What is it?

Window in Douai Abbey The word ‘Spirituality’ is tricky; difficult to define, still a bit embarassing to mention, but gradually starting to come into the mainstream. What do I really mean by it?

A quick answer might be “Taking care of our deepest relationships with the whole world around us”. Many people, however, would protest that for them spirituality means prayer, or meditation … so I need to say more in order to justify my stress on relationship.

First, the idea of relationship with the world chimes with many “official” definitions. For example, when spirituality was introduced into the UK school curriculum in 1993, and an influential book1 appeared which tried to explain it, Alex Roger wrote there that ”Our spirit, then, whatever else it has to do with, relates to the basic orientation or disposition of our life: the way we are in the world …" (p48). Spirituality has also been recognised in publications by the National Institute of Mental Health in England2.

andylim / 123RF Stock Photo
Into these hands, O Lord, I beseech your spirit; for you have endowed me, O God of truth.
How we understand spirituality depends, however, on how we think about the world, and that is something that has been steadily changing. Most ancient languages seem to have had at least one and usually many words to talk about the categories that they felt were most important in the world: such as the words in Hebrew, Greek and Latin for ‘spirit’(ruwach, pneuma, spiritus) and ‘soul’ (nephesh, psuche, anima). Ancient Greek did not have any word for ‘matter’ until hule, which originally meant ‘wood’, was adopted as a techical term for matter. Though the meanings differed between cultures, the words for ‘soul’ indicated the essence of an individual being (either a person, or an animal, or a being that we would regard as inanimate like a fountain or a mountain). The words for ‘spirit’, on the other hand, referred to a more gerneral principle of life that flowed through and among individuals. We have moved a long way from that way of looking at the world, but the practices of connecting with the flow of life (‘spirit’) have not changed so greatly in their basic form.

Spirituality and Science fit together very naturally under this definition. Spirituality is about knowing something “from the inside” through establishing a relationship with that being; science is about knowing it “from the outside” by observing and analysing it. They fit together like a hand and a glove, and each can inform the other.

Papers relating to spirituality

Please follow these links to a presentation to the Scientific and Medical Network conference “Science and Spiritual Practice”: presentation.pptx and handout.docx.

For a sketch of more ideas on the connections between science and spirituality see the extracts from my chapter in Crisis as Opportunity

For the psychological dimensions of this topic see the next two references to joint work with Isabel Clarke
The primacy of connectivity (joint article with Isabel Clarke), (Network, (Network, Number 76, 2001). This is also relavant to science.
Knowledge and Reality, Chapter to appear in Psychosis and Spirituality: Consolidating the New Paradigm (I. Clarke, ed.), Wiley, 2010 (in press).

My spiritual home is in Christianity. I don't approve of much that goes on at this ‘home’, but I think that the humanity now needs to recover the wisdom latent in the mystical strand of this and the other faith traditions. Some documents here are:
The kingdom as planetary community, an address given at St. James' church, Piccadilly, London
The Genesis Meditation: a review of the book by Neil Douglas Klotz.

See also links to past writings



1 Best, Ron (Ed) (1996)Education, Spirituality and the Whole Child, Cassel, London

2 Gilbert, P., Nicholls, V., McCulloch, A. and Sheehan, A. (2003) Inspiring Hope. Recognizing the importance of spirituality in a whole person approach to mental health, NIMHE, London.