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Zeitschrift für Spiritualität und Transzendentale Psychologie 2011, 1 (1) /
Journal for Spirituality and Transcendental Psychology 1 (1), 2011

The Spirituality Check:

What is really meant by…


Edgar W. Harnack

In a society in which large ecclesiastical institutions, endowed with the power to dictate a layperson’s beliefs, do not control religious practice any more, diversity can become a problem. Who is not an expert, often needs qualified guides in order to distinguish sincere spirituality from charlatans and dangerous seducers. An objective appraisal what can be a sincere form of spirituality and what not is difficult to find because most experts advance their own worldview. With this series of articles, called The Spirituality Check, we want to illustrate from the perspective of a transcendental science of religions what distinguishes sincere from dubious uses of spiritual terms. Therefore, a concept will be presented with its etymology, its theoretical provenience, its practical application, and its occurrence today, and will be discussed with regard to its serious applicability.



Where does the concept come from?

The concept of spirituality makes sense only within the Christian tradition or – today – within the western culture being influenced by Christianity but having abandoned its religious roots. The term “spirituality” is derived from the Latin spiritus. Its etymological development shows a “spiritualisation” itself: Firstly, a breath of air was meant, which was equated then with the human or animal breath and, in addition, the breath of life, the vital force itself. Subsequently it was sublimated into the mind and its highest part, finally, in the Latin Bible also meaning the Holy Spirit, the spirit sanctus. Spiritually (as an adjective: spiritualis) is in the New Testament (1st Corinthians) what separates the person as a spiritual being from his/her physical part (carnalis) and from the animal desires (animalis). This use of the concept continues during the Middle Ages: Thomas Aquinas, being the most important medieval theologian, distinguishes spiritualitas from carnalitas (carnality) and thus puts spirituality in a connection to asceticism, the renunciation of the worldly. In the 12th century, Rimbaud de Liège says: “If we want to see what is of God, it is necessary that we break with animality and accept the spiritual” (quoted in Solignac 1990, 1145; translated by me).