Spirituality, Religion, Faith: Mapping the Territory


John M Hull


Education as Personal Development

One of the differences between training and education is that training seeks to develop a skill or a set of skills whereas education seeks to develop the person. Training is skilled-based but education is person-centred. Before the modern era the soul was often conceived of as being joined to the body at the time of conception and loosed from the body at the time of death. The soul was possessed absolutely, or not at all. There could be no educational development of the soul. Education was generally thought of in social terms. It was the modification or the grooming of speech and manners so as to produce courtesy, refinement or socially appropriate behaviour. With the arrival of modern psychology and the social sciences, self-hood was conceived of more as an achievement. Psycho-analysis showed us that the infant is a body of desires, which is co-ordinated and controlled by the realisation of social and physical reality as the ego develops. Although personhood is a possibility for the pre-natal child, its actualisation requires years of development.

It is belief in these years of development which give modern education its characteristic emphasis. To become a person is to achieve something, but that achievement can only be realised in the context which confers it. We strive towards personhood, and we also receive personhood as a gift. We may strive to learn various languages and to improve our skill in speaking our mother tongue, but at first language is imparted. The wonder of human society is that it imparts language; the miracle of childhood is that it is capable of receiving it.

It is because of the centrality of this humanistic education in many modern societies that spirituality, religion and faith have become closely associated with it. The infantile chaos of desire is largely biological in origin. The infant desires food, drink, warmth, sleep and to be held. The formation of personhood implies the development of a set of potentials, which although latent within the biological nexus are only gradually developed, and which when mature transcend the biological. These include language, symbolic functioning, conscience, self-awareness, interpersonal relations, creativity, and the giving and receiving of love in freedom. That which transcends the biological may be described as the spiritual.

Education as Spiritual Development

It is in the light of these modern assumptions that education in England and Wales is required since 1944, re-emphasised in 1988, to advance the spiritual. Indeed, the first and foremost criterion of a broad and balanced curriculum is that it should promote "the spiritual ... development of pupils ... and of society" (ERA 1998 I.2).

This requirement has led to a brisk discussion about the meaning of the spiritual, including a good deal of research activity (Wright 1988). Much of this is concerned with the similarities and differences between spirituality, religion, and to a lesser degree, faith (Best 1996). What follows is not a summary or a discussion of the results of this activity but is merely a series of my own reflections.

The three expressions we are considering, spirituality, religion and faith may be imagined as three concentric circles decreasing in size. Thus spirituality includes religion but is a more comprehensive category. Religion as a whole is concerned with spirituality but not all spirituality is concerned with religion. Similarly, there is much in religion which is not particularly concerned with faith. In so far as faith is a trustful response to the object of religious worship, it is included within religion, and our imaginary diagram reveals this. However, several contemporary descriptions of faith describe it from a psychological or anthropological point of view as being a wider category of human response, the religious response being but an important example (Fowler 1981). If we accept this point of view, then we should arrange the descending series of concentric circles so that spirituality remains the largest, containing the circle of faith, which in turn contains the smaller circle of religion.

The Spiritual Not a Part to be Added

Since the spiritual is, broadly speaking, concerned with the achievement of personhood, it may be thought of as synonymous with the process of humanisation. Becoming a human has both absolute and relative aspects. From the absolute point of view, that which is born of the human is human. The advantage of this position is that being biological it applies to the entire species, and thus human rights and human dignity are extended to every living creature which is born of human parents regardless of race, class, or disability. Within the order of creation, so to speak, the quality of being human permits no degree. Nevertheless, human beings can lose their humanity. We speak of cruel and barbarous punishment as being degrading, brutal and de-humanising. This reminds us that becoming human is a process, the result of which is an achievement, and therefore we may speak of the process of humanisation as being our ontological vocation (Freire 1972, 1985). This process may also be called spiritualisation, since there is no achievement of humanness without a realisation of the human spirit.

The human spirit is not the human soul. This would take us back into the static thinking of earlier centuries. The spirit is not a part of the human, as we seem to suggest when we speak of educating the whole child, the mind, the body and the spirit.

This kind of language seems to suggest that human development would be lop-sided without the development of the spirit. It might be thought that the Education Reform Act in listing a series of attributes, the spiritual, moral, cultural and so on, suggests that these are portions, parts of the human. It is better, I think, to regard these as dimensions rather than as parts. If you take away the third dimension from an object, there is nothing left but an idea. In a similar way, the cultural is not a part of being human for without culture there would be no human beings. Similarly, the physical is not a part of the human, not a material part added onto the spirit, but represents the whole of our human life looked at from a certain point of view.

Similarly, it is impossible to imagine human beings entirely without bodies. Even a ghost, supposedly a spirit without a body, has some kind of thin, partly visible substance. You can thrust your hand right through it, but it can speak to you, pass by you, and clank itís chains. Without the body, and thus without any sensible properties, there would be nothing to imagine, which is why the concept of a disembodied spirit is probably incoherent.

When the Christian faith speaks of the resurrection of the body, references made to the idea that the human person is one indivisible body/mind/spirit organism. Neither is the mental or the intellectual a part of our being human, for without the mind, without some capacity for thinking, without speech, there could be no self-awareness, no realised consciousness, and our humanness received potentially at birth, would fail to be actualised.

The same is true of the spiritual. When we speak of the spirit of a sporting team, we refer to some quality of the behaviour and attitudes of the team as a whole, and the same is true of the expression "the spirit of the nation", "the spirit of war" and so on. In such expressions we do not refer to a part of the whole, but to some energising and invigorating quality of the whole.

What is the Spiritual?

We have spoken of the human being as a complex but organic unity which can be viewed from a number of perspectives. When we think of the moral dimension, we think of the whole person in so far as the actions of the person are guided by responsibility, duty and so on. To what aspect of the human organism do we refer when we speak of the spiritual? In the broadest sense, this expression applies to everything which lifts human beings above and beyond the biological, but that is also true of the cultural and the moral and the mental. Thus there is a spirituality of culture, and there is no culture without spirituality. There is a spirituality of the moral life, and all moral life participates in the spiritual. At the moment, I am describing that which the spiritual, moral and cultural have in common, namely, their elevation beyond the merely biological. In a moment, we will discuss the differences between them.

Is there then no spiritual dimension of the merely biological? In order to consider this question clearly, we must distinguish between potentiality and actuality. A biological entity is a living thing. Living things are the product of their kind, they are born in some way and they die. They require food or nourishment of some kind and they reproduce. In some way or other, they exhibit purpose, seeking for the conditions which will enhance their survival. Even a virus is capable of adopting such strategies for survival that scientists do not hesitate to describe them as clever or intelligent in a rudimentary and yet sometimes amazingly complex way. The border line between living and non-living entities is difficult to determine, and nature exhibits an unbroken continuum from entities which are clearly non-living like rocks up to beings who have realised self-conscious and critical life. Human beings are that part of nature in which nature has realised its potential for self-conscious, critical life. Nature as a whole may be said to have spiritual potential, and this potential is actualised to varying degrees. Even human beings, we may suspect, have only actualised spiritual potential of nature up to a certain point, and there may be forms of life in the galaxy or beyond, whose spiritual development is far beyond the human.

Spirituality as Transcendence

When we speak of the biological as being lifted up beyond the inert, and of the human as being lifted up beyond the biological, we are speaking of degrees of the spiritualisation process. Each stage of the actualisation of the spiritual transcends the previous stage. Transcendence is, indeed, a key feature of spiritualisation. In speech we transcend the limits of our own bodies; in imagination we transcend the limits of space and time; in creativity we transcend the limits of our own particular experience; in mathematics we transcend the grip of the particular, and in music we transcend noise. In religion, we transcend humanity all-together, postulating a transcendence beyond which there is no transcendence, a transcendence greater than which no further transcendence can be imagined, and we name this transcendence the Ultimate, the divine or God. There is a sense, therefore in which we may describe religion as being the climax of the spiritual quest, since in religion the transcendent which typifies the spiritual may reach its height.

There is truth in that claim, but it must be qualified by two further points. First, there are forms of spirituality which are not religious, and secondly, religion may become corrupt, false or may fail to realise the transcendent to which it points.

Non-religious Forms of Transcendence

On the concept of spirituality which is not religious, we should remember our opening illustration of the concentric circles, in which spirituality is a broader concept than religion. Thus we speak quite properly of the spirituality of art, the spirituality of music, the spirituality of science and so on. By such expressions, we mean to say that in activities such as art, music, science and many others, the merely biological aspects of our humanness are transcended. Technology extends the human bios but art transcends it. The wheel is an extension of the foot (McLuhan and Fiore 1989), and a crane is an extension of the hand. The wheel does what the foot does only faster; the crane does what the hand does, only it picks up things which are too heavy for the hand. Art transcends the human by helping us to realise and to break through the limits of our self consciousness. Science transcends our present humanness by helping us to realise and to break through the limits of our self-knowledge. Certainly, the wheel breaks through the limits of mobility imposed by the foot, but that breakthrough occurs on the same level. One merely goes faster. In so far as science merely extends our knowledge, it could be regarded as an extension of the senses, but that would be to speak of scientific instruments and of scientific technology. However, in-so-far as science presents a new paradigm of nature or the place of human beings in nature, it breaks through the limits not of the senses but of language and of imagination, thus lifting us up to a new ontological limit, a new threshold of the ontological vocation.

Religion as Ultimate Transcendence

Religion in principle and at its best offers not merely an extension of the senses on the same level, although it may do that, but something qualitatively different at a higher level. Through religion we transcend the former limits of our self awareness. Religion relativises all our human achievements by placing them under the domain of the transcendent itself. Religion transcends human life itself not only by enabling human life to become more human, but by enabling a further qualitative stage on the path to humanisation. It sets human life against that which represents its Ultimate limit. Thus, in the presence of religion, the finite discovers itself in the presence of the infinite, the temporal discovers itself in the presence of the eternal, partial love discovers itself in the presence of perfect love1

Thus, as circular 1/94 (para 4) puts it, every subject of the curriculum has a responsibility for the spiritual development of the pupil but religious education has an important although not exclusive contribution.

Spirituality, Culture and Morality

Now we come to the differences between spirituality, culture and morality. Spirituality necessarily generates a culture, since spirituality is necessarily social, but a culture need not be considered only from a spiritual point of view. Culture may be described as that set of myths, actions and institutions which place human life within a symbolic framework. The spiritual is that same framework considered from an anthropological point of view2 In other words, culture could be considered from the perspective of the human vocation. In so far as a given culture invites us to transcend the biological level, and nurtures us, time and time again breaking through the limits of our self critical understanding, culture may be said to perform a spiritual task.

As we have already observed, the moral life is certainly part of the spiritual life, since morality relates us to others and thus demands that we transcend our skin. However, the domain of morality is characterised by such concepts as duty, responsibility, obligation, right and wrong. It is the task of moral philosophy to elucidate these concepts, and it is the task of the moral person to live in accordance with them. The spiritual person would hardly be immoral, but neither would the actions of the spiritual person be governed by the principles of duty or obligation. After all, Jesus was executed as a law breaker, and the spiritual domain is characterized by freedom, spontaneity and joy, which transcend the moral realm. When the rich young ruler asked Jesus what he had to do to inherit eternal life, Jesus replied in terms of the moral law. When the young man asked what more he could do, Jesus told him to get rid of his possessions and follow him (MK.10: 17-22). This was not a demand of morality, but a promise of something which transcended morality. It was the promise of life in the spirit (Rom.8:2), the perfect law of liberty (James 1:25). Children and young people are morally educated when they come to understand the nature of the moral law, but they are spiritually educated when they are inspired to achieve a fuller realisation of their humanness in solidarity with others.

Falsehood in Spirituality, Culture and Morality

Is the concept of false spirituality a contradiction in terms? Certainly, the concept of a false morality is not a contradiction in terms, since we have such a thing as the misguided conscience, and as an individual progresses through the stages of moral development, the earlier stages would appear to be false. If one were to tarry in a lower stage through fear of the responsibilities and sacrifices of entering into a higher stage, ones morality would have become false, however natural it might have been at first to enter into that lower stage from a yet earlier one (Kohlberg 1984, Kegan 1982).

What about the concept of a false culture? We might describe a culture as being artificial, in the sense that it is an imposed or an imported set of myths, institutions and symbols introduced from outside the society, leading to an alienation of the society from its own historic culture. Perhaps we might say that this happens when a culture of consumer desire is created by several large multinational companies invading some more vulnerable society with their products, legends and symbols. We can also speak of a degrading culture or an immoral culture, and we might now think of the old apartheid South Africa, or the culture of Nazi Germany.

Returning to the question of a false spirituality, we may say that a society may nurture its members so as to transcend the previous limits of self-hood, and to open up new vistas of self realisation which, nevertheless, might be false in the sense that they do not conform to the anthropological vocation. In other words, a spirituality can de-humanise as well as humanise. Naturally, this is a question of values, and hinges upon our estimation of the human itself. If we believe that "rational man", that is a person always maximising personal profit in the market place, the bargaining person whose bargaining is dictated by self interest and is thus held to be rational, then we would regard the market place as offering a spiritual education. However, if we regard the mother and child symbiosis, with its mutual dependence and its freedom from exchange relations as being more typical of the human, then we would regard the rationality of the market place, with its commitment to competitive individualism, as being de-humanising (Hanstock 1983).

The False Spirituality of Money

In so far as money offers people transforming dreams of what they might become, in so far as these dreams take possession of the imagination, the purposes and the self understanding of people (Madanes 1994), in so far as money actually determines the character of human relationships and motivates human beings in their search for human maturity (Dodd 1995), we may say that there is a spirituality of money. In so far as the human maturity which money offers is expressed through having, not through being (Marcel 1949), in so far as the possession of money transforms one through power and not through love, in so far as this dream denies human solidarity, creating a kingdom of means rather than a kingdom of ends (Kant 1993), to this extent we may say that the spirituality inspired by money is a false and degrading spirituality. That does not mean that we should despise or neglect the power of money to alleviate human poverty, and we know that poverty degrades and brutalises human life, but if we set our hearts upon money itself rather than upon the justice which distributes money (Martin and Schumann 1997), if we seek to generate money and not to generate freedom and democracy for all (Rowbotham 1998), then the spirituality of money will debase our humanity. Money is a symbol of the self, and God is also a symbol of the self (Hull 1996a). The two selves thus symbolised are incompatible, which is why you cannot serve God and money (Mt 6:24).

False Religion as Religionism

Religions may be understood as those more or less systematised structures of speech, actions, ethics and institutions which aim to bring human beings to the limit of humanness by exposing them to the Ultimate. In that sense, the religions represent the most definite crystallisation of the various social and individual techniques of spiritual development. There is thus a sense in which we may say that whatever you take to be Ultimate will be your religion (Brown 1965), and in so far as the nature of the Ultimate will determine the character of the spirituality, we may speak both of true religion and false. True religion will be that which encourages the realisation of true humanity, and false religion will be that which encourages false and degrading humanity, and the difference between these two will naturally and inevitably mean a choice and perhaps a conflict of values (Hull 1996b). Although religion at its best and finest seeks to elevate human spirituality to the highest degree, religion is also vulnerable to corruption and self deception. There may well be cultures where an authentic and humanising art may represent a finer spirituality than a corrupt, inward looking and sectarian religion. When religion seeks to build up individual or collective identity by creating negative images of other religions, I call it "religionism" (Hull 1998). Religionism is religion focused upon itself while religion is true and faithful when it focuses upon the goals of religion, which are the spiritualisation of human beings in the presence of the transcendent Ultimate. Religion and money are both instrumental. When religion and money are desired for their own sake, when they serve their own ends, then the spirituality which they generate is a debased spirituality.

Let us take the case of the Christian religion. Christian faith is an instrument of the mission of God. It is probably not the only such instrument. If Christian faith is faithless to the mission of God, and concentrates instead upon its own aggrandizement, God will discard it and will find other instruments to advance Gods mission. The mission of God is to bring life and liberty to all.


This brings us at last to the question of faith. Religion and spirituality are not attitudes. Spirituality, as we have seen, is the achievement of humanness, and the religions are the traditions and techniques for achieving this in relation to the transcendent Ultimate. Faith, however, has to do with subjectivity. It is the positive human response to the issues raised by spirituality and by religion. When we describe faith as the attitude which responds to spirituality in the broadest sense, then faith occupies the concentric circle mid-way between spirituality and religion. In that case, faith would be a human potential for responding with trust, to whatever centres of power, meaning and purpose a person selects (Fowler 1981) in order to advance his or her spirituality. In that sense, faith is larger than religion. We may speak of faith without religion but not of religion without faith. Faith without religion would be the name we would give to the human response of trust or acceptance directed towards the symbols which provide integration and purposeful movement towards spirituality. Thus there may be a human faith directed towards the symbols of the human. Faith in this sense would include not only human faith but religious faith, the former being faith directed towards the symbols of the human and the latter (religious faith) being faith directed also towards the symbols of the divine ultimacy.

Religious Faith

If, on the other hand, we imagine our concentric circles arranged in such a way that faith comes in the centre, then we would be defining faith in an exclusively religious way. Within the general sphere of the Christian religion, there is a centre made up of people who respond to it faithfully. Beyond the circle of faith there would be people who respond to the Christian religion only nominally, or partially. Religion is the instrument; spirituality is the goal; faith is the attitude of trust that the instrument will lead to the goal.

In so far as religion is usually manifest as a specific religion, such as Buddhism, Islam or Christianity, faith would be defined by the particular religion. Thus there would be a Christian understanding of faith, an Islamic understanding of faith and so on, although it must always be remembered that by its origin faith is a Christian word and we must be cautious in applying it to the attitude which the believers in other religions have towards their objects of ultimacy. We cannot assume that faith is the same from religion to religion.

If this discussion is pointing in the right direction, we can speak of faith in three senses, according to the position of faith on our diagram, and according to the specificity of the religion circle. First, in the widest sense, faith is the attitude of trust and faithfulness towards whatever leads us to increased spirituality. Secondly, faith is trust directed towards religion, religion being the agent of spirituality. Thirdly, faith is the specific faith characteristic of a religion, and this is a distinctively Christian use of faith, although there may be similar attitudes in other religions. It is in this last and most specific sense that Christian faith can speak of faith as being given by God "For it is by grace you are saved through faith; it is not your own doing. It is Godís gift" (Eph 2:8).

Educational Implications

Education is that process whereby human beings are raised above the limits of their biological natures through increasing knowledge and understanding. Other processes, such as socialisation, may lead people beyond their biological natures through other means, and the schooling experience will include both education, socialisation and perhaps other processes as well.

In so far as knowledge and understanding help people to expand linguistic skills, cognitive perspective, self understanding and understanding of the world and so on, education develops personhood beyond the biological. In so far as knowledge and understanding help people to break through the barriers of limited self knowledge and knowledge of the world which enclose them, and to transcend these former limits, in an ever mounting process of increased love and freedom, diminishing egocentricity and leading to a practical sense of solidarity with others, we may say that education promotes spirituality.

Every subject of the curriculum has the responsibility to attempt this, and a special responsibility falls upon religious education in so far as the religions are especially adapted to become instruments of spiritual development. This means that education not only has a utilitarian, vocational and national function; it also has an anthropological function. Education has a vocation towards humanisation. Education is not only concerned with making citizens of the state; it is also concerned with making people for the human race.

Religious Education

Religious education contributes to human spiritualisation in so far as it helps people to advance in their self knowledge and their knowledge of the world, and also advance their knowledge and understanding of the Ultimate. This divine Ultimate may be studied as expressed in one religion or several. In view of the fact that the specific goals of religious education deal with knowledge and understanding, it seems preferable to religiously educate from more than one religion. Only in this way can the learners acquire a cognitive perspective which will help them to transcend the limits of their earlier self-understanding and world-understanding.

Religious education, however, does not seek to develop, in the specifically religious sense. Schools in particular and education as a whole should encourage young people to have a trustful and optimistic faith in life and in themselves and others, and that is the wider definition of faith of which we spoke earlier. The narrow definition of faith, whether in religion as a whole or whether in specific religions, is beyond the scope of education and thus beyond the scope of religious education.

If religious education were to seek to nurture faith in any specific religion, it would no longer be religious education as we have described it, but would be better described as religious nurture. Religious nurture in the form of Christian nurture or Islamic nurture has an important part to play in human spirituality, because the religions are agents of human spirituality. Education, however, is only concerned with that humanisation and spiritualisation which flow from increased knowledge and understanding. These represent important, indeed essential contributions towards spirituality, but they are not necessarily the only paths to spirituality and they do not necessarily take the learner to the mountain top.

It is enough for us as teachers and leaders of youth that we refuse to accept economic, social, educational and physical limits which prevent the children and young people in our care from entering upon the process of becoming more human, and thus exploring and developing their potential nature as spiritual (i.e, truly and deeply human).


1. I do not wish to suggest that religion must always be expressed in these anti-thetical terms, such as divine/human, spiritual/material, transcendence/immanence. I agree with Jantzen (pp. 62-77) that binary thinking is a feature of Western theology and philosophy which must be overcome in the interests of the fullness of life. Transcendence and immanence are not so much two realms as two perspectives on a single realm. It is one of religions gifts to humanization that it both presents the dichotomy and overcomes it.

2. I am not referring to anthropology as one of the social sciences (the study of human societies) but to philosophical anthropology as reflection upon the nature of the human

John M Hull is Professor of Religious Education in the University of Birmingham, School of Education, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT. His most recent books are On sight and Insight, a journey into the world of blindness (Oxford, One World 1997) and Utopian Whispers: Moral, Spiritual and Religious Values in Schools (RMEP 1998).

The author expresses his gratitude to the Saint Peterís Saltley College Trust whose generous grant made possible the preparation of this article.


Copyright John M Hull 1999