Philip Sheldrake

'Spirituality' is a word that is commonly used yet difficult to define. Theologians sometimes level the criticism that spirituality as a discipline claims unlimited resources (for example, historical, theological, philosophical, psychological and anthropological) without having its own methodology. In recent years, attempts have been made to provide a coherent definition and methodology from both a theological and historical standpoint (Kinerk 1981; Principe 1983; Schneiders 1986, 1989; Hanson 1990; Sheldrake 1991). As a result, spirituality has emerged as an interdisciplinary subject that is concerned with the specifically 'spiritual' dimension of human existence.

As we shall see, there have been attempts to define 'spirituality' generically by transcending the assumptions of specific religious traditions. However, opinions differ concerning this process. In Christian terms, 'spirituality' relates to how people subjectively appropriate traditional beliefs about God, the human person, creation, and their inter-relationship, and then express these in worship, basic values and life-style. Thus, spirituality is the whole of human life viewed in terms of a conscious relationship with God, in Jesus Christ, through the indwelling of the Spirit and within the community of believers. As an area of study, 'spirituality' examines this dimension of human existence from historical, phenomenological and theological standpoints.

The word 'spirituality' has a relatively short pedigree and was confined, until recently, to Roman Catholic and Anglican circles. What it seeks to describe has changed shape over the centuries, whether subtly or substantially, as understandings of God, Church and human person have evolved in different contexts. Most significantly, in recent decades there has been a paradigm shift in theological method which has had a major effect on how spirituality is understood. Previously, theology was predominantly analytical, logical, deductive in approach, with a stable body of knowledge, rich in tradition and equipped to answer all questions from an a priori standpoint. Approaches to the 'spiritual life' were similarly structured and separated from concrete human experience.

Greater reflection on human experience as an authentic locus theologicus has facilitated a movement away from static understandings of the Christian life. At the same time that theological thinking has moved towards a more inductive, experiential method, 'spirituality' has become more of a dialectical tension. On the one hand, there is the concreteness of revelation in Jesus Christ and subsequent tradition and, on the other, the appropriation of the Gospel by each person within specific historical and cultural circumstances. Spirituality operates on the frontier between experience and tradition and does not subordinate the former unquestioningly to the latter. Consequently, the realization has emerged that spiritual traditions are embodied initially in people rather than doctrine and begin with experiences rather than abstract ideas (Sudbrack 1975). The problem of defining 'spirituality' in recent years arises in part because it is no longer a single, transcultural phenomenon but is rooted in experiences of God that are framed by the always specific, and therefore contingent, histories of individuals and communities.

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