Many years ago the philosopher Professor C.E.M. Joad used to respond to questions thrown at him by saying that: ‘it all depends on what you mean by …!’. We might be forgiven for using a similar response to this question about spirituality. It does indeed all depend on what you mean by it.

If you belong to a faith community or are open to the possibility of a divine Being who welcomes a relationship with us as human beings – Christianity, Judaism and Islam are good examples of this – then the question is fairly easily answered. Spirituality for a believer or a religious ‘seeker’ is what characterises the relationship they have, or seek, with the Divine. Just as loving tenderness, and a determination to do whatever is in the best interests of the one you love is a characteristic of a human loving relationship, so spirituality is a short-hand term for a range of activities that characterise a loving, caring relationship for and with the Divine. So a sense of awe, mystery, wonder and worship will begin to permeate your life; you will seek out people of a similar persuasion and spend time with them, formally and informally, in worship or prayer; you will read sacred texts in order better to understand what this relationship is all about. And you will seek to live your life according to certain standards, asking for forgiveness when you fall short, but always seeking the best interests of others as you seek to pursue justice and peace. Finding out more about spirituality in such a context will become part and parcel of belonging to such a community of faith, and sharing that community’s particular worldview to help make sense of what happens to us and to others.

Spirituality is by no means restricted by, or limited to, religious expressions. Far from it! There are many people for whom a spiritual dimension to living is at the heart of being human, and for whom a religious dimension, or a faith in Divine being, is neither necessary nor intellectually tenable. Spirituality in this context is also understood as a short-hand term, or gateway word, which highlights important themes of what it means to be fully human. These themes include meaning and purpose; well-being; mystery and awe, and what makes us tick. We are usually fairly comfortable to use the term ‘spirit’ in a range of secular ways without implying a religious belief. We can be in high or low spirits; we can display a spirit of courage or self-sacrifice, or encourage others by saying: ‘That’s the spirit’. These human qualities are not necessarily easy to define or pin down, but we all know instinctively that they are important if we are to live life to the full, and to have a sense of purpose and direction which makes life worthwhile.

Finding out more about spirituality in a secular context is also a journey of self-discovery, for which there are probably as many paths to discovery as there are people to take them! Perhaps a good place to start however would be to ask ourselves what is the worldview we have chosen that provides the context for our living, behaving and moral decision making.

It has been suggested, for example, that spirituality is: ‘what we do to give expression to our chosen worldview’ (Moss, 2005). If we regard other people as essentially good, then this will influence how we behave towards them; by contrast, if we regard human beings as essentially violent, self-seeking and selfish, then this worldview too will influence our behaviour and attitudes. These are very simplistic examples, of course: human reality, individually and collectively, is far more complex. But how we see the world will influence what we do and how we behave. Furthermore, how we respond to questions such as: What do I do when things go wrong? How do I cope when disaster strikes; what do I do to take care of myself? How do I bolster my resilience? What are my financial priorities? Is it important to me to care for others? will all give us some idea as to what our spiritual priorities are, and what our chosen worldview looks like.

What next? Some suggestions for further thought

The discussion above has highlighted some of the key themes and aspects of this wide-ranging concept called spirituality. Some find the term useful; for others it is a stumbling block because it seems to take people into a religious world that they find distinctly uncomfortable and unacceptable. Whatever your views on these questions, there are some key issues that deserve further thought. These include:

What do I do when things go wrong?

How do I cope when disaster strikes?

What do I do to take care of myself?

How do I bolster my resilience?

What are my financial priorities?

Is it important to me to care for others?

It might be easier to explore these issues with the help of a close friend or mentor. You may find courses or discussion groups run by various secular as well as religious/faith communities that are specifically geared to honest, intelligent enquiry. But, however you choose to undertake this journey, you will discover that finding out more about spirituality begins with an inner restlessness; where it ends depends on the direction of the journey we each decide to undertake.

Reference and further reading

Holloway, M. and Moss, B. (2010) Spirituality and Social Work, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan

(A good introduction and exploration of many themes that are not limited to social work)

Moss, B. (2005) Religion and Spirituality, Lyme Regis, Russell House Publishing.

(this is a short introduction that raises several of the issues touched upon in this article)

Website: www.basspirituality.org.uk – but search for Spirituality in any good search engine and you will find plenty of material to help you on your journey.

Bernard Moss is an Emeritus Professor at Staffordshire University and has written widely on the theme of spirituality.