Briefly, Western Spirituality

IN THE WEST spirituality is both a very ancient and a very recent subject of inquiry. It would appear to have many different meanings. [i] It has been described as a “notoriously vague term”, and subject matter labelled ‘spiritual’ may seem to be ill-suited to rational inquiry. [ii] However, toward the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, spirituality has returned as a subject for academic study. [iii] It sits shakily astride a twentieth century dominated by logical positivism, empirical science, Darwinian evolutionary theory and a skepticism of anything which smacks of religion or metaphysics. Until very recently one was either spiritual and religious, or secular – the latter meaning atheist and without spiritual or religious belief. Only in the past twenty or so years has the notion of ‘secular spirituality’ come to be widely referred to and it has become acceptable to ascribe a spiritual dimension to people and activities not ostensibly religious; for example artists, scientists, ecological activists, holistic health practitioners. [iv] What follows is a brief overview of how Western philosophical concepts of spirituality have changed over relatively recent centuries and in particular in the twentieth century.

[i] See Walter Principe, ‘Toward Defining Spirituality’, Studies in Religion v.12, no.2 (1983),127-141., and Donald Evans, Spirituality and Human Nature (State University of New York, 1993), 1.

[ii] Peter H. Van Ness, Spirituality, Diversion, and Decadence (State University of New York, 1992), 12.

[iii] See Peter H. Van Ness, ‘Bonhoeffer, Nietzsche, and Secular Spirituality’, Encounter: Creative Theological Scholarship v.52, no. 4. Autumn ( 1991), 327-341. Also John L.. Elias, ‘The Return of Spirituality: Contrasting Interpretations’, Religious Education v. 86, no.3 (1991), 455-466. See also Jon Alexander, ‘What Do Recent Writers Mean by Spirituality?’, Spirituality Today v. 32, no. 3. Sept (1980), 247-256.

[iv] See Peter H. Van Ness (1991) Spirituality, Diversion, and Decadence, 327-328, 330; John Elias (1991) ‘The Return of Spirituality: Contrasting Interpretations’, 456-8; Jon Alexander (1980) ‘What Do Recent Writers Mean by Spirituality?’ 250-254.

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