Sunday, July 24

Literature and Spirituality: Some of the Research

I know. For some of you, the word “research” caused a frisson of excitement; for some, not so much. I did the academic research because I’m curious about stuff like this and I hoped I’d get more insight into the words “religion” and “spirituality.” 

Herewith some of the research I found at least somewhat useful with a non-style guide form of annotation. The list is in alphabetical order by author so not necessarily by the resources most useful to me although the length and content of the annotation should be indicative of something akin to that.

Lincoln, Andrew T. “Spirituality in a secular age: From Charles Taylor to study of the Bible and spirituality.” Acta Theologica, vol 31, no. 1, 2011,

A Secular Age is a 2007 book by philosopher Charles Taylor based on a series of lectures. In it Taylor marks and discusses how “the place of religion in our societies has changed profoundly in the last few centuries.”

Lincoln asserts that while most people discuss spirituality in terms of lived experience but struggle to explain it, Taylor asserts “the lived experience of spirituality is through the notion of the social imaginary that shapes it” and that the social imaginary is “the way people imagine their lives and their worlds” (75). Lincoln goes on to try to explain that more thoroughly, but my brain stopped processing because it read like “name it and claim it” theology to me. It may be more than that, but my intellectual and emotional response was very much like when someone was trying to explain how to calculate the area under an imaginary line. 

McClendon, Adam. “Defining the Role of the Bible in Spirituality: ‘Three Degrees of Spirituality’ in American Culture. Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care, vol. 5, no. 2, 2012, pp. 207-225.

McClendon, like many of the authors I found, situated his study of spirituality in context of Christianity and the Bible. However, McClendon stepped back to consider spirituality in an American cultural context.

McClendon’s own research helped him understand the plasticity of what people mean when they say “spirituality.” He references The Millennials: Connecting to America’s Largest Generation (Rainer and Rainer, 2011) and observes

nearly 75 percent of the Millennial Generation3 con- sider themselves more spiritual than religious. This move to separate spirituality from religion seems partly due to the fact that being religious, in its most basic sense, involves the acknowledgment of that from which one derives ultimate value or meaning. Since many “spiritual” people do not acknowledge the source from which they derive value, the push has been made to divorce spirituality from religion in the formal sense that spirituality might inherently imply religion. The problem is that spirituality in its very nature implies a religious context. Unfortunately, such people refuse to see that their failure to acknowledge the source(s) from which they derive value and meaning in life does not mean that such a source(s) does not exist. This concept of deriving ultimate value and meaning is basic to religious principles and impacts all of life [emphasis mine]. All actions in life flow from a religious foundation in the sense that a set of beliefs, however remote, underlie all actions. Those beliefs are inherently religious. Nevertheless, despite the cur- rent trend to divorce religion from spirituality and the persistent argument concerning the validity of that attempt, the fact remains that today’s American culture uses the notion of spirituality in a broad context and is increasingly confused about its intended meaning (208).

From a Christian and/or biblical perspective, perhaps some are confused about the intended meaning of the word “spirituality,” but I take exception to that as it sounds as though McClendon believes there is only one way to consider, examine, and/or apply whatever spirituality means.

I took a lot of notes from McClendon’s work as he considered not only the history of the word “spirituality” and the three degrees: general, Christian, and biblical. More on those in next week’s post; this article gave me an interesting framework with which to work.

Steensland, B., Wang, X., & Schmidt, L. C. “Spirituality: What Does it Mean and to Whom?” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, vol. 57, no. 3, 2018, pp. 450–472.

This article was another comparative exploration of religion, religious commitment, and the meaning of spirituality. And I learned there is a Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. I’ll just leave that there. I will also note that for the data geeks among you, this article is chock full of tables and charts of the statistical kind. For those of us for whom phrases like “regression model” and “collinearity problem” and “independent variables” do not spark joy, I’ll fast forward to the discussion section in which the authors addressed what they called the “elements of spirituality,” “classes of spirituality,” and “social influences on spirituality” (468-471). I’ll first give you some information about the study and then sum up what I found to be key points as I thought about my class.

The study was fielded in May 2016. The final sample size was 1,038 with a 59% percent response rate (454). There is, of course, more information about the study and how it was conducted in the article itself. These folks are supposed to be good at what they do and their research was affirmed by a peer-reviewed journal and so I’ll lean into the data results. As to what I found interesting and useful:

  • “Forty-one percent of descriptions [of spirituality] referenced God and 21 percent contained some other type of reference to a higher being’ (468).
  • “Fewer than 4 percent of respondents explicitly defined spirituality in juxtaposition to religion” which may mean the “’religions versus spirituality’ binary” referred to by “scholars of religion” isn’t a thing for the rest of us (468).
  • “Lay people on the whole see spirituality as distinct from religion but not as intrinsically defined in relation to it, either negatively or as coterminous” (468).
  • “People’s conceptions of spirituality are not idiosyncratic; they flow from social location and experience” (469).
  • “Attendance at worship services is associated with having a relationship with God and ethical action. When it comes to religious traditions, evangelical Protestants and the unaffiliated are the most distinctive, especially in seeing spirituality as having a relationship with God or as holistic connection. The ‘spiritual but no religious,’ while not a religious tradition, . . . are much more likely to define spirituality in terms of holistic connection and ethical action, and much less likely, unsurprisingly, in terms of organized religion” (469-470).
  • One study found a connection between age and degree of spirituality whereas these authors found a connection “between age and type of spirituality.” Gen X seems to be the inflection point with younger people being more holistic, less theistic while Boomers are more traditional and Millennials more distinctive in their views (470).
  • “Spiritual views rooted in theism, for instance, could incline people toward a political ideology more associated in the public mind with a commitment to transcendent authority” (470). The authors note more research is required to understand the directional influence of spirituality and political ideology.
  • Studies have shown “how thoroughly political polarization has saturated American life” (470). We won’t be discussing this in class, though.
  • Schneiders, Sandra M. “Biblical Spirituality.” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology, vol. 70, no. 4, Oct. 2016, pp. 417–430,

    Sr. Schneiders is professor emerita at the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University. As an aside, I find it interesting that so many studies about spirituality have Catholic influences. Just an observation. Sr. Schneiders gets straight to the point when she states that defines Christian spirituality as “the lived experience of Christian faith” (417). She goes on to assert
    in my understanding, all Christian spirituality is intrinsically biblical in some sense of the term, and the Bible is always related in some way, explicitly or implicitly, to any spirituality that can be called Christian. What I will be exploring here is not a theoretical proposition but what it means to say that Christian spirituality is biblical (417).
    She ascertains that her purpose in writing is to explore “how the Bible functions, or how it is engaged, to promote the lived experience of God in Christ down through the ages in diverse individuals and communities. How does Scripture give rise to and shape the faith of believers?” (418). With that, she provides a bridge, I think, between faith and spirituality.

    She spends a bit of time with theology and theopoetics. Schneiders notes that theopoetics is “about experiencing God, or making God and the things of God real in experience, primarily through aesthetic [participative] mediation” (424). She also makes two fascinating analogies as she investigates biblical spirituality: one to a symphony and another to drama.

    It is the dramatic one that I found most interesting because of the point she made about how transformative seeing a play can be as the audience is transported to a “change of world” (429). Schneiders states that “[l]iteral experience is not so much replaced by the imaginative experience [of the play] as suffused with it, illuminated by it, transformed by it” (429). Distance and time, she observes, can be effectively suppressed as the audience is immersed in the play—its story, its characters, and its setting.

    Sr. Schneiders asserts the same can be true when we engage with a biblical text. I don’t think she means just read the text dutifully, but to sit down with the text and be in the presence of God. She doesn’t say it but seems to intimate that the engagement might be waiting on the Holy Spirit. She states

    The reader is not reading about something that happened in Judea in the first century but participating aesthetically in the dynamics of revelation occurring in the here and now. This can happen in numerous and various ways: through personal prayer or lectio divina (meditative reading of Scripture), in prolonged retreat experiences, in the doing or hearing of effective preaching, in the experience of spiritual direction or pastoral care, in the exercise of ministry, in contemplative study, and especially in good liturgy, and indeed, even in the classroom. Through the teaching or lecturing of inspirational teachers or the reading of integrated biblical scholarship, believers (and sometimes non-believers or inquirers) enter the world of revelation, find their own inner landscapes and outer lives illuminated in subtle or shattering ways. They experience various kinds and levels of transformation or conversion. They are not reading “about” things that happened to other people in other times but experiencing in a new way their own consciousness, their own life, in and through the biblical material they are reading. This mystery of transformative con- temporaneity, of participative experience, which is effected by aesthetic or theopoetic engagement, is the substance of biblical spirituality (430).

    van Niekerk, brimadevi. Religion and spirituality: What are the fundamental differences? HTS Theological Studies, vol. 74, no. 3, 2018, pp. 1-11.>

    van Niekerk asks the same two fundamental questions I’ve posed: “What is religion?” and “What is spirituality”? My initial observation is that his answer to the first is much longer than the second.

    van Niekerk takes us back to Cicero who “derived ‘religion’ from relegere, to re-read” (2). He also cites Lactantius who made the connection to religare, “’to bind fast’ or that which binds men and women to one another and to the gods” (2). He observes that religion “has a strong emphasis on community, which is ironic given the tendency in the modern world to think of religion as something private and personal” (2). I have to think more about that observation and how religion is viewed.

    The author later notes that each religion seems to “have a particular language which one has to learn in order to understand them” (3). I remember when I first became a Christian and adopted what I call a new faith practice (next blog post). I had to learn a whole new way of thinking about the performative elements of that church service, but I also had to learn an entire new vocabulary for talking about my faith (which I understand as something different from religion; also next blog post).

    van Niekerk states that Mircea Eliade “has bemoaned the fact that we don’t have a more exact or accurate word for religion that would express the relationship between man and the sacred. The term religion, he says, ‘carries with it a long, although culturally rather limited, history’. His concern relates to how we may ‘indiscriminately’ apply the term to other religions and religious systems such as Buddhism, Confucianism and so on. But he surrenders his need for a new term with a proviso that our definition of religion ‘does not necessarily imply belief in God, gods, ghost, but refers to the experience of the sacred, and, consequently, is related to the ideas of being, meaning, and truth’. Clearly, then, for Eliade, experience is paramount in understanding the concept of religion” (3). I’m not going to read Eliade, but this is helpful.

    Emile Durkheim (1915) is cited and Durkheim noted that religion was often defined by social and psychological functions as what it does or by what it is or “its belief content” (3). van Niekerk quotes Durkheim:

    A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a church, all those who adhere to them (3).

    There is a lot of useful information and perspective from van Niekerk, and considerably more than I need as goes on to reference a number of scholars before he shifts to his second question: What is spirituality? Much of what van Niekerk presented about spirituality has it rooted in religious practices and expectations. Perhaps taking on an in-depth study of both religion and spirituality was more than van Niekerk was prepared to complete because he seems to give short shrift to spirituality as, perhaps, something too squishy (my word, certainly not his) to try to define.

    Wright, Wendy M. The Spiritual Classics as Spiritual Guides, The Way, 1992, pp. 36-48./

    Dr. Wright is a professor of theology at Creighton University in Omaha, NE. Her bio states that her work focuses “on the Salesian spiritual tradition founded by Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal.” When I read that, I had to decide how far down the Salesian rabbit trail I might be willing to go. Far enough to do a quick Google Search and learn that it is characterized as “everyday holiness” and is it can be practiced by anyone at any time if not all the time. Father Dailey writes that in “this ‘every day’ context, we grow in holiness to the extent that we become consciously aware and intentional about doing what we routinely do for the love of God.” He quotes de Sales who wrote in the Spiritual Directory:

    They who wish to thrive and advance in the way of Our Lord should, at the beginning of their actions, both exterior and interior, ask for his grace and offer to his divine Goodness all the good they will do.  In this way they will be prepared to bear with peace and serenity all the pain and suffering they will encounter as coming from the fatherly hand of our good God and Savior.  His most holy intention is to have them merit by such means in order to reward them afterwards out of the abundance of his love.

    They should not neglect this practice in matters which are small and seemingly insignificant, nor even if they are engaged in those things which are agreeable and in complete conformity with their own will and needs, such as drinking, eating, resting, recreating and similar actions.  By following the advice of the Apostle, everything they do will be done in God’s name to please him alone.

    This was a useful side trip; in fact, more useful than Dr. Wright’s own work although she did me remind of the historical transformations and evolutions language and, therefore, of the word “spirituality” and that we must always taken into consideration the language of the time.

    Five general observations
    First, I’m more convinced there is less nuance between what many mean by “religion,” “faith,” and “spirituality.”

    Second, perhaps because of my own faith journey, or perhaps because of my cynicism, I’m more convinced that spirituality is an expression of my values, or my faith. That might still be muddy for me so that’s also for the next post.

    Third, as we are roiled by how some want to have very narrow definitions of many things related to or connected to Christianity, I am reminded of a book by J.B. Phillips, Your God is Too Small.

    Fourth, I am reminded of the danger of using one or two Bible verses to make a point. Verses taken out of context can offer a limited or incomplete view of God’s Word, but they can also lead to theological error.

    Fifth, as a Christian, I believe God invites us to a deeper biblical and spiritual understanding of Him. The first seven verses of Psalm 34 are praise about answered prayer. Psalm 34:8 states “Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him” (NIV). That’s wonderful and is likely often used alone, but given that it follows praise and given what follows to the end of the psalm, it seems this is a pivotal verse as David says, “Hey! This is what happened to me and the same could happen to you if you fear God, if you seek His will, if you “keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies” (v. 13), etc. Psalm 34:22 repeats the use of the word "refuge" and I think what we see in verses 9-21 tell us how we can take refuge. THEN we can also perceive, experience, and see the Lord is good.

    There are commentaries that make Old Testament connections to this psalm and specifically to Psalm 34.8. And there are many ways to make connections to other passages in the Bible. However, people have to be willing to take the time to do that reading (Matthew 6:1-34, Ephesians 6:18, Habakkuk 2), to do that thinking, and to engage in that participative meditation.

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