The word “spirituality” has become increasingly common. What does it mean? It is not limited to spiritual practices, such as meditation, but suggests the pursuit of a life shaped by a sense of meaning, values, and perhaps transcendence. Although the word is used in different religions, and by people with no religious beliefs, its origins were Christian and referred to living life under the influence of God’s spirit.
Nowadays, in a consciously plural world, Christian spirituality has a specific content whose origins are the Jewish and Christian scriptures. In particular, Christian spirituality is associated with following the teachings of Jesus Christ or imitating his values. The main New Testament word for this is “discipleship,” which has two main elements. First, there is a call to personal transformation (conversion). Second, Christians are to continue the mission of Jesus to transform the world and to build the kingdom of a God of love. In that fundamental sense, Christian spirituality is inherently concerned with social transformation. In the Gospel of Matthew, this includes sharing in Jesus’ work of forgiveness and healing. In the Gospel of Mark it involves selfless service of others. The history of Christian spirituality is a varied story of ways of approaching discipleship. Needless to say, part of what makes Christian spirituality distinctive is its underlying beliefs—in other words, how it understands the reality of God, the value of the material world, human nature, and identity and how these interconnect.
The great variety of spiritual traditions and writings within Christianity originated at different times and places. However, they are continually being adapted in the light of new historical and cultural contexts. Scholars have sometimes found it helpful to identify different types of Christian spirituality. Their choices vary, and the types are interpretative tools rather than straightforward descriptions. “Types” help us to identify distinctive styles of spiritual wisdom. The ascetical type, sometimes associated with monasticism, highlights discipline and detachment from material pleasures as the pathway to spiritual growth. The mystical type focuses on the desire for an immediacy of presence to, and intuitive knowledge of, God, frequently via contemplative practice. The active type promotes everyday life and service to other people as the context for spiritual growth. The aesthetic type covers a range of ways in which the spiritual journey is expressed in and shaped by the arts, music, and literature. Finally the prophetic type of spirituality embraces an explicit commitment to social justice and the transformation of society.
Christian spirituality has become a major area of study. It is an interdisciplinary field shaped by scripture, theology, and Christian history, but which may also draw upon psychology, the social sciences, literature, and the sciences. The study of Christian spirituality is also “self-implicating,” in the sense that it is not treated in a purely theoretical way but includes a quest for practical wisdom.
Finally, the traditions of Christian spirituality increasingly engage with important issues of social and cultural transformation, for example interreligious dialogue, peace and reconciliation, ecological questions, the future of cities, the world of business, and the meaning of healthcare.
Martin Luther’s spiritual and theological development was deeply rooted in mystical traditions. During his early years as an Augustinian friar, he experienced mystical visions following the paths of Dionysian mysticism, while a few years later he was inspired by Ps-Bonaventure, Bernard of Clairvaux, and John Tauler. His early theology of penitence, as expressed in the Ninety-five Theses, derived from these sources, as did his description of justification in the image of bride and bridegroom in his tract On the Liberty of a Christian. Even more so, central elements in his theology were shaped by mystical influences, including his distinction between Law and Gospel, the doctrine of justification, and the concept of the priesthood of all believers. Thus, Luther’s theology should be seen as a reception and development deriving from the mystical discourse of the later Middle Ages.
The contemporary academic study of religion has its roots in conceptual and theoretical structures developed in the early to mid-20th century. A particularly important example of such a structure is the concept of the “numinous” developed by the theologian and comparativist Rudolf Otto (1869–1397) in his work, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and its Relation to the Rational (1923). Building on the work of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), Friedrich Schleiermacher (1772–1834), and Jakob Fries (1773–1843), Otto developed the concept of the numinous—a “category of value” and a “state of mind”—as a way to express what he viewed as the “non-rational” aspects of the holy or sacred that are foundational to religious experience in particular and the lived religious life in general. For Otto, the numinous can be understood to be the experience of a mysterious terror and awe (Mysterium tremendum et fascinans) and majesty (Majestas) in the presence of that which is “entirely other” (das ganz Andere) and thus incapable of being expressed directly through human language and other media. Otto conceives of the concept of the numinous as a derivative of the Latin numen, meaning “spirit,” etymologically derived from the concept of divine will and represented by a “nodding” of the head. Otto argues that understanding the numinous in a satisfactory way requires a scholar to draw upon their own experience of religious sentiments, given its non-discursive and direct nature; this becomes a point of contention among later secular scholars of religion. In later works, such as Mysticism East and West: A Comparative Analysis of the Nature of Mysticism (1932), Otto gives numerous examples of the ways in which the concept of the numinous can be applied cross-culturally to traditions beyond Christianity, such as Hinduism and Buddhism.
Otto’s theories regarding the numinous have been extremely influential in the development of the academic study of religion in the 20th and 21st centuries, as evidenced by the impact they had upon scholars such as Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Ninian Smart, whose works were instrumental in the formation of religious studies as a discipline. Jung cites the concept of the numinous extensively with regard to his theories on the breakthrough of unconscious material into conscious awareness. Eliade’s work The Sacred and Profane: The Nature of Religion (1959) takes Otto’s concept of the numinous as a starting point in the development of its own theory; Eliade’s use of the category of the “sacred” might be considered derivative of Otto’s larger conception of the “holy” (das Heilige). Eliade’s work, like Otto’s, has been extensively criticized for postulating a sui generis nature of both the numinous and the sacred, which are viewed by Eliade as irreducible to other phenomena (historical, political, psychological, and so forth). Smart’s influential “dimensional analysis” theory and his scholarship on the topic of world religions is highly informed by his utilization of Otto’s theory of the numinous within the contexts of his cross-cultural reflections on religion and the development of his “two-pole” theory of religious experience. The concept of the numinous continues to be theorized about and applied in contemporary academic research in religious studies and utilized as part of a framework for understanding religion in university courses on world religions and other topics in the academic study of religion. In part through the work of Eliade, Smart, and other scholars—Otto included—who have found a popular readership, the term has been disseminated to such a degree as to find common usage in the English language and popular discourse.