Lucy Bregman has spent much of her career writing about death and dying—that is, until her latest book, The Ecology of Spirituality. She chose this subject because the word “spirituality” kept popping up as the cure for every medical issue she encountered. What’s wrong with our healthcare system? A lack of spirituality. Suspicious of this answer, she decided to take on the often warm and fuzzy notion of spirituality, asserting that we need a better understanding of what spirituality is (and is not), and what it can (and more importantly, can’t) do.
Many of us think of spirituality as a positive thing. In fact, in your introduction you state that “the term glows so strongly that it is hard to say anything really bad about spirituality.” You believe this “ought to make more of us wonder.” Was that the motivation for writing your book?
I noticed that everyone, including myself, used this term “spirituality” with nothing more than a good warm feeling about it and only a murky sense of what it meant. The basic problem is that we use the word “spirituality” as if it is a thing, something that we can define, assess, make claims about, and place our hopes upon. I think this is misleading. “Spirituality” as it is used today covers too many different possibilities, capacities, and practices. It has a vague glow about it. But invoking it as a solution to any particular condition or set of problems isn’t helpful. The term—I can hardly call it a “concept”—is just too mushy and fuzzy, and it seems to be in everyone’s interest to keep it that way. So I wanted to examine how this word became so popular so quickly, and what developments had to occur in relevant fields of knowledge before a niche was created for it. Hence the title of the book. The Ecology of Spirituality is not about saving the planet, but about the intellectual environment for “spirituality,” and how it developed.
“Ninety-two and still counting.” That’s the title of your first chapter, about the definitions of spirituality. Why so many? And what does this proliferation of definitions mean for scholars? And for the rest of us?
Several people have privately compared the quest for the meaning of spirituality to the quest for the meaning of “pornography”—“I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it!” But this won’t do for researchers and clinicians—or, in the long run, for any of us.
Most special terms are created or borrowed to be part of theories, and these theories are part of ongoing conversations within disciplines. The reason there are so many definitions of “spirituality” is in part because there is no stated, explicit theory behind it. It just floats. So, just about anyone can, ad hoc, create his or her own brand-new definition. The problem isn’t that spirituality is intrinsically hard to define. It’s that it isn’t a thing, and it has no firm infrastructure in any theory. Yet, in fact there are several implied theories behind many of the definitions, drawn mostly from humanistic psychology and the Human Potential Movement of the 1970s. Both of these at least claimed to be part of psychology as the science of behavior and therefore were subject to the norms of coherence and validation within that discipline. Because there is no such rooting for today’s use of “spirituality,” the definitions are all over the map. “A sense of meaning,” or “connectedness,” are some of the frequently-used phrases. “Where do we look for spirituality? How do we know when we’ve found it?” are impossible questions to answer if we are guided only by current definitions. There are older definitions that avoid this problem, but these have not been widely embraced by people in many fields of work and study today.
Why are so many people drawn to the notion of spirituality?
The notion of spirituality seems to have filled a niche left open by the fading of the humanistic psychology that was so popular several decades ago. Also, it does relate to the different ways that many people are religious, ways different from the kinds of affiliations that seemed to be the norm 50+ years ago. But to speak of “spirituality” as an entity, something that has just recently been discovered, is very misleading. There is a wonderful book by Peggy Rosenthal, Words and Values: Some Leading Words and Where They Lead Us, written long before the current spirituality boom. The term “spirituality” surely belongs with Rosenthal’s collection of “glow words.”
What are some of spirituality’s dangers?
Because spirituality is not the solid, genuine entity most of its advocates want it to be, whether it is dangerous or beneficial is a question that cannot be answered directly.
But I guess there are two levels of an answer that I can give. It is always dangerous to rely on a fuzzy, ill-defined concept and expect this concept to be helpful. Scales that measure “spiritual well-being” overlap so heavily with scales measuring general well-being that it is difficult to see how they add anything but confusion. One researcher who reviewed a huge number of studies on “spirituality and health” came to the conclusion that these lacked “scholarly infrastructure,” and were therefore not worth much.
The second way to answer this question: within the sociology of religion the word “spirituality” may be used to describe the manner in which persons in modern societies construct and navigate through choices and possible identities and fragments of identities. This sense of freedom to construct is as much a set of ideas and hopes as it is a reality. If we locate “spirituality” as a description of the subjective experience of this social process over a lifetime, within our kind of society, then the term gains some traction. It refers to a style of personal development that is part of our culture and history, not a timeless universal concept. Within this sociological framework, other terms may be more revealing. At least some of what people who claim they are “spiritual but not religious” have is better labelled “residual religion.” This points to the lingering effects of religious influences from earlier in life, selectively retained, sometimes without full recognition of their continuing power. When we think this way, we don’t begin with global and fuzzy definitions, but with the life-trajectories of people coming of age in particular times and places. Just as there are distinctive ways to be “residually religious,” so there may be a variety of “secularities” lingering on in our lives. An ahistorical and universal definition of “spirituality” will obscure what we want to learn about how people are now living within and outside traditional communities and groups of all kinds.
Could you explain what you mean when you say that religion has traditionally had an outer pole as well as an inner pole? Is the same true for spirituality? If not, what are the ramifications of that?
I began my investigation by looking at the marvelously clear work of Walter Principe, who in 1983 wrote an essay called “Toward Defining Spirituality.” Principe offered a definition that placed “spirituality” within the study of religions. A person’s “chosen ideal” and the striving to live toward that ideal is “spirituality” at the existential level. Guides and manuals to help reach this goal (Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle is the example I draw on later in the book) are the next level, while the scholarly study of such guides is the third level. This is what I call a “two-poled definition.” That “chosen ideal” need not be religiously-framed. It is, however, an objective pole, distinct from the person who pursues it. Such a clear definition—and clues to where to look for “spirituality” in this sense—is very different from what replaced it, those 92+ definitions. “Spirituality” is now most often described as an innate, universal human quality, without any reference to a “chosen ideal” or objective pole.
This purely “inner” or one-pole definition has triumphed in almost all the advocacy for spirituality. Note that the issue isn’t religion vs. spirituality. A devotee of some sport or activity has an “objective pole” toward which to aim, usually with standards of excellence that are shared by fellow-enthusiasts. I am not an “excellent kayaker” by these standards, but I went out almost every day on one of the Collegeville lakes until they froze over, and was back on them when the ice had barely cleared (too soon to be paddling safely, in fact). So many people have written about the spirituality of sports that we can see a Principe-style definition at work. But, alas, the two-pole definition lost out to the idea of spirituality as a universal inborn possibility, without chosen ideal or striving being part of the definition. The current usages make it hard to identify or study all of what now comes under the umbrella of “spirituality.”
Do you think practitioners pick and choose as they like from the now widely available religious and spiritual traditions? If so, what are the problems with picking and choosing?
Let me give you an example: Say I decorate my home with knick-knacks from a range of the world’s cultures, with objects now mostly decorative rather than used in worship and ritual. Perhaps I buy these from a catalogue produced by those who want to offer me choices and enhance my sense that I am a “spiritual” person. The principles of selection are my own tastes and preferences, as shaped by what surrounds me. What I omit or disregard is the earlier embeddedness of these objects in a set of traditions, practices and values, many of which could potentially challenge or disrupt my own. But I do not let them. I retain my role as the arbiter and purchaser of all this stuff and, if pushed on this, can claim that my access to more of the world’s cultures and traditions than anyone had in the past also makes me automatically a more informed consumer of them.
Is this a silly example? Since I’ve received such catalogues, it’s not entirely fanciful. And the attitude of arrogance about our privileged position and ability to turn the world’s traditions into “resources” for our own self-enhancement is definitely present in many of the writings on spirituality.
Why, ultimately, can’t spirituality be the Change that so many are looking for to usher in a new and better world?
First, because “spirituality” isn’t a thing that we are missing and can find and incorporate into ourselves. But I think the answer to the previous question gives another reason. The process depicted there is one that lodges us firmly in the world of what we’ve got now. It is a marketing model of everything we do and are. Therefore, hoping to transcend all this world’s current problems by drawing on “spirituality,” something limited and restricted by the very conditions it hopes to alleviate, are futile. For example, will adding “spirituality” to health care make hospitals more humane, less depersonalized than they are now? It appears that any efforts to increase “spirituality” must work within the framework of hospitals as organizations. It cannot change them radically, as is sometimes hoped. Certain particular changes may alleviate conditions to some degree, but this isn’t what advocates of gigantic sweeping Change want.
If spirituality has shortcomings, what should we be pursuing instead?
If we stick with Principe’s original and almost obsolete definition, we can pursue chosen ideals that offer more than knick-knacks that are truly worthy visions of what life can be. Spirituality by itself doesn’t tell us what these are. It also doesn’t tell us when our pursuit of ideals becomes dangerous, fanatical, or delusional. If we go with more contemporary definitions, spirituality is already so innate that it is hard to know how to “pursue” it. It’s very like Maslow’s “self-actualization,” which leaves us wondering “What do I actually do to begin to self-actualize?” In one of the few scholarly articles on “How do I become spiritual?” the authors reduce the whole process to social role-modelling. That is simply not enough to understand what a guide such as Interior Castle provides. It shows how confused the whole state of “spirituality” now is.
I realize that a danger of thinking critically and carefully about a term everyone likes so much is that such a stance will be perceived as arrogant and negative. But analysis of concepts and definitions is necessary before jumping into debates over “spiritual but not religious,” or pushing for more spirituality in healthcare or the workplace. That’s what I hope my book can accomplish.
Lucy Bregman is a professor of religion at Temple University in Philadelphia, and the author of eight books, including Preaching Death (Baylor University Press, 2012) and her most recent The Ecology of Spirituality (Baylor University Press, 2014). She was a Resident Scholar at the Collegeville Institute in 2000-2001. There she wrote, prayed with the monks, and kayaked on the two campus lakes.