The Spirituality of Recreation

By Zuefle, David Matthew | Parks & Recreation, September 1999 | Go to article overview
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The Spirituality of Recreation


Zuefle, David Matthew, Parks & Recreation


Religion and spirituality are fundamental elements of the human experience and, as such, they are intertwined with many other dimensions of life. Undoubtedly then, they are connected to the experience of leisure and recreation in many ways. These connections among recreation, leisure, religion, and spirituality, however, are generally not well understood. Still, this lack of understanding should not be taken as researchers' failure to address the topic; a surprising amount of attention has been devoted to these subjects in professional and scholarly literature. Instead of a lack of interest or attention, there are several other factors that seemingly contribute to a lack of understanding in these subjects.

1. The existing research is widely scattered throughout the literature of several fields.

2. The available scholarship is often atheoretical and not developed around easily identifiable research programs.

3. The subjects at hand are complex, evolving, and difficult to define.

Before going any further, it is essential to define religion and spirituality. It is common nowadays for people to say, "I'm spiritual, but not religious," thereby striking some sort of distinction between the two. When a separation is sought, religion is usually thought of as "organized and institutional in nature; a group experience with accepted beliefs and traditions."

Spirituality, on the other hand, is a bit harder to define. It can be thought of as "a personal belief in, or a search for a reason for one's existence; a 'greater' or 'ultimateJ reality, or a sense of connection with God, nature, or other living beings."

Some scholars place emphasis on this distinction (McDonald & Schreyer, 1991; Henderson, 1993), while others see religion as sufficient to accommodate both personal and organized experiences (Fisher & Luyster, 1990). Since the distinction is often made in the literature reviewed in this article, it will be utilized herein.

Within the literature relevant to recreation, parks, and leisure studies, several identifiable themes of research exist Most important among these are the spiritual dimensions of leisure experience; religion, spirituality, and recreation-related behavior; the interface of religious beliefs and attitudes toward the natural environment; and ethical and legal issues related to religion and spirituality.

While it is possible to identify these different "threads" of approach to the subjects and address them separately, it will become apparent that they are often interwoven.

Spiritual Dimensions of Leisure

The notion that there are spiritual dimensions in leisure experience is not new. Josef Pieper, Catholic theologian and philosopher, argued that leisure was a gift available to those open to its essentially spiritual and transcendent nature (Goodale & Godbey, 1988). Csikszentmihalyi (1993) states that religious rituals are among the positive examples of activities conducive to producing his infamous state of "flow."

Sylvester (1987), in exploring the opinions of scholars regarding leisure's relationship to the ultimate meaning, or "absolute end," of human experience, revealed that "Divine final ends" (i.e., God, spiritual values, spiritual wholeness) was the most commonly cited of nine separate categories of ends, and that "Divine elements" were found among happiness, the second most commonly cited category.

Sylvester also categorized responses into a number of other categories, such as "self-actualization," "utopia," and "the combination of work, play, love, and worship," all of which share some common ground with religious and spiritual ends. In a study of the dimensions of optimal experiences in nature, reported by wilderness recreationists, Beck (1993) stated that "humility and spirituality" was the highest ranking parameter out of nine, which included "novelty and escape," "arousal," and "increased awareness and self-realization.

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