Spirituality – Intro

Spirituality (from Latin spiritus, ‘spirit, breath’ or spiro, ‘I breathe’—like ancient Greek ψύχω resp. ψυχή, see psyche) is the search for, the turning towards, the immediate contemplation or subjective experience of a transcendent reality that cannot be sensually grasped or rationally explained and that underlies the material world. Spiritual insights can be connected with questions of meaning and value of existence, with the experience of the wholeness of the world in its connectedness with one’s own existence, with the “ultimate truth” and absolute, highest reality as well as with the integration of the sacred, inexplicable or ethically valuable into one’s own life.

It is not a matter of mental insights, logic or communication about them, but of intense psychological, highly personal states and experiences that have a direct impact on the lifestyle and ethical ideas of the person. The prerequisite is a religious conviction, which, however, does not have to be connected with a specific religion.

There is no generally accepted definition of the term. The personal, ideological belief determines its concrete meaning for each individual—for example, whether God or other spiritual beings, numinous or even natural forces play a role in it.

In Christianity, spirituality used to be synonymous with piety and is still partly used in this way today. In fact, piety is more formally tied to the practice of a particular doctrine and its rituals. In the sciences, spirituality is mostly used in the broader sense—across denominations and religions—and piety in the narrower—more church-based—sense.

The term religiosity is sometimes equated with spirituality, although it either only describes the reverent belief or the feeling of a transcendent reality – without consciously and actively “fathoming” it, or turning to a particular religion.[1] The term is used to refer to the fact that a person’s faith in a particular religion is not necessarily a religious belief.

At the 2010 annual conference of the “Green Academy,” only a minimal consensus could be reached on the meaning of the term spirituality: Spirituality is “something other than filthy profit” (suggested wording by trend- and futurologist Eike Wenzel).[2] Sociologist Detlef Pollack notes an increasing secularization of the German population, in the course of which the Catholic and Protestant churches in particular must position themselves against church-independent, spiritual movement.[3]

Historical development of the designated and the designation

Spiritual attitudes have developed as part of the intuitive classification of (supposedly) inexplicable phenomena in the magical-mythical thinking of our ancestors probably very early in human history. In fact, however, many phenomena that appeared “mysterious” to earlier generations can be explained today with the help of scientific insights. As the research results of ethnology have shown for many script-less cultures, originally there was only a blurred separation between the world and religion in people’s lives as we know it. Spirituality, accordingly, was a commonplace behavioral pattern of the animistic worldview until the development of formal religions and the sciences.\[4]\[5]

Members of established religious communities often equate spirituality with “piety”, as was customary in the past. Today, however, this term is used primarily in a religious context, because it refers to a spirituality that is oriented toward the teachings and cults of a particular religion and is not “freely” directed toward the transcendent. Thus, it is associated with the negative connotation that a devout person adheres uncritically to a religion, even if his mind would have to refuse to accept certain statements of faith as “true.”[6]

Christian Rutishauser differentiates between theological and secular spirituality. According to him, spirituality in contemporary society expresses the longing for a spirit that does not get stuck in the mundane and superficial.[7]      

Origin from existing religions and cults

The religions and denominations have produced distinguishable spiritual currents. This has to do f with the different experience, description and naming of the higher authority or reality in the religious traditions: God (Arabic/in Islam: Allah), one deity, Tao, Brahman, Maha-Atman, Shunyata, Great Spirit, Pneuma, Prajna, Maha-Purusha, Sugmad, the One in Unity or the One in Multiplicity, etcetera.

When individuals or groups take elements from different spiritual traditions and combine them, at a certain point it might make sense to speak of a new spirituality. Often spiritualties are shaped or initiated by individual charismatic figures, and sometimes even named after these individuals. Erwin Möde explains the empirically verifiable increase in spiritual diversity in the West by stating that the “Christian churches […] are becoming emptier, the conventional image of God and the previous morality are fading, a monopoly claim to religion […] is no longer accepted” because “[a]ny monopoly of faith enforced by political force […] is being replaced by the free diversity of religious convictions.”[10]

However, it is difficult to determine at which point such a self-determined spirituality is no longer compatible with the religion from which it has developed. For example, someone who considers the concept of the transmigration of souls to be plausible is actually no longer a Christian, since the belief in the uniqueness of the individual soul is at the core of Christian faith. Ulrich Winkler warns: “[M] ultimate religious affiliation runs counter to religions. They require a sincere and undivided agreement to the teaching. Separating individual rituals or practices from the theoretical and theological doctrinal context contradicts the self-understanding of religions.”[11]


Christian spirituality is that specific form of spirituality that focuses on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It is always also biblical spirituality and tied back to early Christian practices. Depending on one’s personal piety, it also includes asceticism and mysticism. At the same time, it transcends denominational boundaries and features. In Christian spirituality, individual perfection is seen as attainable not only through techniques (contemplation, reading the Bible, prayer, charity, retreats, pilgrimage, church music), but is especially experienced as grace. Christian spirituality includes not only religious rituals, but is also expressed in everyday life. Small things in particular can take on religious significance and thus contribute to the Christian transformation of the person.

New variants of spirituality are also developing through activities of monasteries, priestly communities, religious movements and the like, from which forms of “lay spirituality” have emerged, which are lived by people who, as loyal members of their religious or ideological community, pursue ordinary professions, and have not made religion the center of their lives, as have monks, nun, priests and the like. In many cases, a lay spirituality emerged from a conventional or monastic one, but then specifically transformed it.


The spiritual goal in Buddhism is enlightenment (Bodhi). There are many different methods and ways in which this goal is achieved. Buddha teaches the four noble truths, the eightfold path, as the main path to enlightenment. An essential part is practicing meditation. The best-known Buddhist forms of meditation in the West are Vipassana and Zazen. Both schools teach non-judgmental and unintentional awareness in the here and now, without attachment to thoughts, sensations or feelings.


Hinduism consists of different schools and opinions. The teachings and concepts of God are very different in the individual groups, even the views on life, death and salvation (Moksha) do not agree. Most believers, however, assume that life and death are a constantly repeating cycle (samsara); they believe in reincarnation. Spiritual practice includes, for example, rituals, worship of a god, and the pursuit of individual liberation.


For Islam, spirituality consists of creating a spiritual bridge between people and the world on the one hand and God on the other within the framework of the “holy” scriptures. Secular systems of thought that abstract from God are not classified as spiritual.

Among the best-known representatives of Persian spirituality is the Sufi mystic Rūmī.[13]

Pacific religions

For Hoʻoponopono, a psycho-spiritual procedure of the Hawaiians, spirituality consists in the release of undesirable, predominantly interpersonal circumstances. The higher beings invoked to assist were primarily nature spirits, but also a family spirit called ‘aumakua’. Traditionally, the procedure, in which all persons involved in a problem were present (in spirit also the ancestors), was led by a kahuna (healing priest, similar to a shaman) through rituals and prayers. Its use dates back well over eight hundred years.[14]
Modern forms, founded by kahuna Morrnah Simeona, can be performed alone.[15] Neither traditional nor modern forms of Hawaiian origin include mantras (in part due to the lack of involvement of higher beings).

Spirituality as an integral part of existing religions

The term “spirituality” was used in the 18th century in French religious theology. For a long time it not very common (especially outside France). It was occupied by the church and stood for spiritual life, retreats, and occasionally also the destruction of undesirable desires.[16]

Even the dtv _Brockhaus Lexikon_ of 1962 still sees spirituality as the domain of the Catholic denomination: “cath. church: Christian piety, insofar as it is understood as the work of God’s Spirit with the participation of man; also personal appropriation of the message of salvation”. In 1960, Hans Urs von Balthasar put forward that “spirituality [is] the subjective side of dogma.”\[17]\[18] According to von Balthasar, Revelation, which is the source of biblical texts and is reflected upon by theologians, must be “incarnated” through spirituality so that it can become effective in everyday life. Dogma, as Ulrich Winkler interprets von Balthasar’s teaching, is the “skeleton” of a religion from which the “flesh of spirituality” must not be separated. “Bones with flesh” – This image is meant to clarify that pious believers should not “become dumbed down” by a spirituality devoid of reflection, but neither should scholars remove themselves from the believers through elitist philosophizing, which for most is incomprehensible. Otherwise, “dogmatism becomes encrusted and mysticism slips into the inwardness of psychological self-reflection.”[19]

Some reference works of the early 21st century (e.g., the _Brockhaus Religionen_ – 2004 -: “Today largely synonymous with piety” or the _Lexikon der Psychologie_ – 2000-2002 -: “piety, a spiritual orientation and way of life born of faith”) equate spirituality with piety.

According to research by Arndt Büssing et al. (2006), what users of the term understand by “spirituality” in each case depends on the ideological context to which they refer. Accordingly, even in the 21st century, speakers or writers always refer to an immaterial, non-sensually tangible reality (God, entities, etc.) that can nevertheless be experienced or imagined (awakening, insight, recognition) and that provides orientation for shaping one’s life. According to Büssing, a distinction must be made between a searching attitude and a believingly accepting or a knowing attitude. The authors quoted above take a “believing accepting” attitude.

Free spirituality, independent of existing religions

The Masonic Lodge St. Johann am Rhein in Schaffhausen attaches importance to the statement: “Spirituality is […] to be distinguished from faith and religion. Religiosity is too restrictive and because religions are or can be dogmatic, they do not fit the masonic “philosophy” anyway.” On the other hand, what is called spirituality today has always been important to Freemasons.[20]

Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s drama Faust (1808) also testifies to a spirituality far removed from the church: “No more personal God, no denomination, no religious community, no church, no related moral world order – but the feeling of an oneness and all-connectedness, emotional agreement with the world whole, the absolute as a cipher for love.”[21]

What Karl Baier described as Anglo-Saxon-neo-religious began in the 19th century. Helena Blavatsky, co-founder of the Theosophical Society, founded modern esotericism, which incorporated elements of neo-Hindu spirituality. As a result, according to Baier, this form of spirituality has lost its specifically Christian character. [22] As a result, an intentional closeness of the English word “spirituality” to spiritualist or “spirit conjuring” emerged.

Blurring the line to esotericism

Already in the Brockhaus of 1973 the keyword was: “Today the word spirituality has become a buzzword, runs under the generic terms esotericism and counselling and is already present in almost all profane areas.” [26] Currently, the term spirituality is also used as a buzzword, in connection with New Age and alternative medicine, and also politically in the program and the designation of a small party such as “[Die Violetten – für spirituelle Politik](https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Die_Violetten)”.

An advertising and marketing agency regards spirituality as a product on a “sense market”: “Very traditional players like the churches are fighting with completely new ones for the market of soul salvation. In the future, spirituality will be part of a modern lifestyle oriented toward sustainability and quality. Spirituality in the 21st century extends to a large number of needs, such as, life support, nutrition, health, counseling and coaching. One’s personal attitude towards life and one’s own identity will be enhanced by spirituality.”[27]

According to the Catholic theologian Herbert Poensgen, the word “spirituality” is in danger of becoming a “plastic word” due to the inflationary use of the word field “spiritual” in conjunction with the increasing trend to increase sales through marketing using the word field “spiritual”. According to Poensgen, “plastic words” are characterized by the fact that “connotations prevail by far over denotation”. [28]

Spirituality even without reference to transcendence

Recently, the term has been used without reference to God or transcendence, for example, by André Comte-Sponville in “What Does an Atheist Believe in: Spirituality without God.” Justice, compassion, love, democracy and human rights could unite believers in God, agnostics and atheists without wanting to promote each other. Similarly, the Dalai Lama, who describes the basic human values of kindness, friendliness, compassion and loving care as basic spirituality. In this respect, one could speak of a humanistic spirituality, which is aimed at making the values of humanism one’s own reality in life.

Theoretical conclusion

In 2006, the psychologist Rudolf Sponsel defineds spirituality as a conscious preoccupation “with questions of meaning and value of existence, the world and people, and especially one’s own existence and self-realization in life.”[34] According to him, spirituality also includes a special religious attitude to the life of man, not necessarily in the confessional sense, which focuses on the transcendent or immanent divine being or on the principle of the transcendent, non-personal ultimate truth or highest reality

Büssing makes an attempt to include various interpretations of the relationship between spirituality and existing religions in _one_ definition, writing, “The term spirituality is used to describe an attitude toward life that seeks meaning and significance, in which the seeker is aware of his/her ‘divine’ origin (where both a transcendent and an immanent divine being can be included, e.g.. God, Allah, YHWH, Tao, Brahman, Prajna, All-One, etc.), and feels a connectedness with others, with nature, with the Divine, etc. Out of this awareness he/she strives for the manifestation of the teachings, experiences or insights in the sense of an individually lived spirituality, which may well be non-denominational. This has a direct impact on lifestyle and ethical beliefs.”[35]

Practical implications of spirituality

Meyers Taschenlexikon (2003), like the Lexikon der Psychologie_ emphasizes that spirituality has an impact on the shaping of individual lives: [Spirituality is] “the spiritual orientation and life practice of a person founded by his faith and shaped by his material living conditions.”[35]

Expressions of spirituality

  1. At least seven factors could be differentiated as expressions of spirituality:[35]
  2. Prayer, trust in God and security
  3. Knowledge, wisdom and insight
  4. Transcendence belief
  5. Compassion, Generosity and Tolerance
  6. Conscious interaction with others, oneself and the environment (corresponds in the broadest sense to caution interaction on a horizontal plane)
  7. Reverence and gratitude
  8. Equanimity and meditation

Rudolf Sponsel lists behaviors by which, in his opinion, outsiders can recognize whether another person is characterized by “spirituality”: “Waking up and getting up ritual (greeting the day appropriately), contemplating, pausing, reflecting, meditating (Satipatthana meditation), taking a walk, doing household chores (e. g. doing the dishes, ironing, peeling onions, watering flowers), in the privacy of the toilet, giving thanks before eating, in a design (setting the table, making the apartment beautiful, painting), listening to music, paying attention to a log fire or candlelight; breathing consciously; full attention and devotion to an activity, flowers, a spiritual text (e.g. Borges: If I Could Live My Life Over Again ); appreciation rituals, sayings; reflecting on one’s own life story; having inner dialogues with caregivers and inanimate objects (nature, destiny, cosmos, stars, Mother Earth…).”

Anything that is done with a certain mindfulness, care, devotion or awareness can express spirituality. “Rituals can help, but sometimes involve the danger of the mechanical (rattling down 50 rosaries) and being empty,” says Sponsel. [36]

Evaluation of the material

Horst W. Opaschowski sees a deeper reason for the fact that less importance is attached to making money in the 21st century than before the turn of the millennium. Most people in highly developed countries now equate the narrower concept of “prosperity” to the material-economic, which began in the late 18th century, as inappropriate. Instead of always more (= standard of living), value is now placed on always better (= quality of life): The latter is more sustainable and ensures greater life satisfaction. For anti-globalists, on the other hand, questions about the meaning of life are pure luxury: money and material values are becoming increasingly more important to them.[37]

Spiritual experiences

Often spiritual experiences such as near-death experiences, after-death contact or mediumistic contacts are the starting point for a life of spirituality. According to studies, between 4 to 15 percent of people in the U.S., Australia and Germany have a near-death experience.\[38]\[39] A near-death experience is associated with after-effects, which often include a sharp increase in spirituality in the person affected (see After-effects of near-death experiences). Similarly, in various surveys, between 10 and 80 percent of respondents report experiencing after-death contacts (see Frequency of After-Death Contacts). Most religions also claim that their teachings are based on spiritual experiences – experienced, for example, by prophets, mystics, etc.

Psychedelics such as psilocybin and other substances called entheogens can trigger spiritual experiences. Among many indigenous peoples, such plant agents have been used traditionally for centuries. Shamans and similar spirit charmers often use them in combination with other spiritual practices. According to one study, combining them with regular meditation also enhances their effects.[40]