The following is a reflection I wrote for my first year “Spirituality for Ministry” class in Seminary. My professor didn’t like my understanding of the over-use of the word spirituality, but I stand by the gist of it. 😉

What is Spirituality

The term spirituality is amorphous and defies definition, especially as concerns the individual experience of the divine. Despite this we are called as a community to define what spirituality means in our tradition. While we may not be able to specifically define what spirituality means for every individual, we must come to a consensus as to the meaning of spirituality in general and Christian Spirituality in particular. I want to suggest that spirituality refers to the way and manner that people seek, respond to and understand the experience of the divine in their lives and that this process in its fullness is best described as a lived or living spirituality.

An Invitation To The Christian Spiritual LifeThough there is an understandable reluctance to define spirituality there is a danger inherent in using spirituality in an undefined way. As illustrated by Marjorie J. Thompson in her book Soul Feast as she discusses the terms piety and devotion. Thompson argues that piety “now suggests to many a saccharin sentimentality or the delicate, easily shocked conscience of moral rigidity” and that “devotion has suffered a similar though less damaging fate.”1 Thompson wrote Soul Feast in 1995 and it is to be expected that terms have altered in their popular usage since then. Because of this it is hardly surprising that spirituality, once turned to as “the contemporary word of choice for expressing how we live with God in this world”2 has begun to suffer a similar fate as the terms piety and devotion in the popular mind, especially among growing numbers of young people. Words like piety and devotion are rarely used at all in popular discussion of religious or spiritual issues but in an ironic twist, spirituality–because of overuse and abuse–has reclaimed much of the baggage that it carried during the seventeenth century when it was “used in a negative fashion to describe elite forms of subjective religious practice.” 3 A growing number of people view the sloppy use of the term spirituality—when its use is detached from any particular tradition—as a warning sign that a heavy dose of pop-psychology, “feel goodism” and “self-helpism” is on the way. In short they look for the Amway card. For many people who are either still in or just out of college much of popular spirituality is viewed as another form of mid-life crises as experienced by the 60’s generation and, to use a good postmodern word, is viewed as inauthentic.

In defining spirituality the authentic or lived spirituality must be separated from the inauthentic and the sleekly packaged which can be termed dead spirituality. Dead spirituality can best be seen as referring to the grab-bag that exists, along with other more materialistic options, as a way of constructing a false identity while a lived or living spirituality is an outgrowth of an already stable and healthy identity. Because of its attachment to identity, a lived spirituality cannot be experienced apart from tradition and the faith community. Just as the basic “definition of spirituality is generic, but there are no generic spiritualities,” so people do not experience spirituality in a generic way, but instead rely upon some socially constructed lens through which the experience is filtered.4

Themes from the TraditionChristians are blessed to have such a rich spiritual tradition with a multiplicity of ways in which to better their spiritual lives and interpret their experiences of the divine. As Thompson says, these traditions are a “feast for hungry hearts.”5 In seeking to better our spiritual lives we must not loose sight of what is important. “God’s spirit is continually challenging, changing and maturing us,”6 we must not begin to focus on actions or spiritual disciplines for their own sake or we risk failing to follow where the spirit leads. “Spiritual disciplines are those practices that help us consciously to develop the spiritual dimension of our lives,”7 and they are very much a part of a living spirituality. There is also a danger that people may become attached to the discipline or activity and loose sight of its purpose.

Just as Sufis do not dance simply for the sake of dance, Christians must realize that we do not walk the labyrinth for its own sake but because we have lost Jerusalem; we cannot become so attached to a mode of doing spirituality that we forget that the purpose is to come closer to God. Another good example of how attachment can change meanings is found in Cunningham & Egan, page 18: “To follow St. Francis of Assisi, for instance, does not mean that one must acquire sandals, a brown religious habit, and a rope for the waist. Such garb [. . .] might symbolize religion and not poverty. As a person who is deeply concerned by materialism, false identity and detachment from tradition it is easy for me to fall into the other extreme of tradition for traditions sake. Just as it is important for spirituality to be authentic, it is important that it truly be spiritual. Currently I think there are many people who lack respect for and understanding of the many spiritual traditions within Christianity; likewise there are those—myself included—who are uncomfortable with individualistic spirituality. We need to recognize the need for both or our spiritual lives will suffer.

  1. Marjorie J. Thompson, Soul Feast. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 6 []
  2. ibid. []
  3. Lawrence S. Cunningham and Keith J. Egan, Christian Spirituality: Themes from the Tradition. (New York: Paulist Press, 1996), 5 []
  4. ibid., 6 []
  5. Thompson, 13 []
  6. ibid., 7 []
  7. ibid., 9 []