Redefining Spirituality: A New Discourse

By Estanek, Sandra M. | College Student Journal, June 2006 | Go to article overview
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Redefining Spirituality: A New Discourse

Estanek, Sandra M., College Student Journal

By the end of the 1990s, the topic of spirituality as distinguished from religion was being discussed in higher education conferences and publications. Using qualitative research methods, this study examines definitions of spirituality in higher education literature. The researcher argues that 1) the emerging discussion of spirituality can be understood as a new discourse because it separates the understanding of spirituality from its roots in religion and thus changes its meaning; 2) that no common definition of spirituality exists; but that 3) the definitions contain five recurring patterns that illuminate the parameters of the new discourse. Five recurring patterns are identified. These patterns are discussed, as are their implications for professionals working in higher education.


This basic interpretive qualitative study analyzes the meaning given to the experience of spirituality through definitions of spirituality in higher education literature.

By the end of the 1990s, the topic of spirituality was being discussed at higher education conferences. Examples of these conferences included the Institute on College Student Values, which was founded in 1990, and the Fetzer Institute symposia, which began in 1994. In 1998, Wellesley College hosted the first Education as Transformation symposium, which focused on exploring issues of religious pluralism and spirituality in higher education, and which attracted educators from across the United States. In 1999, the American College Personnel Association (ACPA) organized a conference devoted exclusively to spirituality, and in 2001 the National Association for Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) followed suit with the establishment of a conference on this topic. ACPA, NASPA, and other associations such as the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) included sessions on topics related to spirituality in their national conferences.

By the end of the decade the topic was being explored in scholarly literature as well, including professional journals, books, doctoral dissertations, and master's theses. Asking how spirituality was being defined in this emerging discussion was the starting point for this study. Because in qualitative research it is the researcher who serves as the instrument of analysis it is appropriate to reveal the personal interest and perspective of the researcher (Merriam, 2002; Locke, Silverman, & Spirduso, 2004). As a vice president for student affairs at two Catholic institutions in the 1990s, I attended several of the conferences and sessions on the topic of spirituality that were discussed in the preceding paragraph. I was familiar with the writings of Fowler (1981) and Parks (1986) on spiritual development. I was interested in the practical possibilities that resulted from separating the idea of spirituality from its traditional roots in religion. It was clear to me that this separation allowed practitioners who worked at public institutions to engage questions of spirituality within the context of a secular pluralist environment. However, I became interested in how this new understanding also might be relevant to those of us who worked at church-related institutions. I began a literature review of the topic.

Spirituality is not a new word. The idea has long been understood as a dimension of religious experience, especially in the Christian and Buddhist traditions (O'Brien, 1979; McBrien, 1995; Harris, 2000; Wakefield, 2000). In my reading it became clear to me that spirituality was being used in a way that separated it from these religious roots; however, it was unclear to me how this new understanding of spirituality was being defined. I decided to conduct a study specifically on these questions, "What do we mean when we say spirituality and why is it important?"


Qualitative research is appropriate for this study because its underlying epistemology is constructivist.

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