What is a spiritual academic life?

For years I felt like my spiritual life and academic life had to be parallel. They could not intersect, for reasons I will detail in future posts. My colleagues in my academic fields and sub-fields have echoed this feeling.

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If you’re an academic, you might be spiritual or religious or have a rich faith life—but we don’t talk about it. And if we do talk about it, we whisper about it, some people afraid of being “found out” as having a connection with something/someone/someones that we cannot see and that our academic training says we probably shouldn’t believe in. Academics have faith in what we can see, read, test, and write. We don’t necessarily have faith in what we feel and our own embodied knowledge.

But I do. And I know other academics out there do, too.

One definition of a spiritual academic life

For me, a spiritual academic life is a life that is informed and transformed by a connection with the divine, a meditative/prayer practice, and a commitment to diving deep into questioning and slowing down. It involves fellowship, community, and–perhaps most importantly–listening with intent to people and to the inner self.  For the first time in my career, I am starting to identify where and how my spirituality informs my teaching and research and vice versa.

Because how can it not?

In this career, like many others, we take work home with us. Our students, research participants, and the communities in which we engage dwell with us and us with them. And when we tune into our spiritual lives, these components come together. As much as might compartmentalize, which can be a good thing in some cases, I’m wondering how compartmentalization has shortchanged scholarship, teaching, and spiritual development.

Lots of events have led me to this question, and I’ll start with some of them here: how I identify.

How I identify

As scholarship has taught us, our identifications inform who we are, how we’re seen and treated, and how we interact with the world. So here are some of the ways I identify, some of which I will most likely write more about in future posts:

  • I am a straight, white, cis female who lives in my hometown of Milwaukee.
  • I teach at a Jesuit university.
  • I was raised Catholic and still identify as culturally Catholic, but I am not a practicing Catholic. Like many Catholics, I disagree with Church teaching and canon law. I struggle with identifying with a group whose members have abused (including but not limited to sexual abuse) and inflicted much suffering on people.
  • I am a spiritual seeker who has developed a relationship with the divine by tuning into energy and cultivating a connection with people, animals, and the world around us.
  • I am a rhetorician of health and medicine who studies how healthcare providers use and learn rhetorical strategies in their workplace.
  • I do not—by choice—have children. It’s an important part of my identity because I feel like if I had children that I would include that in my identity.
  • I am following and cultivating a commitment to slowing down. In a time when events infuriate us and decisions need to be made yesterday, I am trying to stay rooted in reflection and pause before I act. I don’t always succeed, but I’m trying.

And on the topic of identification, here’s a distinction that has laid the foundation of my spiritual life most recently:

Spirituality does not (have to) equal religion and vice versa

At least not for me.

Through my years in spiritual direction, I have come to understand religion and spirituality as different things, although they might be the same thing for lots of people. Religion is an institutionalized practice guided by dogma and organized leadership. Spirituality is an individualized connection with the divine, which can mean God, Yahweh, Allah, Oneness, that is nourished in various ways: through prayer, meditation, artistic endeavors, fellowship.

If religion is what we do, spirituality is who we are.

Right now, my spiritual academic life is grounded in Franciscan and Ignatian spiritualities and my new endeavor into cosmology and spirituality. I have also worked quite a bit with the Enneagram, a transformative tool that has informed much of my thinking since I learned about it in 2002. These spiritualities and tool guide much of what I’ll be writing about in this space.

Why this blog exists

After a series of events that I’ll detail at a later point (because I can’t write all-of-the-things in one post, right?), I felt led to create a space where I could write about what a spiritual academic life can look like. I knew all too well that the writing I’ll do in this blog would ever be published—because we just don’t talk about how spiritual life informs teaching and research.

And maybe there’s good reason for not publishing it, but I’m not convinced that academia and spirituality are mutually exclusive. I’m curious to know who else out there might feel the same way.

I envision that the following blog entries will follow the format started here. I’ll begin with some personal reflection around a question I’ve been thinking about. Then, I’ll share some questions that you can consider if you want to move deeper into a spiritual academic life. I’m unsure of what will unfold, but I felt called to start this blog for quite some time now. I’m learning to honor and trust these calls, even though the end goal is often unknown.

If you’re an academic who is spiritual, or even if you’re not, welcome. Spirituality and religion are personal. If you, like me, are wrestling with questions and these areas of your life, I invite you to follow along and to spend a few moments pondering the questions I’ll end each post with.

Questions to ponder

  • Where are you on your spiritual journey? Are you religious, spiritual, both, neither?
  • What do those terms mean to you?
  • Have you separated your spiritual life from your academic life? Why? What would it look like if these lives interacted?
  • Has your faith/religion/spirituality informed your work and vice versa? How?
  • What’s calling you at a deeper level to answer these questions?
  • What questions or answers are you left with right now?

3 thoughts on “What is a spiritual academic life?

  1. I’ve been pondering some of these questions for a few days now, thinking that I must be able to come up with more/better answers to them. I think I just have to start writing this comment first, then my thoughts will sort themselves out.

    I don’t feel very spiritual at all, most of the time. maybe all I believe in is me and my thoughts, at this point. there have been times off and on when I’ll think about praying, be utterly unsure about who or what to pray to, and decide that maybe I can usefully pray to an imaginary future perfect version of myself. heh.
    I was raised in strict religious world, but–in answer to question 3–my academic life seems to have separated me from my religious one. I had too many questions, and “because God said so” became less and less satisfying as an answer. I know that de-conversion process wasn’t inevitable, and that I had very clear choices in the matter, but it doesn’t always feel that way. It does feel inevitable. I remember telling some of my still-religious friends, “even if the God you believe in showed up on my doorstep to answer all these questions, I think I would still ask ‘well, why?’ and still be unsatisfied.”

    before all that, my religious perspectives definitely influenced (I might even say *limited*) my academic life. it’s difficult to remember how, exactly, since that past self seems so far away. I’m sure my upbringing and cultural background still inform my scholarly perspectives on things to some degree. and so do my post-religious experiences. I want to see everyone’s perspective. I want to accept partial and multiple and overlapping truths. I want to respect my past self and all the devout believers I am still close to. but the deep, broken relationship I have with my past beliefs is complicated. in ways I’m rarely brave enough to admit even to myself, that religion damaged me. my sense of worth and my sense of autonomy are a complete mess sometimes.

    I often catch myself having terribly derisive thoughts about others’ decisions to be or stay religious or spiritual. but I don’t want to be like that. maybe that’s the biggest question I’m left with– how can I prevent myself from judging others so harshly?

    I’m really curious to see what questions others might post. and to see what you go on to do with this whole line of thought, Liz. thank you for starting the conversation.

  2. Thank you for sharing these thoughts, reflections, and questions, Amelia.

    I spent a lot of time thinking about if I should respond because I was afraid that it would seem like I’m trying to provide answers to these questions. That’s most definitely not my reason for the blog or for responding.

    But in my effort to not let fear drive me, here are something things that popped into my mind.

    Years ago my spiritual mentor shared this statement with me: Faith begins when you start asking questions.

    I’d add to that statement that spirituality also begins when you start asking questions. Or it least it can start there. Everyone’s journey is different; everyone’s spirituality is different. And the beauty in that approach is that it can offer us multiple perspectives on a topic that doesn’t have easy or right answers.

    At least that’s where I’m at right now.

    Your words have made me think through some directions for future posts and questions, and for that, I thank you. Stay tuned.

  3. After reading your post I again thought of how compartmentalize my academic life from the spiritual aspects of who I am. And yet, as you so clearly indicated, how can the deep soul parts of who you are not influence any work we do. I work in the public education sector- boundaries are clearly drawn between church and state. While I hold that boundary firmly- not inflicting any belief system on anyone- just presence impacts those who we work with and serve daily. The God in each responds to the God in the other no matter the religion of denomination. I am always inspired by others along the journey- keep growing and thank you for sharing your experience.

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