Beyond Spirituality: A New Framework
By Kathleen Goodman, doctoral student in student
affairs administration and research and research assistant
for the Center for Research on Undergraduate Education
at the University of Iowa, and Daniel Hiroyuki Teraguchi,
dean for diversity and academic advancement at Wesleyan
University of Iowa College of Education students
study outside of Lindquist Center. (Photograph
by Douglas Allaire)
Liberal education aims to prepare students for personal
and social responsibility in a diverse and interconnected
world. This goal requires a focus on the whole student,
including the inner development and intellectual pursuits
often associated with religious practices. Yet today’s
students adhere to a wide range of religious and nonbelieving
perspectives. Thus educators often use an open framework
of spirituality to help students find meaning and purpose
in life while introducing them to diverse ways of living
in the world.
As a frame of reference for discussions about religion
and inner development, spirituality can appear to be
all-inclusive. Yet students and faculty interpret “spirituality”
in different ways. Some students see spirituality as
primarily concerned with religion. For other students,
spirituality invokes inner development or existential
well-being. For yet a third group, spirituality is not
a relevant concept at all. Without a standard definition,
students, faculty, and staff will find themselves talking
past each other when attempting meaningful conversations
Moreover, an “all-inclusive” definition
actually conflates two separate terms: religion and
psycho-social development. Because of the conflicts
associated with the term “spirituality,”
we believe it is time to retire the spirituality framework
and address these two components separately. In doing
so, we hope to provide learning opportunities that include
students of all traditions and perspectives, providing
these students with the tools to live in a world whose
complexity is as unavoidable as the spirituality framework’s
|Resources for Addressing Inner Development in the Curriculum
Questions Help Students Lead an Examined Life
By asking the “big questions,” professors
can help all students explore topics that are
often relegated solely to the domain of spirituality
and religion. Examples of such questions include:
Does evil exist? What does it mean to be human?
What obligations do I have to other people?
Edmundson, M. 2004. Why
read? New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.
This book promotes the humanities as a tool for
encouraging students to explore who they are and
what they believe. As an advocate of active citizenship
as a goal of higher education, Edmundson suggests
using literary texts to encourage students to
know themselves and others.
—Kathleen Goodman and Daniel Hiroyuki Teraguchi
Educators often mean to be inclusive when using the
spirituality framework. Yet in discussions of spirituality,
they may default to religious paradigms, injecting unintended
bias into the curriculum and co-curriculum.
Among the dominant religious paradigms in the United
States are those centered in Christian privilege. Christian
privilege appears in many forms on college campuses:
in the structure of academic calendars, in the existence
of physical facilities for worship, even in dining options
that rarely provide the vegetarian, kosher, or halal
foods required by some religions (Seifert 2007). When
educators unselfconsciously interpret “spirituality”
in terms of the Christian traditions, they enact Christian
privilege and alienate students of other faiths and
Similarly, “religious privilege” operates
even on campuses critiqued for being “too secular.”
Many in the United States often assume that religious
individuals are morally superior (forgiving, kind, etc.).
Yet five to ten percent of Americans follow no religious
tradition, and these students find their values and
morals questioned (Nash 2003). Religious privilege also
appears in the assumption that religion is essential
to everyone’s life. Even those who intend spirituality
to be an inclusive term often assume that all students
believe in something like religion, even if not a western
These and other biases in the spirituality framework
can alienate students across the spectrum of religious
and spiritual identities. The dominant spiritual development
model used by student affairs professionals is grounded
in cognitive development theory and may not accurately
reflect the spiritual development of students of color
(Watt, 2003). Many gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender,
and questioning (LGBTQ) students have had mixed or painful
experiences with religion (Love, Bock, Jannarone, and
Richardson 2005) (we know one student who described
his experiences as “spiritual violence”).
Furthermore, many students of traditional religious
perspectives may feel that the spirituality framework
trivializes their own religious beliefs by “hiding”
religion under its inclusive umbrella. By moving beyond
the spirituality framework, we reach out to these students
and more fully address the range of their experiences.
Moving beyond the spirituality framework allows educators
to create intentional and inclusive opportunities for
students to find purpose and meaning in life. Students
need opportunities to develop both their knowledge of
diverse religious traditions and their existential well-being.
By providing these opportunities, institutions of higher
education will address the aims of the spirituality
framework in a way that includes all students, regardless
of their religious or non-religious beliefs.
As this issue of Diversity & Democracy
demonstrates, conversations about diverse religious
perspectives on campus have already begun. The Society
for Values in Higher Education (2006) provides excellent
arguments and recommendations for addressing religious
pluralism on campus. These efforts should take place
in a context where faculty, administrators, and religious
personnel purposefully include voices of all religious
persuasions, including nonbelief.
Yet the question remains: How can educators best encourage
students’ inner development? The answer may lie
in the traditions of liberal education. Liberal education
encourages inclusive opportunities for students to develop
holistically, fosters critical thinking, and produces
robust dialogues among diverse communities as students
pursue purpose, meaning, and belonging. Yet it does
not exclude conversation about religious difference,
which deeply informs personal and political relationships
in the United States and in the global community. Student
affairs educators also come from a long tradition of
holistic student development focused on knowing oneself,
exploring values and ethics, and developing authentic
interpersonal relationships. They support the work of
liberal education beyond the classroom and are likely
partners for this type of work. Through the inner development
framework, we can cultivate an environment that is more
inclusive for all students, regardless of their religious
perspectives or lack thereof.
Letting go of a spirituality framework requires open
spaces for dialogue. It also requires educators to ensure
that their institutions value multiple religious, nonreligious,
and nonbelieving perspectives. By distinguishing between
religion and inner development, we argue for inner development
independent of religion, and for religious inquiry that
values the many differences within and between religious
traditions. This inclusive framework applies across
all categories of difference and prepares our students
to live in an intensely pluralistic world.
Love, P., M. Bock, A. Jannarone, and P. Richardson.
2005. Identity interaction: Exploring the spiritual
experience of lesbian and gay college students. Journal
of College Student Development, 46(2): 193-209.
Nash, R. J. 2003. Inviting atheists to the table: A
modest proposal for higher education. Religion &
Education, 30(1): 1-23.
Seifert, T. A. 2007. Understanding Christian privilege:
Managing the tensions of spiritual plurality. About
Campus, 12(2): 10-17.
Society for Values in Higher Education (SVHE). 2006.
Wingspread declaration on religion and public life:
Engaging higher education. www.svhe.org/files/Declaration%20on%20
Watt, S. K. 2003. Come to the river: Using spirituality
to cope, resist, and develop identity. In Meeting
the Needs of African American Women, New Directions
for Student Services, ed. M.F. Howard-Hamilton,
no. 104, 29-40. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.