What is spirituality and what makes for different spiritualities? The word spirituality is relatively new within the English-speaking world, at least in terms of how it is being used today. Prior to the 1960s you would have found very few books in English with the word “spirituality” in their title, though that wasn’t true for the French-speaking world.
A half-century ago, spiritual writers within Roman Catholicism wrote about spirituality, but mostly under titles such as “The Spiritual Life” and “Ascetical Theology,” or under the guise of devotional treatises. Protestants and Evangelicals, for the most part, identified spirituality with Roman Catholic devotions and steered clear of the word.
What is spirituality, as generally understood within church circles today? Definitions abound within spiritual writings of every sort, each of which defines spirituality with a particular end-goal in mind.
Many of these definitions are helpful within academic discussions, but are less so outside those circles. So, let me risk simplifying things with a definition that’s wide, interreligious, ecumenical, and hopefully simple enough to be helpful.
Spirituality is the attempt by an individual or a group to meet and undergo the presence of God, other persons, and the cosmic world so as to come into a community of life and celebration with them. The generic and specific disciplines and habits that develop from this become the basis for various spiritualities.
Stripped to its root, spirituality can be spoken of as a “discipline” to which someone submits. For example, in Christianity we call ourselves “disciples” of Jesus Christ. The word “discipleship” takes it root in the word “discipline.” A disciple is someone who puts herself under a discipline.
Hinduism and Buddhism call this a “yoga.” To be a practicing Hindu or Buddhist you need be practicing a certain spiritual “discipline,” which they term a yoga. And that’s what constitutes any religious practice.
All religious practice is a question of putting oneself under a certain “discipline” (which makes you a “disciple”). But we can distinguish among various religious “disciplines.” Aristotle gave us a distinction which can be helpful here. He distinguished between a “genus” and a “species”; e.g., bird is a genus, robin is a species.
Thus looking at various spiritualities we can distinguish between “generic” disciplines and “specific” disciplines: Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, and various native religions are “generic” spiritualities. But within each of these you will then find a wide range of “specific” spiritualities.
For example, within the wide category of Christianity you will find Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Protestants, Evangelicals, Mormons, and Congregationalists. Each of these is a species.
Then we can distinguish still further: Within each of those you will find a wide range of “sub-species,” that is, particular Christian “disciplines.” For instance, within Roman Catholicism, we can speak of persons who have charismatic spirituality or a Jesuit, Franciscan, Carmelite, or Salesian spirituality, to offer just a few examples.