Spirituality is a universal human activity. It is inherent to the human experience. Yet few areas of human life are as ambiguous, wide-ranging, diversified, and perplexing as the area of human spirituality. Asking what spirituality is can provoke a vast array of suggestions. And definitions abound. Frequently they include notions of God or the Divine, some eschaton or enlightenment, purpose and meaning, sacred stories and symbols, cultic rites and rituals, as well as ethics, rules, and taboos. But none of these aspects of human spirituality are the core of it. They certainly may have their place, but they are not the centre or origins of spirituality at the ground-level of human experience. Surprising as this may be, we do not need to speculate about ethereal realities or disembodied spirit-beings in order to understand the core of human spirituality. In fact, given all of the controversy and confusion surrounding the topic, it is better to bracket these sort of concerns out, if even just temporarily, in order to grasp what the core of human spirituality involves in our lived experience.
The core of human spirituality lies in desire. This is where it begins. “Spirituality,” according to Ronald Rolheiser, “concerns what we do with desire. It takes its root in the Eros inside of us and it is all about how we shape and discipline that eros.” Indeed, spirituality involves what one directs their spirit towards; what one gives their life to; what one devotes their energies and passions to. “Spirit” has been historically associated with that which enlivens, vitalizes, animates, and electrifies the human being. It is the force, the energy, the power that courses through every living person. In the ancient Hebrew tradition, the word ruach, which can be translated as “spirit,” can also be translated as “breath” or “wind.” Indeed, spirit is often associated with the principle essence of life itself. Ruach is as close as our breath and as prevailing as the wind. In regards to human experience, “fire” has been a common symbol for the human spirit throughout the ages. It is an image that highlights how our inner desires can be unquenchable and enflaming. How they tend to burn and spread within us, always consuming yet never ceasing. This burning fire can be viscerally sensed at a primal level.
Everyone with a pulse practices some form of spirituality, because every living person has to decide how they will direct their desires and energies. A wall street trader who devotes all of her energy towards making more and more money for the sake of amassing an ever-greater empire of wealth practices a functional spirituality of greed. A parent who gives all of his energy towards supporting and raising his children practices a spirituality of nurturing care. A self-obsessed individual who devotes all of her energy towards sculpting and enhancing her personal appearance for the sake of getting attention practices a spirituality of narcissism. A domineering leader who ruthlessly pushes his way to the top for the sake of gaining authority over others practices a spirituality of power and control. An activist who spends her energy serving the disenfranchised while working towards changing oppressive policies and systems in society practices a spirituality of social concern and justice. A religious fundamentalist who is excessively preoccupied with arguing over theological minutia and dictating how other people should live practices a spirituality of legalism and judgmentalism.
Now obviously these are simplistic caricatures—the reality of an individual’s actual spiritual life is often characterized by multiple desires, ambivalence, and partial awareness. However, these portraits illustrate how spirituality is an inherent human activity whether it is practiced within or without of the confines of an organized religion. Religion is always a response to managing spirituality, whether it provides structures that encourage and enhance spiritual flourishing, or structures that discourage and suppress spiritual flourishing. But spirituality itself precedes and transcends religious traditions. And each spiritual path—again, regardless of whether it is religious or non-religious—will have tacit symbols, stories, standards, and goals which provide support for the way its followers choose to direct their life’s energy.
Human spirituality, thus understood, is interconnected with all of life, experience, and wellbeing. If spirituality involves what we direct our desires towards, then it involves the goals, ends, and destinations that we pursue. And if spirituality relates to our goals, then it also inextricably relates to the ethical standards, codes, and values by which we live. And if spirituality involves how we direct our desires, then it includes the habits, disciplines, and practices we follow, individually or communally, consciously and unconsciously, which in turn form our attitudes, behaviours, and character. And if spirituality involves what an individual does with their very life, then it is interwoven with their whole person—mind, heart, will, memory, imagination, intuition, senses, awareness, and body. And if spirituality is connected with our life and origins and ends, then it invariably raises profound ultimate questions related to our Life and Origins and Ends. Spirituality indeed encompasses all of life because it involves how we relate to and direct that which enlivens us.
At its best, religion provides practical parameters and means that help to nurture the human spirit into maturity and flourishing. At its worst, religion becomes an end in itself that inevitably stifles and suffocates the human spirit for the sake of preserving external systems and structures. This is why religion should always act in service of authentic spirituality. Gerald May points out that the spiritual journey can rarely progress very far either without becoming religious in some form or another—”religious” meaning structured, communal, creedal, and intentional. Religion is like the soil within which the plant of spirituality may grow. If the soil is properly cultivated and rich in nutrients, then the plant will thrive and be healthy, growing to its greatest potential. But if the soil is poorly cultivated, dry, and lacking in nutrients, then the plant will wither, wilt, and potentially die altogether, never reaching its fullest development. This is the type of religion that so many who identify as “spiritual but not religious” have rejected, and rightly so. Religion, however, is not inherently bad or necessarily opposed to healthy spirituality. Our present need, in fact, often involves re-forming, rather than rejecting, religious traditions so they support and sustain the spiritual quest. Reformation has happened regularly throughout the history of religion, and it is currently happening and needs to continue to happen into the future.
I think there is one last important side note that deserves to be added to such a discussion of spirituality. One intriguing question that is often raised with the topic is what is spirit? Sometimes it’s implied that studying spirituality is pointless if we cannot define what “spirit” is with absolute, objective certainty. However, while this kind of question is interesting and indeed has its place, it is often taken for granted that virtually every area of human inquiry carries out its research without being able to offer definitive definitions of their most basic subject matters. There is no unanimous agreement amongst physicists as to what time or matter or energy really is; no unanimous agreement amongst biologists as to what life really is; no unanimous agreement amongst psychologists or neurobiologists as to what mind really is; no unanimous agreement amongst philosophers as to what truth or beauty or goodness really is; no unanimous agreement amongst theologians as to what God really is. Working definitions are offered, and rightly so. But it would be an illusory and unsubstantiated prejudice to imagine that such definitions are final or that questions surrounding the essence of time, matter, energy, life, mind, truth, beauty, goodness, or God have been settled once and for all.
This remains true despite what a religious fundamentalist who claims to have certain knowledge of the essence of God might say, or despite what a nonreligious reductionist who claims to have certain knowledge of the essence of nature might say. These remain open questions. And the fact that they remain open questions is part of what motivates curiosity and further inquiry. More importantly, we can nevertheless study these phenomena without having to conclusively define their essence. A subject matter’s processes can be carefully observed and described without defining the very nature of the subject’s ontology. This is indeed exactly what natural scientific inquiry is principally concerned with: describing behaviour, not defining essence. So, while questions surrounding the nature of the human spirit are intriguing—as well as perplexing—we can still meaningfully study and engage in human spirituality without having to conclusively define the ontology of the human spirit. That there is some force, some energy, some eros, some life, some spirit that enlivens and courses through us is an undeniable fact of human experience.
Credit is due to the following works, which have each shaped the understanding of human spirituality I’ve presented here:
The Holy Longing by Ronald Rolheiser
Soulful Spirituality by David Benner
Spirituality and the Awakening Self by David Benner
Spiritually Integrated Psychotherapy by Kenneth Pargament
Will and Spirit by Gerald May