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The Spirit and Spirituality

This article is still in development, and new versions may be uploaded from time to time. Please feel free to use it as appropriate, although giving due recognition would be appreciated. (Still in draft form, refs and some text still to complete)
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The Spirit and spirituality by Mike Sheldon



20 November 2007 (Draft 3)

In our study of the Anthropology of Man (Whole Person Paper 1) we stated that our belief system includes the concept of a human spirit. We now need to discuss and agree what we mean by this term. Spirits are usually considered to be non-physical beings, and so belong to the mystical realm (or meta-physical domain). In the understanding of the human person this can lead into dualism where the person is considered to consist of a physical part and a non-physical part.

Old model
(Figure 1)

For over a century there has been an understanding in many Christian theologian’s writings that God’s creation of mankind was in two stages. First He created the animal or physical part of men and women (perhaps by evolution), and then He breathed His Spirit into His creation and so made Men and Women as moral beings. As this Spirit entered the physical being so the Soul was formed in which developed the “higher human faculties” of thinking, feeling, volition etc. This produces a dualistic picture which is still widespread. The person then consists of two parts, either body and soul or physical and spiritual. The soul or spirit is thus seen as having a separate existence from the body and can depart and thus leave the body at death, as this part of the person is considered to be immortal.
This concept owes more to Greek thinking than to the Judea-Christian understanding of a whole person. It is better to see each person as one whole indivisible being. Each person depends upon, and lives as a physical being with psychological, social and spiritual attributes, but all fully integrated into one whole being. Thus when the body dies, so the person dies, there is no immortal part of humans. We can better understand this concept if we exchange the previous model with a “golf ball” model to illustrate that the spirit, psyche and body are all one whole integrated being, all depending on the physical entity for “life” and all dying at death. (Figure 2). The spirit or soul of the person is then not a dualistic entity but an integrated whole, and the Christian understanding of life after death depends on a resurrection rather than the concept of the immortal soul or spirit not dying but leaving the body at death.

Golf Ball Model






(Figure 2 The “Golf Ball” picture of man as an indivisible mixture of physical, psychological and spiritual attributes, each relying on the others to make up a human being)





Definitions of Spirit

We now need to examine the nature of the human spirit and how it functions and so fulfils the role of being spiritual. Much has been written about spirituality and there are many definitions and uses of the term. We need to examine how we are to use the word in health care and ask ourselves four important questions –

  • What are the functions of the human spirit which can be described as spiritual?
  • Do any of these functions play any part in the process of becoming ill?
  • Do any of these functions help in gaining and keeping good health?
  • Is this a part of medical practice, or like sewers and clean water, a part of life which properly belongs elsewhere in society, that is - does it fit within a new whole person medical model?
What is the spirit?
We need to distinguish between the human spirit and spirits in general.  Most societies and religions recognise that there are elements in the world which we cannot see but which impact upon us. We usually call this the spiritual world and then peopled this world with many independent spirits (in pantheism) or with one spirit (God) with lesser spirits to do his (or her) work. We recognise this spirit world because we too believe we have spirits. The main definition of the human spirit will thus be that it is able to recognise other spirits and spiritual beings.
We can imagine living in a two dimensional world when any activity occurring in a third dimension, impinging on our flat world, would appear miraculous and definitely outside the “real” world as we would experience it. The same arguments could apply to a fifth or other dimensions which are outside our ability to experience with our usual  physical senses.
If this was the original definition of the human spirit – that part of mankind which recognises and interacts with the spiritual world – then over time the definition has changed and expanded.
Most religions see that the human spirit plays a role in the maturing process of the person, and therefore has an inward effect as well as an outward aspect. This understanding has also been picked up more recently by the New Age practices where the spirit has been seen as the part of the person which has the highest functions – lifting man above the animals. If you have no beliefs in God or spiritual forces then this can be seen as the highest point in mankind’s evolution as we seek to develop beyond the animal world which has made us - and so “reach for the stars”
Whatever your belief system there are three very important points to remember –
  • The majority of our patients have a belief system which in some way involves a spiritual world, and for some patients this is a major influence in their lives.
  • When the patient has a spiritual world view this may affect their health status, and whether we like it or not, plays a part in their ability to overcome illness and disability
  • These highest human functions – which we can call spiritual – can be considered as being involved in all aspects of the process of becoming ill and in re-gaining and maintaining health

Taking a wide variety of understandings about the spirit, we have developed a seven stage model of human spirituality with which to define and understand what we may call the spiritual aspects of the human being. These seven stages begin with how we relate to ourselves, then turn to how we relate both to others and to the physical world we find ourselves in, finally ending with how we relate to the spiritual world. This is described below.

So what is spirituality?
In the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary there are three different aspects to the definition of the human spirit and spirituality.   Each of these may be stressed by different groups according to their own beliefs, however all three definitions have meaning  and can be incorporated into an understanding of how to define, examine and interact with the spiritual aspects of people and thus help us in our discussion about the place of spirituality in health care.
“Spirit and spirituality is –

  • That which is connected with religion and religious practice.
  • That which is connected to the non-physical (or meta-physical) world of spirits.
  • That which is connected to the highest and finest moral qualities of the human being.”

So how can we expand these dictionary definitions into something which will assist us in caring for people’s health. We can first look at some of the expanded definitions produced by other groups such as the Church of England, The National Institute for Mental Health, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, and the British Humanist Society.
The definition from “Promoting mental health: a resource for spiritual and pastoral care” prepared by the Church of England, and the National Institute for Mental Health in England is –
“Spirituality is a quality that goes beyond religious affiliation, that strives for inspiration, reverence, awe, meaning and purpose, even in those who do not believe in God”.
The definition by the Spirituality and Psychiatry Special Interest Group of the Royal College of Psychiatrists is :–
 “In healthcare, spirituality is identified with experiencing a deep-seated sense of meaning and purpose in life, together with a sense of belonging. It is about acceptance, integration and wholeness … Spirituality, described as linking the deeply personal with the universal, is inclusive and unifying. It naturally leads to the recognition that to harm another is to harm oneself, and equally that helping others is to help oneself. It applies to everyone, including those who do not believe in God or
 a “higher being”. The universality of spiritually extends across creed and culture; at the same time spirituality is felt as unique to each and every person.”
Finally some definitions by humanist thinkers such as Professor Maslow and Marilyn Mason of the British Humanist Society.
Maslow has said –
“The spiritual life is part of our biological life. It is the highest part of it, but yet part of it. The spiritual life is part of the human essence. It is a defining characteristic of human nature, without which human nature is not full human nature. It is part of the real self, of one’s identity, of one’s inner core, or one’s species-hood, of full humanness.”

Marilyn Mason has said –
“Even if scientists and philosophers do come at last to the conclusion that human beings are simply a mass of chemicals, purely physical, our minds and our better feelings would still be something pretty marvellous, worth celebrating and cultivating…  I enjoy the arts, nature, friendship and love, and I have enough purposes and principles in my life to keep me going. Many of those who, like me, share and value deeply the experiences sometimes labelled “spiritual” would classify them differently, and more clearly and precisely”
Plante and Sherman point out that spirituality and religiousness are complex, multi-dimensional constructs and are almost impossible to define to anyone’s satisfaction except the authors of any particular definition. Like love, most of us know it when we see it, but putting this into a definition is cumbersome and elusive. However we do need to have a rough map of the terrain and an understanding of its boundaries and major landmarks, even if each personal journey through this landscape is unique.

Putting all of the above discussion together we would like repeat our seven stage definition of spirituality so that it involves and includes –

  • A personal view and understanding of our own image
  • A means of relating to others
  • A means of making sense of the world we live in and the ability to interact effectively with it.
  • A set of moral principles which determine our ethical values and actions
  • A sense of purpose in life and hope for the future
  • A personal belief system which determines what we put our faith and trust in.
  • A set of experiences of our involvement with God, the Divine, or spiritual forces outside ourselves
  We need to conclude this section by re-asking three important questions–
    • Does the human spirit play any part in producing illness and disease?
    • Does the human spirit play any part in a person re-gaining and keeping good health?
    • Does spirituality therefore form a valid part of a health care model?

Does the human spirit play a part in becoming ill?
This question and the next really go together, because only if the spirit plays a part in a person becoming unhealthy can we say that treating the spiritual issues will affect the general health of the person.
Many studies have concerned the issues of religious faith and health, and these are well summarised in the book edited by Plante and Sherman.   They believe that there has been a shift in perceptions of the inter-relatedness of personal faith and health. In the distant past religion and healing were closely inter-twined. The earliest medical licenses were given out by the Church and these licences were forfeited in the event of ex-communication. These links were largely eroded as medicine became increasingly grounded in the rationalist sensibilities of the Enlightenment and the Cartesian philosophy of science, which viewed mind (soul or spirit) as fundamentally separate from body. The physical body and corporeal world were seen as appropriate for scientific study, whilst the psyche or soul was the appropriate focus for the Religion. In the more recent past this dualistic, biomedical model has been increasingly challenged by a broader, bio-psycho-social paradigm. One of the earliest thinkers in this area was Engel who viewed health and illness as a reflection of reciprocal interactions between biological, psychological and social influences.
What do we know about the connections between spirituality, faith and health? Researchers have concentrated on 3 main areas of study –

    • Health beliefs and behaviours which are known to influence morbidity and mortality. These would include diet, smoking, alcohol consumption, sexual behaviour and contraceptive use etc. Most behaviours would have a positive influence on health, but others may have a negative influence.
    • Coping strategies when illness occurs. The social support networks of religious or spiritual communities will be important in helping people to overcome challenges and make adjustments. Good relationships help a person to adapt to difficulties.
    • Physiological functioning and how factors such as neuro-endocrine activity, immune function and disease progression are altered by personal faith and beliefs.

Does the human spirit play a part in re-gaining and maintaining health?
This is mainly argued by David Chaput and is elaborated in chapter xx
(I need to summarise this here)
Evidence paper os PLesk etc


Is spirituality a part of a medical model?
Finally we need to address the question of the relevance of all this emphasis on the spirit of mankind. Does it play any part in a medical model?
In looking at this question there are three main responses :-
The first response – which has been the accepted norm in the recent past – is that spirituality plays no part at all in a health care model. It may well have an important part to play in the health of some patients, but then so do clean water and efficient sewers. Providing fulfilment and love in a person’s life is important but it does not come into a medical model. Other professionals have the skill and permission to explore these areas for a person’s good, and in so doing they may be seen to complement the work of health care professionals, but do not in themselves intrude into a medical model. The main reason for this is that these beliefs are so personal that it would be difficult for any professional to satisfy the patient’s beliefs and needs unless the health care worker also shares those same values and beliefs. So it is best to keep them quite separate and allow the patient to choose how to get these needs met for themselves.
If you believe that this first response is correct, then whilst acknowledging that in many people the spiritual aspects of their health may be important, it can play no part in a health care system in the type of secular, multi-cultural society that we live in. The wise practitioner would be able to refer on, in a general sense, to others who would be willing and able to help the patient.
The second response would be that spirituality is an important part of the delivery of an effective model of health care. The professional therapist thus needs to exhibit acceptance, friendship, caring, support and encouragement so that the patient can utilise their spiritual resources to play a part in their recovery. A caring and compassionate doctor or health care professional acts as a healer and so assists a patient’s recovery to health.
If you make this second response then you will develop good communication skills and practice being able to question, converse with, and help patients with the spiritual dimension of their lives. A compassionate, caring and understanding attitude, again combined with the skills and abilities to refer patients to more specialised resources, would form the backbone of your consulting strategy.
The third response is the acknowledgment of the part the human spirit plays, both in becoming ill and also in regaining health, so forming an essential component of the health care model. The health care worker can only be maximally effective when integrated into a whole person model of health which explores and seeks to understand how the different parts of the person (including the spirit) have contributed to the health problem. The power of both the mind and the spirit then need to be mobilised in order to assist the healing of the body, the mind and the spirit.
It is only if you consider this third response to be correct that a new approach, involving a whole-person model of health, becomes necessary, because the spiritual dimensions will be part of the causative factors producing illness, and so need to be taken into account when making a diagnosis and thus deciding on suitable treatment.
Up to recent times the first response was widely accepted as the correct one for health care professionals. There is now an increasing acceptance of the second response and much of this is taught in good medical practice. We recognise that the third response largely takes us into the area of the unknown. There is little research and much conflicting anecdotal evidence of the place of spirituality in health care. These articles on a whole person model of care are an attempt to explore the implications of this approach and to explore practical issues raised.

We have found it useful to use a seven stage model of the functioning of the spirit which integrates with a psychological understanding and overlaps it, as we would expect if the physical, psychological and spiritual aspects of the person are fully integrated into a whole being.

Seven stage model of spirit

1 Self-Image – relating to one-self

The seven stage model begins in an uncontroversial area in which most doctors and psychologists would agree is important for good health. The self-image of a person plays an important part in determining the strength of will, and immune system which will be important to fight any illness or disability.

Each person is a unique individual. The combination of genetic makeup, familial inheritance and personal response to life events means that no-one else in the world will be exactly the same as ourselves.

Each personality has strengths and weaknesses which can affect how we mature and grow. As we grow and mature so our given personality is developed by what we choose to call our character, which measures how we have responded to the challenges and events of our lives.

View of ourselves – what image do we have about ourselves

What self-understanding do we have, can we see our weaknesses and strengths, do we understand how they got there and how best we can live with them?

Does the person “love” themselves

The person’s view and understanding of their individual Self is important.

    • What is their self-understanding and self-awareness, how willing to explore?
    • What is their self-acceptance, too critical, not critical enough?

Stage 1

2 Relationships with others

The second level of spiritual activity can be considered as the ability of the person to relate to others.
Stage 2

The understanding of man as a relational being is one of the main themes of the work of Alistair McFadyen and is developed in his book “The call to personhood”.  McFadyen argues that each person can only be understood in social terms, thus “we become the people we are through our relationships with others”.   He stresses that this model does not just encompass inter-personal relationships but also includes social, cultural, historical, political and moral relationships.

McFadyen’s basic concept of a person is both dialogical (formed through social interaction, through address and response), and dialectical (never coming to rest in a final unity, if only because one is never removed from relationship).   He discusses the theological concept that humans are made in the image of God. This imago Dei can be understood in two dimensions, the vertical dimension where human beings are constituted through their relation to God, and the horizontal dimension where human relations produce an understanding of the person “in social categories in which relations between the sexes are of primary importance”.    Importantly he defines relationship – “A personal relationship is essentially an encounter between two or more partners who are different, who have some independence and autonomy in the relation and who may therefore engage with each other on the basis of freedom rather than coercion.”   Personal relations are therefore characterised by call and response, the gift and return of dialogue

In addition to the vertical dimension of the image of God, McFadyen argues that there is also a horizontal dimension. Our response to God involves a social element as we relate between persons. This is not however an optional extra, but an essential part of this image  “Dialogue is a bipolar process involving both distance (individual discreteness from the relation) and relation. Distinct identity is impossible except through relation, and relation only possible through the distance which separates the partners”

McFadyen argues that “the essence of dialogue is that it is an encounter based on the independence, freedom, and uniqueness of the partners.  Because they are different, they cannot be adequately understood by the other unless they actively participate in the relation as an ‘I’ as well as a ‘Thou’”. He goes on to say that “their relation is a continuing relation process in which their identities are formed together as distinct though related”. 
Thus he concludes that persons are what they are for others or, rather, the way in which they are for others.  The human being is essentially a relational structure (the ontological aspect), and we are defined by the form which our relationships, and therefore our individualities take
McFadyen says – “persons have to be understood in social terms – if only because they are somehow the product of their relations”.     Thus there is a real connection between the quality of our relationships and our personhood. 
Thirdly, whilst recognising the place of institutional and societal relationships, he maintains that – “large-scale (institutional) relations cannot become a substitute for personal interactions … and it is from interpersonal relations … that we draw our understanding of ourselves as persons”.   I would maintain that a significant amount of our development as persons is also drawn from our cultural and societal surroundings, and our relations within the institutions in which we find ourselves has a large bearing on our development. True this is the situation in our present world, but our calling as individuals may well be argued to involve relations within institutions as well as personal relationships.

This important human attribute concerns the quality of a person’s ability to relate, to give and receive love, to mend broken relationships and relate appropriately in different situations

To quote the Mental Health Foundation “Friendship as a form of spiritual connection is of basic importance to the lives of people with mental health problems.”
We are made to relate and the quality and usefulness of our relationships is a spirit led activity. We relate with God (dealt with in the later stages of this model of the spirit) and with other people who include friends, family, neighbours and strangers. Evaluating the strengths and abilities of a person in this area would involve exploring -

  a)       Friends are a sign of the person’s ability to relate with like minded people

      • How many friends, work or leisure pursuits?
      • Depth of support from them, how deeply can they share?
      • Understanding and practice of honour, loyalty, respect

 b)        Family relationships are an example of relating to people we have to live closely with

      • Ability to give and receive love
      • Ability to confront and deal with conflicts
      • Ability to recognise own weaknesses and say “sorry”

  c)       Strangers relationships include neighbours and enemies.

      • How much empathy and compassion do they have
      • Are they able to show mercy to those in need
      • Is there bitterness and un-forgiveness in their heart

  d)       The spirit enables us to be peacemakersin conflicts

      • What is their ability to bring harmony and peace to situations?


3  Relating to the world

Having entered into right relationships with self and others, the spirit enables us to form right relationships with the wider world we live in. The areas covered include our attitudes to work, social responsibilities and creativity.


Stage 3

Perhaps the key aspect of the human spirit in this domain is measured by a sense of coherence or locus of control measurement. Both test the amount of power and control the person has over their environment and circumstances. With a strong internal locus of control the person feels that they have power to effect changes needed in their lives. A weak internal locus indicates that the person is more prone to suffer from the environment and is less able to influence external events to maintain their health and well being.
Ability to appreciate beauty, both in people and in the world.
Creative muses, inspiration
How does the person relate to the world around them? How do they exercise authority and control within the world.

  c)          What is their view about the world’s resources and our responsibilities

  • How do they structure their lives?
  • What is there attitude to wealth?
  • Is there dissonance between their views and their actions?

  d)          What is their work ethic

      • Does work cause stress?
      • Are they in the correct job?
      • Do they know their personal strengths and weaknesses?
      • Are work relationships supportive?
      • Are they balanced between work, personal life, relationships and ministry?

  e)          Society and cultures

      • How have they been influenced by their own culture?
      • How has their education affected their beliefs?
      • Are they engaged with their culture?
      • Are there cultural and religious tensions in their family and friends?
      • Are their leisure activities appropriate?

  f)           How comfortable with science and how it relates to them as individuals

  • Are there clashes between their beliefs and scientific theory?
  • Especially in the area of health care
  • An essential part of the human spirit is  to be Creative.


    • What creativity do they use on a regular basis?
    • What frustrated creative instincts are there?
    • Is the person able to use their imagination creatively?

4 Morality and ethical practice


Stage 4

Our conscience enables us to have a personal morality and a set of ethics to guide our actions and behaviour.

  a)          The conscience

  • Do they set too high standards for themselves?
  • Is the conscience weak?
  • Any problems?

  b)          Basis of personal ethics

  • What is  their world view?
  • What is their ethical stance on common issues?

  c)          Nature of moral decisions taken

  • How do they put their ethics into practice

5 Purpose and meaning

We need a sense of purpose for our lives, and the will-power to see us through the difficulties and challenges.

Stage 5
  a)          Hope for the future

  • What plans do they have for the future?
  • Do they have hope?
  • Have there been shattered hopes in the past?

  b)          Desires of the heart

  • What are the desires of their heart?
  • Dreams and aspirations
  • What plans to bring them to pass

  c)          Priorities in life

  • How do they place personal needs, family, work and ministry
  • Is God a part of their decision making process?
  • Do they involve relevant others in decision making?

  d)          Fulfilments

  • What successes have there been in their lives?
  • Have they turned failures into successes
  • Do they have bitterness towards others
  • How do they view themselves – as a failure or a success
  • What areas of their lives have been successful?

  e)          Understanding of the purpose of life – their personal theology

6 Belief and Faith

We all have a well developed set of beliefs – many derived subconsciously from our upbringing and culture.  Faith is belief in action – we all have to have faith.

  a)          What are their beliefs about God

  • Which religion has influenced them most?
  • Have they developed their own beliefs
  • How influential has the family been

  b)          What are their beliefs about the purpose of their own life

  c)          Do they believe in the spirit world

  • What is their view of the occult and satan?
  • Have they experienced demonic activity?

Stage 6
  d)          Do they believe that God can communicate with them?

      • Do they pray
      • What results have they seen

  e)          What do they put their faith in?

What do I put my trust in?

7 Religious Experience

It is at the seventh level that we touch upon the religious life of the person. Here they put their beliefs into action and choose to either follow one set of religious practices or choose to follow none. Faith is belief in action.

Stage 7
Finally we come to their personal understanding of the Divine and their relationship with God. Questions to be considered would include -

    • Describe the religious pilgrimage they have made
      • Did they have good experiences as a child?
      • Which religion did they grow up in?
      • What battles and struggles with belief did they experience as they were growing up?


    • What have been the painful and harmful elements in their religious experiences.
    • What have been the positive and helpful elements of religion in their life
    • Do they have a personal relationship with God, and what is their understanding of God?

Religious life can be considered as having several degrees of involvement – for example:
1 CULTURAL: Here the person belongs to one religion because he or she is born into a particular culture. An obvious example can be seen in Egypt where the majority are born into Muslim families and so are “Muslim” throughout their lives, and a small minority are born into Coptic Christian families and so are “Christian” all their lives. Changing between the two religions is extremely rare.
2 NOMINAL – The person would, for example  call themselves “C of E” but not attend worship regularly, or at all. Like the cultural level this is usually because the person was brought up by parents who accepted this form of religion.
3 REGULAR – INFREQUENT – The person undertakes a regular but infrequent involvement. He or she would consider that they “belong” to a Church or equivalent, but only attend a few times a year, usually at the major festivals
4 REGULAR – FREQUENT – Here the person attends religious functions on a weekly basis, and would also become involved in the running of the Church or religious centre (Synagogue, Mosque etc)
5 COMPLETE INVOLVEMENT – where the whole life of the person revolves around their religious belief system and so affects daily life as well as attending religious practices each week. This level is sometimes called “fundamentalist” – because it makes a fundamental change to the whole life of the person - although this term has come to mean something rather different of late.


Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. Ed Onions, C.T. 1973, Clarendon Press, Oxford. ISBN 0 19 861126 9, Vol 2 pp 2078-9

“Promoting Mental Health: a resource for spiritual and pastoral care” FIND FULL REFERENCE

Spirituality and Psychiatry Special Interest  Group of the Royal College of Psychiatrists FIND FULL REFERENCE



Plante and Sherman p 5

Plante, TG and Sherman, AC (eds) Faith and Health: Psychological perspectives, 2001 New York, The Guilford Press. ISBN 1-57230-682-3

Plante, TG and Sherman, AC ibid p 2

Engel, G.L. (1977) The need for a new medical model: A challenge for biomedicine. Science, 196, 129-136

McFadyen, A.I. The call to personhood  1990 put full reference here

McFadyen, A.I. The call to personhood  p xi

McFadyen, A.I.  The call to personhood p 9

McFadyen, A.I. The call to personhood p 18

McFadyen, A.I. The call to personhood p 32

McFadyen, A.I. The call to personhood p 40

McFadyen, A.I. The call to personhood p 18

McFadyen, A.I. The call to personhood p 256-7



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