Biographical Contexts of “Spiritual” Self Identifications in Germany and the USA

Biographical contexts of the self-identification “spiritual” have been studied with the (Faith Development Interview , FDI). This semi-structured interview consists of 25 questions which cover 4 domains: 1) Life review, 2) Relationships, 3) Values and commitments, and 4) Religion and world view. It asks interview-partners to describe their current religious or spiritual orientation or their world view, taking their current view on their own life as point of departure. Besides reflections the interviews consist of narrative and autobiographical paragraphs. Of special interest are small and dense narratives, with a structure as described by Labov & Waletzky, and which address central aspects of participants' faith or world view. Grounded in an encompassing concept of faith, (Fowler orig) the FDI addresses also secular orientations or world views.

"In the most formal and comprehensive terms I can state it, faith is: People's evolved and evolving ways of experiencing self, others and world (as they construct them) as related to and affected by the ultimate conditions of existence (as they construct them) and shaping their lives' purpose and meanings, trusts and loyalties, in the light of the character of being, value and power determining the ultimate conditions of existence (as grasped in their operative images - conscious and unconscious - of them)." (Fowler, J. W. 1981. Stages of Faith, San Francisco: Harper&Row. p. 92f).

What are the biographies, the developments, which contain different self-identifications? The binary in which we have organized different combinations of the popular self-descriptions as “religious” or “spiritual” shows, when looking into the interviews , that the same descriptions can go along with different trajectories. If we include additional viewpoints and take a closer look at the interviews, we can summarize these ways of experiencing and living faith:

Trust in God, Faith, and Congregation

Here we find persons who self-identify as “more religious than spiritual” or “equally religious and spiritual”. Often they are Christians who across their lives have stayed faithful to the religion of their childhood, who trust in God, faith, and congregation. Ella, for example, is a 28-year-old American and Protestant in the Church of Christ tradition, coming from a “more religious than spiritual” family and identifying herself as “equally religious and spiritual” at the time of the interview. She defines “spirituality” as “the inward belief system of an individual toward a higher power,” and “religion” as “the outward practice of the internal belief system toward a higher power.” For her, the inward belief and the outward practice belong together. Mature faith means to her the deepening of her faith. For Ursula from Germany, “spirituality” refers to the personal experience of religion and is thus secondary to religion. Religion is, to her, something that is lived in this world, but that exerts its influence beyond this world. For both, the relationship to God transcends life in the material world and outlasts it. Therefore we call this vertical transcendence.

Spirituality is living faith

Abstract

It has been like that for a long time, Luther always said with heart and hand, no with heart and mind, that is how it is, and for a long time I think the mind was more important and the heart has not been ignored a little bit and i believe that is about to change, and I also believe that there is a demand there, across all age groups, because, meditation, and things like that, the confirmands also appreciate it. Well, they tend to hesitate and find it a bit ridiculous in the beginning and there is some giggling in the beginning, but in the end they all participate

Orientation

And I know, we once celebrated a beautiful service when we were on a retreat, with the Lord´s supper, with something like that, we had, before, cut hands out of paper and noted, on the paper hands, what went wrong

Complication

and then we burned these paper hands outside and this took some time, more than one and a half hour

Evaluation/Attempts to solve

And after that, one of the most chaotic youths came and said, oh this was beautiful, much shorter than the usual service

Resolution

Service usually takes 45 minutes. Well, I think there is a demand, I believe, for the spiritual

Coda

and I find it beautiful and very important.

Another of our interviewees, a German, sees his religiosity as close relationship to nature and to the universe. We call this horizontal transcendence, an attitude which transcends the mundane, everyday experience, however, without postulating a world beyond or supernatural powers.

Loyal to a religious tradition, member of a community, and on a quest for experience-based receptivity

Here we also find “more religious than spiritual” and “equally religious and spiritual” interview partners. They self-identify as religious with regard to their tradition, belong to a community or parish and are looking for symbolizations for something which is not easy to grasp or to describe. Loyal to their respective traditions, they are searching for a faith which is not satisfied with simple answers to existential questions. We find here Hans, an elderly German and Catholic priest and missionary. He states that he found faith after he had set out to preach and that he felt that he had to apply again and again for his office. To him being “more spiritual” means to look for his own way. Here we also find Brian, an American student of psychology and Zen Buddhist, who self-identifies as “religious”, who appreciates the meetings and rituals of this tradition, while insisting that he as Buddhist has no need of any kind of god. We also see here the German student of theology, Laura, who meets with others to enjoy singing together. She does not belief in a personal God who interferes with human affairs. The faith she hopes to find one day for her involves scrutinizing and questioning.

God, Faith and Responsibility

Abstract

I do not believe that there is a tangible personal God who holds his hand over us and who somehow intervenes.

Orientation

What I experienced as really shocking, I have, around the time of graduation, I went with a (female) friend who is a member of an evangelical free (non-denominational) church and I have taken a look at that and I am rather open in these things

Complication

And then there was this youth group and everybody took their turn at telling about what happened to them this week and then someone, when his turn came, told that he had just flunked his driving test for the second time, but this is ok, God wanted it to happen

Evaluation/Attempts to solve

And then I have, this is exactly the opposite of what I think. I really have, I found this alarming. On the one hand of course it is fine if you can just relax into the thought that God wanted something to happen as it did. But I think you have a personal responsibility there, and God is not, I do not conceive of God as someone who intervenes and this is still like that for me.

Coda

Yes, and actually I am now not desperately seeking my faith. I just hope that I find faith someday. But I really think that to find faith is a long process and that does not happen in the instant of a moment and someday perhaps I will find faith, yeah

Brian's “religiosity” bears no relation to other worlds or higher beings and can be described as horizontally transcendent. Laura and Hans could be placed in an area between horizontal and vertical transcendence. While they are not invested in quests for person-like higher beings, they search for a transcendent “Thou”.

“Spirituality” as ongoing project: Quilt-Spiritualities

Here we find mostly “more spiritual than religious” interviewees, who went on a quest in their midlife and after a biography with a conventional beginning. This quest continues and is guided by the desire to seek their true and authentic self. The German Marion has studied diverse traditions and developed her “spirituality” drawing on different sources. The American Julia appreciates the Catholic faith of her origins as well as the neo-pagan rituals of her coven. We suggest to speak of “quilt spirituality” to describe what individual look for and create, who, after a conventional religious socialization started to learn from other and different traditions and who integrate what they learned in their development. Thus we wish to express that “spirituality” can be a work of art as well as an article of daily use, just like a quilt which is creatively crafted from different cloths.

Being One with Everything

Orientation

But in meditation I was in a coven, I think it was the (…) witch and you spent a year and a day in training with a particular group coven –usually it is the priest and priestess lead the group, and you have to train with them for a year and a day, which is a year and a day of once a week discussions, there is assigned readings, they had to write papers; it is…it is hard to get in to, easy to get out of is what they, you know, that is our joke it's an anti-cult and so in a meditation during the outer court ritual I was again an initiate.

Complication

I had an experience where I was one with everything, I mean it just was so brief, it could not have lasted more than a split second but it was a divine,

Evaluation/Attempts to solve

I do not know what level of connection there was, I do not know which divine it was, I do not know if I just was in its presence or if it was inside of me, it does not matter, I am sure. But in that moment I knew everything, you know. And it just was – it was like a lightning bolt flash, but I can remember being in that moment still and I felt my whole being expanded and contracted at the same time – I do not even –

Resolution

it sounds crazy but it was deeply meaningful for me.

Coda

And I did not take anything away from it, it's not like I felt like I was (...), I felt the drive home, I felt the work that day – you know like nothing changed on the mundane level, but I just- it was moving.

Personal encounters with God and mystical experiences

For Ernestine from the USA, who is 75 years old, God is the master of the universe. Her image of him has not changed over the course of her life. She still remembers how God spoke to her when she was 16, and the “wonderful”, the “good” feeling and the “uplifting spirit”.

Exceptional, “mystical” experiences have been reported by persons who do not affiliate with any institution or tradition, who have left their childhood religion and who self-identify today as “somewhat spiritual” (Sarah, USA) or who never felt at home in the religion of their family and today self-identify as “atheist” (Isabella, USA). Both describe spontaneous experiences which touched them in a special way and which carried a special meaning.

The Universe is just Inherently Beautiful on its Own

Orientation

I think it was American Beauty where the kid is filming this bag floating through the air… I think I've had a lot of small moments like that…

Complication

…even like the bag floating through the air I've seen the same thing and thought, “That is beautiful.” Not 'cause the bag is inherently beautiful, but just like the basic underlying physics of the universe and how it expresses itself in even everyday motion of bags through the air being a visible sign of air vectors and turbulency is beautiful.

Evaluation

…I kind of find that life-affirming to me because when you're an atheist you have this problem of, like, “Oh shit, what happens when you die?”

Resolution

Nothing has meaning. Well nothing has to have meaning. It can just be the universe is just inherently beautiful on its own.

Coda

And it [the universe] doesn't need to care a shit about humans ultimately, but if the universe is beautiful, we're part of that beauty.

The variety of lived “spirituality”

“Spirituality” has different meanings in different biographies and is experienced in different ways. Perhaps this is what makes the word so attractive: It offers a common place, a space for exploring identity and self-understanding with respect to religion and world view, a semantic offer which allows individuals to express what moves them and what they experience without forcing them to accept a position with respect to “religion”. The self-identification “spiritual” allows “spiritual” atheists in the USA to indicate that they are not without sensitivity for transcendent experiences. “Spiritual” religious persons in Germany can show that adherence to a religious tradition can include individual quests.

Publications / Articles

Cover

Streib, H. & Hood, R. W. (Eds.) (2016). Semantics and Psychology of "Spirituality". A Cross-cultural Analysis. Cham, Heidelberg, New York, Dordrecht, London: Springer International Publishing Switzerland.

Cover

Streib, H. & Keller, B. (2015). Was bedeutet Spiritualität? Befunde, Analysen und Fallstudien aus Deutschland. Research in Contemporary Religion (RCR) - Band 20, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Keller, B. & Streib, H. (2013) Faith Development, Religious Styles and Biographical Narratives: Methodological Perspectives. Journal of Empirical Theology 26, 1-21.

Keller, Barbara, Klein, Constantin, Anne, Swhajor, Christopher F., Silver, Ralph W., Hood, and Streib, Heinz. "The Semantics of 'Spirituality' and Related Self-identifications: A Comparative Study in Germany and the USA". Archive for the Psychology of Religion. (PDF)

Streib, Heinz & Hood, Ralph W. (2011). “"Spirituality" as Privatized Experience-Oriented Religion: Empirical and Conceptual Perspectives”. Implicit Religion 14.4: 433 - 453. (PDF)

Streib, H. (2008). More Spiritual than Religious: Changes in the Religious Field Require New Approaches (PDF)

Presentations