Spirituality as the basis of human relationships

            It may look strange when a man coming from the notoriously known godless Czech basin wants to speak about spirituality in Poland, where religion is strong and the church thriving. However, in psychology the concept of spirituality has a meaning largely different from the homonymous concept[1] in theology. Its recent advent and its contemporary enormous boom (Unruh, 2002) has to do with its controversial yet popular sub-concept termed non-religious spirituality.

A bit of history

Let me explain the paradox of non-religious spirituality by turning back to origins. Theologically, spirituality may be defined as the result of the work of the Holy Spirit in man or, more specifically, in one’s soul and in one’s activities. To use a modern, biblically based, formulation: "Christian spirituality is a self-transcending faith in which union with God in Jesus Christ through the Spirit expresses itself in service of the neighbor and participation in the realization of the reign of God in this world" (Schneiders, 2002).[2]

            Now, let us have a look at what happens to the meaning of the word spirit when secularization loses the Spirit of God. Several philosophical systems of modern times used the term in various ways. In psychology, however, similarly as in the general usage, we are left with a rather vague meaning of the word. Spirit, namely human spirit, means something basically good[3], noble, beautiful, pointing upwards, "to the stars". It means culture, art, philosophy, ethics, love, truth, honor, meaningful life etc. The adjective spiritual then means participating in the spirit in this broad sense.

The "golden sixties" of the past century, with the hippie revolution, included a revolt against the traditional religion of the West and, especially, against its representatives, namely, the Christian churches. At that time, probably, the slogan was borne, I AM NOT RELIGIOUS, BUT I AM SPIRITUAL. This slogan became very popular and a number of researchers counted, how many people say YES and how many say NO to two questions: "Do you consider yourself religious?” and "Do you consider yourself spiritual?" One research of this kind was conducted on members of the Division of humanistic psychology of the American Psychological Association - and guess with what result. The step from the adjective spiritual to the more abstract noun spirituality was only a question of time. By the end of the nineties, then, we find the concept so indispensable that the proposal to rename the Division of the Psychology of Religion of the APA to Psychology of Religion and Spirituality is being seriously considered (Pargament, 1999).

The problem of definition

Spirituality as a psychological concept was easier to put through than it is to define. Let us review shortly the main definitional undertakings.

A classical attempt to define spirituality - although under a different name - may be found in the famous work of Rudolf Otto Das Heilige[4] from the year 1917. In the romantic tradition and, at the same time, with ingenious psychological sensitivity, Otto describes the unique experience of numinosum, which perhaps may be best classified as feeling (if an appropriate category ever exists). Numinosum combines mysterium tremendum with mysterium fascinans face to face something transcending all thinking as well as all imagination. Numinosum may be present in the intensity - so to say - of a storm, as well as of a slight breeze, and yet it is quite specific, irreducible to anything else. It is doubtful if an adequate verbal-rational description of the sacred is possible. Understanding this phenomenon is only possible through personal experience, which may be induced and confirmed by means of visual arts, music, poetry, narratives, etc.; these may - but do not have to be - included in religious practice (in a very broad sense). Otto advised that without the experience of the sacred, one should not read his book.

An interesting variation of Otto's formulation we find at Kenneth Pargament (1999; Pargament, Mahoney, 2002). Here, spirituality is defined as search for the sacred which - to the European ear - sounds a little too American/activistic (Rican, 2004, Belzen, 2005); there certainly is little activity in being overwhelmed by numinosum.

There are objections against the use of the concept of the sacred to define spirituality. It may be found as tied too closely to the three great monotheistic religions, namely, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism (Belzen, 2002).[5] The remove the sacred as the key defining feature of spirituality may be motivated by the wish to rid it of its traditional connotations, to weaken its irrational aspect, or to "secularize" it.

Our experience with Czech college students is that they often do not understand any more what the term sacred means and/or have it closely associated with Christianity. As a consequence, the word can hardly be used in spirituality questionnaires.

To replace the traditional sacred, a number of concepts have been created or chosen which aspire to be the key feature of spirituality or to be included among its aspects. Emmons in his book The psychology of ultimate concerns (1999, p. 5), for example, mentions the "search for meaning, for unity, for connectedness, for transcendence, and for the highest of human potential". The well-known concept of peak experience coined by Abraham Maslow long ago clearly belongs to this cluster. Stifoss-Hanssen (1999) prefers existentiality as the key concept defining spirituality. Existentiality, he argues, refers to serious existential experience; sacredness, on the other hand, according to him "is sometimes not existential (i.e., not really important)". Spirituality, in his view, can therefore also be “expressed by atheists and agnostics, by people deeply engaged in ecology and other idealistic endeavors, and by people inspired by religious impulses not easily understood by classic religious concepts (e. g., sacredness)." For Belzen (2005), "spirituality is defined by the reference to transcendence and by nothing else." To him, diverse behaviors, even prostitution under certain circumstances, may consequently be viewed as spiritual acts, though the person "will have to appeal to transcendence in order to be able to call this conduct a form of spirituality." Reich (2000) similarly believes that spirituality "is at work when individuals take something to be transcendent or of great value" which, of course, may happen equally well within a religious as within a profane framework.

It is not necessary, I believe, to feel compelled to find a final solution to the problem of definition. The concept of spirituality may better be left somewhat open semantically, or, if you prefer the fashionable word, somewhat fuzzy. Its application to the theme of human relationship may, in turn, contribute to its clarification.

Aspects of human relationship that generate spirituality

Let us now review some aspects of human relationships, which may be relevant to spirituality as we just characterized it. In other words: Where can spirituality, understood psychologically, i.e., as experience, be found in relationships?  There is space to mention only a few of these aspects. You will notice that, although they are distinct qualities, they often overlap with each other.

 Enchantment with the beauty or charm of the other human being may overwhelm me and make me enthusiastic to such an extent that an extreme, peak experience occurs. At such a moment, it may be said that I "see" Venus or Eros - which is a typical spiritual experience. The admiration included in such an enchantment need not always concern the body, it may be the spirit of a poet or an artistic performance, which "gets" me.

I chose to start with this phenomenon of enchantment that most authors writing about spirituality leave outside of the focus of attention. The reason for this neglect may be some ambivalence towards beauty in the Christian as well as Buddhist traditions influencing our implicit definition of spirituality. The most enchanting object to many of us, namely, human body with its erotic if not sexual appeal is considered a little suspicious and dangerous. Sensuality has a connotation of something lower.

 Respect for the other human being is another experience deserving our attention. More pathetically, which in our context may be appropriate, we may speak of awe. The person to whom I feel respect need not be particularly perfect or exceptional in any way. I may even find it difficult to give reasons for my attitude of respect, yet it is clear to me that, at a certain moment, there is something of top importance, or value, in front of me to which I must be quiet and attentive. Sense of mystery obviously belongs to respect, or awe. Even some kind of taboo, or fear of touching may be present, perhaps with the awareness, or intuition, that no touch can be clean enough. All this may concern the body of the other, but also his privacy, his intimate thoughts and feelings, perhaps his diary etc.

Intimacy, or extreme psychological closeness of love may mean a peak of bliss, also deserving designation "spiritual". Loss of the boundary between the "me" and "you" or, in mystic states sometimes called contemplation, between the "me" and "Thou" may justly be called experience of transcendence. Narrow limits of the small personal ego are really transcended, or exceeded and we feel completely united with the other. Depth psychology has extensively studied events or states of this kind and transpersonal psychology often draws philosophical, or religious, conclusions from them. Identification is a theoretical concept often used to explain them.

Compassion, leading emotion in the Buddhist spirituality, especially if it leads to some kind of radical self-sacrifice, belongs to the deepest existential experiences, able to transform the whole of the inner world of a man. It may appear spontaneously, face-to-face the suffering other, especially a child, and evolutionary psychologist will, of course, readily explain it as useful for reproduction of genes. (We need not deny such explanatory attempts, even if they are often used to try to explain away genuinely human phenomena.)

Hatred, as well as contempt that often goes with it, in this short list may seem surprising and certainly their place here is open to discussion. But remember, there are different spirits in the air and sacred hatred towards the enemies of God is a phenomenon, which is hard to overlook these days. As psychologists, we know that hatred, especially if accompanied by torturing the other, may be an extremely intense, really ecstatic, experience in which boundaries between self and other break down and the most intense experiences of transcendence occur (Bataille, 1957). The perpetrator and the victim are - in a strange way - emotionally very close to each other. By right sadism was called devil's religion (Chasseguet-Smirgel, 1984).

Spiritual basis of the human relationship

Two conclusions may be drawn from our reflections. First, what psychologists used to present as the spirituality, or spirituality in general, really is a specific spirituality, namely, the idealized spirituality of the enlightened Westerner who wishes to keep the best values and culture of Christianity, with some addition of what the New Age has imported from the Orient.

            Second: The aspects of human relationship mentioned above may be considered components of what is sometimes called natural spirituality (Reich, 2000, Benner, 1988), a concept parallel to natural religion in theology. These aspects are archetypically rooted in the human nature and they outlive loss of faith and repression of religion in the usual sense. Our problem is, however, that - if not cultivated in one way or the other - spirituality degenerates and its dark aspects may prevail, among others in human relations. Enchantment may degenerate in infatuation, respect in superstitious aggressive fear, intimacy in parasitic symbiosis, etc. The hungry call for spirituality - especially for the so called non-religious one - in the contemporary society is a challenge for psychologists who start answering it in psychotherapy, in counseling and education, even in training managers.



Bataille, G. (1957): L'Erotisme. Paris, Minuit (after Kernberg, 1995, p. 24).

Belzen, J. A. (2005): In defense of the object: On trends and directions in the psychology of religion. The international journal for the psychology of religion, 15, 1, 1-16.

Benner, D. G. (1988): Psychotherapy and the spiritual quest. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

Chasseguet-Smirgel, J. (1984): Creativity and perversion. New York: Norton

Emmons, R. A. (1999): The psychology of ultimate concerns. New York: Guilford Press.

Kernberg, O. F. (1995): Love relations. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Kohut, V. (1999): Spiritualita. In: S. De Fiores, T. Goffi, (eds.): Slovník spirituality, Karmelitánské nakladatelství, Kostelní Vydří, 862-868.

Otto, R. (1917): Das Heilige. Breslau: Trewendt und Granier.Pargament, 1999).

Pargament, K. I. (1997): The Psychology of religion and coping. New York: Guilford.

Pargament, K. I. (1999): The psychology of religion and spirituality? Yes and No. The international journal for the psychology of religion, 9, 1, 3-16.

Pargament, K. I., Mahoney, A. (2002): Spirituality. Discovering and conserving the sacred. In: Snyder, C. R., Lopez, S. J. (Eds.): Handbook of positive psychology. Oxford University Press, 646-659.

Reich, K. H. (2000): What characterizes spirituality? A comment on Pargament, Emmons and Crumpler, and Stifoss-Hansen. The international journal for the psychology of religion, 10, 2, 125-128.

Říčan, P. (2004): Spirituality - the story of a concept in the psychology of religion. Archiv für Religionspsychologie, 26, 135-156.

Schneiders, S. M. (2002): Biblical spirituality. Interpretation, 56, 2, 133-142.

Stifoss-Hanssen, H. (1999): Religion and spirituality: What a European ear hears. The international journal for the psychology of religion, 9, 1, 25-33.

Unruh, A. M., Versnel, J., Kerr, N. (2002): Spirituality unplugged: A Review of commonalities and contentions, and a resolution. The Canadian journal of occupational therapy, 69, 1, 5-24.

[1] This is a frequent trap in theory building in psychology: two or more concepts hidden under the same name. Much effort is often wasted by attempts to find the single concept covering all meanings under a certain word like personality, ability, learning, value, etc.

[2] Only since the beginning of the 20th century has the term been currently used in Catholic theology however, and with so many meanings that a generally accepted definition is considered a distant goal (Kohut, 1999).

[3] Evil spirits well known to our ancestors were forgotten or, understood psychologically, repressed by the modern Reason, or Enlightenment. The idealization of spirituality is quite common - and utterly unscientific.

[4] The book appeared in English under the title The Idea of Holy, but we might find The Sacred as more adequate.

[5] This objection reminds us of the more or less explicit assumption of some of the psychologists of religion that spirituality is - basically at least - qualitatively identical in all religions and, on the top of this, in spiritual atheists, too.