Contemporary Spirituality Overview
This description was written by William Bloom for The Complete Encyclopedia of Mind Body Spirit to be published in the Autumn of 2009.
Contemporary Spirituality emerges from all the diverse traditions in our global village. It approaches spirituality with a multicultural and interfaith attitude, and recognises the difference between spirituality and religion. It is centrally concerned with individual spiritual experience as the starting point for exploration and development. Its values and beliefs are holistic, recognising the intimate interdependence of all life.
Global Village and Interfaith
Two hundred years ago the world’s spiritual traditions existed in isolation from each other. Today travel, mass communications and literacy give everyone access to what was previously unknown. The writings of all the world’s religious traditions are available to everyone. In most schools modern children learn about different beliefs and worship, preparing them for citizenship in a global community.
The World Values Survey, which is the most reliable survey of beliefs across the globe, suggests that there has been a substantial cultural change. In modernised and free societies, where people have access to diverse views, up to seventy per cent of the population has moved away from a single faith tradition. These people have not become atheistic, but have adopted a more general and inclusive approach to spirituality.
One of the earliest examples of this inclusive approach was the 1893 World Parliament of Religions in Chicago. There is now a World Parliament every two years. One of the most significant moments of that first gathering was when the Hindu teacher, Swami Vivekananda, told the story of a frog who lived in a well. This frog then met another frog who lived in the ocean. The frog from the small well refused to believe there was anything more special than his well. Vivekananda suggested that traditional religions were sometimes like that frog in the well. They needed to appreciate the greater ocean.
There is now a worldwide Interfaith movement, which encourages dialogue between the faiths and its logo is a circle containing the symbols of the major faiths.
The Difference Between Religion and Spirituality
Contemporary spirituality suggests that there is a difference between religion and spirituality. Religion can be described as an organised set of beliefs and customs practised by a group. Spirituality on the other hand is an individual and personal experience.
Ofsted, the major government body concerned with children’s education in the United Kingdom, describes spirituality as ‘that aspect of inner life through which pupils acquire insights into their personal experience which are of enduring worth. It is characterised by reflection, the attribution of meaning to experience, valuing a non-material dimension to life and intimations of an enduring reality. ‘Spiritual’ is not synonymous with ‘religious’; all areas of the curriculum may contribute to pupils’ spiritual development.’
Obviously, however, most religions originate in spiritual experience and people within religions also have individual spiritual experiences. Contemporary spirituality, however, tends to support the development of the individual and be suspicious of any faith that claims a monopoly on truth.
One contemporary definition of spirituality developed by the Foundation for Holistic Spirituality states that
Spirituality is the natural human connection with the wonder and energy of nature, cosmos and all existence;
and the instinct to explore and understand its meaning.
Individual Spiritual Experience
At the core of contemporary spirituality is the idea that every individual can connect with and experience the wonder, energy and spirit of life. The Alister Hardy Research Foundation collects data on spiritual experience. It suggests that it is ‘an aspect of natural human experience. It can come in on us, or arise in us, suddenly, at any time, in any place, and can affect and even change our lives. It can happen to anyone, whether religiously inclined or atheist, spiritually inclined or materialist, and regardless of age, sex, nationality or culture.’
It can be triggered by many types of situation. Here is a short list of just a few:
Although there are many different triggers, the actual nature of the experience is generally the same, beneficial and life-enhancing, supporting good physical and mental health. People report a change in how they feel and think. They use words such as: oneness with all creation, awe, heightened awareness, love, humility, gratitude, fulfilment and compassion.
Beliefs and Values — A Holistic Approach
Contemporary spirituality takes a holistic approach that is open hearted and open minded, seeking to understand all the many different aspects of existence. It honours the essence of traditional faiths. It also seeks to understand and include the crucial relationships between spirituality and health, social justice, environmental issues and citizenship.
Drawing on the essence of traditional spiritual practice, it suggests that there are three major components to spirituality, which people can choose to practice on a daily basis.
- Connect Everyone benefits from regularly pausing to connect with and experience the spirit of life.
- Reflect Through regular self-assessment we choose suitable next steps to develop our love and consciousness.
- Serve There is a moral imperative to do no harm and be of service to the community of life.