Hi all, I am currently writing a chapter for a book on spirituality and youth work. Here is a section of my chapter on how to understand religion, spirituality and the sacred, and what a definition of these realities might be when discussing them in relation to youth work. The academically minded may be frustrated that I haven’t provided full references – there are some suggestions for further reading at the end.


Secularism constructs ‘religion’ as a private endeavour:

In the West ‘we see “religion” as a coherent system of obligatory beliefs, institutions and rituals, centring on a supernatural God, whose practice is essentially private and hermetically sealed off from all “secular” activities’. In other cultures and through the ages the idea of religion has never been reduced to beliefs and practices separated off from the rest of life. (Pickard)

A definition of religion

Seeking to avoid privatized definitions of ‘religion’, I follow Schneiders, who distinguishes three interrelated elements. One, religion is the “fundamental life stance of the person who believes in transcendent reality, however designated”. Two, “a spiritual tradition” which is a “characteristic way of understanding and living in the presence of the numinous”. Examples would be Buddhism, Christianity, or Zoroastrianism. Three, religion refers to “a religion or institutionalized formulation of a particular spiritual tradition”. We think of Roman Catholicism or Sunni Islam. These particular forms are incredibly complex, requiring particular beliefs, rules, debates, cultural systems and rituals for their maintenance. Schneider argues that this last element is what most casual observers mean when they say ‘religion’.

A definition of spirituality

While many reject ‘religion’, ‘spirituality’ seems attractive. The term originates in the Greek pneumatikos (‘spiritual’) from pneuma (‘spirit’). Sheldrake writes that the apostle Paul uses pneumatikos in one of his letters to the church in Corinth (eg. 1 Corinthians 3:1 NRSV), not as a opposite of ‘the body’ (Gk. soma) but to ‘the flesh’ (Gk. sarx), which for Paul was any ‘way of life’ contrary to the Spirit of God. In Sheldrake’s discussion, ‘way of life’ appears in his first element of spirituality, “a fully integrated approach to life”. The other elements are a “quest for meaning”, a “quest for the sacred” and a “quest for ultimate values in contrast to an instrumentalized or purely materialistic approach to life”. Schneiders puts the emphasis on the personal appropriation of this quest when she defines spirituality as “the experience of conscious involvement in the project of life integration through self-transcendence toward the ultimate value one perceives” (emphasis added).

Moving to literature relating to youth spirituality, Engebretson defines four areas which constitute spirituality, and which have been echoed by others in the field (Green, Daughtry): (1) “experience of the sacred other which is accompanied by feelings of wonder, joy, love, trust and hope”; (2) “connectedness with and responsibility for the self, other people and the non-human world”; (3) “the illumination of lived experience with meaning and value” and; (4) “the need for naming and expression in either traditional or non-traditional ways”.

Mason et al define spirituality as “a conscious way of life based on a transcendent referent” where ‘transcendent referent’ stands “a reality beyond the individual”. In a ‘minority report’ on the same research, Hughes doubts both the “conscious” and “transcendent” elements of Mason et al’s formulation on the basis that these were not helpful terms for illuminating the experience of the research participants. Hughes opts for a definition that echoes Schneiders “self-transcendence”:

This ‘spiritual’ level of relationship in each domain is reached when that relationship reaches a point when it points beyond itself or when something that transcends ordinary human life is experienced within it. It is attained in a commitment or love that surpasses the ethical demands of care.

Contribution of Australian Aboriginal Spirituality

Australian indigenous spiritualities are crucial for us to consider as their importance for health, wellbeing and community development amongst Aboriginal young people becomes clearer:

“…the spiritual is not compartmentalised into one section of life or a time for observance as it is in other societies. The concept of Spirituality pervades everything; it is ever-present in the physical, material world” (Grieves, emphasis retained, capitalisation retained).

Grieves names several elements of this Spirituality. First, Creation is the very basis of Aboriginal Spirituality, a time which is not only past but ‘everywhen’ (Stanner, in Grieves) and from which comes all order, as well as the ethics, practices and traditions necessary to maintain the interdependence of all life (Grieves). Second, connections to land, sea and the natural world, which are is tied back to Spirituality, providing “…tangible links between living humans and all that is unseen and eternal”. Third, to maintain interdependence between all life, the Law (sometimes called the Dreaming) contains the “…rules of behaviour and how to co-exist and sustain the natural world…”.

Ways of the Sacred

In concrete people and communities, generic spirituality and religion do not exist (Schneiders). Instead, there are particular spiritualities and religions which provide a specific perspective on the ‘sacred’. Therefore, it is impossible to define ‘the sacred’ without excluding some spiritualities and religions from what needs to be a discussion that engages the breadth of the youth work craft. To side-step such exclusion, I am using ‘the sacred’ to denote the field in which spirituality and religion play.

If a generic definition of spirituality is needed, I am using ‘a Way of life that quests after integration in the ever-presence of the Sacred’, with capitalised words referring to a particular form and understanding of ‘way’ and ‘sacred’. Thus, ‘sacred-shaped youth work’ integrates a particular Way of the Sacred with youth work in our historical moment.

Further Reading

Vicki Grieves: Aboriginal Spirituality

Philip Hughes: Putting Life Together

Michael Mason, Andrew Singleton, Ruth Webber: The Spirit of Gen Y

Philip Sheldrake: Spirituality – A brief history

Sandra M Schneiders: Religion and Spirituality: Strangers, Rivals, or Partners