What Is Spirituality

What Is Spirituality?

Where does our modern idea of spirituality come from? What is spirituality today?

Our Sunday-schools, and churches, and pauper-societies are yokes to the neck.Ralph Waldo Emerson1

Do a quick Internet search on the word “spirituality.” Go ahead. I can wait.

In less than half a second you will likely get around 47,000,000 hits.2 Staggering, right? While that may seem excessive, it perfectly captures the number of different responses you could get if you asked random people on the street what they think spirituality is. It then becomes terribly difficult to discuss spirituality with others because it is so individualized.

In an effort to eliminate some of these communication issues, let’s take a look at the evolution of “spirituality” and what generally makes up the term today. However, it must be noted that because it does have such broad meaning and interpretation, this article only scratches the surface of spirituality.

Basic Spirituality

Most simply, spirituality is “the quality or state of being concerned with religion or religious matters.”3 Quite a vague definition, which is unsurprising given the search results we had earlier. 

The root of the word “spirituality” comes from the Latin verb spiro, which means “to breathe, to breathe out,”4 and the Latin noun spiritus, which means “breath, air, life, and soul.”5 We can see from the Latin that the Romans believed in a connection between our breathing and our souls. But it wasn’t until after Christianity became the widespread Roman religion that a word for spirituality itself—spiritalitas—actually developed.

While spiro and spiritus could reference either the mundane act of breathing or the metaphysical realm of the soul, spiritalitas was reserved exclusively for use in ecclesiastical affairs.6 Most uses of spiritalitas can be found in treatises on God and Christianity, not on other religions that the Medieval church encountered. It wasn’t until the development of the English word “spirituality” and the rise of Transcendentalism that the word began to morph and take on new meanings. 


The modern idea of spirituality sprang forth from the individualistic tendencies of Transcendentalism. Transcendentalism, which greatly emphasizes the power of the individual’s inner or mental essence, arose in response by figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau to New England Calvinist traditions that preached predestination and the doctrine of the Trinity. Emerson and Thoreau believed in neither predestination nor the Trinity; they subscribed to Unitarianism.7 Unitarianism states that while Jesus Christ was the son of God and a man, he was not himself an aspect of God as is believed by Trinitarians.

The Transcendentalists became known for their rejection of what they considered to be the conformity of church congregations. They instead advocated a life spent in isolation, during which time God could be experienced. These experiences, the Transcendentalists held, were the only ways in which a person could come to know God. Emerson went so far as to advocate that Jesus, as a man, celebrated the greatness of man and gave man an avenue in which to share in the divinity of God and take on a likeness to God.8

Transcendentalism paved the way for some of the key aspects of modern spirituality. The individualistic nature of Transcendentalism led many people in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to question organized religions and their definitions of what is sacred and holy. As a result, Transcendentalists moved away from ritualized worship and began to seek out ways in which the individual could connect with the beyond.9

Prayer and Meditation

The idea of having a personal relationship with your creator or some divine force led to a stronger belief in regular contemplative practices outside of traditional worship services. This manifested itself in things like very deep, personal prayer and meditation.10

It should be noted that meditation (another word that, like spirituality, is hard to define) and prayer were at one time interchangeable words. However, prayer slowly grew more associated with organized religion; meditation became more of a New Age principle as it became increasingly popular as a secular device to promote mental health and reduce stress. Their goals, however, were similar: to discover a deeper meaning in daily life and to connect with the divine.

All Religions Are True

The second effect of individualizing worship and meditation was the perpetuation of the belief that all things are connected.11 While at first this interconnectedness was mainly used in environmental movements to advocate responsible resource management, it become more widespread with authors like Fritjof Capra and his book The Tao of Physics, which tried to illustrate how the mysticism of Eastern religions is compatible with the study of physics in the West.12

With the notion that all things are connected, even on a subatomic level, came the third aspect of modern spirituality: the idea that all religions have some truth to them. That is, all faiths have elements in them that are similar and interchangeable.13 So, according to the modern idea of spirituality, a person’s individual faith can consist of belief in Christ and Buddhist meditation practices.

Individual Over Institution

The final element in modern spirituality is the acceptance of the individual by the rejection of the institution.14 In America, this mainly applies to the Christian church, but around the world it applies to all organized religion.

The rejection of institutionalized religion stems from the negative publicity that is unfortunately so often deeply connected with it. Because of the tragedies that can sometimes result from religion—from the countless acts of violence by fanatics to terrorist bombings to child abuse cases—people increasingly want to distance themselves from organized religions, preferring to make their own way through the spiritual milieu.15

Maybe you’ve heard someone say something like, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” Perhaps you’ve said this yourself. Essentially, this is what people mean. Though they may have some interest in the metaphysical, they prefer to find their own meaning in life over taking the prepared path of religion. Indeed, some go so far as to say the world would be a better place with no religion.

The End of the Journey?

So now you have a complete and total knowledge of what “spirituality” is, right? By no means! Spirituality is like an ever-expanding black hole; it keeps absorbing different definitions. But as long as we have a general concept of what spirituality can mean—and accept its multifaceted nature—we can continue to have worthwhile conversations between peoples of all different faiths as we strive for understanding and harmony.