In this very accessible text, Ursula King captures the attention of both academics and non-academics alike. Timely and relevant, this work traces the seemingly permeable boundaries of the very difficult subject of ‘spirituality,’ a subject that Philip Sheldrake famously reminds us, “is one of those subjects whose meaning everyone claims to know until they have to define it.” [Philip Sheldrake, Spirituality and History: Questions of Interpretation & Method (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998), 40]. Here King sets out to define the term with grace and generosity in her consideration of this inherently interdisciplinary and multi-faceted phenomenon. Essential to any serious contemporary approach to spirituality is an effort to distinguish it from, or relate it to, religion. The opening chapter offers several ways to appropriate spirituality respective to religion. Further, King justifies the need for contemporary conversation about spirituality, and claims “there can be little doubt … that spirituality is attracting immense interest in very different, even contradictory contexts in contemporary society” (1). I can personally attest to this having just returned from the interdisciplinary 1st Global Conference on Spirituality in the 21st Century, at which the subject was approached from all fields and professions, most of which are enthusiastically recognized by King in this text. Chapter one is devoted to defining the term and recognizing the (re)birth.
The remaining nine chapters examine the various aspects of spirituality, or perhaps more accurately, attempt to understand various ‘spiritualities.’ These concerns include practice, ecology, pluralism, interfaith dialogue, embodiment, childhood, aging, death and dying, education, children’s spirituality, adult learning, health, eudaimonia, secularism, psychotherapy, gender, feminism, nature, materiality, natural sciences, the arts, cosmology, social science, ethics and globalization. Needless to say, such an extensive list covered here in King’s short text denotes the obvious vastness of the subject. However, King succeeds in providing a primer to spirituality, which should be approached as an introduction to the contemporary situation of the conversation on spirituality.
Despite offering a rich vastness of approaches, King manages to posit her own positions. She anthropologically locates the desire for spiritual transformation in the human psyche (30) and states that “the capacity for spirituality is present in every human being, but it needs to be activated and realized” (88), which are claims that some may find problematic. Going further, she stresses that, “human thinking must now change from an anthropocentric to a biocentric and ecocentric focus” (49). This may be perceived as threatening to or incompatible with those who understand spirituality as primarily an interior pursuit of self-hood. King opposes this sentiment drawing on the Russian religious and political philosopher, Nikolai Berdyaev, who deems this “bourgeois spirituality” (180). Instead, Berdyaev claims, spirituality must not be separated and understood distinctly from social life.
As the title suggests, King asserts that “spirituality needs to be a ‘global spirituality’ - … that is both rooted in the earth and connected to the diversity of peoples, cultures, and faiths around the globe” (44). In her examination of children’s spirituality, King recognizes that the adult educator strives to “encourage the growth of children’s innate spiritual sense,” and motivate “their original trust in the ultimate goodness of the world and life” (110). Though largely uncontroversial in the wider context of spirituality, King might have recognized the fundamentalist (and perhaps some secularists) urge to deny the anthropologic and the corporal ‘goodness’ of the world.
King does an admirable job of recognizing the complexity of contemporary spirituality, for the task of exhaustively covering all modes of this dynamic subject would surely require several volumes. Some areas lacking attention in this text include the relationship between spirituality and space/place, a spirituality of suffering (though, in the final chapter, King hints at ‘spirituality as struggle’ in some mujerista theologies), and the problem of evil in a good world. In the final chapter, King recognizes that most often the interfaith encounter spurs the development of a global ethic (185). Any text pursuing a globalized spirituality might properly recognize the danger of reducing spirituality to a mere set global ethics (i.e the ‘lowest common denominator’ of all spiritualities), which may potentially ignore the very real and deep ideological and theological differences that lie beneath and motivate such ethical actions. King recognizes this in her definition of global spirituality as that which affirms the diversity (and thus differences) of people, culture and faiths.
Clearly influenced by Teilhard’s ‘zest for the divine milieu’ (to combine two Teihardian terms) and Thomas Berry, the self-described ‘geologian,’ Ursula King offers a great beginning to the global conversation about spirituality. This highly recommended text will remain valuable for both academic and non-academic alike. It might be used referentially and topically (chapter-to-chapter) or read cover-to-cover as a primer. For further study, King includes several key texts on the intersection of spirituality and: the search, philosophy, practice, globalization, interfaith dialogue, life and death, education, health, psychotherapy, gender, nature and science, art, and ethics.