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King, Ursula (2009) The Search for Spirituality: our global quest for meaning and fulfilment, Norwich: Canterbury Press

The theme of this book resonates at both a deep personal (spiritual) and intellectual level with me, as someone for whom, occasionally at least, the simplicity of the spiritual, stripped of the complexities of the realities, politicking, and inconsistencies of religion, are yearned for. The ‘deep spiritual crisis’ and ‘immense spiritual hunger’ (p.ix), that Ursula King identifies in her overview of the turn to the spiritual in contemporary society is certainly recognisable in one’s own experience! What Ursula King provides in her overview, in this often profound and wise volume (admirably brief given its scope), is material on spirituality: in interfaith dialogue (that religions are at base reflecting religious experience); ‘within life’s dance’ (across the phases of life – which is a particularly insightful chapter); in education and health (which examines children’s spirituality research and the ways in which psychotherapy and spiritual development overlay); from a gendered point of view (which takes seriously gender differences and the challenges us towards a non-dominant view of the world); in nature and science (towards a revaluing of material existence); the arts and environment (showing how one might creatively respond to the inspiration provided within nature).

An excellent introductory text on the breadth of ways in which ‘spirituality’ crops up across contexts, this is more than that, however. This is a very human and humane book, clearly borne of years of learning and encounter with the spiritual in differing contexts. Providing a revised perspective on the traditional boundaries of pietism, the inner life becomes of wider ethical import and relevance. Gone are gender, national, and religious boundaries, subsumed by the fact of our own humanity. I am more than a privately praying being, I am personal, spiritual being because of my relation with others (Buber’s I-Thou) and the world. Thus I am not a closed entity, immune from the effects of a suffering world, I am travelling alongside and learning from fellow-travellers. There is a moral imperative implicit in spiritual engagement – this is no quietist manifesto . As a book which provides a taste of what a more satisfying spirituality in the modern context might be like, this is a tantalising introduction to further reading and action.

More widely, one wonders if the turn to the spiritual of the present time – as it is often conceived – is a rather simplistic ahistorical view of ‘spirituality’. Surely we are not the first generation to be disillusioned by mainstream orthodoxies or to find religion unhelpful to us in our spiritual search? Just as studies of popular religion in previous eras have shown (e.g. Williams, 1999 and Parker, 2005), people have always engaged with religion as they have needed, as the resources of religion ‘did the job’ for them. Perhaps, as bonds with religions amongst some in the population have gradually loosened, because of a combination of factors, the vacuum of the need for ritual and spiritual wisdom is being replaced by a range of eclectic sources? The search for an authentic way of life is not new (this book does not suggest otherwise). However, if there is one criticism of the wonderful volume it the extent to which is seems to promote this presentist view of spirituality by its stressing spiritual crisis as a new phenomena, when in fact it is probably only occurring in a revised form because of the changing standing of religion in social and private life. What might we learn from previous generations’ spiritual longings responded to outside of religious bounds?

Parker, S.G. (2005). Faith on the Home Front: aspects of Church life and popular religion in Birmingham, 1939-1945. Bern: Peter Lang.

Williams, S.C. (1999). Religious Belief and Popular Culture in Southwark, c. 1880-1939. Oxford: OUP.

Dr Stephen Parker
Head of Postgraduate Studies and Professional Learning
University of Worcester
Henwick Grove
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Associate Fellow of the University of Warwick Religions and Education Research Unit: