Academic journal article Social Work

What If the Spirit Does Not Move Me? A Personal Reconnaissance and Reconciliation

Academic journal article Social Work

What If the Spirit Does Not Move Me? A Personal Reconnaissance and Reconciliation

Article excerpt

At the end of a doctoral course called "Integrating Spirituality in Social Work Practice" I found myself struggling to reconcile the themes and messages of the course with my own views. In this course, through lecture, literature, activity, and discussion, the need to recognize and accept spirituality as a crucial aspect of social work practice was exhorted and methods of integrating spiritually sensitive assessment and treatment were explored. Although the course included a critical appraisal of spirituality as a phenomenon that can manifest in both positive and negative ways in the lives of clients, it proceeded from an uncritical acceptance of spirituality as a legitimate paradigm. Problems and challenges within this paradigm were considered, but scrutiny of the paradigm itself was not among the aims of the course. Thus, the course was predicated on a tacit acceptance of the ideology of spirituality among the members of the class and of people in general. For me this presupposition precluded a critical analysis of spirituality itself as a phenomenon in social work practice and neglected the crucial question of what it might mean for a nonspiritual social worker to integrate spirituality into his or her practice.

In the course of this essay I attempt to provide such an analysis. The goal of this analysis is not to scrutinize spirituality as a valid component of a client's coping strategy that deserves proper attention in social work practice; it is to acknowledge nonspiritual ways of seeing and living in the world and to explore the crucial question of commensurability between spirituality and naturalism, especially as concerns social work practice. Calls for increased attention to spirituality in social work practice (Bullis, 1996; Ellor, Netting, & Thibault, 1999; Surface, 2006) are justified by the well-documented prevalence of religion and spirituality in the lives of American citizens; for example, 82 percent of adults believe in God, according to the most recent Harris Poll (The Harris Poll, 2005). Empirical evidence increasingly supports anecdotal indicators and long-held intuitions of a "religion-health connection" (Ellison & Levin, 1998), though responsible researchers cite the need to move beyond studying religion as "globally defined, [in favor of a] more fine-grained analysis of particular populations, grappling with particular illnesses and challenges through particular methods of religious coping" (Harrison, Koenig, Hays, Eme-Akwari, & Pargament, 2001, p. 90). In addition to the potentially adverse effects on health outcomes of religious struggles (Koenig, 2001), there is also growing consensus that spirituality is a positive factor in both medical and psychological health outcomes. What this emerging knowledge means for social work practice, discourse, and pedagogy is receiving increasing consideration. This essay aims to deepen and refine the discourse on spirituality by challenging the assumption present in the discourse that spirituality is a universal human proclivity and by counteracting the paucity of discussion about how nonspiritual social workers might best integrate spirituality into their practice by offering my own situation as a case in point.

I undertake these considerations as an apologetic Ionian--a secular humanist social worker contemplating spirituality, its meaning, best practices regarding assessment and treatment vis-a-vis spirituality, and how I, as a nonspiritual social worker, can effectively and genuinely address spirituality as it presents in my practice. Clearly, the concept and phenomenon of spirituality is one that I find problematic. Indeed the discourse of spirituality, uncritically advanced as an essential paradigm throughout my doctoral course (and in our field in general), evokes in me the awkward feeling of being an outsider, a stranger at the door of the house of spirituality, attempting to give voice to an antithetical, subjugated, even heretical view. …

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