What is Spirituality?

Updated: Jan 14

An Examination of "Spirituality" and "Spirit": Past, Present, and Future

By Brandon Norgaard

Our globalized world in the 21st Century has become dominated by quite inauthentic, superficial, and uninspiring ways of relating to the world and to other people. This includes the never-ending effort by major corporations to sell us things, constant cravings for attention via social medial, and fleeting sources of happiness and pleasure that ultimately leave us feeling insecure and discontented. People might feel good for short periods of time, but there doesn’t seem to be much tying it all together and giving us an overall coherent picture of what is important in life and what we should live for.

Modernity, with its emphasis on dispassionate reason and the supposed promise of progress through the advancement of science, often fails to provide this and leaves many people feeling empty and in a depressed sense of meaninglessness. Traditional faith-based religions were usually able to provide this overall sense of meaning and purpose in life to followers, but the cost was high. In societies where religion was dominant, people lived under superstition and had to submit to rigid social hierarchies that often came with toiling labor, harsh conditions, brutal violence, and short life spans. Still, many people were happy with their lot in life, since they felt a sense of purpose and a connection to something greater than themselves, and this helped people build and maintain strong social bonds.

Postmodernity is a loosely connected set of cultural patterns that seek to critique modernity and to liberate people from past and present forms of injustice, but it also fails to offer compelling sources of meaning for people in their daily struggles. The postmodern tendency to cast doubt on sources of knowledge that rely on some sort of teacherly authority ends up hampering our efforts to strengthen communities. This cultural code also tends to find ways to de-legitimize all power structures, which often leaves people without a viable path toward a higher sense of self and makes it more difficult to find something worth striving for.

As we now seek to address the greatest problems and pathologies inherent to modernity and postmodernity without burning down all of our human civilization in the process, we might wonder what aspects of traditional religion we might try to re-integrate into our nascent metamodern culture. We might observe certain religious practices and read certain holy scriptures and inspirational literature and consider how much of this could be reinterpreted in a new light. We might converse and interact with people who have a positive conception of faith in their lives. We might then think about what is common among these religious symbols and narratives that imbues them with live-giving energy and provides people with the potential to overcome challenges and to work toward improving their lives and developing stronger communities. The common denominator among all these things that provides a consistent source of positive energy is spirituality. This is what we find in these places, in these congregations, and in the hearts of these people. Perhaps there is a form of spirituality that can be carried over into the metamodern future that we are building, but in order to do that, we first need to know what spirituality is.

Defining 'Spirituality'

The word is rather nebulous, and many scientifically-minded people will probably think it is inherently wrapped up with old-world superstition, overly-speculative metaphysics, or perhaps that it's devoid of any intelligible and useful meaning at all. Some people might think that its meaning is inherently tied to metaphysical dualism, since “spirit” can mean the immaterial essence of a person, as a synonym for the soul. Indeed, that is one possible meaning, and often dictionaries and encyclopedias will define “spirituality” in reference to the hypothesized incorporeal or immaterial nature of the person, especially as contrasted with material or temporal aspects of life and reality as a whole. The word could also mean the state or quality of being dedicated to God, to some religion, or to certain faith-based religious values.

But the meaning of “spirit” that we are aiming to bring to the forefront here does not necessarily carry such specific metaphysical baggage, nor is it inherently bound up with dogmatic religious faith. "Spirit" can also refer to the core principle of vitality and the consciousness that animates the body, for instance. It can refer to the outflowing of emotion and the urge to action and personal growth or transformation. Indeed, the word is etymologically related to words such as “respiration,” “aspire,” and “inspire.” The common thread among all of these words is the generalized embodied sequence of internal experiences that begins with breathing, then feeling, then thinking, and then doing something constructive that comes from these thoughts and feelings.

Spirituality can be defined generally as an individual's search for ultimate or sacred meaning and purpose in life. Additionally, it can mean to seek out or search for personal growth, or to make sense of one's own inner dimension. Spirituality can be seen as the core process for meaning of life fulfillment and that which connects the individual self to the lives of others and to the universe as a whole at a deep level. Through spirituality, we might find an interconnection to the timeless and to the underlying reality behind appearances that holds it all together and gives enduring meaning.

Several prominent public figures within the larger metamodern movement and also within the adjacent Integral Theory movement have given thoughts on what is spirituality. Annick de Witt finds that spirituality can also be seen as a holistic or integrative perspective leading to a profound sense of connection with nature, and an understanding of earthly life itself as imbued with a larger consciousness.[i] Tom Amarque sees spirituality as having an inherently evolutionary character and is inherently connected to the will to transcendence.[ii] John Vervaeke sees the notions of soul and spirit as having holonic character, wherein the soul is the integrative interconnection among the different sub-selves and mental modules that make up the whole human self and spirit is the process of finding and developing the larger holonic connection of the self within one’s friendships, communities, and the greater sense of belonging that is produced and maintained through these connections.[iii] And in the words of Layman Pascal, “Spirituality can be defined as the cultivation and utilization of a numinous surplus of meaningful coherence among the functional components of individual psychology.”[iv]

'Spirit' of the Ages

There are many applications in our lives for a sense of spirit, so understood. A group of people can be said to have a shared spirit if its members are closely akin in interests, attitude, and outlook. This spirit can be captured in texts, and this can live with us many generations after it is written. What is the spirit of a document that is central to our legal and political system, such as the US Constitution? Probably, that would be the shared sentiment of its framers and/or the sentiments of the several generations of interpreters that began in the earliest days of its ratification and that that lead right up to the present. We can find the spirit of these documents and we can reinterpret them, and we can in some cases enact a new spirit through the spirit that flows forth from us collectively in our thoughts and feeling and actions. This allows us to envision a new future while also being cognizant of the spirit of the ages that led to the present.

We don’t have to always be beholden to the spirit of ages past, but we can use it as an important source of inspiration as we co-create a new spirit for our age and for the generations to come. As we strive to find solutions to our problems and work toward a better future, the spirit of the past and of our ancestors and cultural antecedents can help us draw out potential paths and to assess their efficacy. It would be unwise to feel compelled and constrained by the spirit of past generations, but equally unwise to shun it entirely, since we are not capable of cutting off all connections to our heritage and constructing an entirely new civilization and set of cultural symbols that bares no continuity with where we came from.

As we seek to address the greatest challenges of our time and protect our biosphere and save our human civilization from descending into dystopia, we should acknowledge that new forms of spirituality are desperately needed. We need a vibrant spirituality, but we also need to avoid pathologies such as rigid dogma and cultish adherence to charismatic guru figures. We need the benefits of spirituality, and we need to avoid the potential pitfalls. It is essential that we somehow thread this needle on spirituality in our contemporary world, which is still very much driven by modernity and postmodernity. This should be seen as a pillar of our efforts to work toward a metamodern civilization.


[i] Annick de Witt, Worldview Journeys. and [ii] Tom Amarque, The Will to Transcendence: Origin and Purpose of Spirituality. Phanomen-Verlag, 2019. [iii] John Vervaeke in conversation with Gregg Henriques and Chris Mastropietro, The Elusive I. [iv] Layman Pascal, The Metamodern Spirit, appearing in the anthology Metamodernity: Dispatches from a Time Between Worlds. Edited by Jonathan Rowson and Layman Pascal. Perspectiva Press, 2021.

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