Best Book Ever on Spirituality
Spirituality, by Philip Sheldrake. Oxford University Press (United Kingdom, 2012). 144 pp. PB, $11.95.

Philip Sheldrake’s Spirituality is the best book ever on the topic of spirituality. The volume is one in the series of over 300 books subtitled A Very Short Introduction.

Sheldrake, Senior Research Fellow, Cambridge Theological Federation, and a regular visiting professor in the U.S., presents a book that reveals the breadth of understanding of his topic. The conciseness of the chapters makes this volume ideal for study groups as well as for individual reading.

spirituality book

Chapter 1 begins with the question: “What is spirituality?” The author explores varieties of definitions, both past and contemporary, gradually exposing the elements of spirituality through his investigation of religious spirituality, Jewish spirituality, Christian spirituality, Hindu spirituality, Buddhist spirituality, neopaganism, esoteric spiritualities, secular spiritualities, philosophy, psychology and psychotherapy, gender and sexuality, aesthetics and the arts, and science. Then he writes, “[S]pirituality concerns a fully integrated approach to life (holism), involves a quest for the ‘sacred,’ underpins a desire for meaning, and implies some understanding of human identity, purpose and thriving.” He adds that spirituaity “points to a desire for ultimate values and involves the intentional pursuit of a principled, rather than a purely pragmatic, way of life.”

In Chapter 2, Sheldrake covers the types and traditions of spirituality. He writes that the four types of spirituality “are essentially styles of wisdom and practice with shared characteristics.” The four broad types include ascetical, mystical, active-practical, and prophetic-critical spiritualities. All four types, according to Sheldrake, “foster self-transcendence and transformation via a movement away from what they see as inauthentic towards the authentic.” Likewise, all four types seek answers “to such questions as where transformation is thought to take place (context), how it takes place (practice, disciplines, and ways of life) and what the ultimate purpose or end-point of transformation is (human destiny).

Traditions of spirituality refer to “spiritual wisdom,” which “becomes a tradition when it develops various ways of transmitting itself beyond the place and time of origin.” Thus, there are Muslim, Buddhist, and Christian traditions, to name but a few that Sheldrake examines.

Spirituality and experience is the topic of Chapter 3. Here, Sheldrake examines the mystical type in different religions, such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism and in esoteric spiritualities such as Rosicrucianism and Theosophy. Then, he outlines the connection between spirituality and the arts, the place of spiritual experience in nature pursuits.

In Chapter 4, five broad questions guide Sheldrake’s investigation of spirituality as a way of life: “First, what needs to be transformed in human existence and why? Second, what factors stand in the way of our journey of transformation? Third, where does transformation best take place: in the midst of everyday life or in intentional lifestyles? Fourth, how does transformation take place, and what spiritual practices assist it? Finally, what is the final purpose of transformation and what are we to be transformed into?”

Chapter 5 deals with spirituality in society. In this chapter, Sheldrake examines the role prophetic-critical spirituality has in everyday life as well as in politics, freedom, health care, economics and cyberspace. In spirituality and religion, Chapter 6, the author explores, among other things, interreligious dialogue and iconic figures in interreligious spirituality.

The final chapter presents Sheldrake’s conclusion about leading a spiritual life. He writes, “[S]pirituality implies an understanding of what is, or should be, central to human existence and how the human spirit may reach its full potential.” Spirituality suggests, he writes, “that leading a fully human life demands goals that are more than purely materially enhancing.”

FATHER BOYER, a priest for 38 years and an instructor in the Religious Studies Department of Missouri State University, Springfield, Mo., for 26 years, is the author of 35 books primarily in the areas of biblical and liturgical spirituality. His latest book is Nature Spirituality: Praying with Wind, Water, Earth, Fire (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock, 2013).