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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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"
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.
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
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
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
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,
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SANDRA M. ESTANEK
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'
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)