David Rousseau
Education / Cultural Studies / Religious studies


Self, Spirituality, and Mysticism with William Simpson, “The Mystical Stance: The Experience of Self-Loss and Daniel

Dennett’s ‘Center of Narrative Gravity’”; David Rousseau, “A Systems Model of

Spirituality”; and David James Stewart, “The Emergence of Consciousness in Genesis 1–3: Jung’s Depth Psychology and Theological Anthropology”


Abstract. Within the scientific study of spirituality there are substantial ambiguities and uncertainties about relevant concepts, terms, evidences, methods, and relationships. Different disciplinary approaches reveal or emphasize different aspects of spirituality, such as outcomes, behaviors, skills, ambitions, and beliefs. I argue that these aspects interdepend in a way that constitutes a “systems model of spirituality.” This model enables a more holistic understanding of the nature of spirituality, and suggests a new definition that disambiguates spirituality from related concepts such as religion, cultural sophistication, and prosocial behavior in animals. It also exposes important open questions about the nature of spirituality. To support the emerging scientific approach to the study of spirituality, I propose the development of a “philosophy of spirituality” that can clarify the conceptual terrain, identify important research directions, and facilitate a comprehensive and interdisciplinary investigation into the nature, validity, and implications of spirituality’s conceptual and practical entailments.

Keywords: ontology of spirituality; philosophy of spirituality; spirituality; spiritual intelligence; systems model of spirituality; systems philosophy; value realism; worldview


Historically, the term “spiritual” has been synonymous with the term “religious,” and this association persists in the present day, as illustrated by the

David Rousseau is the Director of the Centre for Systems Philosophy based in Surrey,

UK, an Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Theology, Religious Studies and Islamic Studies in the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, a member of the Centre for Spirituality Studies in the University of Hull, UK, and a Visiting Fellow in the Centre for Systems Studies in the Hull University Business School, Hull, UK. He can be contacted at 30 Leigh Close, Addlestone, Surrey, KT15 1EL, United Kingdom; e-mail: david.rousseau@systemsphilosophy.org. [Zygon, vol. 49, no. 2 (June 2014)] www.zygonjournal.org

C© 2014 by the Joint Publication Board of Zygon ISSN 0591-2385 476

David Rousseau 477 twenty-five volumes of the seriesWorld Spirituality: An Encyclopedic History of the Religious Quest (1985–1994) edited by Ewert Cousins. Likewise, the term “spirituality” has historically been treated as a noun deriving from this use of the term “spiritual,” and hence relating to beliefs, attitudes, and practices grounded in religious concerns with matters of spirit. For this reason the term “spirituality” does not traditionally warrant a dictionary definition (McSherry and Cash 2004, 157).

However, as religious convictions declined in Western societies over the last century, alternative meanings for the terms “spiritual” and “spirituality” have developed, reflecting a process whereby individuals “have created their own personal theory of spirituality” (McSherry and Cash 2004, 153), and in terms of which people characterize themselves as “spiritual but not religious” (Hay and Hunt 2000). Although theology departments and schools of religion continue to use the term “spirituality” in its traditional sense, the emerging “secular” notion of spirituality has become a distinct subject of academic interest both within and beyond theology and religious studies, as well as a subject of interdisciplinary dialogue.

Exactly how this contemporary distinction between spirituality and religiosity should be understood is still a matter of much and complex debate, and one aim of this article is to contribute to this discussion. To understand this new notion of spirituality, it is necessary to investigate it from a secularphilosophical and scientific perspective, because this emerging notion of spirituality explicitly distances itself from a grounding in religious doctrine.

As such, this article will ignore theologically based studies that use the term spirituality to refer to religiosity. In this article references to “spirituality” should therefore be taken to be the emerging secular conception and not as co-extensive with religiosity in the traditional manner. To set the stage for the development of the article’s main argument some basic indications regarding the terminological and contextual issues will be useful.

Research suggests that in contemporary usage people call themselves “spiritual but not religious” as “a way of putting distance between oneself and religion, while holding onto something regarded as good” (King and

Koenig 2009, 2). Religious leaders have affirmed such understanding of the term “spirituality”; for example, the Dalai Lama has commented that “our spirituality [is] the full richness and simple wholesomeness of our basic human values” and “ . . . spirituality is a human journey into our internal resources, with the aim of understanding who we are in the deepest sense and of discovering how to live according to the highest possible idea” (Dalai Lama 2007, 220). Spirituality in this sense appears to be a common ground between people who are religious and certain people who are atheistic or agnostic, for example, it involves for both groups (as mentioned above) “holding on to something regarded as good” (King and Koenig 2009, 2) and the “recognition that there is more to existence than purely the secular and the material” (McSherry and Cash 2004, 154). Thus the 478 Zygon

Table 1. Modern distinction between James’s “institutional” and “personal” branches of religion “Institutional religion” “Personal religion”