Faith, Spirituality, and Religion: A Model for Understanding the Differences

By Newman, Leanne Lewis | College Student Affairs Journal, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Faith, Spirituality, and Religion: A Model for Understanding the Differences


Newman, Leanne Lewis, College Student Affairs Journal


The terms faith, spirituality, and religion are often used interchangeably, though their definitions are unique and distinct. This article discusses the nuanced differences among the three terms. It presents a model for the interrelatedness among the three important constructs and suggests ways the model can be used for further research.

"Faith" is nearly impossible to define. It means something different to each individual. Faith is understood to be intensely personal and often seen as extremely private. "The term 'faith' ranges in meaning from a general religious attitude on the one hand to personal acceptance of a specific set of beliefs on the other hand" (Hellwig, 1990, p. 3). Yet faith is still superimposed on the lives of our students (Newman, 199S). Though most often seen in religious terms, faith remains an "extraordinarily important construct" (Lee, 1990, p. vii).

Despite the mandate from the Student Personnel Point of View (American Council on Education, 1937) to develop the whole person as part of the student affairs profession, a relative silence has permeated the faith dimension of student development. Even with the advent of Fowler's (1981) faith development theory, it has taken until well into the 1990s for student development researchers to begin investigating faith development of college students.

Within the past few years, however, researchers have called on our profession to begin focusing on this dimension of students' development (Love & Talbot, 1999; Temkin & Evans, 1998). With this call comes the responsibility to make clear distinctions as to the specific focus of our inquiry. The terms faith, spirituality, and religion frequently appear either side by side or are even used synonymously for one another. In fact, the focus of this special issue uses all three terms in the title, including all three as equal parts.

While there is merit to including all three terms for investigating issues and areas of students' development, a distinction should also be made when discussing these three important and interrelated concepts. In this issue alone, we discuss religion, spirituality, and faith, and the developmental issues involved with each. Yet, when we discuss one, are we really talking about another? Where is the overlap of one to the other? Or are we really lumping all three into the same construct?

Both Fowler (1981) and Parks (1980, 2000) have offered a fairly comprehensive notion of the term faith. Other researchers have taken their ideas and placed them in the context of student development (Love, 2001, 2002; Love & Talbot, 1999). Roth Love (2001) and Nash (2001) discuss the differences between religion and spirituality. While Love suggests that religion and spirituality overlap, he does not delve further as to why or how. Nash makes the distinction by saying that spirituality is an inward expression, while religion is an outward expression of faith. While both Love and Nash attempt to define the terms, I feel there is more to understanding these important differences.

First, I will discuss the three concepts of faith, spirituality, and religion. Then, I will propose a model for understanding the nuanced differences among them.

Faith and Faith Development

As a part of sociological research, faith development has been virtually absent until the last 10 years (Hiebert, 1992). In fact, according to Hiebert, faith development as a citation was not present in Sociofile, the computer index of sociological journal articles, until the middle of 1989

Interestingly, faith - defined as a general religious attitude or accepted set of personal beliefs - was not present in the ancient worlds of Greek and Roman culture. Rather, the concept of faith singularly and directly originates in the Hebrew scriptures (Hellwig, 1990). Hellwig traces the notion of faith through the New Testament, the Church Fathers, the Middle Ages, the Reformation, and into the Modern F. …

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