Spirituality Studies: An Interdisciplinary Approach

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 [1].

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 [22], and principles of knowledge [23].

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 [22], 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 [31], express the person here and now rather than a feeling for eternity, and are directed towards a harmonious relationship with nature [32]. 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 [33]; 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’. [37]

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 [40], 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 [44]; 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 [45]. 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 religious communities.

Pedagogical Approach

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 [46] associates spirituality with an holistic model of nursing and health care, i.e. care of the body, mind and spirit. McSherry [47] 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.

Interpretative Approach

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 education.

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 meaningful.

Discursive Approach

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, United Kingdom.

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 concrete particularities.

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 theologies.

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 always considerable.


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