Spirituality Studies: An Interdisciplinary
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The study of spirituality as a
dimension of professional practice in health, social work, and
education has emerged since the mid-1980’s. The challenges vary
from fundamental questions of how to think about and study
spiritualities, to more practical problems of how to identify and
provide for the spiritual needs of service users. Cultural and
social influences are also important considerations, both as they
give rise to spiritual forms and, particularly in the West, as they
signal a loss of spiritual patrimony and/or spiritual potential
The purpose of spirituality studies
is to conceptualise the relationship between professionalised
caring and educational provision on the one hand, and spirituality
in its plural forms and contexts on the other. Research in
spirituality studies does not adhere to any single philosophical or
theological epistemology. Rather it draws upon a range
philosophical [2-6], psychological [7-9], anthropological [10, 11],
theological [12-15], and semiological methodologies [16-19].
A major critical issue for
spirituality studies is to understand how the structures of the
caring and educational professions inhibit or negate particular
spiritualities, due especially to implicit ideologies of
professionalism [20, 21], paradigms of rationality , and
principles of knowledge .
Spirituality is conceived in
accordance with the heterogeneity of human experience, and
therefore as something that interrupts and disturbs the ongoing
particular narratives of health and social care.
Cultural and Professional Contexts
Spirituality studies are developing
in a public climate of secularism. Religious believers, especially
those whose spirituality expresses dogmatic attitudes, adhere to
standards of knowledge which may deviate from what is publicly
warranted. In a secular milieu, even elementary knowledge of
spiritual beliefs, practices, and traditions—knowledge of their
histories, teachings, sacred texts, and formative figures—declines.
Large numbers of people may not have the vaguest knowledge of these
things. In such circumstances, people’s interest in ‘spirituality’
may frequently be eclectic and ‘alternative’. More generally, there
is a widespread belief that religious doctrines are merely opinions
that may or may not be affirmed according to individual preference.
The notion that there is an objective truth about matters of
spirituality and faith, indeed the very idea of truth itself, is
certainly subject to the forces of cultural relativism. This
dissolution of truth undercuts some traditional religious and
spiritual traditions, which consequently find little legitimacy in
a secularist culture.
The question of spirituality, as it
arises in spirituality studies, presents itself against the
background of the professionalisation of caring roles throughout
the 20th century. It appears against an implicitly
‘scientific’ outlook which values empirical research over religious
faith , and in the light of preconceptions of culture and value
which are to a significant degree modernist in character [24-26].
Accordingly, ‘spirituality’ is thought of mainly as an expression
of individual behaviour, without the traditional religious or cult
meanings which would imply that human behaviour is perfected
through certain types of spiritual acts. Thought of as aggregated
behaviour, spirituality is seen as contributing to social life and
as the object of social scientific analysis [27-29]. The study of
spirituality is then concerned primarily with styles of life and
forms of collective behaviour. The current state of spirituality
studies is due to scholarly engagement, often critical, with the
assumptions of these general perspective on spirituality.
Especially significant for the
methodology of spirituality studies is the credibility of what is a
seemingly widespread and popular assumption, namely that
‘spirituality’ has a degree of historical authenticity which
religion lacks: that spirituality emerges within western societies
according as the influence of religion, particularly Christianity,
declines [1, 30, 31]. Under this assumption, spirituality is
construed as a process of secularisation, whose forms of expression
grant priority to direct experience over metaphysical reasoning
, express the person here and now rather than a feeling for
eternity, and are directed towards a harmonious relationship with
nature . The study of spirituality is, in this way, legitimated
with reference to the growth in certain patterns of behaviour,
rather than to religious practices.
This is a perspective of
considerable methodological significance, as it attempts to bring
clarity to the notion of ‘spirituality’ by mapping changes in the
contemporary landscape of the sacred, or changes in the forms of
religious expression, rather than by referring to the theologies of
revealed faiths. The danger with this approach is that it excludes
the spiritualities of revealed religions.
Spirituality and Radical Plurality
Spirituality not as a single
reality. Rather, it is radically plural. Spiritualities provide
perspectives on the value of health, suffering, community, and
moral and religious formation which can be critical of the idioms
of the caring professions ; furthermore, they may call for
caring practices to be reconceptualised as themselves being
inherently spiritual actions (e.g., as giving form to the mutual
involvement of human beings and God, see [34-36]). The study of
spiritual care and education has become increasingly reflexive in
recent years, referring back often critically to unexamined
assumptions within the professions, especially as these assumptions
are propagated through professional education. Thus considered,
care is potentially spiritual, and spirituality is no longer only,
or mainly, an exclusively religious discipline, but also a critical
consciousness of context which provides patterns and strategies for
thought about matters of care.
Such a view of spirituality must
find its footing in a context, since spiritualities always bear a
context from which they take form. The context for current
conceptualisations of spirituality is that of postmodernity.
“Postmodernity” focuses on the manifest loss of plausibility of the
so-called modern master narratives. According to Jean-Francois
Lyotard, this is due to the emergence of “counter-examples” which
have made it clear that modernity could not fulfil its own
promises. The postmodern can be construed as an attempt to rework
the unconscious legacy of modernity by working it through in a
radical fashion, exposing and re-examining its unacknowledged
assumptions, confronting the crisis of its ending. It is notable
that at one point Lyotard compares the postmodern task of working
through the repressed meanings of modernity to therapeutic
activity. He writes,
If we renege on this
responsibility, we are certain to condemn ourselves to a simple and
undisplaced repetition of the ‘modern neurosis’, the whole Western
schizophrenia and paranoia which have been the source of our well
known misfortunes during two centuries. Thus understood, the
‘post-’ of postmodernism does not signify a movement of come back,
flash back or feed back, that is, of repetition, but a process of
ana-’, analysis, anamnesis, anagogy, anamorphosis, which works out
an ‘initial forgetting’. 
In this passage we see reference to
anamnesis or memorial, the basic structure of many spiritual
practices and religious rituals, which is more than a mere
re-enactment of past events, but simultaneously an anticipation of
the future as an eschatological event.
The loss of plausibility in master
narratives is coupled with a growing consciousness of: (1) the
fundamental plurality of the postmodern condition [17, 24, 38, 39],
(2) the radical particularity and contextuality of one’s own
narrative , and (3) the irreducible heterogeneity which emerges
in the midst of that plurality . Spirituality studies have
attempted to develop a critical consciousness of these conditions
through its adoption of hermeneutical methodologies. Of the various
interpretative methods (rhetorical, narrative, semiotic) needed to
understand spirituality, narrative analysis has a special
importance. It is the most reflexive interpretative methodology on
matters of medicine and spirituality [41-43]; it is an established
methodology for investigating the meaning of caring in nursing
practice ; and more generally, it studies narrative as the
locus of a postmodern settlement that has emerged between science
and religion concerning fundamental questions of human nature and
freedom . The theory of narrative interpretation is thoroughly
concerned with the theoretical and pragmatic assumptions about
‘spirit’ that prevail today.
Three streams of spirituality studies
Broadly speaking, ‘spirituality’
has come to symbolise the human quests for depth and values, our
vision of the human spirit and whatever practices or lifestyles
enable this vision to achieve its fullest potential. ‘Spirituality’
describes how people relate their beliefs about God to their core
values and then express these beliefs in spiritual practices. It
also connotes practices important to the formation of social and
One stream of spirituality studies
relates this understanding of spirituality to models of
professional practice in medicine, nursing, social work, and
education, especially as these are directed towards the spiritual
needs of service users. So, for example, Narayanasamy 
associates spirituality with an holistic model of nursing and
health care, i.e. care of the body, mind and spirit. McSherry 
identifies spirituality as an umbrella term for the
multidimensional elements of patients needs.
The strength of this approach is that is suited to established
methods of professional education and development.
By comparison with other approaches
in spirituality studies, the pedagogical approach does not
sufficiently represent professional care practices as providing a
context which gives form to spirituality. A second strand of
spirituality studies is more interpretative and aims to demonstrate
the possibilities that exist for finding spiritual meaning in the
structures of behaviour surrounding care giving. In general, this
approach involves cultural and linguistic analysis, is rooted in
contemporary anthropological and linguistic theory, and emphasises
the way in which a person’s spiritual and/or religious attitudes,
experiences, and beliefs are taken over from the
religious/socio-cultural setting in which he or she grows into
maturity (as happens with language and culture generally). From
this standpoint, spirituality is understood as formed by practices,
symbolism, and beliefs taken over from the culture within which one
grows into selfhood and continues to live. Included in this context
are the institutions and practices of professional care and
The strength of this approach is in
demonstrating possibilities of finding spiritual meaning in
structures of behaviour surrounding care giving. Its weakness is
that may shrink the scope of spirituality as this is actualised in
the lives of services users, since the approach primarily
represents their situation as service users, thereby
conceptualising spirituality as the capacity to find care provision
An emerging approach in
spirituality studies understands care, education, and spiritual
practices to be relational and enacted through discursive exchanges
among participants within a shared context. Thus, practitioners are
understood to be involved in complex discursive practices which,
inter alia, involve polyphonic speaking about God. This
interdisciplinary approach focuses on the influence of social
location, ideological determination, cultural embeddedness,
paradigm-bound rationality, and contextualised knowledge on the
notions of ‘spirituality’ and ‘spiritual care’. Rather than seeking
to determine the meaning of spirituality or spiritual care, it aims
at fostering discourses about spiritual care and spiritual
formation. This interdisciplinary approach is pioneered by members
of the Centre for Spirituality Studies at the University of Hull,
Foundations of Spirituality Studies
Whether any theoretical foundation
for spirituality studies is legitimate remains an unresolved
question to this point. There are, however, a number of theoretical
considerations of fundamental importance. Firstly, spirituality is
always inescapably specific and contextual. In other words,
spiritual traditions always arise from the experiences and
practices of particular groups of people within specific contexts
of time and place. To study spirituality is not a matter of
examining an abstract concept, ‘spirituality as such’, which is
arrived at by purely logical means or derived from first
principles. It is never a matter for spirituality studies to defend
some ideologically pure idea of spirituality, but rather to study
Secondly, spirituality is almost
invariably qualified with reference to a specific tradition, often
a religious tradition, and therefore relates to the ritual
practices and beliefs of a faith community. Despite cultural
suspicions of dogmatism, and a dubious tendency in academic
literature to distinguish ‘spirituality’ from ‘religion’, there
remains an unavoidable connection between spiritual experience and
practices on the one hand, and religious beliefs on the other.
Indeed, there are many spiritualities which express a dogmatic
attitude, and which can only be understood in relation to the
fundamental themes of their dogmatic traditions. Therefore,
spirituality studies should engage in dialogue with a range of
In addition, spirituality studies
seek to understand the philosophical and psychological foundations
of the interpersonal and social dimensions of spiritual experience.
Spirituality is approached not only through religious traditions,
but also through contemporary themes, such as politics, ecology,
literature, aesthetics, etc. Especially important in this respect
an understanding of the human sensibility for symbols. This
sensibility is a fact of human existence, more fundamental to the
understanding of spirituality than current tends in spiritual
behaviours and practices.
Apart from the doctrinal and
philosophical foundations of spiritualities, it is also important
to achieve a holistic understanding of the phenomenon, to attend,
that is, to the importance of the specific contexts within which
people live out their relationship with the other, others, and God.
The significance of culture as it shapes these relationships is
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