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a journal of analysis and comment advancing public understanding of religion and education
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Vol. 31 No. 1  Spring 2004

Fostering Spiritual Depth in a Trans-traditional Context:
Communicating Across Differences

Diana Denton

Spirituality in Higher Education

Spirituality at college and university campuses is a phenomenon receiving increasing attention. Higher education professionals are rethinking how religion and spirituality intersect with academic environments and experience. Recent research attests to growing interest in spirituality amongst post-secondary students. Preliminary findings from a study at UCLA on Spirituality in College Students show that substantial numbers of college undergraduates express strong interest in spiritual matters and in integrating spirituality into their lives. Educators are responding to this interest by exploring ways to integrate spirituality in classroom practice. Student interest in spirituality reflects a resurging interest in spirituality throughout western society, evidence of what Forman characterizes as the "Grassroots Spirituality Movement."

An increase in spiritual consciousness is not the same thing as an increase in formal religious practice or identification. A large and growing population of North Americans now describe themselves as spiritual but not religious. Moran feels that spirituality and religion should not be used as interchangeable terms. Other scholars agree and have described spirituality as an internal phenomenon involving a search for meaning and purpose in life, a quest for fundamental values, and a sense of connection to something greater than self. In his research with spiritual leaders and teachers, Forman identifies significant patterns in the way these individuals use the concept of spirituality – an introvertive flavor, an inner connection with self, holistic, the not-strictly rational, a deeper broad meaning to life, and connectedness with others, the world and the transcendent. Religion, in contrast, tends to evoke externally socialized doctrines and beliefs within organizations – institutionalized dogma. Religion points to organizations and formally articulated theological systems; spirituality points primarily to direct personal experience. According to Forman, the grassroots spirituality movement substitutes "a discipline of process – always insisting on an openness, self-exploration and group dynamics – for a discipline of belief." The emphasis is on "ever-openness" to spiritual inquiry and resistance to the systematization and sedimentation of belief. At a time when religious and political divides seem to be widening, this orientation toward process and open spiritual inquiry may offer critical opportunities for trans-traditional dialogue – the discovery of common spiritual ground despite differences in belief. Possibilities of dialogue and action can be broadened by adopting this interpretivist perspective, where the point of inquiry is not the establishment of singular "Truth" but rather an "interpretive intelligibility," in which "truth posits" are replaced with "lenses of understanding."

Engaging the spiritual is not simply an intellectual endeavor but involves a deepening process of experience in which lives are "significantly shaped by the intensities, the moments of greater depth" that enable expanded perception. Dialogue rooted in fully embodied experience of the sacred, beyond confines and categories of institutional dogma, enables heartfelt conversation and communication across cultural and doctrinal differences. Through mutual exploration of shared reflective and contemplative experience, common spiritual ground is forged. Hart asks a compelling question: "What would education be if we derived our practice from the deepest view of human nature and culture?" As educators in an increasingly polarized world, we are called to widen and open spaces for this deepening spiritual dialogue in our pedagogical practice.


Spirituality plays an important role in higher education.
10  Acknowledging this dimension is integral to a pedagogical practice that embraces the learner as a whole person. Moran calls upon higher education professionals to engage the spiritual as a dimension of their students’ experience. Neglecting this dimension may incline students to hide this aspect of their identity, resulting in both intrapersonal and interpersonal struggles that can thwart other aspects of their development.11 

How can we begin this conversation? We need more empirical research on these topics within the context of colleges and universities.12  In her study of student affairs administrators, Moran explores expressions of spirituality and religion contextualized in what she calls "the out-of-class curriculum," the area of student life and activities outside classroom walls.

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