Frequently the discussion about spirituality focuses upon what, in transactional analysis terms, might be called ‘warm fuzzies’. These are the ‘feel good’ factors in our life, the activities and behaviours which bring a warm glow, enhance our well-being, and generally help us feel that life is worthwhile. They also include the worldviews we have chosen, whether secular or religious, which provide a context of meaning as a backcloth for our own living. These help us feel that we are part of a greater whole; that our contribution in some ways enriches the life of others, and that we can make a positive difference to our community or society. A sense of mystery, wonder and awe, together with an appreciation of joy and beauty, also add to this rich tapestry to which the concept of spirituality seeks to point.

‘Ah, yes but …’ some would respond! The world is very complex, and whether or not we hold a religious faith, the terrible things that happen regularly make everyone pause. The list is endless: vulnerable people are abused; those charged with the responsibility to care for ill and frail people sometimes seriously fall short; the ways in which people treat others who are different from themselves lead to a worrying list of oppressive, discriminatory behaviours; power is abused; poverty is not being eradicated – so the list goes on.

Does the discussion about spirituality have anything to say in this context? Is spirituality only the domain of ‘warm fuzzies’? If, as has been suggested, spirituality is ‘what we do to give expression to our chosen worldview’ (Moss, 2005), then it must be acknowledged that, if some people choose a worldview which (in their mind) gives them the freedom to abuse others, then their spirituality will be directed towards this end. By contrast, if someone has a chosen worldview which seeks (for example) to recognise and serve the image of the Divine in others, or in secular terms to celebrate the diversity and value of each and every human being, then a spirituality that is imbued with compassion, self-sacrifice and a demand for justice will follow.

This suggests that there can be both a positive and negative understanding of spirituality. But this again raises serious questions. If someone belongs to a political party, for example, which has as its raison d’être the eradication of a particular section of society based (let us say) on issues around race and colour, then everything they do to give expression to that worldview (i.e. their spirituality) will be influenced by it. They may therefore feel that theirs is a very positive spirituality because it supports and promulgates the worldview they have chosen. By contrast, they will feel that others who argue and work for a society that celebrates and defends diversity will display a negative spirituality.

If all of this suggests that there are as many versions of spirituality as there are people to uphold them, then we need to ask if there is some litmus test which can be applied to help us clarify what otherwise would be a muddled situation. This is particularly urgent in secular contexts where people are not willing to take on board the worldviews of religious faith communities as the guide to such decision making. One suggestion in the important area of the people professions is to use the litmus test of anti-discriminatory practice which has been so well-developed by Thompson (2011). This would encourage us to work to the value base of regarding each and every person as having intrinsic value and worth, and to regard any action or spirituality based on a worldview that undermines this approach as being negative, and any activity or spirituality based on a worldview that supports and fosters it to be regarded as positive.

So how can spirituality help?

Sadly it usually takes something terrible to happen to us or to those close to us to make us sit up and ask the fundamental questions – of ourselves and the world – that have been raised in this article. These include the big questions: why? why me? why us? why does God allow this to happen? The questions appear in many guises.

Our spirituality, however we understand or define it, forms part of our response to these ultimately unanswerable questions. We all hold a worldview, which we hope is able to contain, if not always answer, the profound questions we raise when challenging situations occur. It may feel morbid to some – or ‘tempting fate’ for others – to explore such issues when the sun is shining and all is going well. But our spirituality needs to be a source of strength and resilience, and the foundations of these are laid in good times as well as bad. Perhaps we owe it to ourselves, to those close to us, and to the work which we do to give our lives meaning and purpose, to undertake a spiritual health check as regularly as we might have a physical health check. We might even call it a ‘risk assessment’ to explore how prepared we are for when faced with life’s challenges!

References and further reading

Thompson, N. (2011) Promoting Equality: Working with Diversity and Difference, 3rd edn, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.
Holloway, M. and Moss, B. (2010) Spirituality and Social Work, Basingstoke Palgrave Macmillan
Thompson, N. (2012) Anti-Discriminatory Practice, 5th edn., Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan

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