Redefining spirituality: a new discourse.
College students (Religious aspects)
College students (Beliefs, opinions and attitudes)
College students (Education)
Education, Higher (Analysis)
Spirituality (Study and teaching)
Estanek, Sandra M.
Pub Date:
Name: College Student Journal Publisher: Project Innovation (Alabama) Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Education Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2006 Project Innovation (Alabama) ISSN: 0146-3934
Date: June, 2006 Source Volume: 40 Source Issue: 2
Event Code: 290 Public affairs
Product Code: E197500 Students, College
Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States

Accession Number:
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By the end of the 1990s, the topic of spirituality as distinguished from religion was being discussed in higher education conferences and publications. Using qualitative research methods, this study examines definitions of spirituality in higher education literature. The researcher argues that 1) the emerging discussion of spirituality can be understood as a new discourse because it separates the understanding of spirituality from its roots in religion and thus changes its meaning; 2) that no common definition of spirituality exists; but that 3) the definitions contain five recurring patterns that illuminate the parameters of the new discourse. Five recurring patterns are identified. These patterns are discussed, as are their implications for professionals working in higher education.


This basic interpretive qualitative study analyzes the meaning given to the experience of spirituality through definitions of spirituality in higher education literature.

By the end of the 1990s, the topic of spirituality was being discussed at higher education conferences. Examples of these conferences included the Institute on College Student Values, which was founded in 1990, and the Fetzer Institute symposia, which began in 1994. In 1998, Wellesley College hosted the first Education as Transformation symposium, which focused on exploring issues of religious pluralism and spirituality in higher education, and which attracted educators from across the United States. In 1999, the American College Personnel Association (ACPA) organized a conference devoted exclusively to spirituality, and in 2001 the National Association for Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) followed suit with the establishment of a conference on this topic. ACPA, NASPA, and other associations such as the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) included sessions on topics related to spirituality in their national conferences.

By the end of the decade the topic was being explored in scholarly literature as well, including professional journals, books, doctoral dissertations, and master's theses. Asking how spirituality was being defined in this emerging discussion was the starting point for this study. Because in qualitative research it is the researcher who serves as the instrument of analysis it is appropriate to reveal the personal interest and perspective of the researcher (Merriam, 2002; Locke, Silverman, & Spirduso, 2004). As a vice president for student affairs at two Catholic institutions in the 1990s, I attended several of the conferences and sessions on the topic of spirituality that were discussed in the preceding paragraph. I was familiar with the writings of Fowler (1981) and Parks (1986) on spiritual development. I was interested in the practical possibilities that resulted from separating the idea of spirituality from its traditional roots in religion. It was clear to me that this separation allowed practitioners who worked at public institutions to engage questions of spirituality within the context of a secular pluralist environment. However, I became interested in how this new understanding also might be relevant to those of us who worked at church-related institutions. I began a literature review of the topic.

Spirituality is not a new word. The idea has long been understood as a dimension of religious experience, especially in the Christian and Buddhist traditions (O'Brien, 1979; McBrien, 1995; Harris, 2000; Wakefield, 2000). In my reading it became clear to me that spirituality was being used in a way that separated it from these religious roots; however, it was unclear to me how this new understanding of spirituality was being defined. I decided to conduct a study specifically on these questions, "What do we mean when we say spirituality and why is it important?"


Qualitative research is appropriate for this study because its underlying epistemology is constructivist. This means that qualitative research is grounded in the belief that "meaning is socially constructed by individuals in interaction with their world" (Merriam, 2002, p. 3). Qualitative research "strive(s) to understand the meaning people have constructed about their world and their experiences; that is, how do people make sense of their experience?" (Merriam, pp. 4-5). The new literature on spirituality redefined spirituality separate from a religious context. In doing so, it was reinterpreting the very experience of spirituality. This study was interested in illuminating this new meaning being conveyed in the definitions and not simply in the definitions per se.

This study was conducted between May 2003 and May 2004. The first step in the study was to conduct a literature review of sources on spirituality in higher education literature. Texts included journal articles, books, dissertations and master's theses. Selected websites devoted to the topic of spirituality and conference presentations on the topic of spirituality that were available also were included as text (Lincoln & Guba, 1985; Love & Yousey, 2001). The next step was to develop a purposeful sample of texts from this initial literature review. Sources were included in the sample that clearly articulated a specific definition of spirituality. Fifteen different texts were chosen for inclusion in this sample (Bommersbach, 2001; Buley-Meisser, Thompson, & Tan, 2001; Educational Futures, International, 1978; Graham, Furr, Flowers, & Burke, 2001; Hindman, 2002; Hoge, Dinges, Johnson, & Gonzales, 2001; Kazanjian & Laurence, 2000; Love & Talbott, 1999; Mayhew, 2002; Pintus, 1998; Pontifical Council for Culture & Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, 2000; Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, n.d.; Swanson, 2001; Tisdell, 2003; Weinstein, Parker, & Archer, 2002). Next, a content analysis was conducted to discover common non-redundant themes, using the methodology for analyzing narrative data proposed by Kvale (1996). Because of the complexity of the texts involved the researcher determined that this methodology was more appropriate than methods of content analysis used in document analysis. The researcher determined that the texts involved were more appropriately considered to be narratives rather than documents.

Applying the narrative method proposed by Kvale (1996), the following steps were taken: 1) the texts chosen for the purposeful sample were read in their entirety to get a sense of the whole, 2) the definitions of spirituality used in the texts were surfaced, 3) the texts were reread with the purpose of determining the interaction of the definitions and the analyses, and finally 4) the non-redundant themes were identified and categorized.

Two methods of peer review were employed to promote validity and reliability (Merriam, 2002). The preliminary analyses were shared with three colleagues who are familiar with the literature on spirituality. The preliminary analyses also were shared in sessions at the Institute for College Student Values in February 2004 and the American College Personnel Association conference in April 2004. Feedback received by these methods was used to further refine the analyses.


Through this process it was found that 1) the new literature on spirituality can be considered a new discourse, and 2) that no one definition of spirituality informs this emerging discourse. Instead, the definition itself is part of the hermeneutic process. That is, studies are not conducted based upon a commonly held definition of spirituality. Instead, defining spirituality is part of the interpretation itself. The narrative analysis surfaced five common non-redundant themes that identify the parameters of the understanding of spirituality. They are: A) spirituality defined as spiritual development, B) spirituality used as critique, C) spirituality understood as an empty container for individual meaning, D) spirituality understood as common ground or "field," and E) spirituality as quasi-religion. These findings are discussed below.

1) Understanding Spirituality as a New Discourse:

This emerging discussion of spirituality may be categorized as a discourse. A discourse is an "aggregation of oral or written communication by a ... delimited body of people," such as a profession (Love & Yousey, 2001, p. 431). To understand this discussion of spirituality as a discourse is to recognize that every definition is an interpretation of experience. A discourse both surfaces the meaning(s) already held by the participants (tacit knowledge) and imposes a new structure of meaning (explicit knowledge) (Schwandt, 2001). The idea itself (spirituality) already interprets a lived experience that is meaningful. This is understood as tacit knowledge. When an individual or group analyzes that idea as an element of a discourse the idea becomes explicit knowledge and gains the power to re-interpret the very experience from which it emerged. In other words, it can change the very meaning of the experience. This means that separating spirituality conceptually from religion changes how both the spiritual and the religious are understood as meaningful. Thus, as higher education professionals discuss and write about spirituality they define, shape, and reshape the meaning of spirituality for both themselves and for their students as they interact with them (Phillips & Hardy, 2002). Once one understands that how one defines spirituality shapes the experience of spirituality it becomes of practical importance to understand how spirituality is defined in this new discourse.

2A) Spirituality Defined as Spiritual Development

One of the meaning clusters identified is of those definitions that equate spirituality and spiritual development. They are represented by the definitions found in the work of Love and Talbot (1999) and Tisdell (2003). Love and Talbot's definition is the first, and most quoted, definition of spirituality in student affairs literature. It is also the most comprehensive. Their definition is based upon three assumptions. The first assumption is that "the quest for spiritual development is an innate aspect of human development;" the second is "spiritual development and spirituality are interchangeable concepts", and the third is "openness is a prerequisite to spiritual development" (p. 364).

Based upon these assumptions Love and Talbot (1999) offer five propositions that form their definition:

1) Spiritual development involves an internal process of seeking personal authenticity, genuineness, and wholeness as an aspect of identity development.

2) Spiritual development involves the process of continually transcending one's current locus of centricity.

3) Spiritual development involves developing a greater connectedness to self and others through relationships and union with community.

4) Spiritual development involves deriving meaning, purpose, and direction in one's life.

5) Spiritual development involves an increasing openness to exploring a relationship with an intangible and pervasive power or essence that exists beyond human knowing (pp. 364-367).

The assertion that spirituality and spiritual development are interchangeable is debatable, and is not held by all other definitions in this sample. While a developmental approach to spirituality is consistent with the theoretical assumptions of student development literature (Love, 2001; 2002) and is consistent with the work of Fowler (1981) and Parks (1986; 2000), there are understandings of spirituality that are not developmental. A developmental approach to spirituality may be desirable, as will be discussed later in this article, but one first must understand that there are other possible understandings that do not include a developmental dimension.

Tisdell's (2003) understanding of spirituality is similar to that of Love and Talbot (1999). Her seven-part definition is based upon several qualitative research studies. Her definition of spirituality is

1) Spirituality and religion are not the same, but for many people they are interrelated.

2) Spirituality is about an awareness and honoring of wholeness and the interconnectedness of all things through the mystery of what many I interviewed referred to as the Life-force, God, higher power, higher self, cosmic energy, Buddha nature, or Great Spirit.

3) Spirituality is fundamentally about meaning-making.

4) Spirituality is always present (though often unacknowledged) in the learning environment.

5) Spiritual development constitutes moving toward greater authenticity or to a more authentic self.

6) Spirituality is about how people construct knowledge through largely unconscious and symbolic processes, often made more concrete in art forms such as music, art, image, symbol, and ritual which are manifested culturally.

7) Spiritual experiences most often happen by surprise (pp. 28-29).

Several general themes are common to both Love and Talbot (1999) and Tisdell (2003). They are that spirituality is both deeply individual and communal, that there is some sort of power beyond human existence, and that humans develop in trying to make sense (meaning-making) of their existence in light of this power.

2B) Spirituality Used as Critique

A different theme in the literature is that of spirituality as critique. By this is meant that the idea of "spirituality" is used to distinguish one's experience from, and perhaps to reject, a mainstream tradition. There are two versions of this understanding in the literature. The first is spirituality as critique of mainstream religion, and the second is spirituality as critique of the dominant epistemology of the academy.

Spirituality as critique of religion may be summarized by the statement, "I am not religious but I am spiritual" (Parks, 2000, p. 16). Much of the research on spirituality has been of a phenomenological nature, that is, the definition has emerged from studying the lived experience of individuals (Mayhew, 2002; Tisdell, 2003). The rejection of aspects of one's inherited religious tradition has been an element of the experience of many in these studies. This is an element of many of Tisdell's (2003) interviewees, for example, which is illustrated by the following quote:

Most of Tisdell's (2003) subjects were brought up in a religious tradition. Many of them rejected that tradition for some reason but retained a spiritual dimension in their lives. They often "spiral back," as she names it, to incorporate elements of their religious background into their new eclectic spirituality. This understanding is seen in other studies as well (Hoge, Dinges, Johnson & Gonzales, 2001; Kazanjian & Laurence, 2000; Lee, 2003).

One issue for practitioners to consider is whether this questioning of one's religious tradition and a la carte construction of one's spiritual identity is a stage in one's development, a la Fowler (1981), Parks (1986; 2000), and Love and Talbot (1999) or an independent way of being-in-the-world, to use the language of phenomenology. If it is understood in terms of a stage then that would support the conflating of spirituality and spiritual development in the definitions of Love and Talbot and Tisdell (2003). It also would support the proposition that it is the role of university educators to both support and challenge the inherited beliefs of students in order to foster their spiritual development.

The other understanding of spirituality as critique emerges from the academic community. This critique is of the dominant epistemology in academe of rationalism and objectivism. In this epistemology the dominant mode of thinking is to understand the world without recourse to any concept of God or a higher power, overarching intelligence, or any form of transrational phenomena, that is, experience beyond human reason and experience. Within this way of thinking it is understood that an educated person must divest him or herself of any religious perspective and adopt the stance of skepticism. This perspective is illustrated by the following quote:

As alternative ways of knowing, often based upon the study of non-Western and marginalized peoples, are brought into the academy the epistemological hegemony of rationalism is being challenged. Transrational experience is being recognized and understood as spirituality. This understanding is shared by the contributing authors of The Academy and the Possibility of Belief (Buley-Meissner, Thompson, & Tan, 2001) and Education as Transformation (Kazanjian & Laurence, 2000). This perspective also is articulated by several of Tisdell's (2003) interviewees. Their common perspective is that student-centered education must engage students as whole persons who bring the many dimensions of their selves to the educational process. That process must respect and engage all dimensions, including the spiritual dimension, in order to be effective. An ideology of skepticism, which derides an individual's religious beliefs or spirituality and imposes a stance of atheism or agnosticism, prevents such a holistic approach to learning from occurring.

2C) Spirituality Understood as an Empty Container for Individual Meaning

It has been difficult to discuss issues related to spirituality and religious experience in higher education because of the understanding of the separation of church and state in public institutions and in much of American society. Yet this is clearly an aspect of many students' lives, which they wish to discuss. Even practitioners who are themselves religious or spiritual have shied away from these encounters for fear of imposing their own set of beliefs upon others (Weinstein, Parker, & Archer, 2002). One way that practitioners have developed to work within this situation is to define spirituality in a way that invites individuals to bring their own meaning to the word. It is in this sense that spirituality is defined as an empty container. In this sense, spirituality as it is used here has no real meaning in and of itself.

The following definitions illustrate this perspective. Spirituality is "a dynamic expression of who we are, truly" (Hindman, 2002, p. 165). Hindman quoted other definitions that convey this same understanding, such as "how I live at the center of who I am" (Johnson cited in Hindman, p. 168) or "What gives meaning to our life is connected to something beyond our own ego" (Jones cited in Hindman, p. 168). These definitions are without specific meaning until they are filled in by the reader. What gives meaning to one's life or what is at the center of one's sense of being is intensely personal and is left to the individual to fill in. This understanding of spirituality is consistent with the dominant American political philosophy of liberalism (Sandel, 1982; 1996). This understanding opens up space for a discussion of spirituality without imposing a specific content onto a pluralistic society. As such it is a very useful construct for student affairs practitioners, especially at public institutions, opening the door for conversation about the topic of spirituality and even religion in a manner that is both ethical and legal.

2D) Spirituality Understood as Common Ground or Field

The concept of "field" as it is used here is derived from the new science of quantum physics. Physicists and astronomers have come to understand that space is not empty, as was previously thought. It is not the "nothing" in between stars, planets, and other bodies. Space is filled with energy that connects stars and planets and other matter to each other. It is more of a web than a vacuum. Mars, for example, is not separated from Earth by the vast void of space. It is connected to Earth by the web of energy that is space. This invisible, connective energy is what is meant by a field (Love & Estanek, 2004). It is in this way that spirituality is understood as a field. There are two distinct variations of this understanding in the sample sources. The first strain of this perspective includes a reference to a higher power, however this is understood: God, ultimate intelligence, life force. Several authors include this understanding (Educational Futures, International, 1978; Pintus, 1998; Buley-Meissner, Thompson, & Tan, 2000; Bommersbach, 2001; Graham, Furr, Flowers, & Burke, 2001). The second strain does not include this transcendent dimension. Spirituality is understood as an aspect of common human capacity (Swanson, 2001).

The first type of understanding the definition of spirituality as field is that spirituality is the unseen web that connects all religions. This perspective is shared by the participants in the 1998 Wellesley Symposium, whose papers are shared in Education as Transformation (Kazanjian and Laurence, 2000). From this perspective religion is the diverse, concrete expression of human spirituality, a perspective also shared by Graham, Furr, Flowers, and Burke (2001).

The theme of Education as Transformation is that spirituality is best fostered on campus by promoting the greatest religious diversity. This does not mean only promoting religions in the Judeo-Christian tradition but including equally Eastern traditions and neo-pagan religions. This understanding goes beyond traditional ecumenical and inter-faith understandings (M. Galligan-Stierle, personal communication, February 7, 2003). From the perspective of ecumenism and inter-faith understanding one would share one's own path and would ask and expect respect and inclusion. From the perspective of spirituality as field one would go beyond respect for diversity to seek the common core that unites what on the surface appears to be apart. Scott, writing in Kazanjian and Laurence (2000) argues for integrating the elements of culture that have been fragmented since the Enlightenment. "The task ahead relates to Kant's attempts to integrate the 'big three' value spheres of art, science, and religion (morals) which, as a result of the Enlightenment, were beginning to fall apart, and which have become even more disassociated in the modern university" (p. 28).

The idea of spirituality as field also is understood without any reference to religion. Spirituality is understood as the internal cohesion of the self, which is common to all human beings and thus a field of connection despite diverse cultural expression. No higher power is implied. For example, the Association for Spiritual, Ethical, and Religious Values in Counseling defined spirituality as a "capacity and tendency that is innate and unique in all" (ASERVIC,). Swanson (2001) wrote, "ASERVIC further explains that 'spirit' may be defined as a vital life force, which is present in elements such as air, wind, courage, and strength. Spirituality, then, would be the drawing and activity of spirit in an individual's life" (p. 10).

2E) Spirituality as Quasi-Religion

Finally, many identify their spirituality as New Age, which may be defined as "a free-flowing spiritual movement; a network of believers and practitioners who share somewhat similar beliefs and practices, which they add onto whichever formal religion they follow" (Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, n.d.). New Age elements are part of the constructed spirituality of several of Tisdell's (2003) subjects, for example. Because of the many common elements of New Age some define it as a quasi-religion offering an alternative worldview and not simply an eclectic collection of practices and beliefs (Pontifical Council for Culture & Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, 2000). This perspective argues that New Age is not simply a compendium of meditation and other techniques that can be helpful to all religious traditions. Instead, they argue that New Age spirituality is a coherent alternative worldview that contains elements from both Western and non-Western cultures.

Implications for Practice

As engaging this dimension of human experience becomes an aspect of student affairs practice recognizing the complexity embodied in the word "spirituality" is an important step. Once that is done, however, the question of implications for practitioners immediately emerges.

Should we try to agree upon one definition of spirituality? This would be possible, of course, but I believe it would be unwise. For example, given the American culture of separation of church and state it is useful to have a working definition of spirituality without reference to God or religion. Yet this analysis demonstrates that spirituality and religion are united in practice for many even if the concepts can be defined separately. Having one definition of spirituality that precludes religious experience would leave us where we were when we started, uncomfortable with religious expression while recognizing that this was an important dimension of many of our students' lives.

What if we accepted the definition of spirituality as field that led to religious pluralism on campus? This, too, sounds attractive at first but leads to questions about the boundaries of what is acceptable, of what the understanding of pluralism includes and what it does not. This is not just a theoretical possibility. Recently, France has banned the wearing of the Islamic headscarf by girls in French public schools, as well as the wearing of other obvious religious symbols such as yarmulkes and "overly large" crosses, arguing that such expressions are divisive and inconsistent with a secular society. If we were to argue the opposite in the name of pluralism, for example, would we accept without question severe limitations on the lives of women in the name of religious pluralism? How would we argue against it if pluralism was our only criterion? In light of this, should we end this article simply by saying there are many definitions and leave it at that?

My own answer is no to that question. I am led in my own reflections back to Love and Talbot's (1999) definition of spirituality. One of their assertions was that "spiritual development and spirituality are interchangeable concepts" (p. 364). The other definitions presented in this article clearly challenge this assertion. Some of the definitions include a developmental aspect but many do not. However, while it may not be possible to accept a universal definition of spirituality equated with spiritual development it is possible for student affairs professionals to take a developmental approach to spirituality as the foundation of their work. This would not be a definition of spirituality per se but would be understood as a dimension of good practice.

By taking a developmental approach to spirituality we locate spirituality within the mainstream of the student affairs profession. Love (2002) argues for the connection between cognitive development and spiritual development, for example, and places spiritual development in the mainstream of student learning. Taking a developmental approach to spirituality recognizes the diversity of spiritual and religious understandings. However, with this approach we ask of students what we ask of them in other areas of development: that they reflect upon their spirituality, however they understand it, in light of experience and integrate it into their emerging adult self. We ask them to learn more about their own faith tradition, if they have one, and those of others, not only in a religious sense but in the active sense of meaning-making articulated by Fowler (1981) and Parks (1986; 2000). This understanding not only allows for pluralism on campus but also provides a developmental context for practical administrative decision-making when the inevitable questions and clashes associated with pluralism arise. In this, student affairs professionals can work with faculty, religious groups, and campus ministers on campus, as suggested by Temkin and Evans (1998). Practitioners will also need to take a developmental approach to their own understandings of spirituality so that they engage students authentically and without hidden agendas, as suggested by Jablonski (2001).

Taking such a developmental approach challenges professionals working at private church-related institutions as well as public institutions. From a developmental perspective, it is not be enough to facilitate the religious expression of students on campus. It is not be enough to recognize that there are students on campus who do not share the faith of the church-related institution and to provide to those students ecumenical or interfaith experiences or campus ministry services or directories of places of worship in the area. A developmental approach requires engagement of the "big questions" of the meaning and purpose of one's life (Parks, 2000) and challenges all university educators to provide opportunities for students to learn, question, doubt, and deepen their spiritual dimension. Returning to Fowler (1981) and Parks (1986; 2000), a developmental approach to spirituality is a call to participate with students in the process of "faithing," that is, the "dynamic, multifaceted ... dialogue with promise" (Parks, 2000, p. 31).

This developmental approach is present in the literature, particularly in the definitions of Love and Talbot (1999) and Tisdell (2003). However, by liberating it from being one of several definitions of spirituality and highlighting it as an approach to spirituality that is particularly appropriate to student affairs we both allow the diversity of definition to exist, and we provide student affairs professionals with a practical approach to appreciating, supporting, engaging, and challenging the diversity of spiritual expression.


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Assistant Professor

Canisius College
Even though most adults as they
   develop either move away or question
   their childhood religious
   tradition (if they grew up in one),
   nearly all who believe spirituality is
   important to them spiral back to 'remember'
   the life-enhancing
   elements of their religious tradition
   and their culture of origin while
   developing a more meaningful adult
   spirituality (p. 104).

Changing views of the mission of
   universities as well as the widespread
   appeal of agnosticism,
   relativism, scientific empiricism, and
   social constructivism have created
   classroom conditions in which religious
   ideals are questioned
   suspiciously or antagonistically.
   When religious views are considered,
   most writers claim that
   skepticism has become the primary
   (typically only) accepted intellectual
   posture for serious investigation.
   As many of us are all too aware,
   antagonism toward religious peoples
   and ideas is apparent, not only
   because of skepticism, but also
   because of bigotry (Buley-Meissner,
   Thompson & Tan, 2001, p. 5)
Gale Copyright:
Copyright 2006 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.