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In Search of the Sacred:

A conceptual analysis of spirituality

Almut Beringer


has captured


for programming.

Drawing on religious




of human


This article




a conceptual

The article





and functioning

that spiritual



via researching

to complement


of spirituality

the two notions

that make spiritual

is, in part, religious

he growing interest in spirituality in and beyond

experiential education has given rise to applying
the terms "spirituality" and "spiritual" to all
sorts of phenomena and experiences. Yet conceptual
ambiguity surrounds "spirituality" (Dyson, Cobb, &
Foreman, 1997; Martsolf & Mickley, 1998; McSherry,
1998; Sokanovic & Muller, 1999; Thoresen, 1999). As a
result, spiritual education practice seems to rest on pre
carious foundations and to be controversial to some.
This article seeks to lift this conceptual muddle at least
to some extent; it asks, what is spirituality, and strives
to illuminate the phenomenon via philosophical-con
ceptual analysis.

SpiritualityThe need for conceptual inquiry

In experiential education, spirituality has captured
the attention of researchers and practitioners particular
ly as it transpires on extended journeys in wilderness
settings and in its implications for programming (e.g.,
Anderson-Hanley, 1997; Fox, 1999; Frederickson and
Anderson, 1999; Stremba, 1997; Stringer, 1990; Stringer
& McAvoy, 1992). Aiming to more fully understand
spirituality and to make its transformative and healing
effects (Goddard, 1995) available to students and
clients, experiential educators have focused their efforts

Almut Beringer, PhD, lectures in environmental

in the Department
of Outdoor Education
and Nature
Tourism at La Trobe University, Bendigo,
Victoria, Australia.
She can be contacted
on e-mail

study and pedagogy


of broad

"the sacred"

and specific


lived experience




to be fundamental



The article, further,

Issues this raises are




on empirical analysis of lived spiritual experience, pri

marily via qualitative research.
Documenting and analyzing lived spiritual experi
ence is one way to approach spiritual phenomena, and
a necessary andwhen done wella valuable one.
Qualitative research regarding spirituality also has limi
tations, limitations due to non-empirical aspects of spir
itual phenomena, a discussion of which, however, is
beyond the scope of this article (for more detail, see
Dawson, 1997; Slife, Hope, & Nebeker, 1999; see also
McSherry, 1998). Further, limitations arise when taking
the tremendous variety of lived spiritual experience as a
starting point for inquiry, and trying to discern the
nature of what is a complex phenomenon via inductive
analysis. Rigorous and thorough philosophical inquiry
is also needed. In this paper, I try to unpack the dis
course on spirituality, in the hope of contributing to bet
ter conceptual grounding of "spirituality," for research,
theory, programming, and practice.
Spirituality is conceptually challenging and diffi
cult to define, a difficulty not eased by the facts that the
phenomenon seems to be multidimensional (Cusveller,
1998; McSherry, 1998) and profoundly personal
(McSherry, 1998), and that the meaning of the term
seems to be changing (Mahoney & Graci, 1999).
Inconsistencies in defining or describing spirituality do
not help in shaping practice to secure the spiritual out
comes experiential educators strive for. Claims that
"spirituality doesn't need to be defined because that
would limit it," discussions about "true" versus "false"
spirituality without clarifying the criteria by which such
discrimination is made, or defining spirituality as "the

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intangible aspects of life" are deeply unsatisfactory.

Spirituality lacking precise theoretical-conceptual defi
nition and being subject to increasing speculations
regarding its nature (Goddard, 1995) has unfavorable
implications for experiential education. First, it may
impede assessing and meeting students' spiritual needs.
Second, it may prevent recognizing clients' spiritual
growth as well as distress and hence, appropriate edu
cational or therapeutic interventions (Dyson et al., 1997;
Goddard, 1995).
A reputable framework of spirituality would help
experiential educators distinguish between behavioral,
mental, affective, and spiritual dimensions of human
experience and functioning. Given a clearer conceptual
separation between spiritual and other modes of being,
spiritual education and development can then also be
grasped more fully, delineated more precisely, and
implemented more effectively.
One may ask why a more systematic and thorough
conceptual-theoretical analysis has evaded spirituality
and prevented adequate investigation into its nature.
Scientific skepticism about what is essentially a meta
physical phenomenon together with limited and limit
ing methods of scientific inquiry have been mentioned
in the literature (Emmons, Cheung, & Tehrani, 1998;
Goddard, 1995; McGrath, 1997; Nasr, 1993; Slife, Hope,
& Nebeker, 1999; Teske, 1999). Yet another, perhaps
underestimated, explanation for the lack of critical
inquiry and rigorous scholarly analysis in the literature
is that communicating about spirituality and essential
concepts like soul and spirit is difficult at best, particu
larly so because many researchers have not accessed
bodies of knowledge that have insights as well as lan
guage to advise on these. In particular, I am thinking of
such bodies of knowledge as religious studies, spiritual
traditions, the perennial philosophy (see, for instance,
Huxley, 1970), and sacred psychology, all of which are
invaluable in understanding the soul and spirit, precise
ly because they recognize and make explicit what
defines spirituality and spiritual experiences as distinct
from other life experiences.

SpiritualityThe need for interdisciplinary

In my own attempts at achieving greater clarity on
the question of what is spirituality, I have found it ben
eficial to study the discourse on spirituality beyond the
experiential education literature. Spirituality has firmer
disciplinary foundations outside fields usually repre
sented in experiential education, such as education,
psychology, and psychotherapy; consequently, an inter
disciplinary analysis is necessary to more adequately
define spirituality. Conceptual clarification can be
achieved by drawing foremost on the discipline that has


traditionally investigated spirituality, namely, religious

studies (see also Clayton, 1999).
Drawing on religious studies as a field of expertise
is probably done with some hesitation, given the nega
tive and fettered connotations of religion and trouble
some issues such as faith, dogma, fanaticism, and indoc
trination (Chenery, 1984). Experiential educators are not
alone in their reluctance. Goddard (1995) and Ballou
(1995) provide examples from philosophy and nursing,
respectively, of circumventing the essence of spirituali
ty and thus, a religious analysis. In her analysis,
Goddard (1995) arrives at a philosophical definition of
"spirituality as integrative energy" and claims that
"[t]he metaphysical nature of this phenomenon makes it
the proper concern of philosophy; consequently, a
philosophical analysis...was completed...." (abstract).
Ballou (1995) wants to locate the discussion of spiritu
ality within psychology but later admits the necessity of
including multiple epistemologies and multiple experi
ences (see also Marrone, 1 9 9 9 ; McSherry, 1 9 9 8 ;
Thoresen, 1999).
My own learning about spirituality via interdisci
plinary study, particularly in exchange with religious
scholars, has resulted in five main insights. Considering
these five points in research, theory, and practice, I
believe will help experiential educators realize what
they aspire to do: facilitate spiritual experiences to pos
itively affect participants' spiritual development and
growth. The conceptual ambiguity surrounding "spiri
tuality" may be attributed largely to two factors:
(1) Researchers and
practitioners being
unaware of, and thus mixing, two notions of
spirituality: broad or secular and specific or
genuine spirituality.
( 2 ) An insufficient discrimination between
mind or consciousness, affect/sentiment,
and spirit.
Experiential educators (and others) can avoid fur
ther conceptual confusion and programming pitfalls by:
Distinguishing clearly between broad and
specific versions of spirituality. This distinc
tion is made by reference to a "transcendent
other" or "the sacred."
Understanding that spiritual functioning and
development are distinct from - albeit inter
twined with - cognitive, affective and conative (behavioral) human functioning and
Accepting that spiritual education and
development are fundamentally about nur
turing spiritual consciousness. Providing
experiences that connect students and
clients with self, others, and nature has
potential for stimulating spiritual growth;

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however, not all experiences of connection

are relevant spiritually.
The rest of this article is devoted to explaining these
points in depth.

tuality so ambiguous and the terms "spirituality" and

"spiritual" so amorphous is the lack of a clear distinc
tion between what Griffin (1988, pp. 1-2) calls spiritual
ity in the broad sense and spirituality in the stricter
sense. Griffin (1988, p. 1) distinguishes these two
notions of spirituality on four grounds:
(1) what is considered to be sacred or holy in
a person's life or in a cultural paradigm;
i.e., what is of ultimate importance, mean
ing, or value;
(2) who/what "God" is;
(3) whether an individual or culture con
sciously commits to realizing "God" in
everyday life;
(4) whether one's individual or a culture's
worldview acknowledges a non-material,
non-physical realm or realms or an "other
worldly" dimension or dimensions.
Ultimate values, meanings, and commitments
reflect some presuppositions about what is "sacred" or
"holy" (Griffin, 1988, p. l ) . How "the sacred" is inter
preted and how far the metaphysical, transcendent,
"otherworldly" dimension is captured in the conceptu
alization of spirituality is critical to distinguish between
secular and specific spirituality. In the following para
graphs, I look at each of Griffin's (1988) four criteria in
some detail.

SpiritualityA religious studies perspective

A conceptual analysis of spirituality via religious
studies shows that spirituality is fundamentally linked
to questions of meaning, and that questions of meaning
rest on metaphysical assumptions. Exploring spirituali
ty thus implies reflecting on metaphysical premises and
associated cosmological issues. This approach to mean
ing would include but not be limited to unconscious or
conscious beliefs about the world, understandings of
human beings, humanity's role in the world and
beyond, and ontological and epistemological questions,
such as, what is the ground of being? How and what can
we know about which world or worlds? (See also
Batten, 1999; Cusveller, 1998; McGrath, 1997; Westgate,
Religious scholars and metaphysicians are adamant
that spirituality cannot be understood without a meta
physical framework, and without reference to such
metaphysical concepts as "spirit," "the divine," "God,"
"otherworldly realms," "the transcendent," "the
sacred," "holy," and so forth. Because the sacred or
holy are commonly associated with religion, spirituali
ty has religious connotations (Griffin, 1988, p. 1). This
may draw forth skepticism and elicit resistance espe
cially from those who disapprove of religion and argue
that spirituality should not be constrained by it.
However, as a colleague in religious studies remarked,
"The many new age versions of spirituality notwith
standing, there can be no discussion of spirituality
without reference to the sacred" (Oldmeadow, 1999; see
also Das, 1999, p. 9; Sherrard, 1990, p. l ) .
Spirituality, as stated, also alludes to otherworldly
or metaphysical realms (Griffin, 1988, p. 1). Dyson et al.
(1995) confirm many experiential educators' inclina
tions: that to assume spirituality is synonymous with
religion is to adopt a restrictive view, a view which is
probably unhelpful for professional practice (see also
Chenery, 1984). However, even if religion is rejected in
delineating spirituality, this must not be coterminous
with rejecting the metaphysical. Neglecting the sacred,
or accepting the idea that "the spiritual" can do without
the metaphysical, has led spirituality to losing its
essence, spirit, and assuming secular meanings.
"Spirituality" as used in popular discourse and as
reflected in the literature tends to refer to a person's
ultimate values, meanings, and commitments, irrespec
tive of their content (Dyson et al., 1997; Griffin, 1988, p.
2; Spohn, 1997). What has made the treatment of spiri

(1) What is sacred or holy?

The distinction between broad and specific spiritu
ality is made on how the sacred is defined and/or where
the sacred or holy is located. Associated with how the
sacred is conceptualized is whether a personal or cul
tural paradigm contains a realm or realms other than the
physical-material world.
Ultimate value can be located in the physical-mate
rial realm, which includes the sociocultural worlds, and
can be as ordinary as football, one's family, one's career,
or money. Saturday afternoons may "be sacred" to
watch one's favorite sport on TV, and one may "reli
giously"with much commitment and devotionpur
sue how one's team fares in the weekly matches. If the
sacred is understood in this sense and ultimate value is
derived from the material-sociocultural worlds, Griffin
(1988, p. 1) speaks of broad spirituality. As he explains,
an individual's or culture's ultimate values and com
mitments can be very thisworldly; "The presupposed
holy can be something very worldly, such as power, sex
ual energy, or success" (p. 1). The "otherworldly," meta
physical dimension of spirituality is lost in this inter
pretation; hence, it becomes very difficult if not impos
sible to distinguish spiritual experiences from other
kinds of experiences. Nonspiritual experiences are all,
by definition, purely thisworldly, that is they are

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restricted to the secular, profane dimensions.

Demarcating between spirituality and other life experi
ences becomes very fuzzy in a secular cosmology which
recognizes only the physical-material realm and this
realm is the source of ultimate value.
In contrast, the sacred can be otherworldly, and is
then located within an explicit metaphysical frame
work. In this case, the sacred takes on superhuman
meaning and assumes divine dimensions. When the
holy is located in a world other than the physical-mate
rial, the existence of such a world is either presupposed
or experienced; in either case, the universe is under
stood as a living cosmos imbued with spirit in which
non-physical-material worlds are implicit (or explicit).
When non-material, non-physical or spiritual worlds
are part of an individual's worldview or culture's cos
mology, Griffin (1988) speaks of strict(er) spirituality or
spirituality in the true sense.
Schuon, a metaphysician, defines the sacred as it is
understood in strict spirituality:
That is sacred which in the first place is attached to the tran
scendent order, secondly possesses the character of absolute
certainty and thirdly, eludes the comprehension of the ordi
nary human mind.... The sacred is the presence of the cen
tre in the periphery.... The sacred introduces a quality of the
absolute into relativities and confers on perishable things a
texture of eternity. (1976, in Oldmeadow, 1 9 9 8 , pp. 16-17)

In Schuon's analysis, only that is sacred which is

transcendent to the physical-material realm, is absolute
and unchangeable, and is beyond ordinary human con
sciousness. If the sacred is beyond the physical-materi
al which we discern with our five senses (and their
extension, scientific instruments), and is beyond our
"ordinary" thoughts and feelings, how then can and do
we perceive it? This question leads back to the concep
tion of human beings mentioned earlier in the meta
physical assumptions: human beings must be more than
matter (body, mind, feelings) and their five senses
which allow us to experience the world of matter and
form (the perceptual world). A paradigm that locates the
sacred in the spiritual world demands not only that an
individual or culture recognizes other than the materialphysical (perceptual) world (in Schuon's words "rela
tivities," "perishable things"); but also, such a paradigm
asks further that we conceive of human beings as having
spiritual dimensions as having not simply an "ordi
nary human mind" (in the sense of consciousness) but
also a higher, spiritual consciousness, one with which
we can access the sacred in its otherworldly domains.
William Paden, in Interpreting the Sacred (1992),
confirms Schuon's notions of the sacred having a super
human keynote (see also Sherrard, 1990, p. 1); he also
clarifies the role of religion in experiencing the sacred:


[T]he sacred refers to those focal objects which to the insid

er seem endowed with superhuman power and authority.
Depending on the culture, it could be a scripture, a great
person or high religious leader, a god, an ancestor, an insti
tution like the Catholic Church, an aspect of nature such as
a mountain or river, a path of discipline taught by a Buddha,
or a sacred rite. These objects, words, beings and obser
vances are charged with a power that governs, inspires and
obliges the life of participants.... Any religion is a system of
ways of experiencing the sacred, that is, objects which con
vey superhuman meaning, (p. 72)

The sacred or divine may be located in a transcen

dent, absolute, metaphysical-spiritual realm. However,
it is not limited to that order but penetrates into the
physical-material worlds. In other words, spirit is both
transcendent and immanent in matter, which is why we
can sense the otherworldly sacred in and through ordi
nary experience. We can go on a canoeing trip and expe
rience the otherworldly sacred in the beautiful backcountry, and then speak of having had "a spiritual expe
rience" (see Knowles, 1992; Leenders & Henderson,
1991). We can experience the sacred entering into a lov
ing interaction with a friend, and then refer to "the
intangible" quality that made that conversation differ
ent from others. Not all canoeing trips or conversations
have those qualities, though, and drawing on the other
worldly sacred (spirit) as an aspect of the metaphysical
explains spiritual as distinct from non-spiritual lived
A religious discipline or spiritual practice can help
open one's consciousness to those realms of spirit or, to
paraphrase Paden, can inspire and guide practitioners'
lives. Religious scholars and spiritual teachers advise
that attaining a spiritual consciousness is accelerated by
and may even depend on committing to spiritual/reli
gious practice, or, in other words, a systematic pursuit
of perfection of the divine ideal. As my colleague put it:
Religion provides the formal means (by way of doctrine,
spiritual method, sacred art, etc.) by which we can cut
through the various obscurations which hide the spirit. To
do this on one's own, without recourse to the resources of a
particular religious tradition, is so difficult as to be more or
less impossible for anybody but the spontaneously enlight
ened saints and sages. (Oldmeadow, 1999)

Annie Besant (1991), reflecting and writing on the

spiritual life in the early 20th century, further clarifies
the links between spirit, the sacred, higher conscious
ness, and the spiritual realm. She also alludes to the true
meaning of "the human spirit," helping us to draw the
critical distinction from mind (thoughts) and feelings:
The word "spirit" is restricted to that divinity in us that
manifests on the highest planes of the universe and is dis-

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tinguished by its consciousness of unity. Unity is the

keynote of spirit, for below the spiritual realm all is divi
sion.... The spirit is that part of human nature in which the
sense of unity resides, the part in which primarily we are
one with God [the sacred, spirit], and secondarily one with
all that lives throughout the universe, (pp. 74-75)

Besant confirms that as human beings, we have a

mode of consciousness that allows us to access the spir
itual realm and experience the qualities of that world.
The "human spirit" is our higher aspect or conscious
ness, is "that divinity in us" which is part of the spiri
tual realm immanent in us. With and through it, we can
reach into, connect with, and experience the divine or
higher world. Even in our secular Western culture, we
admire men and women who have achieved to a high
degree this divinity or spiritual consciousness in ordi
nary life, and refer to them as holy, such as Saint
Francis, Mother Teresa, or Nelson Mandela. Again,
without drawing on metaphysical dimensions, it is very
difficult if not impossible to clearly demarcate the spir
itual from other domains and modes of human func
tioning, leading to the aforementioned conceptual
ambiguity. Teske (1999) provides an example of placing
the human spirit in a secular (thisworldly) worldview,
equating it with the cognitive-affective domains. He
claims: "Understanding the human spirit, the thinking,
motivating, feeling aspect of a person, need not entail
supernatural reference in any more than a boundary
sense" (abstract). In a secular cosmology, ignoring meta
physical (supernatural) dimensions leads to conceptual
ambiguity between the cognitive, affective, behavioral,
and spiritual modes of human functioning, arguing the
human spirit to be synonymous with thoughts, feelings,
and/or the psyche.
If "[ujnity is the keynote of spirit," then experiences
of union or connectionto self, others, nature and God
can be classified as spiritual experiences, a finding
confirmed in the literature (Dyson et al., 1997; Golberg,
1998; Haug, 1999; Mahoney & Graci, 1999; Reed, 1992;
Skamp, 1991; Westgate, 1996; Woods & Ironson, 1999).
As research has documented, lived spiritual experience
seems to be about connectionconnection to self, to
others, to the natural world (also known as ecospirituality), and to a or the transcendent other (e.g., Dyson et
al., 1997; Ramsden Scott, 1995). However, as stated ear
lier in the examples from canoeing and conversation,
not all types of experiences of connection can be cate
gorized as spiritual experiences. Connection can occur
on many levelson the cognitive, affective, behavioral,
and spiritual levels. As Besant's perspective suggests,
God, the sacred, spirit, or divinity needs to be present in
a spiritual experience. When the transcendent other
enters ordinary experience, experience is infused with

the sacred and thus, transformed from the profane to the

spiritual. Strictly speaking, spiritual experiences are
only those where spirit (otherworldly sacred, God)
touches one's interaction with self, others, and nature;
or, stated differently, when a person approaches inter
actions with the world (self, others, nature) with and
from an activated spiritual consciousness.
To summarize: Specific spirituality, by definition,
takes us beyond the physical-material realm; beyond
matter, body, and form; and beyond sensual perception
and the perceptual worlds, including beyond the emo
tional as well as the intellectual domains. If not in lived
experience, at least conceptually, feelings are distinct
from spirit, as both are from thoughts and behavior. In
the discourse on spirituality, further conceptual confu
sion can be avoided by experiential educators recogniz
ing that emotional and intellectual development are as
distinct from each other, albeit intertwined, as they are
from spiritual development. As Oldmeadow (1999)
shared, "Nor does the spirit have much to do with sen
timent, although the path of devotion (Bhakti) is one
avenue through which it can be approached."
Admittedly, in practice this mandate for differentiation
is much more difficult to carry out, as these four modes
of human functioning interact synergistically in lived
experience to the extent that a precise distinction
between thoughts, feelings, behavior, and spirit
becomes almost impossible.

(2) Who/what is God?

The sacred, writes Paden (1992, pp. 71-73), is not
necessarily and not exclusively God or a god, a fact con
firmed by and in the nontheistic religions like
Buddhism. A further distinguishing characteristic
between spirituality in the broad and the specific sense
is who/what "God" or "the divine" is. In spirituality in
the broad sense, "God" or "the gods" is synonymous
with "ultimate meaning and values" which, again, can
be very thisworldly, devoid of superhuman meaning
(Dyson et al., 1997; Griffin, 1988). My "God" can be bas
ketball, nature, the wilderness, adventure, or climbing
trips, for instance. Yet when we feel that by being in
nature or that via climbing adventures we more fully
apprehend an otherworldly sacred, we are moving away
from a secular toward a specific spirituality.
In the stricter sense, "God" is a being, force or ener
gy with divine qualities. Divinity, by definition, tran
scends the human realmsis superhuman or supernat
ural. This does not mean, however, that humans (or
nature, for that matter) cannot embody divine qualities.
The goal of spiritual development is just that. Spiritual
teachers like Krishna, Buddha, Mohammed, and Jesus
model this embodiment of holiness and are venerated
because they exemplified divine qualities to such a

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level of perfection to become founders of respective reli

gions, or frameworks which guide the aspirant in culti
vating a spiritual consciousness.

(3) Conscious commitment to realizing God?

Spirituality in the strict(er) and in the broad(er)
sense is further demarcated by whether an individual
(or culture) consciously tries to increase her/his (or its)
commitment to those ultimate values and meanings
(Griffin, 1988, p. 1). The strict(er) version of spirituality
implies some form of religious discipline or spiritual
practice (Griffin, 1988, p. 1) and employs these as a con
scious commitment to spiritualize oneself and life, in
the sense of experiencing and realizing the holy; trans
forming ordinary consciousness into spiritual con
sciousness; and building virtues or divine qualities such
as love, tolerance, patience, and so forth into one's char
acter. As Cole (1999) states:
Spirituality really means inner beauty revealed in a "visi
ble" expression of virtues. If you relate constantly with
peace, understanding, wisdom and mercy, then you will be
influential on the basis of spirituality. Others will trust in
your love and acceptance of them. It is such a personality
that the effort of appreciation leads to. (p. 2 2 )

It would seem that realizing one's highest thisworldly values (i.e., broad spirituality) can proceed with the
same enthusiasm, commitment, and systematic pursuit
as following a spiritual discipline. I can just as devoted
ly and methodically pursue canoeing for relaxation and
pleasure, for instance, as I can pursue it as a means for
spiritual connection with others and/or nature. In the lat
ter case, canoeing can be regarded as a conscious com
mitment to "bringing spirit into matter," to infuse the
ordinary with a sense of the holy. This example shows
that it is not the action per se, but the intent, the attitude,
and a receptive consciousness that enables experiencing
the sacred (Besant, 1991, pp. 78-79).

(4) Otherworldly dimensions?

Griffin's last criterion finalizes the distinction
between broad and strict spirituality, alluding to the
fundamental metaphysics most directly. A cosmology
not only outlines an individual's or a culture's views of
the universe; it also includes a conception of who we
are as human beings. Broad and specific spirituality
have quite different conceptions of human beings,
which has implications for spiritual development and
In strict spirituality, the absolute world is the
ground of being. This world gives rise to the relative
world; the relative (perceptual) world depends on the
absolute world for its continued existence and func


tioning. Similarly, human beings are ultimately spirit

(or soul) who exist in the relative material world by
virtue of form (body, matter). In essence, in strict spiri
tuality, human beings are conceived of as "spiritual
beings having a human experience."
As stated, broad(er) versions of spirituality have no,
or only a limited, conception of a, or the, spiritual
world. Human beings are primarily known by their form
(body) or lower consciousness (personality); occasional
ly, we can and do have "spiritual" experiences ("human
beings having spiritual experiences"). However, strictly
speaking, these experiences of connection to self, oth
ers, and nature are not spiritual experiences. As secular
paradigms do not acknowledge a transcendent other,
spirit, and spiritual consciousness, so-called "spiritual"
experiences are thus by default experiences of connec
tion on the cognitive-affective-conative levels. What
then does spiritual development mean in this context?
Without metaphysical dimensions, it is difficult to rec
ognize and understand the two distinct modes of
human consciousness (lower vs. higher, perceptualmaterial vs. spiritual), and spiritual development and
growth become extremely difficult to define, frequently
being confused with particularly improved affective

From this reflection on Griffin's four criteria, two

things now become clear: First, spirituality in its strict
sense requires a metaphysical framework and rests on a
cosmology that includes other than material-physical
dimensions. When it is claimed that spirituality is
something we all have, what is being referred to is spir
ituality in its broad connotation. Only in the broad
notion, spirituality "is not an optional quality which we
might elect not to have. Everyone embodies a spiritual
ity, even if it be a nihilistic or materialistic spirituality"
(Griffin, 1988, pp. 1-2). In other words, the claim that
spirituality is universal (Goddard, 1995) is a reference to
spirituality in the broad sense. From the perspective of
spirituality in the stricter sense, secular spirituality is an
oxymoron, and any form of spirituality not reflecting an
otherworldly orientation becomes a consumer spiritual
ity (Jones, 1997), pseudospirituality, or even antispirituality (Griffin, 1988, p. 2).
Second, and this is of particular importance for
experiential educators, without a metaphysical frame
work that acknowledges a higher consciousness and
locates the human spirit in "otherworldly" realms, spir
itual development and education become meaningless.
As such, they can become easily confounded with the
affective domain in particular.

Implications for experiential education

In the popularized, secular version of spirituality,
any form of experiential education that aims to teach a

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connection to self, others, and/or nature can be per

ceived as a form of spiritual education (see, e.g., Skamp,
1991). As the foregoing analysis concludes, this is not
spiritual education in the strict sense. To reiterate: con
nection can occur on the cognitive level (e.g., studying
the natural history of a wilderness area I backpack
through deepens my connection to that place), the
affective level (e.g., having an argument with someone),
and the behavioral level (e.g., sharing a rafting trip with
friends). Although the four modes of human function
ing are interwoven in lived experience, for purposes of
conceptual clarity, I am asking that experiential educa
tors (and others) apply greater precision and not refer to
these as synonymous with spiritual connection.

enters murky waters when its links to ethics are severed

(Spohn, 1997) and can easily lead to a consumer spiri
tuality (Jones, 1997), to seeking spiritual encounters
because they "feel good." Experiential educators need to
caution against this by being able to help their students
and clients translate spiritual experiences into ethical
Material that links spiritual experience to ethical
frameworks is contained in the world's religious and
spiritual traditions (McGowan, 1997; Spohn, 1997).
Spiritual education, thus, becomes religious education;
religious education in the sense of studying the different
wisdom traditions, including indigenous ones, inter
preting sacred texts, and reading and/or listening to the
stories of those who have reflected on spiritual experi
ences and the sacred before us. It is possible to talk
about religion without such discussion touching on per
sonal beliefs and faithsalthough reflection on these
too can be a valuable part of spiritual education (see
McGowan, 1997). Contemplating the truth one encoun
ters on all wise paths needs to be done in a spirit of
inquiry and open-mindedness, and requires more than
a superficial exposure to each tradition. This raises the
question of whether this kind of spiritual education can
be done adequately in short-term experiential education
and learning contexts.

Spiritual connection means uniting with a tran

scendent sacred (spirit) through experiences in the
physical-material-perceptual world, a connection that
is enabled by the human spirit, or human beings' spiri
tual consciousness. Spiritual education is the process of
nurturing this spiritual consciousness. Spiritual con
sciousness expresses itself and receives feedback via
practical, lived experience.
The analysis of spirituality via religious studies
shows that when experiential educators are advocating
spiritual education, they are asking, albeit often
unknowingly, for much more than to facilitate spiritual
experiences (see Anderson-Hanley, 1997; Stremba,
1997). They are also not merely asking how students'
and clients' spiritual consciousness can be fostered. As
soon as we move beyond secular spirituality, spiritual
consciousness, education, and development are
grounded in a transcendent human spirit framed by a
metaphysical cosmology. Implicit in requesting and
promoting spiritual aspects to experiential learning
programs, then, is advocating a non-secular cosmology.
Comprehensive and transparent spiritual experiential
education, then, would not only be about cultivating a
spiritual consciousness via providing the conditions
and context for spiritual experiences to occur. It would
also be about teaching the metaphysical dimensions of
human experience and about worldviews other than
the modern western secular paradigm (see DeQuincy,
1999, and Sherrard, 1992, for further detail).

As spiritual education is fundamentally concerned

with cultivating a spiritual consciousness to access the
otherworldly sacred or to experience union with the
divine, genuine spiritual education, further, would be
guidance into ways of experiencing the sacred in its
transcendent dimensions and introducing systems that
methodically guide the student toward those experi
ences, that is, spiritual/religious traditions. In this inter
pretation, too, genuine spiritual education is religious
education. From my assessment of the field, I would
contend that very few experiential educators are ade
quately prepared for this. Experiential educators may
indeed have a mandate for spiritual education (Skamp,
1991), yet do they have the training for leading students
and clients into dimensions of the sacred? Most experi
ential educators are not spiritual teachers, nor should
they be.

Experiential educators know that providing experi

ences is not enough; experiences require reflection to
become educational. Consequently, experiential educa
tors need resource material to help students debrief and
integrate spiritual experiences, to capitalize on their
transformative and healing effects (Goddard, 1995; see
also Hay, 1998; Mahoney & Graci, 1999), and to transfer
learning into daily life. Part of the transformative poten
tial of spiritual experiences is that they frequently lead
to an increased sense of ethical responsibility and prac
tical ethical commitments (Martin, 2000). Spirituality

If, indeed, spiritual education is at least partially

religious education, as this analysis suggests, experien
tial educators have to ask themselves whether they are
prepared to venture into this terrain, or whether they are
more comfortable with and would thus rather confine
themselves to teaching about and for secular spirituali
ty. In any case, to be inclusive (see also Skamp, 1991),
experiential educators have to find ways to teach about
different worldviews, both secular and sacred, and need
to think through how to respectfully present those to
students and clients.

Winter 2000, Volume 23, No. 3

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Chenery's discussion on "Nurturing the human

spirit in camping" (1984) is to me a good example from
practice of how genuine spiritual experiential education
is possible. It also serves as an example of what I have
contended: a clear conceptual grounding prior to devel
oping program and pedagogy. Chenery's (1984) descrip
tion of spirituality was developed in conjunction with a
religious scholar and makes clear reference to meta
physics or otherworldly dimensions in humans as well
as in nature without being exclusive by limiting such a
paradigm to any particular spiritual/religious tradition.
Relying on Schumacher (1977), Chenery writes:

and interdisciplinary analysis is critical to sound prac

tice in experiential education and other practice-orient
ed fields. Such conceptual analysis does not distract
from practice; in contrast, it illuminates it by shedding
light on some tacit assumptions, unconscious issues,
and unasked or unanswered questions. Conceptual
analysis thus needs to complement empirical research
and ideally needs to precede pedagogical reflection and
action in the form of curriculum development and pro
gram design and implementation.

By spiritual I mean relating to spirit or soul, to the ground


of being, whatever we may conceive it to be.... "Spiritual"

suggests contemplation of the intangible, whether it is a

S t a t e m e n t s m a d e b y p a r t i c i p a n t s o f a f o r u m o n rites o f p a s s a g e

spirit within oneself or a spirit in nature. "Spiritual" sug

a n d s p i r i t u a l i s s u e s f o r a d o l e s c e n t s in J u n e 1 9 9 9 .

gests that there are higher levels of being and higher levels

S o m e a u t h o r s s p e l l "spirit" w i t h a c a p i t a l "S" t o d e n o t e i t s m e t a

of human capability.... Spiritual development refers to the

physical a n d divine nature. A l t h o u g h I highlight these qualities of

cultivation of the higher levels of human capability and the

s p i r i t a s c r i t i c a l , I s t i c k t o t h e s m a l l "s."

contemplation of higher levels of being, (p. 23)


I cannot go into detail here about how Chenery trans

lates this understanding into a program that aims at
uplifting her campers, and how a program philosophy
that emphasizes spiritual development and growth can
inform and shape all aspects of an experiential education
program. What Chenery's case study of a summer camp
shows, and what is important to note and to remember, is
the tremendous potential of experiential education to
stimulate and refine spiritual consciousness.

T h e first is a l s o c a l l e d b r o a d e r , f a l s e , s e c u l a r , g e n e r i c , c o n s u m e r ,
popular, N e w A g e , p s e u d o - o r antispirituality in t h e literature; t h e
s e c o n d , strict, g e n u i n e , true, authentic.

S o m e p a r a d i g m s s p e a k o f t h e v a r i o u s w o r l d s in t h e s i n g u l a r , a s i n
"the p h y s i c a l - m a t e r i a l w o r l d , " " t h e p e r c e p t u a l w o r l d , " " t h e s p i r i t u a l
w o r l d " ; o t h e r s in t h e p l u r a l , i.e., " t h e p h y s i c a l - m a t e r i a l w o r l d s " a n d
so forth. Henceforth, I u s e t h e singular, a n d m e a n this to b e inclu
sive of both perspectives.

c f . S h e r r a r d ( 1 9 9 0 , p. 1): " H e [ G o d ] a l o n e is s a c r e d . "

I c a n n o t g o i n t o d e t a i l h e r e a b o u t h o w s o u l a n d s p i r i t differ; s e e
B e s a n t ( 1 9 9 1 , p. 7 4 ) f o r a n e x p l a n a t i o n .

The potential of experiential education for nurtur
ing spiritual consciousness can be more fully realized
when experiential educators can accurately and dis
tinctly answer for themselves and their stakeholders the
question, What is spirituality? Analysis of "the sacred"
via religious studies leads discourse of spirituality out
of the conceptual quicksand and onto firmer founda
tions. This paper has argued that a concise definition of
spirituality based on rigorous and thorough conceptual

I thank colleagues at La Trobe University,
Mary Faeth Chenery, Alison Lugg, Peter Martin, Deirdre
Slattery, and Harry Oldmeadowfor
helping to clarify
my thinking on spirituality, and for constructive
back on earlier drafts of this paper. Thanks are also
extended to AEE reviewers for their comments and their

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