Spirituality and Ethics: Exploring the Connections

Article excerpt

There are promising and problematic connections between ethics and the emerging phenomena of spirituality. Any definitive resolution of this relationship would be premature because the discipline of spirituality is still defining itself. The variety of spiritualities is enormous, ranging from New Age practices to feminist political writings and Twelve Step programs.

On the positive side, certain forms of spirituality can augment those ethical systems that have achieved intellectual rigor at the cost of ignoring the wellsprings of motivation necessary to live morally. In addition, practical considerations from spirituality may open up ethical debates that have become hardened in academic and ecclesiastical circles.(1) On the negative side, some forms of spirituality appear resistant to any form of normative reflection, whether it be ethical, religious, or theological. Personal intuition and pragmatic results supply their own warrants for the validity of certain practices. This private assurance parallels the current preference for personal spirituality over institutional religion.(2) One hears people assert, "I'm not a religious person, but I am very spiritual." This may mean that they have found resources for inner strength in practices that are not burdened by the doctrinal and historical baggage of institutional religion. Or it may mean that their practices make no reference to God or any comparable ground of meaning. One wonders how such people are able to assess their spiritual experience without the intellectual and moral criteria that have been honed in religious communities.(3)

Michael Downey discerns two recurrent themes in the multiple varieties of spirituality: "First, and most importantly, there is an awareness that there are levels of reality not immediately apparent.... Second, there is a quest for personal integration in the face of forces of fragentation, and depersonalization."(4) Since this quest is usually directed to the highest value in the individual's belief system, spirituality has direct reference to morality, though not necessarily to God.

"Spirituality" was mostly a Roman Catholic term until the late 19th century.(5) Although it originally referred to living according to the Spirit of Jesus in response to God, the term "gradually came to mean that life as the special concern of 'souls seeking perfection' rather than as the common experience of all Christians."(6) This elitist description has been rejected in the past two decades in favor of more inclusive definitions. Bernard McGinn proposed a working definition of spirituality that has guided the editors and contributors of a major series in the field:

Chistian spirituality is the lived experience of Christian belief in both its general and more specialized forms.... It is possible to distinguish spirituality from doctrine in that it concentrates not on faith itself, but on the reaction that faith arouses in religious consciousness and practice. It can likewise be distinguished from Christian ethics in that it treats not all human actions in their relation to God, but those acts in which the relation to God is immediate and explicit.(7)

The recent widespread interest in spirituality in American Protestant circles may be attributed to an increased interest in more personal forms of religion, to ecumenical interaction, and to popular retrieval of Reformation piety described by Charles Taylor as "the affirmation of ordinary life."(8) Although initially suspected by some as a reappearance of anti-intellectual pietism, spirituality has begun to appear as a regular component of Protestant seminary curricula and in widely read texts by Protestant theologians.(9)


First, a provisional stipulation about terminology. Let me distinguish morality from ethics and, in parallel fashion, spirituality as lived experience from spirituality as academic reflection. "Morality" refers to "first-order" descriptive accounts of the lived experience of human values and obligations. …