Spirituality has been a very fluid notion. There are multiple, shifting, open, and contested definitions of the term. Take two contrasting definitions as an illustration: the first is from a non-religious perspective, and the second is a religious approach. From a non-religious perspective, spirituality is concerned with the awareness a person has of those elements in existence and experience which may be characterised as inner feelings and beliefs. By contrast, from within a religious or faith tradition, spirituality is concerned with everything in human knowledge or experience that is connected with or derives from a sense of God or of gods. The non-religious definition is too broad, which makes spirituality roughly equivalent to anything important for the moral and value characteristics of a person’s life. This would mean that any view about the meaning of life and about the nature of morality would be regarded as spiritual. In comparison, the religious definition appears to be too narrow as it rules out any conception of spirituality that is not theistic. There are many variations in the ways we understand the spiritual in between these two conceptions, but none alone is sufficient to address the depths of human spirituality.
At the same time, there has been a shared recognition that spirituality constitutes the dimension of human experience through which we are connected to something that is beyond ourselves, for some, it is God, or the gods, for others, it is the divine, sacred. Here we simply use the term the transcendent to capture the spiritual. In this light, we may argue that spirituality signifies a special kind of connection with the transcendent. We stress the word ‘special’ here because not all connections need to be characterised as spiritual, an example of which is some ritualisitic connections that are more likely to be cultural rather than spiritual. To distinguish, the spiritual is best conceived as a particular kind of connection that makes the transcendent a part of human life in an especially intimate way. For example, if that connection became part of one’s self-identity, then this would count as spiritual. If the nature of one’s consciousness were altered through contact with the transcendent, then this would be characterised as a spiritual connection. If the way that one loves and cares for one’s self and other people were transformed by such a connection, then it would be considered a spiritual connection. If it were to change fundamentally how one does one’s work, and serves the community, then this would also be described as a spiritual connection.
Understanding spirituality in this way, we can see that it is through spirituality that we not only connect to the transcendent, we are also connected more deeply to ourselves, to each other, to all living beings in nature, and to the universe. In living out these connections, each person can become more acutely and self-consciously aware of one’s self as an ‘I’, or a ‘soul’. Equally, in appreciating, taking delight in, and valuing our spiritual essence, the wonder and mystery of life, we can express and experience love, joy, goodness, and peace in the world. Thus spirituality is an indispensable aspect of human becoming, an aim of education that has been highlighted by the Brazilian educationist, Paulo Freire, in his book entitled Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
For education to enable us to become more fully human, as conceived by Freire, it can only happen relationally. This can mean a number of things:
First, learning must be a relational phenomenon where students and teachers collaborate in dialogue and co-inquiry, including exploring what it means to be and become more fully human together. As this is a relational phenomenon (in Freire’s words, our ontological vocation), it is underpinned by values such as curiosity, mutual concern, love, caring, and empathy. These values can only be lived in a relationally generative environment which in turn enriches the relational processes at the core of such learning.
Second, to align the aim of education with nurturing students to become more fully human affirms humans as spiritual beings by rejecting the objectification of human beings as ‘things’ to be known and acted upon, such as being moulded, tested, and measured. This means to evaluate learning, it can only be done in a congenial way, not testing, or grading. Relational evaluation of education is one way to acknowledge students’ spirituality, and to support their holistic human development.
Third, for education to enable students (and teachers) to become more fully human, schools and other educational establishments are to be constructed as learning communities. Freire proposes that this require a consciousness through which students can become agents of curiosity, investigators, subjects in an ongoing relational process of quest for the revelation of the reality. A learning community is a place where relationships are not defined by the roles people play, or positions they occupy, instead, the relational flow throughout learning is characterised by co-intention to learn, co-investigation to self-transcend, co-creation of knowledge, and co-action for social transformation.