, i.e., our way of using terms for and ideas about the ultimate, admits of a couple distinctions. These are the first and second scales (I & II) of spirituality above: vertical vs. horizontal, and within that, theistic vs. nontheistic [O]. The former measures the metaphysical 'distance' that transcendent experience crosses. The latter measures the unity and personality and sometimes also the clarity of the religious object. Vertical terminology characteristically evokes what we would traditionally call the transcendent, e.g., God and heaven—generally speaking, the otherworldly. It aims at things other than and over this world and oneself in it. Horizontal terminology tends the other way, toward the traditionally immanent, e.g., nature and humanity. Leaning this-worldly, it aims at things in and of this world and at the world itself as whole. Notably, whereas the vertical is often explicitly religious, the horizontal’s inherent religiosity can escape even the notice of the person professing it [P]. Within this distinction is that between theistic and nontheistic terminology. The apparent presence of God, gods, and god-like beings or forces maps an important area of vertically-transcendent experience, as their apparent absence does an antipodean area of horizontally-transcendent experience. But this also sheds light on terminology between vertical and horizontal: This family of views sees the ultimate as neither in our world nor a world beyond, but rather occupying “a world behind”, i.e., behind and beneath the world’s surface appearances [Q]. Typically this is nontheistic, e.g., about ghosts, spirits, energies, or forces.
A gloss of the third scale (III) now moves into view, and with it “individually-mediated”: Individual vs. institutional mediation of transcendence measures the directness or indirectness of a person’s access to transcendent experience, i.e., the extent and power of any gatekeepers standing in her way. As the researchers put it, “Institutionalized mediation says that ... there is no other way to transcendence than through the church, sacraments, and priests; that there is no other truth than the sanctioned teachings; and that the ultimate concern is determined by the institution and its tradition” [R]. By contrast, and often in vociferous reply, individual mediation says, “there is no or very little mediation of transcendence, but rather the experiential immediacy of the individual; there are no claims of absoluteness, but the individualistic evidence of experience; there is no or very little organization or structure" [S]. In this way, against so-called organized religion’s usual mediation by institutions, esp. forbidding hierarchies, spirituality favors an unpatrolled, gates-wide-open setup. Still, although “flight of the alone to the Alone”, i.e., hermetic mysticism, is right at home here, it doesn’t follow from spirituality's typical independence that it is therefore a lonely pursuit [T]. We’re able to have experiences with others, just not for them, so it can be equally possible to pursue direct experience of transcendence within community as by oneself.
Lastly, “experience-directed”: This means that, whereas transcendent experience might play no ongoing role in a religion’s usual exercise, e.g., as none other than an oft-remembered historical event, in spirituality it takes the lead. It is hot pursuit of transcendent experience; bundled rituals, symbols, etc., are at best aids, at worst impediments. Therefore spirituality in its purest, i.e., barest, form may focus on transcendence exclusively; and since “directed” here means both ‘directed to’ and ‘directed by’, its religious ideal might resemble an upward spiral of being led from transcendence to transcendence by transcendence. Still this isn’t to say that spirituality takes direction from nothing else, or that by focusing on transcendence even exclusively, the rest of familiar religion goes missing. A spiritual purist may disavow religious side projects in pursuit of her wonted mode of transcendence, or she may simply subordinate them to it as various means to that end. Yet while she may style herself as therefore unencumbered in her quest for raw experience, her religious interpretive lens remains ever-present, however unwittingly. It must, or that sought-after experience would lose its meaning. E.g., someone undergoing a crisis of faith may discover to her horror that she’s no longer able to participate in her favorite religious exercises, since the vinegar of doubt now spoils every well from which she used to draw joy. Precisely because her experiences can’t mean what they used to, they can’t be what they used to either.
Let’s sum up with a little illustration. Don't worry. It's cheerier than the example above. Consider this spiritual foil: one an atheistic nature lover, the other a Catholic anchoress. The former’s approach is thoroughly horizontal and nontheistic. She takes regular hikes to feast on natural beauty and sublimity, but deems it all mere serendipity in a chaos-regnant cosmos. She’s a proficient adventurer, as comfortable with friends as without. She might not spurn a Beatrice to guide her through some earthly paradise, but her trust would be that when she came face to facelessness with wild abundance, her delight would need no shepherd. That abundance itself would call out of her everything necessary for its appreciation. In this way she mediates her own pursuit of these experiences. Their ultimacy for her comes not only from her denial of the otherworldly, but also from her judgment that nature itself is intrinsically, i.e., ultimately, good—or at least, she may hedge, how it stirs and sustains her is. Conversely, the latter’s approach is thoroughly theistic and vertical, and manifestly ultimate. She spends her life in solitary prayer. Sometimes during contemplation of the divine she has ecstatic visions, auditions, etc. Whatever happens though, her daily goal is total abandonment to God. Amidst all this self-mediating individuality, her way of life retains considerable institutionality. She holds fast to piety towards the Church, its orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Yet despite such rigid adherence to ecclesiastical authority—or, she would say, because of it—, she lives as a recluse whose sole aim is attaining union with Him Whom she worships as Transcendence Itself. Both these women in their disparate ways practice individually-mediated, experience-directed religion.
Here we are then! At long last we’ve grasped the true meaning of spirituality, right? Well, maybe. We have to trust not only that German and American ideas of spirituality are the same as everybody else’s, but also that the notions of these particular people are the same as those of other Germans and Americans [U]. Moreover we must take for granted that what they put in Tweet-sized writing when a survey bluntly asked them their opinion is the same as what they think all the time, even when they’re not thinking about what they think [V]. But even if this isn’t the definitive definition of spirituality, it’s got my money for our best guess yet.
In Rachel’s post, she’s wise to the width of variety, saying, “Spirituality has been defined and redefined throughout human history, and it is now my intention to shout yet another definition to the abyss.” For her, its definition is: “the practice of deriving any amount of meaning from any event, thought, or activity.” Looking back at the ten concept clusters above, this bears striking resemblance to parts of (3) and (7). She’s in good company. Clinicians and care professionals typically promote this conception: e.g., psychological measures of wellbeing that account for spirituality usually cast it in these terms, viz., purpose and meaning. Though some have wondered whether this confuses spirituality with a part of mental health, the findings above resoundingly vindicate it as an important part of the spiritual puzzle [W]. If they also solve that puzzle, hopefully they do so more in the spirit of Ariadne’s clue out of the labyrinth than Alexander’s sword through the knot. At the very least, such research is a waypoint on the path to understanding. 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. So it’s still worth asking:
What does spirituality mean to you? Share your definition in the comments.
September 14, 2020 | Denver, Colorado
A. Eisenmann, Clemens, et al. “Dimensions of “Spirituality”: The Semantics of Subjective Definitions.” Semantics and Psychology of Spirituality: A Cross-Cultural Analysis, ed. by Heinz Streib & Ralph Wood, Jr., Springer, 2016, p. 125.
B. Op. cit., pp.129-35. Before grouping and narrowing them together and down, these were the forty-four recurring categories they found:
Faith and belief, believing, belief system
Connectedness, relationship, in touch with, harmony
Individual, personal, private, subjective
Everyday, daily life, way of life, to act
Values, (higher) order, morals, karma
God (also the Father, Lord, Creator, the Divine)
Unspecified transcendent: something bigger, beyond, greater; “may be”
Feeling, emotion, intuition, empathy, heart, love
Within, self, higher Self, inner core, essence
Seeking, path, journey, reaching, to evolve, to achieve
Awareness, consciousness, sense of, feeling a presence, in tune
Supernatural, nonmaterial, cannot see or touch
Transcendental higher power/forces/energy
Thinking about, to understand, to reflect, contemplation
Relation to the world, nature, environment, universe
Cannot be explained or scientifically proven, beyond understanding
Higher/beyond/greater/other than oneself/humans/this life
Relation to others, community, all humanity, humankind
Experience, sensory perception Spirit and mind
Rest (i.e., the remainder of uncategorized responses)
Practices, to practice (one’s faith), music, prayer, worship, meditation
(Inner) peace, enlightenment and other attitudes and states of being
Guided, destined, controlled, saved, healed, dependent
Part of religion, Christian, biblical
All-connectedness, part of something bigger
Meaning and (higher) purpose, questions and answers
Transcendental absolute, “unity of existence,” omnipresent and indiscriminate, the one
Otherworldly, beyond this world, “spiritual” realms Acknowledge, to recognize, to accept, to realize Vague, unclear, unsure; bullshit, fantasy, hocus pocus Without rules, tradition, norms, dogma, structure, directions (21) Something else than religion, without worship
Energies, vital principle, ghosts, angels and demons, spirits
The truth, true nature of existence, wisdom, reality (4) Jesus, Christ, Holy Spirit, the Son Greater being/person, deities, gods Soul
Universal category, basis of mankind Esoteric, occultism, spiritism, mystic, magic (39) Deal with, interest in, engagement, focus
Part and beyond religion Obedience and devotion Life after death.
C. I borrow the notion of concept clusters from passing familiarity with Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language.
D. Op. cit., pp. 137-8. Paraphrase.
E. Whereas spirituality conceived of as a part of religion (2) fits nicely with its mostly premodern history as just that, the conception immediately following of it as a journey to one’s true inner self (3) sits well with modern social movements toward individualism and subjectivism: op. cit., p. 146.
F. Spirituality conceived of as living out one’s values may partly underlie the self-identification “spiritual but not religious”. Here ’spirituality’ primarily indicates an ethical concern that being merely ‘religious’ doesn’t—not just talking the talk but walking the walk: ibid. More clearly this identification involves some combination of clusters with (9).
G. The much-maligned vagueness of spirituality’s meaning may come from this conception of it as a sense of something indefinite and beyond: ibid. N.b., philosophers of language usually distinguish vagueness, i.e., unclear meaning due to imprecise extension over borderline cases, from ambiguity, i.e., unclear meaning due to polysemy—having multiple meanings.
H. Op. cit., p. 143. Paraphrase. Their dimensions are: (I) mystical vs. humanistic transcending; (II) theistic vs. non-theistic transcendence; and (III) individual “lived” experience vs. dogmatism.
I. I use “transcendence” and “transcendent experience” interchangeably throughout this post. Though there may be other forms of transcendence than experience, talk of ‘transcendence’ as an event and not, e.g., as a divine attribute, usually means ‘experience of transcendence’, i.e., ‘transcendent experience’.
J. Religious nones get their names from those who answer “none” to demographic polls asking their religious affiliation. In other words, they are the religiously unaffiliated. Cf. unchurched.
K. Op. cit., p. 148. Paraphrase. Their definition is privatized experience-oriented religion, following research by other members of their team: Streib, Heinz, & Wood, Jr., Ralph. “Understanding “Spirituality”—Conceputal Considerations.” Semantics and Psychology of Spirituality: A Cross-Cultural Analysis, ed. by Heinz Streib & Ralph Wood, Jr., Springer, 2016, p. 9. Ensuing fns. refer to that ch.
L. Op. cit., p. 11. Cf. Emile Durkheim’s definition of religion, popular esp. in U.S. religious studies depts.: “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them”: The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. trans. Carol Cosman, Oxford Univ. Press, 2001, p. 46.
M. Op. cit., p. 10.
N. Op. cit., p. 11.
O. Strictly speaking, nontheistic terminology could be either vertical or horizontal, while theistic terminology is by definition vertical. As it happens however, or at least according to this research, our thinking about spirituality typically separates out the theistic and vertical from the nontheistic and horizontal.
P. Op. cit., p. 12.
R. Op. cit. p. 14.
S. Ibid. They also mention here sectarian middle mediation “through a prophetic and charismatic person”.
T. Famous last words of the Neoplatonic classic: Plotinus. Enneads. VI.9.11. trans. Andrew Louth, qtd. in The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys, Oxford Univ. Press, 1981, p. 51.
U. Cf. WEIRD bias (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic), an ongoing problem for representative sampling: Henrich, Joseph, Heine, Steven J., & Norenzayan, Ara. “The weirdest people in the world?” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 33, 2-3, 2010, 61–83. In fact there were some statistically significant differences between German and American responses: American definitions of spirituality were more Christian or otherwise traditionally religious, mentioning Jesus and the Holy Spirit much more, but God only a little more—presumably because theism goes beyond Christianity. Still when they did mention God it was more often in Christian terms of a personal and sovereign lord. Likewise they mentioned faith and belief much more often, and this was more often faith or belief in something beyond, higher power(s), god(s), or God (5). Their notions of spiritual power were also further outside and over themselves, as in talk of guidance or obedience. By contrast German definitions of spirituality were warier of dogma and authority, whether religious orthodoxy or scientific consensus. They mentioned experience, as opposed to belief, more often, and were generally more esoteric, occult, and magical in their terminology, talking of the otherworldly in more universal but impersonal or abstract, terms. They were also more critical of spirituality, oftener complaining of its vagueness or even dismissing it as (and I quote) "bullshit". Still despite all this the researchers noted that American and German definitions were much, much more alike than different. These differences should therefore be understood as in emphasis, not substance. Their considerable overlap, striking in itself, forms the basis of the ten concept clusters and the three scales.
V. We must also assume that the scientific method deserves our confidence, and that the concept of spirituality, if not spirituality itself, is amenable to investigation by it. Other assumptions include those about word meaning, natural kinds, and other hot topics of debate in the philosophy of language and science—all of which would take us far afield of the present discussion. May curious readers experience transcendence of this post.
W. Eisenmann, Clemens, et al., p. 147.