The Ambiguity of Spiritual Value



John M. Hull

in J. Mark Halstead and Monica Taylor (eds) Values in Education and Education in Values London, Falmer Press 1996, pp. 33-44 ISBN: 0 7507 0510 8



The use of the word spirituality reveals not only vagueness but contrast and conflict. While it is often suggested that this feature of spirituality reflects the spontaneous and undefinable character character of the spirit, it will be argued here that a sociological approach helps us to understand the phenomenon...Spirituality is generated by the character of society itself, especially (in the case of modern Britain) by the character of the money-culture. These elements of self-interest tend to be obscured and denied, which results in the ambiguity and conflict in the use of the expression. The educational implications of this crisis in spiritual values will be discussed, in the light of the general conclusion: spiritual education is that education which inspires young people to live for others.


Current British use of the word spirituality can be summarised as follows. It is most frequently found in phrases such as women's spirituality, creation spirituality, Eastern spirituality, Benedictine spirituality and so on. These refer to movements or points of view or practices which are sufficiently understood to be used in the media without further comment or explanation.

Other uses of the word reveal a striking ambiguity. Spirituality may be transcendent and other-worldly or it may be secular and political. It may be opposed to the scientific outlook; on the other hand, there may be a spirituality of science. There may be a spirituality of pure reason, or alternatively spirituality may be intuitive, mystical and beyond all reasoning. Spirituality may be inward, private and more or less inaccessible, or it may be a distinctive characteristic of the behaviour of an ethnic or national group. Spirituality may be the essence of religion, on the other hand, religion may become unspiritual and there may be a non-religious spirituality. Spirituality may be contrasted with the body. On the other hand, it may be expressed through the body. There may be a spirituality of sexuality. Nevertheless, sex and spirituality may be at loggerheads.

How are we to account for this uncertainty, these conflicts in the meaning of the word? It looks as if we know how to recognise spirituality when we see it, in more or less well-established expressions such as Russian spirituality or creation spirituality but we do not know what to make of it, where it comes from or where it goes.

Rather than discussing this ambiguity with the claim that the spirit is indeed a bit mysterious and spontaneous, let us regard the tensions and contrasts as symptoms of deeper disturbances. Perhaps in examining popular usage, we were dealing with the froth, the linguistic veil which conceals deeper realities.

We do not know to what it might be related, or what it signifies. It is these qualities of vagueness, of fervent assertion, of puzzling inconsistency or contradiction, combined with a mixture of yearning admiration and a sort of no nonsense dismissal which invites further study. Something seems to be troubling the language. It hesitates, deviates, makes a claim, then cancels itself out. Let us try to trace these disturbances to their source.

Spirituality as Deception

The idea that religious and spiritual beliefs and ideals may be used to serve the interests of powerful groups in society can be traced back at least as far as Machiavelli's The Prince in the early sixteenth century, and is a popular theme in Voltaire and other pre-revolutionary French social critics (Larrain, 1979). It was not until the middle decades of the nineteenth century that the structural connections between industry and commerce, on the one hand, and law, religion, art and philosophy, on the other, were explored. The mode of production characteristic of industrialised society, together with the relations of production which the mode requires, is looked upon as the base from which the superstructure is generated. Society not only produces but reproduces the assumptions of its mode of production, and it does this through creating an ideology in which the values and assumptions of the base are reaffirmed. Education, law and art, the state itself, together with religion and spirituality all form part of this ideological superstructure. The mode of production itself requires and thus reproduces a social class distinction in which labour and capital confront each other. This social class distinction is reproduced in the superstructure from the point of view of capital and the distinctions and assumptions which capital requires in order to operate successfully.

The spirituality engendered by such a society will pass through a number of phases, as the character of capitalist society itself evolves, and we may distinguish the spirituality of early capitalism (Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe, 1719) from that of liberal capitalism (Charles Dickens, Hard Times, 1854) and, finally, from that of organized capitalism (John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald). As the internal divisions within national capitalism give way to the world-wide search for wealth, new forms of religious and spiritual consciousness are created on the frontiers of European commerce and pre-industrial patterns of life in primal societies (Wolf, 1982) and the super- structure becomes the rationale and legitimation of imperial expansion (Porter, 1991).

The characteristics of the religion and spirituality thus generated vary considerably in accordance with these factors but generally emphasise inwardness, individualism, transcendence, asceticism and authority. Inwardness ensures that attention is focused away from the world of real human relations I (Gutierrez, 1984; Sobrino, 1988); individuality maintains the privacy of the entrepreneurial spirit essential to the market, at the same time denying wider and more complex social bonds (Hartsock, 1983; Marcuse, 1968: Ch. 2) transcendence ensures that spirituality is not dynamically orientated towards innovation and change but fixated upon the eternal and unchanging nature of the world above (Bloch, 1959; 1968). Asceticism concentrates the sense of taboo upon the orifices of the body encouraging a false purity and discouraging prophetic holiness (Alves, 1985; Douglas, 1966) while authority discourages criticism, promotes passivity and engenders respect for tradition and the powers that be (Cartledge-Hayes, 1990; Taylor, 1990).

If, for the moment, we leave on one side the conservative type of spirituality, then the most typical and influential form of mid-twentieth century European spirituality is that created by the existentialist movement, brilliantly described, attacked and unmasked by Theodore Adorno (1974). There is no doubt that well on into the 1980s and 90s literalistic conservative and existentialist liberal forms of spirituality contributed very significantly to the depoliticisation of the church.

In adopting this sociological approach to the character of spirituality, it is necessary to draw upon disciplines in the social sciences such as hermeneutics, ideology critique and discourse analysis (Thompson, 1984; 1990). Of course, the consciousness of the spiritual person is innocent of these complexities. In order to create a bridge from such broad, functional social theories of spirituality to the subjectivity of the spiritual individual we need to invoke the psychological concept of self-deception (McLaughlin and Rorty, 1988; Welschon, 1991). Rather than outlining these links between the social and the personal, in what follows we will trace contemporary developments in the money culture which are creating the distinctive features of today's spiritual outlook.

Spirituality and Contemporary Capitalism

Relations between the base and the superstructure are themselves not static, nor is the theoretical grasp of them an unchanging monolith. It would be a serious limit in our analysis if we were to leave it with a conception which is primarily rooted in the nineteenth century.

Three current developments, important for our understanding of spirituality today, will be mentioned.

First, the relationship between base and superstructure is now conceived of in more flexible terms. The important point about the social origins of spirituality is that they are to be found in social being; they are rooted in the concrete and material forms of our community life. That does not mean, however, that all spirituality (and everything else in the superstructure) must be tied relentlessly and exclusively to the economic aspects of social life (Larrain, 1979:65). Moreover, the distinction between base and superstructure should be thought of as a contribution to method in social analysis. The question is to distinguish source from outcome in such a way that contradiction and inconsistency become explicable. Economic forms of life such as the rhetoric of economic description, when considered from the reproductive point of view, may be thought of as generating economic practices and relationships. In that case, economics would be attributable to both base and superstructure (Larrain 1979: end of Ch. 2). As with Freud, so with Marx, distinctions between aspects of the structure should be understood hermeneutically not topographically (Larrain, 1979:67; Ricoeur, 1970). We should remember that only the 'scientific Marxists' have interpreted the relationship between base and superstructure in a strictly causal sense. The Hegelian or humanistic developments of the Marxian legacy always tended to approach the problem of cause and effect in the spirit of interpretation.

We need not necessarily conceive of an automobile plant as being entirely of the base while a symphony orchestra is entirely of the superstructure (Castoriadis, 1987:28). The latter may well be run as a business company, with its employees, contracts and capital, its product being music. Indeed, do we not speak of the music industry? On the other hand, the automobile factory will be susceptible to changes in production method inspired by new forms of political life as well as innovations in technology. No doubt the feudal heaven was a projection of the feudal society, and its distinct superstructure, but modem industrial society is more complex. Max Weber's essay demonstrated that theological, religious and spiritual concepts and practices can be influential in the ordering of economic life (Weber, 1902), and it is noteworthy that most of the important western European critical social thinkers of the past half century have been concerned, not with analysis of the base, but with the understanding of the extraordinary vitality and reproductive power of the superstructure (Adorno, 1974; Bloch, 1959; Castoriadis, 1987; Gramsci, 1971; Horkheimer, 1944; Lefort, 1986; Lukacs, 1971; Marcuse, 1968). This is an important point, because if correct it enhances the significance of education.

Cornelius Castoriadis prefers to speak of the social imaginary rather than the superstructure. This is the web of symbols, attitudes and beliefs which constitutes the spiritual atmosphere of a society, that which it regards as obvious, because it has never really noticed it. The social imaginary in the thought of Castoriadis is not only constituted by the economic base; it also constitutes, it originates. As it has autonomy conferred upon it, it develops the power to instigate new forms of life and consciousness. Castoriadis provides an example of the construction of a social imaginary in his study of the Sabbath in ancient Israel. ‘This terrestrial determination - perhaps real, but already probably imaginary - exported to the heavens is then re-imported in the form of the sanctification of the week’ (1987:129). The result is that the seventh day is holy. Castoriadis emphasises the differences between the imaginary, the symbolic and the functional. An icon, for example, is part of the social imaginary when it is regarded as being revelatory, i.e. part of a world in which icons as a class may have revelatory significance. The icon becomes symbolic when a particular icon offers a specific revelation, and it becomes functional when the believer scrapes the paint off it and drinks it as a medicine (p. 131).

An insight into the structure of spirituality is obtained when we consider the intimate and labyrinthine nature of the relationships between the constituted and the constituting aspects of the social imaginary. It is the constituted self who projects the social imaginary in the social context, and when the social imaginary is conceived of as dwelling within the individual, Castoriadis describes it as the ‘root imaginary’.

God is perhaps, for each of the faithful, an 'image' - which can even be a 'precise' representation - but God, is an imaginary social signification, is neither the 'sum', nor the 'common part' nor the 'average' of these images; it is rather their condition of possibility (p. 143).

Thus, such aspects of the social imaginary ‘are infinitely larger than a fantasy. They can be grasped only indirectly and obliquely, at once obvious and yet impossible to delimit precisely. . .’ (ibid.) The social imaginary is that which unites the invisible odds and ends of images, fantasies, symbols, which holds culture together. The elements within the social imaginary connote almost everything but denote nothing (p. 150). Is this not reminiscent of the impression we gained when we considered the various meanings of the word spiritual in our culture today?

As an example of a real British social imaginary communicated in the form of a children's fantasy we might consider the spiritual world created by the Narnia novels of C. S. Lewis, where everything is governed by deep, inexplicable, magical laws which are inflexible, impenetrable, all embracing and strangely moving at the subjective level. The emotional power is an effect produced by the social imaginary. It originates, although it is also a social and artistic creation.

It appears then that these current developments in understanding the relationship between the spiritual and its social and economic bases not only offer us far richer understanding of the way spirituality works but also present possibilities and themes for education.

The second current development which I wish to emphasise concerns the change in the character of capitalism which has taken place in the last few years. The highly organised international capitalism of the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century is sometimes called Fordism, because the production line created by Henry Ford in Detroit in 1916 was the outstanding example of this kind of intensive industrial production. The first Ford plant in Britain was set up in Dagenham in 1939. The Fordist method of production was based upon a massive concentration of workers assembling on the one site an enormous number of identical units. Henry Ford is said to have remarked ‘people can have the Model T in any colour - so long as it’s black’. This system of organisation developed under scientific management techniques to produce the lowest unit cost and thus the greatest profitability. The system led to stronger trade unions, strikes, the much discussed monotony and anomie of the work place, a strongly hierarchical management line and so forth.

In or around the 1960s or 1970s a transformation took place into what is now generally called post-Fordism or ‘disorganised capitalism’, although the latter term could easily be misunderstood. The use of new technology, particularly computers and information technology, has transformed production. The emergence of modem design techniques following upon intensive marketing has enabled relatively small target groups to be provided with products specially designed for them. Small specialised teams working under franchise arrangements have led to a distributed productive environment while the growth of international communications has facilitated an adaptive and dispersed approach to production. A far greater proportion of employees are working on job share or in part-time or short-term contracts while questions of equal opportunities for women, ethnic groups and others have tended to create new assumptions about personal relationships and management policies in the place of work.

The character and the causes of the transformation from Fordism to post-Fordism are under lively discussion and there is no general agreement about either the analysis or the social and political consequences (Hall and Jacques, 1989). But our interest is on the consequences of these developments for the relationship between the infrastructure and the superstructure, with the question of spirituality and its evolution always in mind.

How are these changes affecting contemporary spirituality? We have seen that the nineteenth century analysis understood spirituality as the projection of the industrial base, characterised as liberal capitalism, producing the liberal, individualistic type of spirituality which is still with us. It was emphasised that while the attention of the entrepreneurs was upon the market place, the point of the cycle where the vital transformation of commodity capital into money capital occurred, the true moment of profit taking lay much earlier and deeper in the process: on the production floor where surplus value was extracted from the work force. This point was considered crucial in understanding the difference between industrial capitalism of the nineteenth century kind and merchant capitalism or commerce, characteristic of the centuries preceding the rise of modem industry.

Today, however, there has been a shift of emphasis back towards the market. Interest has moved from production to consumption as being the typical point at which the spirituality of present day society emerges. The distinction between use-value and exchange-value, a fundamental one in critical economic theory, has always been bedevilled by various complexities, but it is now clearer that the value-assumptions of the exchange situation (the market place) are powerful generators of modem spirituality (Hartsock, 1983; Sohn-Rethel, 1978). For example, the exchange situation in the market creates an illusion of free choice, individual responsibility, acts of decision based upon transfer of ownership and the internalisation of imagination as opposed to its outward expression in the arts. All the values and beliefs associated with the model of the so-called ‘rational economic man’ [sic] are generated in the market place.

That is not all. The emphasis upon consumption supported by marketing to ascertain the desires of the consumers, followed by design itself to create what will satisfy those desires and adaptive technology to create the commodities has brought about other significant changes (Haug, 1986). We may now speak of the spirituality of shopping. The result of this is that the classical distinction between use-value and exchange-value must now be modified by the introduction of a third term: symbolic-value. The use-value of a certain brand label or style of footwear may be no greater than another, similar product which could be bought at a mere fraction of the price. The cash difference is the symbolic-value of the purchase. Indeed, a great deal of marketing today is based entirely upon symbolic-value. Let us take the cosmetic industry. The use-value of a certain underarm deodorant is virtually negligible; its symbolic- value is everything. W. F. Haug has shown how the reaction of men and women to aspects of their own fundamental bodily characteristics (the natural smell of the body, perspiration) has undergone transformations due to marketing and design - the emergence of B. O. as a concept in human relations and the fact that artificially created stimulants have replaced natural sexual triggers for many people.

The basic desires, identities, self-images including life-goals, aspirations for love and sex, and so on, are all manipulated by modern marketing and sales. Wave upon wave of integrated marketing strategies on an international basis cutting across a wide range of products all surge in upon us, supported by nothing but symbolic-value. Consider, for example, the return of the dinosaur to world-wide power, after a lapse of eighty million years. The world of daydreams, of fantasy, the focusing of the excitement of desire, the giving and receiving of names, the construction of friendship, the enrichment of the world of internal objects, the experiences of what satisfies one - the list of aspects of spirituality and its components could go on and on, all related to the consciousness-creating industries of today (Gouldner, 1976).

In order to understand the relevance of this process to spirituality, it is important to grasp the fact that the consumer is an active participant. The older style of industrial production may have been manipulatory; the new style is collaborative. The whole point of market research and design is to find out and deliver what people want. What people want can be affected by all kinds of social pressures, but the result is still consistent with desire. This is why shopping is, for many people, a delightful experience. The energies and fantasies of the spirit at a level above the satisfaction of basic need are caught up in the transforming experience of changing yourself through shopping. It makes you feel good but it never satisfies.

Spirituality and Money

The third point to be made about contemporary developments in the spirituality generated by modem capitalism has to do with money. Although Jean Baudrillard (1975) is probably correct in arguing that political economy based upon the centrality of production is too narrow a base for an adequate critique of modem society, partly because it anticipates a situation of scarcity and need without meeting the spiritual transformations created by affluence and symbolically-induced need, the fundamental insight of the creators of modem economic theory from Adam Smith to Karl Marx was correct: the power of money is basic. Important work in elaborating the spirituality of money has been done by the slightly eccentric but brilliant philosophical economist Alfred Sohn-Rethel. Although he conceives of his work as dealing with the impact of money upon metaphysics rather than spirituality, the importance of what he says for theology and spirituality is clear. The American Mark Kline Taylor is one of the few theologians to have recognised the importance of his work.

Extending Sohn-Rethel’s analysis to the explicit religious and spiritual sphere, it would be possible to summarise the history of the spirituality of money from the biblical period until today as follows. Although not unique in its content, the teaching of Jesus about money is striking in its intensity, particularly the contrast made between God and Mammon (Matthew, 6:24; Luke, 16:13). The personification of money in the parable about the two masters, and the parallelism between the service of God and the service of money suggests that there is a spirituality modelled upon money and that the pursuit of money is subjectively realised as a religious devotion. Not until the medieval period did Mammon become an individual demon, and is summed up in Milton's famous description of the fallen angel Mammon contributing to the debate in Pandemonium. With the arrival of the European enlightenment, belief in Mammon waned but the attributes of his deity continued to strengthen. In effect, Mammon goes transcendent and thus invisible. At the same time, his power steadily grows.

We have thus three stages in his development:

  1. Under the kinship mode and the tributary mode of money-exchange in the ancient Middle East and in the Graeco-Roman world: awareness is mainly ethical, sometimes personified.

    2. During the period of rising European commercialism from about 1200 AD until 1800 AD: with the growing power of accumulated wealth based upon international trade, Mammon becomes a fully fledged 'demonic power.'

3. With the birth of industrial capitalism, money becomes increasingly abstract. Mammon loses his particular concrete image as a deity but is universalised and generalised to become the omnipresent and omnipotent creator of human destiny. Something like this also happens to God and thus the personalised rivalry between the two gods becomes abstract and invisible. Consequently, their spirituality merges into one subjectivity, incorporating elements of both. This is another basic element in the contemporary crisis of spirituality (Hull, 1992; 1996.

Some Educational Reflections

My starting point here is the stimulating 1985 article by David Hay. Hay argues that the success of Marx and Freud in creating a lack of confidence in religious belief has been such that people today are suspicious of the spiritual. There is a cultural bias against religion so powerful that people are unable to accept their own religious and spiritual experiences. Teachers must provide ways for young people to understand and accept their own spirituality so as to free them for human awareness in the teeth of the cultural rejection of spiritual and religious claims.

I accept this as a sound analysis, but I would like to try to take it a little further. Hay (1985) draws upon the distinction made by Ricoeur between the hermeneutics of suspicion and the hermeneutics of the sacred (Ricoeur, 1970). Hay suggests that in the teaching of religion the hermeneutics of the sacred has been obscured or stifled by the work of the great masters of suspicion. Again, I agree with Hay. However, Hay writes as if he thinks that the inner religious and spiritual experiences which people report offer a more or less uncontaminated source, as if the impact of the hermeneutics of suspicion was confined to the cognitive level or to the socio-cultural level, leaving the internal life available for direct communication with spiritual or divine realities. The truth is, it seems to me, that we have to subject the internal spiritual experience to the same hermeneutic of suspicion. Unfortunately, it is not available as an uncontaminated source of spiritual experience. The situation is not just that the somewhat negative thoughts of Marx, Freud and others have prejudiced people against religion. It is more serious than that. After a century of social and cultural criticism we can understand that ‘ideology interpellates individuals as subjects’ (Althusser, 1971:170). The apparently inner realm of spiritual and religious experience is a construction of the social imaginary, a reification of the social relations of contemporary capitalism producing as its subjective affect the emotions associated with the numinous and the transcendent. The soul does not, after all, offer us a window into heaven but a shop window. I believe that the exciting and sensitive educational methods which Hay and his colleagues (Hammond et al., 1990) suggest are compatible with this extension of their analysis, or could well be adapted to serve the further critical purposes which I am suggesting. The interesting discussion between Thatcher (1991) and Hay and Hammond (1992) about the spirituality of inwardness would have a bearing upon any such adaptation. If the spiritual pedagogy of Hay and his colleagues were combined with the pedagogy of the numinous created by the Gift to the Child team (Grimmitt et al., 1991) with its more direct attempt to create a sort of double awareness of both the inside and outside of religious experience, we could be well on the way towards creating educational methods for coping with the complexities and deceptions of contemporary spirituality.

The point is that to the spiritual, his or her spirituality has no outside. It is a world, a cosmos, seen as entire and viewed from the inside without realising that it is an inside. To the social sciences, on the other hand, the world of spiritual experience has no inside; it is studied comparatively and critically, i.e. from the point of view of the hermeneutics of suspicion. We need educational approaches which combine the inside with the outside. This means that we need to help children and young people both to enter spiritual experience and to leave it; pedagogically speaking, we need both entrance devices and exit devices. The Nottingham and Birmingham approaches of Hay and Grimmitt both contain these elements.

As for the implications of this study for the spirituality of the rest of the curriculum, what it has to say to industrial and economic awareness is all too obvious. Money is a good servant but bad master (Hull, 1995). There are sensitive and responsible people in positions of industrial leadership who increasingly recognise this truth, and experience the corrosive effects upon their own spirituality created by money. At the same time, there are countless ordinary men and women unable to articulate this corrosion, who experience it all the more painfully from the side of consumption and of more pressing human need. The spiritual crisis in education today is due to the fact that we have spent more than a decade in Britain emphasising the generation and accumulation of wealth, rather than emphasising the nature of money as a social property to be used to alleviate human need. Money, like spirituality, is essentially a by-product. When sought for its own sake it becomes idolatrous and alienating. When power is used for the alleviation of human need, both spirituality and money are generated.

Paul said that he knew someone who had a spiritual experience, whether in the body or out of the body, he did not know (2 Corinthians 12:2f). This choice, between a spirituality which is embodied and one which is disembodied, remains fundamental for us today, provided always that the body is the suffering body of humanity. An embodied spirituality is one which responds to human need and promotes human solidarity. St Paul also, on another occasion, urged his hearers to present their bodies to God as a spiritual worship (Romans, 12:1f), not to be conformed to this world but to be transformed by the renewing of their minds. If, in our various ways and from our various traditions, we can follow this advice and lead our pupils along these lines, we will do well.


If there is anything in the above analysis, we have discovered why our society expresses ambiguous and even contradictory spiritualities. It is because spirituality is driven by the money madness which grips us today. This conflicts with the spirituality of the religious traditions which emphasise that in order to live a seed must fall into the ground and die. Children and young people are educated spiritually when they are inspired to live for others. It would not serve the interests of a consuming society, which depends for the generation of the wealth of the few upon the stimulation of competition and self-centredness in the many, that this should be so. Unable to face the conflict between the demands of Mammon and those of a life of loving service, we all take refuge in inconsistency, self-deception and ambiguity.