Defining Spirituality: What Does It Mean?

Maybe it's time to walk outside and start asking. Maybe the best way to learn more about spirituality is to find out what it means to individuals.
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I am confused. Can someone tell me what "spirituality" means? I feel like I should already know. It's important enough to be constantly described as one of our defining characteristics as humans. And, like love, it provides a thread of commonality that gently tugs diverse individuals and groups towards one another. Even when we worship different gods, attend different schools, have different skin colors, we're all supposed to share spirituality. But how does it affect us to share something that we can't even define? And how do we learn more about it?

I thought about what people do in this society when they're confused about something. I could probably have stood up and walked outside and down the street and into a church or a synagogue. I live in Manhattan, and there is no shortage of religious representatives from every tradition you might be able to think of, and from about 85 that you definitely never would've thought of, even if someone gave you a lot of clues. It's true that some of the mosques and Buddhist and Hindu temples sit at somewhat inconvenient distances from me, but then, a sizable chunk of the Upper West Side is less a glorious tumult of multiculturalism and more a place where the few people with dark skin are pushing light-skinned babies in expensive strollers. Still, I could get to a Hindu temple without enough trouble to justify more complaining than, "Oy vey, could they maybe turn on some air-conditioning in this subway car? What are we, animals, that we should sweat like this?"

But I have a computer. So I didn't go outside. And I didn't get on the subway. I did the normal thing. I looked it up. And here's what I found:

"Spirituality can refer to an ultimate or immaterial reality; an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of their being; or the 'deepest values and meanings by which people live.'"

Yes, that's Wikipedia. That's the first sentence of the page on spirituality. At least, I think it's a sentence. It continues on to say, "Spirituality is often experienced as a source of inspiration or orientation in life. It can encompass belief in immaterial realities or experiences of the immanent or transcendent nature of the world."

Hmm. That's extremely broad. I didn't think I should stop there, so I decided to read a book. Princeton religion scholar Leigh Schmidt wrote one called Restless Souls that charts the development of American spirituality. Rather than the "New Age" phenomenon it is sometimes misinterpreted as, spirituality as an egalitarian, pluralistic realm of experience and thought has enjoyed a unique, thoroughly developed, and sometimes intellectually advanced role in American history.

Schmidt cites solitude as one of the defining characteristics of the developing spiritual movement in the 1800s, and later explores the evolution of a universal spiritual consciousness that became a staple of the movement (if it may be referred to as a cohesive movement at all). He is careful to state that there is neither a single definition nor several compact definitions of spirituality. He identifies religious liberalism as an inextricably interwoven and informing partner to and part of spirituality, and, as liberalism itself is complex and difficult to define, so indeed is spirituality.

So basically, Schmidt can't (or won't) define spirituality, either. Unlike Wikipedia, he doesn't embarrass himself by trying. Instead, like any good religion scholar, he writes not about what things mean but about what they mean to the people who use them. But where does that leave me? Without going out and asking everyone I can find, can I figure out anything real about spirituality? It's solitary. It's universal. It's mixed up in religion, but it's definitely distinct from institutional religion -- which is not to say that it doesn't pop up constantly in traditional, institutional religious contexts. It's everywhere! It's out of control! No one can stop it!

Here's what I think: The ambiguity of the term allows for it to be applied universally. Maybe its nebulousness contributes to its appeal. It can mean anything anyone wants it to, and people who might not otherwise agree on theological points or even big questions like "Is there a God?" can talk spirituality without a hitch. Interfaith groups can rely on spirituality to form bridges between religions. We can all have it in common -- until someone says, "I don't think I'm spiritual," at which point everyone can say, "Oh no, you are. You just don't know it."

Can someone be religious without being spiritual? It's completely plausible. He/she can observe rituals and participate in community and recite prayers, all without considering himself or herself spiritual. Can someone be spiritual without being religious? Of course! In fact, it seems like that's one of the benefits of spirituality for many people. It's a convenient concept for people who would like to maintain some religious credibility outside of religious institutions: "I don't go to church, but I'm very spiritual." People can use spirituality as a buffer.

But what if you don't consider yourself either religious or spiritual? What's left? Maybe an approach to being human that doesn't require big labels. Maybe one day you stand on top of a mountain and look out at the world and feel moved by its enormousness and grandeur and you don't call that feeling anything at all. Or maybe you automatically call it "spiritual" but recognize that this word appears in your mind because of your cultural context and not because the concept itself holds any intrinsic truth.

Relying on ambiguity can be risky. After all, I still don't really know what spirituality is. And when someone tells me I'm spiritual, I'm not sure what they're saying about me, and I'm not sure whether it's something I'm comfortable having attached to my name.

In spirituality's defense, though, maybe we don't need a perfect definition. It seems to be the case that we can't ever adequately define some of the big aspects of ourselves. Like love. Or trust. Or yearning. And it might be the openness of these concepts that allows us to share them across beliefs and practices and hang-ups and traditions and totally different preferences in breakfast foods. So, really, if I get called spiritual once in a while without understanding what it means, I can always just ask. And maybe it's time to walk outside and start asking anyway. Maybe the best way to learn more about spirituality is to find out what it means to individuals -- not just websites and scholars, and not just the people inside the Buddhist temple and the Presbyterian church, but the people on the crowded subway. I'll let you know if I can work up the courage.

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