Spiritual Development: Interpretations and Applications




The ambiguity of spiritual development is explored in the first part of this essay. Rather than attempting definitions, a series of interpretations is offered, distinguishing the spiritual from the merely biological on the one hand, and from the more specific notions of religion and faith on the other. Spiritual development is also distinguished from moral and social development, and the ambiguity of these interpretations is further explored by introducing the limiting notion of falsehood.

In the second part of the essay an illustration is offered, in which the ambiguity and the multi-layered character of human spirituality is discussed. The selected illustration is that of competition, which is analysed into a hierarchy of social levels, from the face-to-face educational situation up to competition in the world’s currency markets. It is concluded that the ambiguity of human spirituality lies in its socially constructed character, and in the links between the macro- and the microcosm. Spirituality, although always transcending the biological, remains contingent, social and concrete.

Relevant personal details:

John Hull is Professor of Religious Education at the University of Birmingham, General Secretary of the International Seminar on Religious Education and Values and President of the National Christian Education Council. His articles on the character of spirituality in relation to education have appeared in several recent periodicals and symposia.



Spiritual Development: Interpretations and Applications


The ambiguity of spiritual development is explored in the first part of this essay. Rather than attempting definitions, a series of interpretations is offered, distinguishing the spiritual from the merely biological on the one hand, and from the more specific notions of religion and faith on the other. Spiritual development is also distinguished from moral and social development, and the ambiguity of these interpretations is further explored by introducing the limiting notion of falsehood.

In the second part of the essay an illustration is offered, in which the ambiguity and the multi-layered character of human spirituality is discussed. The selected illustration is that of competition, which is analysed into a hierarchy of social levels, from the face-to-face educational situation up to competition in the world’s currency markets. It is concluded that the ambiguity of human spirituality lies in its socially constructed character, and in the links between the macro- and the microcosm. Spirituality, although always transcending the biological, remains contingent, social and concrete.





1. Spirituality, Religion and Faith

The formation of personhood implies the development of a set of potentials which are latent within the biological nature of the infant, and are only gradually developed. When they are mature, these potentials will transcend the biological. These include language, symbolic functioning, conscience, self-awareness, inter personal relations and creativity. That which transcends the biological may be described as the spiritual.

Let us consider a number of distinctions which will help us to grasp the significance of this. The key concepts are spirituality, religion and faith. These are best depicted as a series of three concentric circles with the outside, largest circle being spirituality, the middle ring being religion and the inner circle being faith. Spirituality includes religion but is more comprehensive. Religion as a whole is concerned with spirituality but not all spirituality is concerned with religion. Everything that is truly religious is also spiritual but there may be spirituality outside religion. Similarly, the concept of religion is larger than that of faith. Faith is a category within the religious. Faith may be thought of as trustful response to the object of religious worship. It is included within religion. However, there are many aspects of religion which are not best thought of as being concerned with faith, such as (in the case of the Christian faith) the doctrines of grace and of the Holy Trinity.

On the other hand, there are a number of current accounts of faith which regard it as a psychological or anthropological category. These consider faith to be a rather broad human potential for responding to life in a certain way, and in this case, religious faith is only one example of the reality (Fowler 1981). If we accept this point of view then we must change our circles slightly, keeping spirituality as the largest one, but placing faith in the middle and religion right in the centre.

We must reject the idea that the spiritual is a separable part of the human. Some one might think that when the Education law refers to spiritual, moral and cultural, that these are parts of being human. It is better, however, to regard these as aspects or dimensions of the human rather than as parts or sections. If you take away the cultural from the human, you would not have humans without culture. You would not have humans at all, for the human is essentially cultural. Similarly, the physical body is not a part of us, a physical bit added onto the spirit or soul bit. The physical body is the whole of our human being looked at from a certain point of view. In the same way, the spiritual is the whole of the human considered from a certain point of view, that of personhood continually transcending itself. So the spiritual refers to the achievement of human being. The spiritual process is the same as the process of humanisation.

We are human when we are born of human parents. Within the order of creation the quality of being human permits of no degree. This is the basis of human rights. Nevertheless, human beings can lose their humanity. Therefore, we see that although in an absolute sense one is born human, there is also a relative sense in which we achieve humanness. We must not think of a human being as missing a distinct part when the spiritual is not developed. Similarly, when we speak of the moral person, we are referring not to a section or bit but rather to the whole person acting morally. The person is viewed in the moral dimension when thought of under the categories of duty, obligation, right and wrong. There is an important sense in which an immoral person has begun to lose that humanness which ought to be an achievement.

The cultural, the mental, social and spiritual all refer to that becoming human which lifts us above the biological. All of these are aspects of human life in which the biological is transcended. We must distinguish between that which is actual and that which is only potential. The biological, like the world of nature of which it is a part, has spiritual potential.

The spiritual refers to the way we realise the potential of our biological nature by transcending previous levels. In speech we transcend the limits of our own bodies; in our imaginations we transcend the limits of space and time; in creativity we transcend the limits of our individual experiences; in mathematical thinking we transcend the grip of the particular; and in music we transcend mere noise. In all such transcendence, we perceive the spirituality of the human being realised.

2. Spirituality and Religion.

In religion we transcend our humanity itself, postulating a transcendence beyond which there is no further transcendence. When we encounter or conceive of a transcendence beyond which no higher transcendence can be conceived, we call this the ultimate, and we name it the divine, the absolute or God. We may describe religion as being the climax of the spiritual quest since in religion the transcendence which is the characteristic of the spiritual may attain its height. I say ‘may attain’ because this must be qualified by two further points. First, we must not forget that there are forms of the spiritual which are not religious. Secondly, there are forms of religion which may become corrupted, false, and may fail to reach the transcendence toward which religion should point.

What is non-religious spirituality? Let us remember the circles - the largest indicates the spirituality of art, of music, and of science. When we speak in this way, we refer to the way in which art, literature, and science, contribute to the lifting of our human being above the merely biological. We must distinguish that which extends our humanity from that which transcends it. For example, the wheel is a mere extension of the foot. It does what the foot does, only faster. The crane is an extension of the hand. It does what the hand does, in picking things up, but it can pick up things too heavy for the hand. On the other hand, art may transcend our present humanness by breaking through our present level of self-consciousness, and science by transcending our present knowledge and our view of our place in the world. The wheel or the crane only break through the limits of our senses and our bodies but art and science break through the limits of our language, our thoughts, our imagination so lifting us up to a new level of our ontological vocation. This is why we must speak of non-religious spiritual development.

Religion at its best does not offer us a mere extension of our senses or our knowledge at the same level but lifts us to a new level. Religion relativises all our human achievements by placing them under the domain of the transcendent itself. Religion sets human life against its ultimate limit. Thus, through religion, the finite discovers itself as finite in the presence of the infinite. The temporal discovers itself through religion to be faced with the eternal. In the presence of perfect love, partial love discovers itself to be but partial.

3. The Differences Between Spirituality, Morality, the Cultural and the Social.

We have seen what binds these humanising powers together, and we have considered the way in which true religion has the potential for the highest spirituality although it is not the only way and it may become corrupt. Now we must consider the differences between them. Culture may be described as the set of myths, actions and institutions which place human life within a symbolic framework. This tends to lift human beings above the merely biological and so it has a spiritual dimension. The distinctive thing about the spiritual dimension of culture is that when we refer to a culture being spiritual we are speaking of it insofar as it helps humans to transcend their earlier achievements in becoming truly human. When we refer to culture in itself, we are then concerned with the various elements of culture, how the symbols, actions and institutions which make up culture actually function. The same is true of morality. Morality makes us consider other people and our duties toward them and so it helps us to transcend our own egoism. The spiritual person would hardly be without a moral life, but on the other hand, the spiritual person does not live by duty and obligation but by freedom and joy, qualities which transcend the moral realm.

Children are morally educated when they consider their notions of right and wrong and advance beyond the previous level of their moral development but they are spiritually educated when they are inspired by freedom and love to live in solidarity with others. If this inspiration takes place in the presence of the ultimate, the transcendent itself or human conceptions of the ultimate, then they are educated religiously.

When children are educated socially, they learn about society, how society works, various types of family and so on. However, this does not subject society to the critical norm of the human vocation. Mere social education does not help students to become critical of society in the light of the higher possibility of becoming more human. This is the spiritual function of social education, and social education would not be spiritual unless it included this critical humanising dimension.

4. Falsehood in Spirituality, Culture and Morality.

Is the concept of false morality a contradiction in terms? We speak of a misguided conscience, and as an individual progresses through the stages of moral development , the earlier stages do appear to be false. If one were to remain in a lower stage through fear of the responsibilities of the higher stage, ones morality would have become false, in spite of the fact that at the time when the present stage was entered it was superior to the one before it. So it is clear that there can indeed be a mistaken or an invalid morality.

Can there be a false culture? We might describe a culture as being artificial, in the sense that it might be an imposed or imported set of myths, institutions and symbols introduced from outside the society so that it became alienated from its own cultural roots. This is what happens when a culture of consumerism is created by huge trans- national companies when they invade a more vulnerable culture with their slogans and products. We can also speak of a degraded or immoral culture such as the former apartheid in South Africa.

Can there be a false spirituality? Let us suppose that a society invites its members to transcend their previous realisation of their humanity by something which is supposed to be more human but is not. When the economists advocate the dominance of the market society, claiming that ‘rational man’, the one who seeks to get the most profit, and who is motivated solely by this desire, is the truest form of human nature, is that not to encourage a false spirituality? We come face to face with the centrality of values in deciding what is most truly human. The person who is motivated by self-interest for greater profit does not offer the truest picture of our humanity. The infant at the mother’s breast is truer. This mutual inter-dependence, this exchange of need and fulfilment is a far richer and more truly human situation than the market man is. Our most human nature is to be found in our relations of freedom, inter-dependence and love. If you do not believe that, then we subscribe to different values, and in the light of my values I think that the spirituality of the market is a false spirituality. It does indeed transcend earlier models of the human, but toward falsification.

The money-culture offers people transforming dreams of what they might become. Every week in Britain, the propaganda coming from the lottery companies encourages these dreams. They flood the imagination and control the self-image; they mould the hopes of people. This money culture affects human relationships, and changes the things which are thought to make human life valuable (Hull 1999). Therefore, the money-culture does create a kind of spirituality - a false one. This is the false spirituality which tells us that human life consists in having not in being; it promises to transform us not through love but through power. This spirituality destroys human solidarity, putting in its place a society of competitive individualism. This does not mean that money itself is a form of false spirituality. We must seek for the power of money to banish poverty and fear, but when we begin to value money for the power it has to generate more money, when wealth becomes an end in itself, when we begin to generate wealth and not the freedom and dignity of all people, then we transform this human product (money) into a spiritual force for dehumanisation.

Money is a symbol of the self, and God is also a symbol of the self, but when the two models of the self diverge, and money becomes like a god, then two spiritualities confront each other, and we must choose between them (Hull1996a).

5. False Religion.

Religions are the more or less systematised structures of speech, actions, and institutions which attempt to bring human beings to the limit of humanness by exposing them to the ultimate. Thus the religions represent the most highly developed forms of human spirituality. Whatever you take as ultimate will become your religion. Therefore we can speak of both true and false religion. True religion is that which brings humans to the presence of the genuinely divine, that which is worthy of divine status, which has the character of God. False religion is that which replaces the living God, the true ultimate, by a false ultimate, a false God. False religion is idolatry. There may be cultures where a transforming and liberating art may be more truly spiritual than a degraded religion, full of self-deception, one where money is taken to be the ultimate.

When religion no longer seeks to bring all people to the edge of full humanity in the presence of the ultimate, but seeks to build up collective identity by constructing negative images of the religious and faith of other people, it may be called ‘religionism’ (Hull 1998; 2000). Religionism is religion turned in upon itself, religion which has become an end in itself, religion which forgets that it is an instrument and thinks that it is the object of the search. Thus religion and money are both instrumental. They serve purposes beyond themselves. If either of them is turned into an object in itself, it becomes a false religion, a religionism, or a culture in which money has become divine.

6. Faith.

Spirituality refers to the achievement of true humanness, and religions are the instruments for doing this in the presence of the ultimate. Neither spirituality nor religion are in themselves attitudes, although the spiritual and the religious person will have certain attitudes. Faith is an attitude. It is the subjective aspect of spirituality if we take the wider interpretation of faith, and it is the subjective attitude of religion if we take the narrower, more religious meaning of faith. Faith is the positive response to the issues raised by spirituality or religion. In the larger sense, in which faith is a human potential for response, we may speak of faith without religion but not of religion without faith. When faith is understood in the larger sense, faith is the attitude of acceptance directed toward the transcendence of the human, and faith in the narrow sense of religious faith would be directed towards the symbols of ultimacy. Religion is the instrument; spirituality is the goal; faith is confidence that the instrument will lead to the goal. Faith will differ from religion to religion. Buddhist faith will not be quite the same in detail as Christian faith. We must remember that faith is a Christian word originally, and we must be cautious in applying it to other religious traditions.




1. The Ambiguity of Spirituality.

In the first part of these remarks, I offered an interpretation of the key terms of the discussion about spirituality in education. I will make some suggestions now about the application of this approach to the problems created by living in the globalised financial culture.

First, we must reckon with the profound ambiguity of spirituality (Hull 1996b). There are true and false spiritualities, and all human aspirations and achievements contain a mixture of truth and falsehood, because of our tendency towards self-deception. Moreover, human beings themselves are ambiguous. In setting the goals for human development we are guided by our hopes and deceived by our fears. The images of the truly human as held out by the great religious traditions have a crucial role to play. They present us with models which stretch our imaginations, and with techniques for over coming the present realisation of our potential to become human. The religions offer to guide us through the ambiguity of spirituality, butt they do not solve the problem of ambiguity for the religions themselves are not free from ambiguity. Our position, therefore, must be one of constant self-criticism, constant commitment to relativity, and a readiness to hold fast to what we have achieved while reaching out to the future in hope.

2. Competition.

I will select the problem of competition as an example of a conflict in education and in the wider society, and as a critical test case for spiritual development. In this way, I will be able to illustrate the ambiguity of our situation, and at the same time develop an argument of relevance for those who are concerned with the education of spirituality today.

Competition takes place when we strive against another person for victory or for mastery. Only living things compete. Although there are many raindrops in the storm, we cannot say that they compete against each other. However, we can say that the thousands of sperm compete for the female egg. We may also say that the plants compete for the sun and the rain, by striving against each other, although in the cases of the sperm and the plants, the competition is not conscious, it is nevertheless purposeful.

It is when conscious beings purposefully strive against other beings or against themselves that we may speak of competition in the fullest sense.

Competition is all around us. We compete for the attention of our parents against our brothers and sisters; we compete in sport; we compete at school for academic success in competitive examinations, and we compete in adult life for success in our chosen career. The nations compete against one another, and the currencies of the world also compete.

3. The Morality of Competition.

We can understand competition best if we think of it as occurring at four levels. The first level is the local, the inter-personal level. This is our competition at home, in school, and on the sporting field.

The second and higher level is competition between industrial companies. This is a vital area for our national standard of living, since it is industry which produces the goods and services which meet the necessary requirements of life, and add to the richness of life.

The next highest level is the national level, or the level of government. Governments not only compete with each other; they also compete with their own industrial companies. However, since many large companies are much more powerful than some governments, and being international in their scope, are above and beyond the reach of any one government, we may also think of the industrial level of competition as being above the government or national level. This indicates the ambiguous relationships which exist between governments, which are responsible to their citizens, and industrial companies, who are responsible to their share holders (Schutt 1998).

The fourth and most powerful level is that of pure money competition. This is the sphere where not only national currencies compete with each other, which would merely be a form of international competition, but currencies compete with each other, regardless of their country of origin. This refers to the fact that money is no longer under political control. Since the deregulation of the money markets which took place in the 1970s and 1980s, and the rise of the extra-territorial tax havens, and the floating of currencies against each other, there is no longer any government in the world which can effectively control money, not even the USA (Bello 1994; George and Sabelli 1994).

It is important to notice that with money competition at the global level, competition has become more or less unconscious, like the competition between the plants and the sperm. While individual traders on the money markets do deliberately compete with each other, the system as a whole has acquired an almost automatic quality. It is this aspect which gives the money markets the strange quality of inevitability. This, however, is only a myth generated on the global scale by the machinery. Before the computers which control the markets, the human will forgets what it has made, and bows in resignation before the inevitable.

4. The Ethics of Competition at the Various Levels.

The ethical character of competition differs at each level, and consequently the impact upon spirituality also differs. Once we understand this, we are able to construct not only an educational policy but also a political programme for ethical reform and for the spiritual development of society.

At the lowest level, the local or inter-personal level, competition adds enormously to the quality and the enjoyment of life. If the most able children in the class did not enjoy competing against each other for the highest grade, the quality of their work would not be so high. A golf commentator was asked whether the domination of Tiger Woods was not a bad thing for the sport. The reply was that the success and the example of this great golfer had sent the other golfers running for the gymnasium. They were practising new shots, learning new strategies. The competition with the champion had lifted the sport to new heights of achievement.

Not only does competition raise quality, it is fun. It is around the table that the family has a game of Ludo and everyone enjoys the shouting and the laughter. The presence of so many TV games based on competition indicates how much people enjoy it. However, competition must be carefully constructed if it is not to lead to discouragement and bitterness. Competition should not be too serious. Things should be arranged in school so that the child who loses at some things wins at others. We must never allow the situation where a certain child begins to imagine that he or she is always a loser. Moreover, competition should be on a level playing field. It must be fair. You cannot compete with courage if you know that you have no chance of winning. So disabled children must be encouraged to compete against themselves and not against able bodied children in those areas where they are bound to beat them. Children should never be placed in a position where they will suffer from low self-esteem through failure. In educational competition, everyone must win at something. The school must reward those who were best at courage in overcoming problems and those who increased their own personal best. The most able academically should not be dominating.

There is another great source of fun. It is co-operation. This also adds tremendously to the quality of living. Our deepest happiness is not when we win but when we win together. When lovers meet, they do not compete; they combine. So we must teach our children both living competitively, and living co-operatively.

At the industrial and the governmental levels, the ethical aspects of competition are rather different. It is in the interest of the firm that there should be as little competition as possible, for each firm seeks for a dominant position in their sector of the market. It is the function of competition law to foster competition in the interests of the public (Wilks 1999). Of course, if firms really set out to meet human needs with their products, this would not arise. Their sense of duty to their customers would maintain the quality of their products. In the real world, however, where firms are competing in the market for survival, it is necessary to keep the shareholders happy. If the value of the shares should decrease, the value of the company will be less, and the company will be vulnerable to being taken over by a powerful competitor. So the financial struggle affects the companies more than the objective of meeting human needs.

At the highest level, that of pure money competition, the ethical situation is very serious. The dollar competes against the British pound, and the Euro competes against the yen, But how does this add to the quality of the dollar or the yen? If one currency increases in value, it is only against the other currency, which must accordingly decrease in value. The competition creates a volatility, which is the source of business unpredictability but at the same time, it is also the source of huge profits, but what good do these unproductive profits do to people? What need is satisfied?

So far, we have only thought of the competition between the so-called hard currencies, those of the rich countries, but now we must consider the competition between the hard currencies and the soft ones, the money of the five-sevenths world. For these currencies, the competition is disastrous. Imagine the situation of a citizen of Sierra Leone in West Africa, who borrowed a single US dollar in 1965, when the local unit of currency, the Leone, was more or less at parity with the dollar (American International Investment Corporation 1977). Today, he or she would have to find nearly 2,000 Leone to repay back the debt, to say nothing of the interest over the years. The hard money has sucked all the value out of the soft currencies, bringing poverty, sickness and death.

Is this competition on a level playing field? Does it add to the quality of life for any one?

The extra-territorial money circulating in the money markets is beyond the control of any government. People and banks put their money into these tax havens in order to avoid the taxation of their own country, and so the local governments are deprived of the benefits which would bring vast sums into their treasuries. No government in the world would dare to impose restrictions upon the tax havens, because the money markets would punish them. So the world is locked into a futile and disastrous money competition, bringing debt and poverty to most of the world.

5. How the False Spirituality Seeps Downwards.

The influence upon values, human relations, and so on comes down from the money level to produce stress and poverty at the local level. Our schools, our public amenities, our hospitals, are constantly deprived of money while trillions of dollars are exchanged every day on the futile money markets. This is the irony of a world which has served the money God. We have devoted our lives to the increase of money and now we cannot afford anything. Moreover, the daily lives of our children are changed by living in such societies.

My two younger sons organise a branch of Amnesty International for their friends from school but they do not meet on the school premises but in the home of a friend. When I asked them why they did not meet in the school itself, they replied ‘Because we would be saddos’. A sad person is one who does something for some one else, who does not madly follow the fun culture of youth but who thinks of service to the society. The spirituality engendered by money is a culture of individualism, in which our lives are modelled on the individual units of currency, each competing against the other. This is why spiritual education today takes place when solidity between people is fostered.

How has this culture come about? It has its origin in the fierce competition, not for fun or for quality, but for life itself, which has been engendered by the values of the money world seeping down to the local level.


The spiritual crisis of the world today is a question of serving the money God or the living God. We must clarify our minds and our hearts on this issue. This is a matter of spiritual values, but it leads to an issue of life and death. In resisting the money culture, we must first challenge our own life style. Then we must examine our schools. Do we model the competition in our schools on the values of the competition which gives life, or on that which takes life away?

Next, we must adopt policies as citizens which will challenge the power of the money God. We must encourage our governments to declare the tax havens to be illegal. We must make the World Bank itself more open to competition and to democratic control. We must encourage our governments to introduce the Tobin Tax - the tax of about one half or one quarter per cent imposed upon all large currency exchanges. This would tame the flows of hot money which are responsible for global volatility.

In devoting ourselves to this task, we will purify our own spiritual lives, and lead our children into the paths of abundant life.

This illustration of how the spirituality of an entire generation has been changed helps us to understand that we must never leave our discussions of spirituality at the general or anthropological level. Actual spiritual life is local, specific to a given society, and historical in the sense that it develops from certain material factors. So we conclude with a paradox: spirituality is concrete.