date: 13 March 2018
Spirituality and Contemporary Art
Summary and Keywords
The artworks under discussion detail the scope and breadth of art that can be described as spiritual by virtue of its revelatory, revitalizing and contemplative capacities. Rather than interrogating the relationship between art and religion, more pertinent questions in the contemporary age are: What is the nature of the dialogue between art and spirituality, how do the two come together, and what form does the meeting take? The range of multimedia brings novel forms of encounter that occur outside the gallery and other spaces and involve audio-visual and other means of articulating the spiritual. These new forms make different demands on viewers; they create greater intimacy (often through immersion), both physically and psychologically, and one of the consequences of having greater intimacy can be a heightened awareness that increases presentness and a sense of embodiment. What we learn is that there are potentially as many interpretations of spirituality as there are viewers.
Keywords: spirituality, immersion, New Media, transgression, the sublime, abstraction, embodiment
In the 21st century, the concept of spirituality is becoming increasingly important to various cultural discourses, including that of contemporary artwork. Art that is described as spiritual may reference or represent a spiritual and/or religious tradition. Whether referring to specific religious traditions or not, spirituality concerns the feelings stirred or probed by the art, which may prompt viewers to reflect on the meaning of life, often drawing on existential questions, such as: Why are we here? What are we doing? What happens after life ends? A sense of the spiritual also gives people the sense of belonging that they crave, a feeling that they are part of something greater than the self. The spiritual also contrasts with the material, where the material concerns acquisitiveness and worldly success. Spirituality seeks to transcend worldly goods and ambitions.
The relationship between art and spirituality has been historically mediated through the relationship between art and religion, something which has been periodically problematic throughout the centuries. But in spite of the decline of organized religion in Western Europe, there has been growing interest in spirituality in areas of cultural life, especially in art. Many people no longer view traditional religion, in the sense of institutionalized religion, as adequate for exploring their spirituality and look to new forms of spirituality as alternatives for finding ultimate meaning and addressing the profound needs of humanity.1 Central to the role of the artist has been a preoccupation with the deeper questions of life, often to reveal sights that are normally kept hidden from the public gaze and to challenge entrenched beliefs. The process of creating art is often described in quasi-mystical terms, whereby the artist-as-shaman unleashes or channels special creative powers in a process of making that transports the viewer to a different realm of the imaginary. Given these affinities between the roles of art and spirituality, it is unsurprising that spirituality is an enduring feature of contemporary art.
Definition of Terms
“Spirituality” is a term that is often used vaguely to refer to an attitude or approach toward life that involves a search for meaning. Before looking at how spirituality is articulated in cultural life, it is imperative to set down its forms. One of the first points to make is that historical religions are comprised of spiritual traditions that vary in significant ways but which can be considered within the framework of religious discourse. There are also spiritual forms that exist in alternative (and non-doctrinal) religions that are not classified as organized or institutional religions, such as new religious movements (NRMs). Spirituality also exists outside of theology or religious practice, where it is allied to ethical issues about identity, selfhood, and human interaction in the world. Although from a secular viewpoint spiritual concerns do not involve religious views about the supernatural, secular spirituality should not be opposed to religious spirituality because they have shared concerns, even if the roots of their concerns are different.
Philip Sheldrake provides some useful initial definitions of spirituality: “‘[S]pirituality’ refers to the deepest values and meanings by which people seek to live.”2 It conveys an outlook, vision, or aspiration about life that involves thinking holistically about identity, about one’s own and that of others, and of being cognizant of death. The mystical writer Evelyn Underhill suggests that the drive for spiritual fulfillment takes us beyond a purpose that is geared toward the practicalities of “tool-making” to something that is “vision-creating,”3 thus conveying the sacred (in the sense of the non-mundane) aspects of spirituality.
Sheldrake also describes the study of spirituality as an academic discipline and discourse. In some formulations, spirituality is viewed as an individualistic project of “self-realization” that typically takes the trajectory of “inwardness” or can be directed outwardly, in a consumerist sense, to promote various lifestyle choices like “fitness, healthy living, and holistic well-being.”4 Since the 21st century, there has been a drive toward an expanded sense of spirituality that goes beyond the quest to fulfill or orient the self to using it as the basis of policy formation in fields like social work, education, health, psychotherapy and even business.
The second term that needs qualification is “contemporary” in the sense of contemporary art. “The contemporary” can be used to refer to the current, the present, the here-and-now. The sense in which it is used here encompasses this description but also incorporates the art historical meaning of “the contemporary” as referring to the postmodern. Historically, this delineates work from the 1960s onward but earlier work, where pertinent, will be discussed. Also addressed will be artworks that express (either directly or indirectly) spirituality or that give rise to interpretations of spirituality. In some cases, artists are motivated by particular religious traditions; in other cases, the art broadly reflects a personal or communal vision about the nature of reality. Wade Clark Roof and Robert Wuthnow discuss the prevalence of “seeker spirituality,” which describes many people’s attitudes to finding spiritual forms or ideas that resonant with them, even if these forms and ideas are from different traditions.5 This eclectic sense of gathering together ideas from different sources reflects the nonspecific nature of the spirituality identified in the artworks. What is perhaps more important than being able to identify or attribute a specific type of spirituality, if that is indeed possible, is to recognize that contemporary art provides an avenue for the spiritual.
The Separation of Art and Religion in Modernism
In Western art history prior to the 20th century, spirituality was often subsumed by religion. The relationship between art and religion was fractious; at times they were mutually reinforcing, while at others there was dissension because of the lack of unanimity about the image. The crux of the Iconoclastic controversies of the 8th and 9th centuries, and later the Protestant Reformation, was not so much a denial of the importance of imagery but, on the contrary, was about just how much power images held. The iconoclasts believed that the use of images distracted from the main goals of religious practice, and could lead to moral and religious corruption.
Before the 17th century, many leading developments in Western art were primarily in the sphere of religious art; we can observe this in the development of linear perspective in the great works of the Renaissance, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper (1495–1498) and Masaccio’s The Holy Trinity (c. 1427).
The Enlightenment developed a critical view of institutional Christianity and its defense of miracles, the supernatural, and divine authority. In philosophical thinking, the idea that God was an a priori foundation for our belief system was also replaced by an increase in scientific knowledge that placed the onus on inquiry rather than revelation as the ground for thinking. Belief in God was affirmed in Deism, which was known as a “rational” religion. Less than a century later, Nietzsche made a more radical shift by articulating the untenability of God’s existence, epitomized in his declaration that “God is dead” in 1882. Death of God philosophies may have problematized cultural conventions but did not remove the pervasive need to express spirituality, which sprang from a presumed human need to engage with existence.
Experiences of the spiritual were sought outside of the traditional themes of Christian narratives and imagery, and were often in veiled or coded language. Counter to the prevailing notion that art since the Enlightenment did not engage with religion, there have been a number of artists, operating in different traditions and styles, such as Caspar David Friedrich, Philipp Otto Runge, William Blake, Eugène Delacroix, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and Paul Gauguin, who have attended to religious themes and often to religious commissions. The philosophical and aesthetic concept of the sublime, as revived during the 18th century by Edmund Burke in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756) and Kant in his Critique of Judgment (1790), gave artists a platform for the secular translation of religious ideas in the form of new motifs that were of the natural world. “The sublime” referred to any overwhelming or awe-inducing experience, such as the encounter with nature. Although it should not be presented as a singularly secularizing trend, it can be seen in terms of a spiritual and transcendental experience. It was a reminder of the total vulnerability of humans in the face of an unpredictable nature.6 In “The Abstract Sublime” (1961),7 which was developed in Modern Painting and the Northern Romantic Tradition, Robert Rosenblum argues for a counter-French tradition in modern art that traces a history of the sublime in the “Northern Romantic Tradition,” from Friedrich in the 19th century to Mark Rothko.8
Throughout most of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, concerns pertaining to religion were marginalized in art history; the coded religiosity of Romanticism gave way to Realism, which focused on physical here-and-now reality rather than the underlying mysteries of the universe. There were exceptions, though, in the work of particular individuals, such as Vincent Van Gogh, who probed the depths of materiality in his depictions of the natural world. The aesthetic sensibility of modernism brought about further tension between art and religion. As expounded by critics such as Clement Greenberg,9 modernism extolled formalist values—purity, autonomy—and purged the artwork of external reference. Meaning was gleaned not by any reference to the external world but by examining the formal relationships in the artwork, which were self-referential. This aesthetic was seen in abstraction, a form practiced by many artists who were interested in devising a language that went beyond the particular to the universal. Although the strident aestheticism of modernism was antithetical to interpretations that went beyond those contained in the artwork, there were a number of artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt whose work utilized formal motifs as a vehicle to express their spiritual outlooks.
Key written works, particularly Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911) and Der Blaue Reiter Almanac (1912), defended abstract art and revealed how non-objective forms could evoke the inexpressible through engagement with its formal qualities. In his 1911 work, Kandinsky emphasized his staunch belief in the redemptive qualities of the spiritual. He envisioned the Kingdom of God as an artistic domain that could be accessed by the artist-as-prophet, who was able to traverse “[t]he nightmare of materialism”10 to attain spiritual utopia through art. Abstract art provided the necessary means to do this, and the belief presented was that “[t]he more abstract [its] form, the more clear and direct is its appeal.”11
It is possible to discuss the work of the aforementioned artists with reference only to the aesthetic trajectory of the erasure of figuration and the concomitant progression of abstraction and minimalism, where the ultimate goal involved the emptiness (or emptying out) of form, as apotheosized in Reinhardt’s Black Square (1963). However, such interpretations are incomplete without discussion of the role of the spiritual, which is integral to the symbolization of formal elements. Abstraction gave viewers an experience of transcendence, what is beyond the empirical. In theosophical terms, which was the tradition by which many of these artists were inspired,12 the relationship of formal elements was construed as a relationship of contraries—between one and the many, between the vertical and the horizontal, and between materialism and spirituality—and the ultimate goal involved revealing or unveiling spiritual essences that lie behind the everyday world. Abstraction requires contemplation to reveal its meaning.
An artist who warrants special mention for his exploration of spirituality in the 20th century and the aftermath of the Holocaust is Anselm Kiefer. Kiefer took it upon himself to face the aesthetic and ethical predicament of how to create in the face of the atrocity of Auschwitz, and responded by encountering directly the symbols of fascist terror. His quest was motivated by his identity; as a German born shortly before the end of World War II in 1945, he inherited a particular historical legacy to which he felt called to respond. In his version of history painting, he used the forms of Nazism, such as architectural structures reminiscent of the edifices of Albert Speer and related sources such as Wagnerian opera and Norse myth, to negotiate between the past and present, the private and political. A leading exponent of Neo-Expressionism, Kiefer uses characteristically large canvases heavily textured in sombre tones of brown and grey, and incorporates materials such as straw, ash, and even blood mixed in with paint. This layered, raw, and visceral surface of cauterized paint and debris reflects the density and tragedy of his message and departs from the German Romantic idealized notion of the land. Interior (1981) is a stark reminder of the Nazi regime and represents a room in the New Reich Chancellery. Although it was destroyed immediately after the end of the war, Kiefer works through the symbolic memory by depicting the moment of ruination.
Aside from his chief preoccupation with German history and culture, Kiefer also had a broader interest in ancient belief systems and religious mythology, which he explored repeatedly, and symbolically. As is characteristic of his work, particular references take on epic proportions. One of his most powerful works, Zim Zum (1990), which takes its reference from the Kabbalah and refers to the contraction that must occur (zimzum) so that creation can take place, is depicted at once by this simultaneous sense of emergence and withdrawal. A more recent work, Palmsonntag (2006), features a palm tree and a number of panels of mixed media (in lead frames under glass) and refers to the Christian holy day symbolizing the relationship between death and resurrection.
Kiefer’s elegiac work probes the manifold challenges of representing the unrepresentable, of finding redemption in tragedy, which denotes a different type of sublime. An overriding theme in his paintings is the coming together of creativity and destruction, where creation is bound up with devastation and the trauma of history.
Recovering the Spiritual
In contemporary culture, the relationship between art and religion can be reconfigured in terms of art and spirituality, where the latter may encompass religion. This resonates with a more contemporary and global perspective and is a way of recasting the hostility that art has to religion, as evidenced in the 2010 issue of the contemporary art magazine Frieze on “Religion and Spirituality.” Dan Fox explains the resistance to the descriptor of “religious” in reviews of contemporary exhibitions and accompanying press releases in favor of “words such as ‘spiritual,’ ‘transcendent,’ ‘meditative,’ and ‘sublime,’ which gives the false perception that “it is OK for artists to be ‘spiritual’ in some vague, New Agey sort of way, but not ‘religious’—as if being ‘spiritual’ is somehow free of ideological baggage.”13 The rekindling of interest in art and spirituality has been reflected in internationally renowned exhibitions, including Maurice Tuchman’s touring The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890–1985, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 198614; Negotiating Rapture: The Power of Art to Transform Lives, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 1996; and Traces du Sacré, Centre Pompidou, Paris, 2008.
Various scholars have propounded the idea of spirituality as an alternative to institutionalized religion, thereby challenging the idea of secularization. In The Reenchantment of Art (1991), Suzi Gablik responds to her previous study Has Modernism Failed? (1984) by setting out her vision of an art that is ecologically empowered, community focused, and rooted in a sense of the power of mythology, and she uses the example of artists who extol such ideals. She bemoans that “[w]e live in a culture that has little capacity or appreciation for meaningful ritual”15 but believes in the power of art to restore sacrality in a disenchanted world. Robert Wuthnow’s Creative Spirituality: The Way of the Artist (2003)16 looks to artists (from the visual arts and other creative disciplines) as the vanguard for spirituality in a secular age when the American public is, according to the author, becoming more skeptical about the offerings of traditional religion. Delving into their personal struggles, the artists interviewed explored avenues for hope in their creative practices. James Elkins sets out the hostility between religion and art in On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art (1994) where he comments on the suspiciousness that each side exhibits about the other; on the one hand, theologians do not want to have anything to do with contemporary art, while on the other, the art that is produced in churches is of no interest to the art world.17 He uses examples of his students’ work to demonstrate that spirituality is indeed alive and active in art schools, even if there is resistance to engage with it. James Elkins and David Morgan’s Re-Enchantment (2008) documents the disjuncture in the relationship of art and religion and/or spirituality and deliberately resists homogenizing the responses into a single account.18
In the other camp are scholars of religion or theology who have advanced the study of art and spirituality. In 1910, Max Weber argued that art becomes an alternative to religion: “Art takes over the function of a this-wordly salvation, no matter how this may be interpreted. It provides a salvation from the routines of everyday life, and especially from the increasing pressures of theoretical and practical rationalism.”19 Paul Tillich’s theology of culture defends the importance of art. Following his experiences on the front line in World War I, Tillich believed in the revelatory power of art to disclose ultimate reality. In a lecture delivered at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1959, he “came to the conclusion that an apple of Cézanne has more presence of ultimate reality than a picture of Jesus by Hoffmann (which can now be found in the Riverside Church of this city).”20 More recently, the cultural theorist Mark C. Taylor has examined what he considers are the deep-rooted but little explored connections between art from the 20th century onward and religion in his postmodern a/theology that explores the relationship between opposites. In Refiguring the Spiritual (2011), Taylor argues how “the commodification, corporatization, and financialization of art represent a betrayal of principles and values that guided artists for more than two centuries,” and he singles out four artists for consideration who have defied this approach, and whose work can be seen as embodying spiritual values.21
There are also church members who extolled the importance of the arts as part of their mission. In France, the Dominican friar Marie-Alain Couturier was an influential figure who played a groundbreaking role in the revival of 20th-century church decoration, which, he argued, had become outdated and sentimentalized. He called on the church to enlist the ideas of contemporary artists regardless of their religious persuasion, in the belief that it is better to offer commissions to geniuses without faith than employ believers without talent. This unprecedented move of placing artistic expression above religious affiliation led to a stream of commissions to well-known modernist artists, such as Germaine Richier, Henri Matisse, and Marc Chagall, to make art for religious spaces at, amongst others, the Church of Notre-Dame de Toute Grâce du Plateau d’Assy. A fellow pioneer active at the same time was Walter Hussey, an Anglican patron of the arts at St. Matthew’s Northampton and Chichester Cathedral, who commissioned a number of artworks (including musical compositions) by such artists as Graham Sutherland, Marc Chagall, Benjamin Britten and John Piper.
Another way out of the “impasse” between religion and art, as Elkins calls it, is to consider the methodological solutions offered by “religious visual culture,” which was an approach inaugurated in the 1990s by American scholars who were working at the intersection between the two fields, such as David Morgan, S. Brent Plate, Sally Promey, and Colleen McDanell.22 Religious visual culture looks at the study of religions and its relationship to images and objects. It differs from art history’s preoccupation with iconography and style in favor of an engagement with images and objects as visual practice. While art history’s remit is about showing how images (from high art) reflected, reinterpreted, or critiqued textually-based and often biblically-based readings, religious visual culture is about making religious studies by showing how images and objects operate in meaning-making. This involves thinking about the different ritualized practices that the images and objects are employed in, including liturgy, meditation, and other forms of instruction that they occupy in people’s lives.
Although primarily seeking to expand the horizons of the study of religion, religious visual culture—in its focus on the interplay between objects (such as artworks), spaces, and the viewers who interact with them—parallels the approach of viewing contemporary art as evoking spirituality. In the artworks that will be discussed, thoughts and feelings that give rise to the spiritual are determined by the dynamic between the viewer’s interaction with the objects in the allotted space, which may involve walking around and through the spaces made available by the work, and his or her interacting with it in other ways.23 Religious visual culture endorses the democratization of objects and imagery that dispenses with the sharp hierarchy in the history of art between high and low, or mass, art. Virtually all contemporary artists make art about life, involving everyday subjects and materials. That is not to say that the contemporary art world is not without hierarchies; it is just that images and objects are not subject to the same categorization that they were in former centuries. Indeed, there are popular devotional images, such as Warner Sallman’s Head of Christ (1940), that have enjoyed much commercial success as “sacred” images but which would not be taken seriously in the art world.24
Refiguring the Spiritual in Contemporary Art
The sheer range of artworks that can be described as “spiritual” conveys the numerous possibilities that are open to artists in the current day as a result of fewer prescriptions or expectations about what forms spiritual art should take. The situation was very different for artists before modernism, as they were bound by the particularities of iconography and the proposed setting, and were sometimes obliged to work in the service of the Church. In the present day, artists are at liberty to combine genres, materials, and forms and to represent a range of global subjects, some of which refer directly to societal issues, whereas others are more universal and timeless. Themes of interest include the War on Terror, the fragility of the body, consumerism, and human rights. Some artists explicitly use ideas and symbols from religious or mythological traditions in the expression of their ideas; others have a more “pick-and-mix” approach to spirituality, where aspects from different traditions, including private beliefs, are amalgamated. It is far from necessarily the case that the most meaningful spiritual reflection is found in explicitly religious art.
Most contemporary artists are drawn to secular sources—ordinary objects, motifs, symbols and metaphors—but in the encounter with them, transformation occurs. The video artist Bill Viola frequently uses everyday people, including himself, in his installations and performances, and takes the viewer to an experience beyond the mundane, which conveys the power that art has of transporting the viewer to extraordinary states. Graham Howes argues for the non-specific (amorphous and generic) nature of spirituality expressed in contemporary art, claiming that
today’s artists are—unlike Grünewald—far more likely to disclose the broadly numinous rather than the explicitly incarnational, and are far more likely to offer generalised religious experience rather than Christian revelation. In doing so they, like Rothko and other abstract expressionists before them, move religious art beyond its traditionally didactic and narrative intentions towards the primarily experiential.25
In contemporary culture, when viewers talk about experiencing art as spiritual they are rarely picking out a particular tradition and are just responding to the encounter with the art, in its imagery and formal qualities, and what this has opened up in them. The art often involves threshold states of encounter and experience, such as the feeling incurred by the sublime, or it may entail the setting apart of an object that is sacralized in the ritual of art. When viewers perceive art that brings about these feelings, it is often difficult to put into words how or what they are feeling, and they often resort to emotional language or analogy to describe their responses. Such emotional states prompt reflections of a spiritual nature. When viewers talk about experiences of a spiritual kind, they are implying that there is a temporary alteration in their psychological state that involves the setting apart of that moment from the mundane, a making sacred.
In “Contemplating the Spiritual in the Visual Arts” (2011), Rina Arya discusses two imperatives that need to be considered in mapping out a paradigm for spirituality—the relevance of context and receptivity.26 The placement and environment of the artwork affects the way we read it; the lighting, interspatial relations, and role of the viewer are determining factors in the production of meaning. A shift of context may alter the reading of a work. The receptivity indicates the degree of openness, the extent to which the viewer is amenable to being moved emotionally and otherwise by the artwork. Receptivity usually entails the willingness to sacrifice time, to harness concentration, and to allow the artwork to be. A lack of openness to the particular artwork, or indeed art in general, will not be conducive to spiritual feelings.
A final factor that needs to be addressed concerns the artists’ intentions. In many artworks that are described as eliciting spiritual experiences, we cannot assume that the artist intended it to be so. This does not devalue the experience but demonstrates the often personal and subjective nature of viewing, as well as the different ways of engaging with the spiritual.
New Media and Spirituality
Since the late 20th century, artists have used a range of new media, where the latter refers to new types of media as well as the technical term “New Media.” New types of media refer to art forms that go beyond the traditional forms of painting and sculpture. These include installation art, where the art is made for a particular location (site- specific, or site-sensitive), often on a temporary basis; it characterized by an inventive use of space and an internal dialogue among the objects in the space. Performance art, as the name suggests, involves the artist as performer making the work, often through interaction with an audience and using his or her body as the platform of creativity. New Media is an umbrella term that refers to changes in electronic communication that have taken place since the arrival of digital technology in the 1980s such as video and computer art.
The forms described here invite different and more intimate types of interaction than those of traditional media and revive the sublime in a technological medium. The passive viewing of a painting on a wall or a sculpture on a plinth is replaced by active participation in a multisensory domain that entails much more than viewing and involves walking around, through and sometimes into the art work itself. It is impossible to perceive the work in a single instance of time, and continued interaction is required in order to understand the work. Contrary to the misconception that technology distances people from their bodies, digital multimedia often heightens the sense of the phenomenological or the embodied. Spirituality is felt rather than simply understood.
Viewers have to sacrifice more in accessing the art, including giving up time, negotiating the artwork (which may involve following instructions), interacting with artists, and placing themselves at risk. This transaction closes the gap between the viewer and the artwork as the former becomes immersed in the art and implicated in the meaning of the work. In many instances, the work necessitates the willing interaction of the viewer, who becomes a participant, sometimes collectively, in the making of meaning through ritualized action. The interaction with the artwork also involves the potential for a transformation of our perception of mundane reality. Risk is involved because the “safety” of the frame or plinth is withheld and the viewer is placed in a more immediate and individualized relation with the artist and artwork, and has to be receptive to their supra-intellectual demands. Another factor that needs to be taken into consideration is context. Spiritual experiences are no longer confined to religious buildings but can be found in a variety of secular spaces—the museum, art gallery, nature park—on a temporary or long-term basis. This involves the expansion of context where art works are exhibited, as well as the blurring of boundaries between the sacred and the secular.
What follows is an exploration of examples from different media in turn, focusing on key artists who are associated with the form, while conveying how the context and reception give rise to a spiritual experience. This signals a conceptual and interpretative shift away from an exclusive focus on content and imagery, which defined the approach taken to art before the 20th century, and to the experiential and immersive dimensions that make different demands on the viewer and participant. The art itself and the conditions of production, circulation, and reception change so fundamentally that they sharply distinguish the work from earlier art.
Anthony Gormley’s work is about the ontological relationship between the human and its environment. He places his body casts, based on a human body, often his own, in various places, usually outdoors. This represents a departure from Land Art in the 1960s and 1970s, which was chiefly about using nature as the tools and backdrop for art. Here, Gormley chooses the urban environment to present his figures. Usually placed on their own, in unexpected placements—on the top of a building, or overlooking the A1 motorway in Gateshead (which is where Angel of the North  is placed)—the figures make people stop in their tracks. Coming across the work prompts shock because, at a distance, some of his figures look like potential suicide victims. In Another Place (1997), a hundred cast-iron figures face out to sea on Crosby Beach, near Liverpool. Tidal changes create the impression of people walking into the sea.
In 1994, Gormley was awarded the Turner Prize for Field, a series of 35,000 handmade clay figures placed in a gallery space, which when viewed at a distance filled the space. There were a number of versions of Field, with each being the result of a collaboration with select communities, where each figure was made by an individual whose unique molding determined the form of the figure. On one reading, the communal act of contributing to something that was greater than the self was in itself a spiritual act. As with Gormley’s philosophy, each figure, whether life-size or miniature, was an allegory for the human race. Even though the artist used his own body as the mold for each cast, the finished figures were impersonal, which facilitated identification with them. This existentialist projection occurs in Event Horizon, a multipart installation that was first shown in London in 2007. The work consists of thirty-one life-size male bodies that were placed on top of well-known buildings along London’s South Bank. Three years later, the figures were moved to New York City, and in 2012 they moved to São Paulo. This bleak metaphor of spiritual emptiness in the city signaled a global crisis in personal identity. The locations change, but the people remain in similar states of isolation and despair.
James Turrell’s artwork is about light, but rather than representing light, his work is light. Typical installations consist of site-specific spaces that have been flooded by light. Turrell takes an element that is central not only to art but also to viewing and perception and turns it into his subject. When a viewer enters one of his spaces, there is no object or focus, and that is precisely the point; we become focused on the act of looking itself, and sight becomes a form of touch. Many works introduce illusory surfaces and shadows as Turrell manipulates the emission of light through partitioned shafts, but they all instill a sense of contemplation and meditation. This is facilitated by seating that invites relaxation and absorption, for this is not art that can be passed over but requires time.
In 1977, Turrell purchased the Roden Crater, an extinct volcano located near Flagstaff, Arizona, to undertake a monumental project that is ongoing and involves the shaping of chambers and apertures, both on the surface of the crater and internally. The intention is to capture the changing lighting conditions as day passes into night. In making this artwork, he was returning to his roots as a Land and Space artist of Southern California of the mid-1960s. Land artists were preoccupied with the wonderment of nature and used the natural environment in the generation of their work. By shaping the crater to maximize its capacity as a receptacle of light, Turrell is opening his work up to the forces of nature and setting up this disused site as an observatory of light for visitors.
Performance artists of the 1960s and 1970s started using their bodies (both the outer and inner) as a medium of expression. The artist’s body was disclosed as valid art material, or a vehicle, in its own right, and became the tool of experimentation for artists to explore philosophical and political notions about identity (including gender and sexuality) and community, and by which they could question strictures imposed on art and society. Extreme actions (including piercing, cutting, ingesting, and expelling) were employed to push the body and mind to their limits, liberating the self from pain.
The artists—Gina Pane, Chris Burden, Franko B., and Ron Athey—adopted different roles that depended on their personal motivations, casting themselves in the role of sacrificial victims, and invited preselected assistants or audience members to mutilate their bodies for the purposes of collective ritual.27 The ritualized pain undergone by the artist had a cathartic and “purifying” effect, a comment made by RoseLee Goldberg, who added that these actions were necessary “in order to reach an anaesthetized society.”28 By subjecting themselves to situations that ranged from the uncomfortable to the downright dangerous, performance artists opened their bodies up to a spirituality of embodiment whereby wounding becomes a way of knowing and feeling and connecting to others. The 1960s group, the Viennese Actionists, were influenced by pagan and early Christian rites, and staged spectacles that involved ritualized sacrifice and torture in order to attain abreaction and catharsis. In Orgies Mysteries Theatre (OMT), one of the actionists, Hermann Nitsch, carried out sacrificial rites using dead animals and humans. Doused in blood and eviscerated, the mimetic violence was reminiscent of the Dionysian rites of the bacchanal.
Violence is enacted on the body of the artist in Marina Abramović’s Rhythm O (1974), but the perpetrators this time are the audience as participants, who are issued an instruction: “There are seventy-two objects on the table that can be used on me as desired. I am the object.”29 Abramović, who remains silent, stands by the table and passively offers herself to viewers, who are permitted to objectify her body using both innocuous and more dangerous weapons—a saw, a gun with ammunition, and knives. Each performance lasted for six hours, and by the end “all the clothes had been sliced off her body with razor blades, she had been cut, painted, cleaned, decorated, and crowned with thorns and had had the loaded gun pressed against her head.”30 In this series of defilations, Abramović was rendered abject and set apart like the impure sacred. The audience, too, was rendered abject—morally abject—by their complicity in their objectifying and dehumanizing actions.
Witnessing violence without intervening has moral implications, and so all audience members were complicit even if they did not directly bring about harm. This work tests boundaries: the boundaries between the individual and the group, the boundaries of the artist’s body, and the boundary that determines what is permissible and morally acceptable. Abramović maintains the integrity of at least two concepts that are unreservedly spiritual. The first is to push the physical and psychological limits of tolerance, both in herself and also indirectly in others, and secondly, in doing so to create a heightened awareness of being in the present, and in the here-and-now. This work functions, like her many others, as a spiritual exercise that seeks to recenter the self in interaction with its external environment.
Bill Viola is an American video artist who employs electronic sound and image technology to create an extensive range of works, such as videotapes, architectonic video installations, and flat-panel video pieces. He studied at Syracuse University in the early 1970s and has had a central role in establishing the contemporaneity of video art and in expanding its possibilities through his innovative explorations of content and form. Viola’s works are meditations on the human condition and are concerned with embodiment, suffering and existential anxieties. Often featured on their own, his figures operate as the Everyman that stands in for the viewer.
Viola’s approach to spiritual traditions was syncretic and he was influenced by different religions, including Zen Buddhism and mysticism (from St. John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, and Islamic Sufism). In spite of the explicitly Christian nature of his titles, Viola did not intend his work to be interpreted religiously in the sense of belonging to a particular religious practice, but instead he used religious ideas evocatively to channel spiritual feelings and the experience of the sublime. His work, like many examples of installation art, constitutes a totalizing environment that involves more than the simple interaction of what is projected or screened; engagement is about the total environment between the viewer and objects in space.31 This dynamic facilitates spiritual exercises whereby constant and continuous engagement with the visuals and sounds leads to a deeper understanding of life, and where sense perception becomes a route to self-knowledge.
He weeps for you (1976) demonstrates this synchronicity of the viewer, the objects, and the spatio-temporal projection. A drop of water emerges from a small brass spigot. As the drop emerges, it is magnified by a video camera and projected onto a large screen. The close-up image reveals that the viewer and part of the room where he or she stands are visible inside each forming drop. The viewer sees each drop expand, and as it falls, it lands on an amplified drum. A new drop immediately begins forming and the cycle continues in infinite repetition. A simple act like this generates a cycle of meaning that opens up a space of contemplation where the repetition of the action of a drop forming becomes connected with a representation of the viewer.
Viola’s work demonstrates an important point about how technology can be used in order to enhance and not detract from spiritual meaning, raising the issue that the transience of technological innovation has the potential to engage with enduring spiritual themes and does not depart from them.
Space of Exiles: Spirituality as Identity
The artists and artworks discussed so far have been predominantly from Western traditions, but it is important to consider how artists from different cultural and religious backgrounds construe spirituality in their practices. Shirin Neshat and Shirazeh Houshiary are from Iran but have both set up home in the West. Art fulfills a critical role for both women, as a means of processing feelings of disenfranchisement and dislocation and as providing powerful images of cultural identity and transformation.
Shirin Neshat’s black-and-white photography and multimedia art responds to the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Using her own image as a template, she exposes the complexity of identity for a woman who is subjugated by the political regime in which she finds herself, and in addition faces the cultural objectification of women from the West. In the series Women of Allah (1993–1997), the chador (the Iranian veil) is used simultaneously to frame and veil the subject and prevent her image from being fixed. The traditionally religious symbols of the veil and Islamic calligraphy are used to embolden the image of the revolutionary woman who asserts her power against perpetrators who want to silence and exoticize her. The Farsi writing on her skin—face, torso, hands, and feet—serves not as decoration but to mark the body as a politicized surface.
Neshat had left Iran by the time of the revolution when she began her art education in the United States, but she was moved by the plight of her homeland after a visit in 1990, in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war, which reinforced her ongoing quest for women’s liberation. Neshat seeks to liberate the female body from both Western stereotypes and the fundamentalist Islamic state of Iran. The Islamic veil, so often misappropriated as a symbol of oppression and otherness, now represents militancy, particularly in the case of politically strident secular women in the revolution who opposed the Shah’s rule. This symbol is strengthened by the presence of another stock symbol, a gun. In her emboldened stance, Neshat invites viewers to question the contemporary identity of a Muslim woman, acting as documenter, performer, and witness. Although resident and established as an artist in the United States, she is still operating in a postexilic state and seeks a homeland, poignantly symbolized by the tooba, a sacred tree mentioned in the Qur’an, which offers comfort to those in need and is featured in her 2002 two-screen video installation of the same name.
Having worked through the layers of meaning, we reach an impasse in that we are confronted by a woman who is both veiled and unveiled, pious and strident. Unveiling (1993) is especially problematic as it draws attention to her beauty. The chador is open and cloaks her body like a mantel of luscious black hair. It parts to expose a strip of bare flesh, the tactility of which is reinforced by the loose script that adorns the surface. In her oeuvre, Neshat has expanded the significance of the veil in the variety of ways it shapes meaning. Another shift in meaning is the realization that this Islamic calligraphy does not articulate holy scripture but is, instead, contemporary Iranian women’s poetry about the role of women in the revolution. The meeting of opposites, central to Neshat’s work, conveys the complexity of identity in a global world.
Shirazeh Houshiary moved to England from Iran in 1973, shortly after which she commenced her art training at (what was then called) Chelsea School of Art. Unlike Neshat, who took a figurative stance, Houshiary draws on abstraction vis-à-vis Sufi mysticism, among other influences, to express her metaphysical understanding of reality, which she does with a variety of means. Her overarching concern is about the physical instantiation of the spiritual, which is played out in a relationship of opposites, in particular between unity and multiplicity, presence and absence, form and formless, and the tangible and intangible. Breath (2004) attempted to literalize the presence of religious chants from different religions—Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—both visibly and audibly. Inside a white brick tower constructed in Manhattan, four video screens visualized the imprint of the breath of the chant. These sounds were projected for all to hear outside the tower.
The dynamic of making visible is expressed in Houshiary’s abstract paintings, which are often given titles that evoke the multisensory, such as Touch and Presence. The motif of the veil is also recurrent, and although it resonates with her cultural heritage, she uses the reference in an expanded sense to signify a barrier or membrane between different states and to make the viewer think about perception. In its outward appearance, Veil (1999) shares similarities with the black paintings of the modernists, but on close-up, the textured surface of the graphite markings of Arabic writing, combined with layers of pigment, covers the black ground and adds a whole new level of complexity.
Houshiary’s most celebrated work (in partnership with Pip Horne) is her commission for the East Window of St. Martin in the Fields, London, which is of a cross being formed around a circular motif as a result of the warping of the metal framework. Perhaps the most striking point about this artwork is the fact that an Iranian female artist of Muslim descent was selected to make work for this historic church, which signals a shift in the attitudes of the Anglican Church.
The work of Neshat and Houshiary represents a snapshot of the many voices of postcolonialism: of artists who reflect on their displacement to explore the different threads of their political and cultural identity. This coincides with developments in the art markets in the Middle East and Asia that started in the early 1990s with the United Arab Emirates Biennale and various national art fairs.
Contemporary Art in Religious Spaces
Today in certain parts of the Western world, the Church (the Protestant Church, in particular) has become viewed as a cultural space for exchange and dialogue, and part of this identity entails accommodating artworks on a temporary or permanent basis via a program of commissioning. Works are not necessarily commissioned to reflect Christian theology or to support the liturgy; they might indeed offer a critique of or challenge to Christian values, but the intention is to respond sensitively to the space in which the work will be contained, and to encourage spiritual reflection, even if this is not always in connection to religion. The placement of artworks in these settings is not unproblematic. For churchgoers, it may be seen to enhance lived worship, or viewed as a distraction or intrusion. The presence of contemporary artworks might attract a different demographic, including non-churchgoers, into spaces they would not normally visit. In general terms, contemporary artworks that do something other than reflecting ecclesial truths expand the parameters of the sociocultural function of churches and cathedrals.
Alison Watt’s Still (2004) is a four-paneled, twelve-foot-square painting that was made in response to the surroundings of the Memorial Chapel that is located in Old St. Paul’s Church, Edinburgh. Suspended above the altar, the work depicts folds of cloth that are separated from the wearer. The fabric simultaneously denotes the absence of the physical body and yet indicates the traces of the wearer through the palpable forms made and the hints of flesh tones that are suggestive of human form. Inspired by the use of drapery in Jean‑Auguste‑Dominique Ingres’s painting Madame Moitessier (1856), fabric has been an ongoing concern in Watt’s work, and the apparitional nature of her paintings of fabric invites contemplation of a spiritual nature; the placement of Still in a chapel facilitates these intuitions.
An example of a shift of placement creating different meanings is Tracey Emin’s installation in Liverpool Cathedral. For You (2008) was commissioned by the cathedral chapter and was exhibited as part of the 2008 European Capital of Culture Year. It is a pink neon sign comprised of the words “I felt you and I knew you loved me” written in Emin’s handwriting and placed just under the west window.32 The artist’s rationale was that she wanted people to contemplate and share their feelings of love—for each other, for God—an exercise that she thought was rarely done due to people’s tendencies to internalize love. Her message, which can be read on different levels, is integral to the Christian ethos of agape, but also encompasses more universal and humanitarian sentiments. However, outside the parameters of the cathedral, the wording, replete with its gaudy presentation, may have different and inappropriate connotations.
The power of Still and For You has been internationally recognized, not simply by art organizations but also by bodies that support the religion–art dialogue, in particular Art and Christian Enquiry (ACE), where both artworks were the recipients of the award for art in a religious context, in 2005 and 2009, respectively.33 The receptivity to art shown by Christian places of worship and its related organizations reveals that greater attempts for rapprochement are shown by the Church and willing artists, rather than by the contemporary art world.
Transgressive “Religious” Art
Having relatively fewer constraints than artists in earlier centuries, and hence greater autonomy, contemporary artists have sometimes exploited religious symbols in ways that go against their traditional role to support faith, and are used instead ironically or blasphemously, in order, alternately, to critique and to provoke. Both inside and outside the contemporary art world, iconic images of Christ are summoned because of the degree of familiarity and connotations they represent.
Sarah Lucas’s tongue-in-cheek Christ You Know It Ain’t Easy (2003) uses the figure of Christ, composed of cigarette butts, to provoke humor in what resembles an advertising slogan. A number of isolated cases of controversial artworks, however, go beyond irony and cause outcry. These are transgressive because they cross the boundaries of what is deemed acceptable to religious groups and lead to ramifications that include their banning or destruction. The sensationalist examples of transgression by Gilbert Proesch and George Passmore, known as Gilbert and George, particularly in their 2005 show Sonofagod Pictures: Was Jesus Heterosexual at the White Cube (London), took an openly provocative stance, but there are other works that are carefully nuanced and, when looked at in the round, convey the complexity of religious expression. Frank Burch Brown’s claim that “[t]he art that has the greatest religious significance is not necessarily the art of institutional religion but rather that art which happens to discern what religion in its institutional or personal forms needs most to see” is prescient34
In the 1990s, a number of “religious” works became the site of controversy in the Culture Wars. In 1999, New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was outraged at the public display of Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary (1996) because of what he deemed to be the unacceptable use of cutouts of female genitalia that surrounded the main image of the Virgin, and also the further fact that the Virgin’s right breast had been fashioned out of elephant dung. He regarded this as being disrespectful to the holiness of the subject and unsuccessfully attempted to have it banned when the Sensation exhibition moved to the Brooklyn Museum in 1999. From another point of view, it could be argued that by showing graphic cutouts of images that we would not conventionally place next to the Blessed Virgin, Ofili is actually reinforcing her sanctity and virginity.35 A similar analysis can be leveled at Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (1987), which, too, has courted controversy. The work consists of a photograph of a plastic crucifix that is immersed in a container of urine. Turning the charges of offense around, Serrano can be seen to be literalizing the Eucharist and adding urine to the list of bodily substances that that the Eucharist symbolizes. Far from being blasphemous, he is underscoring the corporeality that is at the center of Catholic tradition.36 S. Brent Plate makes this point in his “religious visual culture” approach, which is differentiated from what could be described as the more art historical “analysis of the image itself” and involves “a complex of issues” that takes into account “the importance of cross-cultural meanings and interpretations.”37
A number of artists use religious images in ways that cause offense for the sole purpose of debunking religious tradition and flouting propriety. Francis Bacon is a special case. In his career he used more than fifty images of crucifixions and popes, which were evidenced in the titles of works and symbols. He was vehemently atheistic, and commentators have often closed down discussions of religion in his work. Rina Arya’s Francis Bacon: Painting in a Godless World
As we have already noted, the widespread use of the word ‘spirituality’ is a product of our times. Furthermore, ‘spirituality’ is nowadays presumed to be native to everyone, whether they have religious affiliations or not. It is individually tailored, democratic, eclectic, and an alternative source of personal authority.
However, before asking in more detail what ‘spirituality’ means today, we need to acknowledge the long history behind the concept. The word ‘spirituality’ originated in Christianity with the Latin adjective spiritualis, or ‘spiritual’, which translated the Greek adjective pneumatikos as it appears in the New Testament. Importantly, ‘the spiritual’ was originally not the opposite of ‘ bodily’ or ‘physical’. Rather, it was contrasted with ‘fleshly’ which meant worldly or contrary to God’s spirit. So the distinction was basically between two approaches to life. A ‘spiritual person’ (for example, in 1 Corinthians 2:14–15) was simply someone who sought to live under the influence of God whereas a ‘fleshly’ (or worldly) person was concerned primarily with personal satisfaction, comfort, or success.
This contrast between ‘spiritual’ and ‘worldly’ remained common until the European Middle Ages when an important intellectual p. 5↵shift took place. This resulted in a sharper distinction between ‘spiritual’ and ‘bodily’. The noun ‘spirituality’ in the Middle Ages simply meant the clergy. Subsequently it first appeared in reference to ‘the spiritual life’ during the 17th century. It disappeared for a time but re-established itself at the end of the 19th century in French, of which the modern English word ‘spirituality’ is a translation.
How is ‘spirituality’ defined today? The answer is not simple because the word is used in such different contexts. However, contemporary literature on ‘spirituality’ regularly includes the following. Spirituality concerns what is holistic—that is, a fully integrated approach to life. This fits with the fact that historically ‘the spiritual’ relates to ‘the holy’ from the Greek word holos, ‘the whole’. Thus, rather than being simply one element among others in human existence, ‘the spiritual’ is best understood as the integrating factor—‘life as a whole’. Then spirituality is also understood to be engaged with a quest for the ‘sacred’. This includes beliefs about God but also refers more broadly to the numinous, the depths of human existence, or the boundless mysteries of the cosmos.
Further, spirituality is frequently understood to involve a quest for meaning (including the purpose of life) as a response to the decline of traditional religious or social authorities. Because of its association with meaning, contemporary spirituality implicitly suggests an understanding of human identity and of personality development. One interesting example is the concept of ‘spiritual development’ in documentation for English secondary schools from the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED). Here, spirituality refers to the development of the non-material element of life. ‘Life’ is more than biology.
p. 6Spirituality is also regularly linked to ‘thriving’—what it means to thrive and how we come to thrive. Finally, contemporary definitions of spirituality relate it to a sense of ultimate values in contrast to an instrumentalized attitude to life. This suggests a self-reflective existence as opposed to an unexamined life.
These contemporary approaches to spirituality provoke two critical questions. First, is spirituality essentially individual or is it also social? If we explore the Web, the majority of available definitions of spirituality emphasize inner experience, introspection, a subjective journey, personal well-being, inner harmony, or happiness. So how does spirituality connect with our social existence? Second, is spirituality more than a useful form of therapy—concerned with promoting everything that is comforting and consoling? In other words, can there be tough spirituality and is spirituality capable of confronting the destructive side of human existence? These questions will be addressed later in the book.
The emergence of contemporary spirituality
The contemporary interest in spirituality is part of a broader process of cultural change during the late 20th century. After a century of world wars, the end of European empires, plus a tide of social change in the northern hemisphere regarding the equality of women and the status of ethnic minorities, inherited religious and social identities or value-systems came to be seriously questioned. As a result, many people no longer see traditional religion as an adequate channel for their spiritual quest and look for new sources of self-orientation. Thus ‘spirituality’ has become an alternative way of exploring the deepest self and the ultimate purpose of life. Increasingly, the spiritual quest has moved away from outer-directed authority to inner-directed experience which is seen as more reliable. This subjective turn in Western culture has created a diverse approach to spiritual experience and practice. For example, spirituality often draws from different religious p. 7↵traditions as well as from popular psychology. However, some commentators, such as Jeremy Carrette, are sceptical about these developments, suggesting that the contemporary enthusiasm for ‘spirituality’ is merely another offshoot of consumerism.
Nowadays ‘spirituality’ is regularly contrasted with ‘religion’. The validity of this contrast will be discussed more fully in Chapter 6. At this point there is an obvious question. Is contemporary spirituality merely a set of optional practices distinct from beliefs of any sort? It seems to me that all approaches to ‘spirituality’, including contemporary secular ones, imply what might be called ‘beliefs about life’, the quest for an effective world-view.
For most people, whether religious or not, spirituality involves values and a principled lifestyle both of which are supported by specific spiritual practices including prayer or meditation. As we shall see in the next chapter, there are a wide range of spiritual practices which vary depending on the type or tradition of spirituality concerned.
That said, in Western countries there has clearly been a shift of attitudes. People who no longer call themselves ‘religious’ wish to describe themselves as ‘spiritual’. They express this in the values they espouse and the practices they undertake to pursue a meaningful life. Two British examples illustrate the point. A major survey by David Hay, an academic biologist with a long-standing interest in spiritual experience, covered the period from 1987 to 2000. It showed that the proportion of people who did not attend a place of worship yet believed in a ‘spiritual reality’ increased from 29 per cent to 55 per cent. Later, sociologists Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead researched contemporary religious and spiritual attitudes in north-west England. They concluded that what they called ‘holistic spirituality’ was replacing religion in a kind of evolutionary development because it was a better fit with contemporary needs.
p. 8With this background in mind, I now want to summarize three different approaches to spirituality. First, there are religious spiritualities. Then there is the ambiguous category of esoteric spiritualities. Finally there is an increasingly important spectrum of secular understandings of spirituality. References to many of these spiritualities will be developed further throughout the book.
Put simply, ‘religious spiritualities’ are traditions with a combination of all or most of the following: a framework of transcendent beliefs (whether a belief in God or not), foundational texts or scriptures, symbol systems, some visible structure, public practices, and sacred spaces.
All the great religions originated in specific cultural contexts. As a result each of them uses different concepts for what we call ‘spirituality’. The adoption of the actual word ‘spirituality’ outside the West and beyond Christianity is due partly to contacts between Europeans and Indian religious figures in the late 19th century. Thus, the great Hindu thinker Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902), in speaking to American and European audiences in the 1890s, praised the natural ‘spirituality’ of Indian culture and religion in contrast to the limitations of Western ways of thinking and behaving.
I have selected five representative world religions and one contemporary Western religious movement. The first group of world religions are known as the ‘Abrahamic’ faiths because they claim the biblical figure of Abraham as their common ancestor. In their historical order these are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, The second group, Hinduism and Buddhism, originate in the Indian subcontinent. Finally, the contemporary and rather diffuse Western religious movement is known as Neopaganism.
Judaism is the ‘parent’ among the Abrahamic faiths. Its spirituality arose from the collective religious experience embodied in the biblical history and myths of the people of ancient Israel—slavery in Egypt, wandering in the desert, entering the Promised Land, establishing a political kingdom with God’s ‘seat’ in the Jerusalem Temple, then exile, return, and ultimate dispersal throughout the Roman world. At the heart of Jewish spirituality is a response to God—seeking the presence of God, striving to live in this presence, and focusing on holiness appropriate to such a life. The two great sources of Jewish spirituality are the created world and the Torah. This refers to the first five books of the Hebrew bible (known as the Pentateuch) and also more broadly to Judaism’s written and oral law. Historically, the spirituality of Judaism has embraced great variety: the ritual worship of the Temple era, the countercultural voices of the prophets, the teachings of the Pharisees, and later rabbinic Judaism which applied the Torah to everyday life, ascetical movements such as the Essenes, a rich philosophical tradition across the centuries including the late classical Philo (20 BCE–50 CE), medieval Moses Maimonides (1135–1204), and 20th-century Emmanuel Levinas (1906–95), a form of pietistic religiosity in parts of European Jewry and a mystical tradition embracing Kabbalists and the rigorous system of eastern European Hassidism. The city of Jerusalem remains a powerful spiritual focus for Jews. However, with the final destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans (70 CE), Jews translated into their everyday, householder spirituality the inherited approaches to holiness that had been shaped by sacred space, sacred times, and a creative tension between interiority and outer social behaviour.
Christian spirituality grew out of Judaism and continues to use the Hebrew scriptures. However, the distinctive starting point is the p. 10↵teaching of Jesus Christ in the New Testament. Christianity is sometimes associated with complex doctrines but its desire to speak of the nature of God and God’s relationship to humanity is not fundamentally abstract but closely connected to maintaining a balanced spiritual vision and practice. In particular, God is both a transcendent mystery and also understood as present within creation and intimately engaged with human life. This belief is expressed by the notion of God’s ‘incarnation’ (becoming human) in the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth (c.4 BCE–30/36 CE) who was eventually given the title of ‘Christ’, or ‘anointed one’, by believers. The varied historic Christian spiritual traditions are therefore Christ-centred in some way or other. A key New Testament concept in spirituality is ‘discipleship’ which implies the call to conversion and to follow the way of Jesus. Discipleship classically includes three dimensions. These are proclamation, service, and membership of a community. Although Christian spirituality has a strong ascetical tradition it is not fundamentally world-denying. Both the natural world and embodiment are contexts for God’s self-disclosure and for encounters with the sacred. Yet, alongside this fundamentally positive evaluation of everyday life, Christian spirituality recognizes disorder in the world and a restless desire in the human heart that propels humans to seek their source of fulfilment in God. Consequently, in Christian spirituality, God confronts human disorder with the possibility of spiritual transformation. At the same time God promises ultimate fulfilment beyond human time-bound existence. The biblical roots of Christian spirituality are not individualistic but are both communal, within the community of believers, and also broadly social, expressed in the ideal of the love and service of humanity.
The third Abrahamic faith, Islam, honours both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures and their prophets, including Abraham and Jesus, but traces its specific origins to the Prophet Muhammad p. 11↵(c.560–c.632) in 7th-century Arabia. His principal sayings were collected in the Qur’an (westernized as Koran). This book embodies what is believed to be divine revelation and is seen as completing the earlier scriptures. Islamic spirituality is founded on personal commitment to God. This includes attentiveness and obedient submission to God’s will as well as acting in ways that achieve God’s will. Thus the core of spirituality consists of the virtues of acceptance and commitment (taqwa) as well as faith, hope, and charity as in Judaism and Christianity. The practices of prayer five times a day (recitations from the Qur’an accompanied by reverential postures in the direction of Mecca), recalling the name of God (dhikr), diet and fasting, pilgrimage (hajj), charity, and cleanliness are obligatory because they motivate people to fulfil God’s will in all aspects of life.
In the later development of Islamic spirituality, spiritual practices were seen as aids to promoting virtue or righteous action in everyday life. The two main divisions of Islam, Sunni and Shiite, involve differences of historical lineage more than differences of belief or spiritual practice. While some Muslims focus exclusively on the ummah, or community of right believers, the Qur’an also portrays a vision of the intrinsic unity of all humanity. The most mystical form of Islamic spirituality, Sufism, crossed the boundaries between Sunni and Shia traditions. Also, at different times Sufism has had a significant impact beyond Islam with its music, poetry (for example, by Rumi), meditative techniques, ritual dance, and ‘orders’ such as the Dervishes.
We turn now to religions originating in India. Hinduism is a complex of philosophical traditions, scriptures, devotional or folk religion, and ascetical movements. With a variety of origins, it is arguably the oldest surviving world faith. Some scholars date it to the Indus valley cities around 2500 BCE. Any brief summary of ‘Hindu spirituality’ can be no more than a few broad p. 12↵generalizations. The ‘scriptures’ are understood either as divinely revealed, such as the Vedas and the Upanishads (dating from 1500 BCE onwards), or as later, humanly composed wisdom or mythological texts such as the Mahabharata, including the Bhagavad Gita, sutras (500 BCE–100 CE texts on yoga and right conduct) or Purana mythologies (around 900 CE). In terms of ‘spirit’ and ‘God’ Hinduism embraces a range of approaches. The soul or true self of each person (atman) is eternal. For some this is identical with Brahman or the supreme soul. Thus the goal of life is to realize this identity and thereby to reach freedom (moksha). For others, Brahman is more personal and to be worshipped in divine manifestations such as Vishnu, Shiva, and so on depending on one’s sect. The atman (human spirit) is dependent on God and moksha (ultimate freedom), is built on love of God and on God’s generosity. A prominent feature of Hindu spirituality is a move from what presents itself as real to the discovery of what is truly real. This journey towards reality via a cycle of rebirth (reincarnation) may involve ascetic renunciation or living in the world while learning to be ‘world-less’. This means treating contingent reality merely as a transitory means to integration and demands a progressive loss of ego. The various spiritual paths are not simply techniques of self-actualization but are also ways to true enlightenment.
Buddhism derives in some respects from Hinduism but is fundamentally a variety of traditions based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama who lived in north India between the mid 6th and mid 5th centuries BCE. Siddhartha renounced his wealthy background in search of deeper fulfilment and eventually became known as the ‘Buddha’ or ‘enlightened one’. His teachings were intended as a recipe for all sentient beings to be freed from suffering, to escape the cycle of rebirth and to achieve enlightenment (nirvana). There are two main branches of Buddhism. Theravada is widespread in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and p. 13↵the rest of south-east Asia whereas Mahayana is found in various forms in Tibet, China, Mongolia, Korea, and Japan and includes Zen. Buddhism is arguably the religion most intensely focused on spirituality rather than on doctrines. While the Buddha never denied that there might be gods, he taught that we do not need to rely on any god for our salvation. This approach is best described as non-theistic rather than straightforwardly atheistic.
The basis of the spiritual journey is the ‘Noble Eightfold Path’. This is the fourth of the ‘Four Noble Truths’ which summarize the Buddha’s teachings (dharma) and point the way to the ultimate goal of liberation from suffering caused by a false craving for ‘things’. The eightfold path is clustered into three groups of ‘higher trainings’: wisdom that purifies the mind (prajna), abstention from unethical deeds (sila), and mental discipline involving meditative practice (Samadhi). The aim is to achieve transformed spiritual insight, to become free from illusion, and to learn universal compassion. Some versions of Buddhism practise devotions but the most common spiritual practice is meditation (Zen practice is particularly famous in the West) directed at peacefulness, mindfulness, and compassionate wisdom. The emphasis on ‘emptiness’ (sunyata) is sometimes assumed to refer to meditative emptying of the mind. However, it is more properly a realization that nothing possesses the ‘fullness’ of autonomous identity.
Finally, Neopaganism is a relatively recent development in North America and Europe. It is not highly structured but covers a range of modern spiritual movements that look back to pre-Christian belief systems. Neopaganism is a religion rather than a secular philosophy because it embraces transcendent beliefs. However, there is no Neopagan orthodoxy. Adherents may believe in polytheism (a pantheon of gods) or in pantheism (nature as divine) or in a mixture of both. In some groups there is an emphasis on a p. 14↵monotheistic divine feminine, the Goddess. Spiritual practices are more important then belief systems. Groups include Wicca and Druidism. Ceremonial magic is common. There is usually a collective observance of festivals associated with the seasons or phases of the moon. Some groups practice positive witchcraft, seeking to redeem it from its association with evil. Celebration, joy, and a sense of personal freedom are also characteristic spiritual values alongside respect and care for nature.
One of the most iconic contemporary Neopagan pilgrimage sites is Stonehenge, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in the English county of Wiltshire just north of Salisbury. This stone circle lies at the heart of a major prehistoric burial area and was probably built sometime between 3000 and 2000 BCE. There are a number of theories about its original purpose which remain speculative as the society that constructed it had no written records. It clearly had some religious and spiritual purpose and may have included some kind of ‘observatory’ function, given that the religion of the time seems to have been centred on the seasons and movement of the stars. Contemporary Neopagans, particularly the Ancient Order of Druids, have revived Stonehenge as a place of spiritual pilgrimage where some ritual use is permitted during the festivals of the ancient pagan calendar of seasons and phases of the moon, for example, the spring and autumn equinoxes and the winter and summer solstices.
The second category of spiritualities is known as ‘esoteric’. Such spiritualities are ambiguous because they sometimes have religious elements and sometimes philosophical or ethical ones. Esoteric spiritualities experienced a resurgence in recent years. The word ‘esoteric’ implies secrecy. However, apart from secret rituals and special initiates, esoteric spiritualities have several shared characteristics. ‘Correspondence’ implies a code for understanding the interconnectedness between the visible and invisible universe.
p. 15Nature is a book rich in potential revelation. ‘Mediation’ involves symbols, rituals, spirits, and human teachers that act as intermediaries of the universe’s mysteries. ‘Transmutation’ promotes a quest for illuminated knowledge, a passage through levels in the universe or even a second birth. ‘Concordance’ seeks commonalities between religions with a view to superior illumination. ‘Transmission’ enables esoteric teachings to pass from the illuminated to new initiates. Among the better-known esoteric movements are Anthroposophy, Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry, non-traditional Kabbalah, and Spiritualism.
Anthroposophy is a spiritual philosophy founded in the early 20th century by the Austrian thinker Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925). He linked a form of Christian humanism with the principles of the natural sciences. It is best known through the Steiner Waldorf Schools and the Camphill Movement of communities for people with special needs.
Theosophy, founded in New York in the late 19th century by Madame Blavatsky (1831–91), mixes religious philosophy, occult knowledge, and mysticism, strongly influenced by Indian religions. It attracted artists and musicians such as the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, with his ‘mystic’ theory concerning how music transforms perception and the creation of a grand religious synthesis of all the arts leading to the birth of a new world.
Rosicrucianism claims to originate in a medieval secret society and an alchemist, Christian Rosenkreuz. During the 18th century it is said to have added ancient Egyptian, Greek, Druid and Gnostic mysteries to its alchemical system. Modern Rosicrucianism is diverse, similar to esoteric Christianity or to Freemasonry.
Freemasonry is a male fraternal association with a large international membership organized into jurisdictions (Grand Lodges) of local groups or ‘lodges’. Beyond a requirement to believe p. 16↵in a Supreme Being (the Great Architect of the Universe), there are esoteric rituals and dress and the use of key symbols and secret gestures of mutual recognition. Masonic values include moral uprightness, commitment to fraternal friendship, and charitable action.
Kabbalah was originally a mystical movement in Judaism but Western esoteric Kabbalah also embraces a syncretistic range of practices and teachings drawn from astrology, alchemy, Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, the tarot, or tantra. Tantra is very difficult to define but had an impact on every major Asian religion before being adopted by Western ‘New Age’ movements. It is an accumulation of esoteric ideas and practices that seek to tap into the energy that is believed to flow through the whole universe. Tantra is based on a non-dualist understanding of reality and opens up a spiritual dimension in all aspects of human bodily life.
Spiritualism was particularly popular in the first half of the 20th century among the English-speaking professional and upper classes. It is monotheistic, is nowadays organized as a Christian church, and holds to the belief that the spirits of the dead communicate with the living through teachers (‘mediums’), offering knowledge of the afterlife as a means of spiritual or moral guidance.
A final, and increasingly important, category of contemporary spiritualities embraces a wide range of secular approaches. Of course the word ‘secular’ was not originally the opposite of ‘religious’. The Latin word saeculum simply means ‘this age’ or ‘the here and how’. However, in contemporary usage, ‘secular spirituality’ covers the ways spirituality is used outside explicitly religious contexts. What follows is a brief summary of some of the more significant approaches to ‘spirituality’ as a framework of meaning in philosophy, psychology, gender studies, aesthetics, and p. 17↵science. The use of the word ‘spirituality’ in professional worlds and in relation to food and clothing will appear in Chapter 4, and spirituality in relation to public values (for example, health care, economics, and urban life) will be explored in Chapter 5.
In the context of global history, philosophy often overlaps with spirituality. An important example is Confucianism. This originated in China with Confucius (551–479 BCE) who emphasized the cultivation of moral virtue, especially humaneness, civility, and decorum. These virtues exemplified the truly noble person. Proper order and harmony begins with rightly ordered family relationships and spreads into wider society. The underlying philosophy is cosmic harmony reflected in daily affairs. Thus the ordinary features of material life are sacred. A sense of heaven or the Ultimate is not entirely absent but the focus is on being more truly in the world. Not surprisingly, Confucianism places a high value on cultural forms, on education, governance, and agriculture—all seen within the life-giving processes of the universe.
When we turn to contemporary Western philosophy, we find that a number of thinkers engage with the idea of spirituality. For example, Pierre Hadot, the eminent French historian of philosophy, wrote a remarkable study on spirituality and philosophy, Philosophy as a Way of Life. This presents a history of ‘spiritual exercises’ from Socrates to Michel Foucault. For Hadot, philosophy is not purely intellectual. Its goal is to cultivate the art of living and to achieve the transformation of human existence. The English philosopher John Cottingham more overtly relates philosophy to religion. He engages philosophy with matters of human self-discovery, personal experience, and transformative awareness. Finally, several philosophers adopt explicitly atheist or agnostic approaches to spirituality. Examples are the Frenchman André Comte-Sponville and the American Robert Solomon.
p. 18Comte-Sponville argues that atheism is no reason to deny a spiritual or metaphysical dimension to being human. Philosophical spirituality implies a desire to engage with ‘the whole’ and with human fullness. Solomon bases his sceptical ‘naturalized spirituality’ on ‘the thoughtful love of life’. He engages with themes such as eros, authentic trust, the rationality of emotion, confronting tragedy, life as gift, the self in transformation, and finally the challenge of death.
Psychology and psychotherapy
There is also an extensive body of literature on spirituality in relation to psychological development and psychotherapy. This often involves considerations of sexual identity and sexual maturity in relation to spiritual development. For some people, therapeutic relationships are replacing religiously based spiritual guidance as a medium of growth. The psychologist or therapist becomes a spiritual guide where non-judgemental acceptance and empathy are critical values. Conversely, religious forms of ‘spiritual guidance’ nowadays regularly attend to the therapeutic side of people’s lives. Among the most important psychological works are the influential theories of Abraham Maslow, the writings of Rollo May or Ken Wilbur (influenced by Buddhism), David Fontana’s engagement of psychology with spirituality and William West’s dialogue between psychotherapeutic models and the spiritual. Addictions are also treated increasingly as a spiritual disease, and classic approaches, such as Twelve-Step programmes, encourage a personal belief system based on spiritual self-discovery. Even the British Royal College of Psychiatrists has produced a volume on spirituality and spiritual needs. Common to all of these approaches to psychiatry, psychology, or therapy is a movement beyond narrowly medicalized models of treatment.
Psychological writing also explores such themes as states of awareness beyond ‘adjustment’ therapy; self-understanding as the medium for reordering our inner life; therapy as a spiritual p. 19↵process; and finally the achievement of a harmonious connectedness with self and others as a response to alienation.
Gender and sexuality
Until the 1980s spirituality used to be discussed in very general terms without reference to the specifics of women’s and men’s experience or to different experiences of human sexuality. However, because spirituality relates to the core of human life, gender and sexuality are vital aspects. ‘Gender’ implies the meaning different cultures give to sexual characteristics. The women’s spirituality movement, of which feminist spirituality is one example, involves a creative reimagining that embraces personal, social, and planetary concerns, for example in ecofeminism. It emphasizes embodiment and subjectivity. Feminism is not purely political. There is also a spiritual element to women’s liberation. For example, feminist spirituality rejects the notion of ‘submission’, whether to God or to a human other, dualistic divisions of body and spirit, and an ‘otherworldly’ ethos. It seeks spiritual role models from the past (foremothers) such as medieval women mystics (the Beguines or Julian of Norwich), women Sufis such as Rabia, or the Buddhist nuns and their search for enlightenment in the Therigatha ‘Songs of the Sisters’.
A new male spirituality movement also arose in response to the women’s spiritual movement. This emphasizes a sense of profound loss among men. ‘Loss’ does not imply a desire to reverse social and spiritual changes but refers to the spiritual challenges posed by stripping away former patriarchal certainties. Where are men now to look for wisdom? What are men to do by way of spiritual practice? Among the important themes of men’s spirituality are a more inclusive approach to God or ‘the sacred’; an embracing of sexuality and embodiment as authentic spiritual realities; the cultivation of ‘wildness’ and play in contrast to a classic male culture of duty; an acceptance of fluidity in life rather than a desire for fixity; and, finally, the recovery of emotional intelligence. The p. 20↵movement has additionally appealed to gay men as a way of reversing past exclusion, silence, and moral condemnation.
Finally, broader connections between spirituality and sexuality have been developed. Thus sexuality is no longer seen as a purely psychophysical reality. It has a spiritual dimension because it relates to our fundamental human identity. Equally, balanced pleasure rather than excess may be a way to self-transcendence. Such views are sometimes related to a contemporary Western fascination with tantra.
Aesthetics and the arts
In non-religious contexts, aesthetics has become an important medium of contemporary spirituality. This relates to the arts but is not merely a matter of entertainment or sensual pleasure. The word ‘aesthetics’ comes from the Greek aisthetikos, ‘concerning perception’, meaning how we come to understand reality through our senses. Major philosophers from Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) to Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) wrote in various ways about ‘beauty’. For some, this concept is not merely concerned with what is attractive but is connected with ‘the sublime’—what relates to the sacred, to truth, and to integrity. At the heart of all the arts (for example, music, painting, sculpture, theatre, literature, dance) is the power of the image. The artist creates an image, communicates via imagery, and the audience receive ‘meaning’ through their imagination. An image evokes meaning through a fourfold pattern: sensual experience, an interpretative framework for knowing the world, a judgement about the way the world should be and an invitation to decide how to live. In other words, artistic images have a capacity to touch the depths of human experience beyond the limits of rational discourse. This is its spiritual dimension.
Some religious groups have been deeply suspicious of images. For example, Islam forbids representations of God and for p. 21↵16th-century Protestant reformers images suggested a dangerous power independent of biblical ‘truth’. Yet, historically, the creative arts have deep religious roots—for example, there is religious depth in the art of Michelangelo (1475–1564), in the poetry of George Herbert (1593–1633), and in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750). Equally, broadly understood, all religions use artistic forms. We can note the riot of painting and sculpture in Hindu temples, the cosmic architecture of the great medieval cathedrals, the chanting of Buddhist monks, or the music and poetry of Sufi Islam. Outside religion, some artists approach their work as both a philosophy of life and a form of spiritual practice. More widely, for many people aesthetic experience is an intense source of self-transcendence. This will be considered in more detail in Chapter 3.
Finally, among secular spiritualities, science is the newest recruit. In an earlier age, maverick individuals like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955), French priest, palaeontologist, and geologist, sought to evoke the mystic elements of science. More recently, many scientists have moved away from an emphasis purely on the provable. The best scientists are never ultimately certain but are always ready to respond to ever-expanding knowledge and the production of new theories. This counters a popular misconception about science that uncertainty implies a lack of rigour. On the contrary, many modern scientists suggest that uncertainty is central to their craft. In a new scientific paradigm, scientists do not seek final ‘truth’ but test models of understanding in a never-ending process of discovery and refinement.
Science does not inherently contradict all notions of ‘the holy’, the spiritual, or the religious, although it is clearly incompatible with all forms of literalism. The writings of Cambridge biologist Rupert Sheldrake offer a striking if controversial example of a scientist who questions dogmatic materialism and scientific literalism.
p. 22While science studies natural phenomena, it stands in the face of open-ended mystery when it asks what most deeply ‘nature’ is. Contemporary science is not afraid of the numinous even while it refuses to assume that this implies a God. Whether people approach scientific enquiry through astrophysics and cosmology or through microbiology, they confront deeper questions that counter the certainties of old-fashioned materialism such as specifiability, predictability, and total analysis. Indeterminacy and unpredictability are an essential part of an honest scientific quest.
The fear of climate change makes the theme of eco-spirituality increasingly popular. This is not merely concerned with a recovery of ‘wonder’ but with the impact of human behaviour on the natural world. This is a scientific, ethical-practical, and also a spiritual question. Such an approach to spirituality challenges the notion that human identity is uniquely valuable in relation to the wider environment.
In summary, at first sight the notion of ‘spirituality’ is confusing simply because of its breadth and diffuse nature. Hopefully, three important points about contemporary understandings of spirituality have been established.
First, spirituality is inherently related to context and culture. The way we talk about spirituality reflects the priorities of the different contexts in which it is used. For example, the dominant themes are different in health care and education. Equally, spirituality has a distinct flavour in Africa, Asia, and Latin America as opposed to Europe or North America.
Second, despite these varied approaches, there are certain ‘family resemblances’ which make it possible to offer a tentative definition of spirituality. Thus we saw that spirituality concerns a fully integrated approach to life (holism), involves a quest for the p. 23↵‘sacred’, underpins a desire for meaning, and implies some understanding of human identity, purpose, and thriving. Finally, spirituality points to a desire for ultimate values and involves the intentional pursuit of a principled rather than purely pragmatic way of life.
Third, contemporary approaches to spirituality take many forms partly because spirituality has become egalitarian or at least anti-authoritarian. People on a spiritual quest often reject traditional sources of authority and their association with fixed dogmatic systems in favour of the authority of personal, inner experience. This makes it increasingly common for people to borrow from more than one spiritual tradition and even to talk about ‘double belonging’—‘I am Christian and Buddhist’.
The next chapter will look more closely at different types and traditions of spirituality as they appear in world religions and secular spiritualities.