Words change their meanings over time. To deny this would be silly, and to try to stop it happening would be futile.
Moreover, at any one time a word can mean different things to different people. A word can have a broader, everyday, meaning, as well as a narrower technical meaning.
But sometimes a word has its meaning changed and extended so much and so fast that it becomes difficult to pin down what it anyone means by it any more. Such a word then becomes an excuse for obfuscation, rather than a tool for clarification.
So it is with the word ‘spirituality’. This word has gone through such a series of transformations that it has come to mean almost anything, and therefore almost nothing. Cross & Livingstone’s Dictionary of the Christian Church admits that ‘its meaning has not been satisfactorily defined’. Geoffrey Wakefield (A Dictionary of Christian Spirituality) accepts that the word has come to have a very broad range of meaning, doing service for ‘those attitudes, beliefs, practices which animate people’s lives and help them to reach out towards super-sensible realities’.
We can identify at least four stages of development in the meaning of ‘spirituality’.
1. Catholic Spirituality
The word ‘spiritualite’ was used in 17th-century French and came to describe a life of prayer and discipline. It referred, in other words, to the interior religious life and the devotional practices associated with it. It then became possible to describe different spiritualities – ‘Cistercian’, ‘Carmelite’, ‘Jesuit’, and so on.
The development of ecumenism over the past 100 years has led to non-Catholic Christians becoming more aware of, and sympathetic to, ideas and practices associated with spirituality. Therefore, we can speak more generally of …
2. Christian Spirituality
Many non-Catholics adopted practices previously associated with Catholics, such as the spiritual disciplines, spiritual direction, and retreats. Further than that, many non-Catholic groups have developed their own distinctive approaches, so we can readily identify ‘Eastern’, ‘Celtic’, and ‘charismatic’ spiritualities, and so on.
Of course, non-Catholics have always had their own concepts and vocabulary for describing what might otherwise fall under the rubric of ‘spirituality’. Some would talk about ‘piety’, other, ‘godliness’, still others, simply ‘the Christian life’.
Evangelicals tend to be somewhat ambivalent towards ‘spirituality’. Some, such as J.I. Packer, are happy to accept the term, but take care to define it within the parameters of evangelical theology. Others, such as John Stott, find the acceptance of the term by evangelicals ‘troubling’. He gives three reasons: first, the term comes with Roman Catholic connotations; second, the term threatens to perpetuate the damanging dichotomy between the sacred and the secular; and third, it establishes an unbiblical term, where a perfectly acceptable biblical term (‘discipleship’) is readily available.
Whatever the reservations of some evangelicals, it seemed a natural progression to extend the term ‘spirituality’ from Christianity to the non-Christian religions. So we can now refer to…
3. Religious Spirituality
Wakefield points out that ‘”spirituality” need not necessarily be Christian, i.e. derived from and inspired by the revelation of God in Christ. All religions have their spiritualities.’
According to Chambers Dictionary of Beliefs and Religions, ‘Spirituality may be pursued by any faith, and most world religions have the spiritual writings and writers, gurus, teachers, spiritual directors and mentors.’ As examples, we think of the practice of yoga in Hinduism, and of Buddhist meditation.
Within the various world religions, a distinction may be made between spirituality as the pursuit of a loving relationship with a personal God (Abahamic faiths) and spirituality as the pursuit of oneness with an ultimate reality. This latter easily fades into…
4. Secular Spirituality
It seems to be increasingly possible – and popular – to talk about ‘spirituality’ without ever mentioning God.
Many people today would say that they are ‘spiritual but not religious’. This can mean either of two things. First, it can mean that the person has some belief in ‘God’, but no interest in what they call ‘organised religion’ with its (allegedly) fixed creeds and (allegedly) authoritarian structures. Such a person may find refuge in the liberal wing of the religion of their upbringing. Or s/he might embrace a ‘New Age’ spirituality such as that propounded by the Findhorn community. Such a spirituality might well be neo-pagan, and be committed to a spiritual consciousness of nature.
But, second, a number of non-theists (deists, agnostics, and atheists) would also claim to be ‘spiritual but not religious’. Einstein felt that any transcendent being would be utterly above and beyond what we mortals can comprehend. But he, and many scientific thinkers after him, frequently use the language of awe, wonder, and even reverence to describe their attitude towards the cosmos. Adam Frank is an astrophysicist who in The Constant Fire maintains that it is proper to engage in ‘spirituality’ (although he prefers to talk about ‘the sacred’) without subscribing to belief in any supernatural entity.
Global travel and communication has accelerated the process of syncretism – of adopting and adapting different bits of different spiritualities so as to meet the needs and preferences of the individual.
The problems with the ever-increasing scope of spirituality are not merely linguistic. A pick-and-mix approach to spirituality leads to superficiality and confusion. An individualistic approach leads to a lack of accountability, and a neglect of the more challenging or demanding aspects of the teaching. More seriously still, there seems to be a widespread assumption that any and all spiritualities are good. Wakefield makes a distinction rarely drawn by writers and practitioners of spirituality by pointing out that ‘”spirituality” is not always good. Adolf Hitler was a spiritual being, a man, more than most, “possessed”; yet his spirit was surely evil.’ ‘Do not believe every spirit’ (1 John 4:1).
Christians talk about ‘believing’, ‘belonging’, and ‘behaving’, and endlessly debate the order in which these happen for the new convert. But spirituality, it seems, can be followed without any of these things. In embracing everything, it has come to mean nothing.
F.L. Cross & E.A. Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church, art. ‘Spirituality’.
A. Frank, The Constant Fire.
J.I. Packer, Collected Shorter Writings II, 255-276.
J. Stott, in Lewis & McGrath (eds) Doing Theology for the People of God, 16.
M. Vernon (ed) Chambers Dictionary of Beliefs and Religions, art. ‘Spirituality and Religion’.
G.S. Wakefield (ed) A Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, art. ‘Spirituality’.