Science in Christian Perspective



Spiritual Well-Being: 
A Challenge for Interdisciplinary Research

Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Marquette University
Milwaukee, Wisconsin 53233

From: JASA 30 (June 1978): 67-72.
A paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sci entific Affiliation, San Diego, California, August 18, 1975.

Interest in enhancing the spiritual quality of human life is no longer viewed as an esoteric subject appropriate for consideration only by members and leaders of peculiar cults. The subject has become a prominent one in public discussions of the need to develop and sustain a holistic orientation toward people and the world. Journalists, politicians, evaluators of American society, educators, and many others besides preachers are giving attention to it. In this paper I develop the research need, the research task, and some of the consequences of research on this significant subject.

The Research Need

When plans were made for the 1971. White House Conference on Aging, the sticky problem of church and state intruded to make it difficult to plan a session explicitly on religion and aging. The planning groups resolved the problem by developing a Technical Committee on Spiritual Well-Being, which commissioned the writing of a background paper on the subject, engaged in preliminary discussions of recommendations to suggest to the delegates, and in general guided the process of discussion at the Conference (Moberg 1971). This procedure drew direct attention to the spiritual dimension of human life while avoiding the verbal and legal battles about separation of church and state. It gave tangible recognition to the relevance of governmental concern for the totality of human life, and it overcame the limited perspective that viewed spiritual

The author is interested in learning about any research or theoretical studies pertinent to spiritual well-being and related topics. During 1977-78 he is on sabbatical leave with a fellowship from the Institute for Advanced Christian Studies to do research on social indicators of spiritual well-being. He is the organizer/convener of two sessions on "Religion and Spiritual Well-Being" at the Ninth World Congress of Sociology in Uppsala, Sweden, August 1978.

needs as residing exclusively in the context of religious institutions.

The Background Paper on Spiritual Well-Being (Moberg 1971) identified six areas of spiritual need as deserving special attention. These were (1) the need for assistance for coping with the sociocultural sources of spiritual needs, (2) the anxieties and fears associated with losses suffered and problems anticipated during the declining years of life, (3) preparation for death and dying, (4) personality integration, (5) the blow to personal dignity that often afflicts the aging, and (6) the need to cultivate and strengthen a satisfactory philosophy of life. The last of these was viewed as a spiritual necessity that cuts across all the others, getting at such questions as "Who am I?," "Why am I?," and "What is the meaning of my life?"

Needs of these kinds are not limited to the elderly. The lack of spiritual "weight" and purpose for life contributes to a thirst for wisdom, a quest for the uplift of relevance, and a hunger for fulfillment (Clebsch and Jaekle, 1964: Introduction). With ever more effective and extensive means of electronic communication, urban residents are in danger of becoming increasingly isolated socially, with impaired well-being as a result (Warthman 1974: 137). The success ethic, and its successor, the personality ethic that stresses positive thinking and self satisfaction, has left many people spiritually empty under the pressures of competitive individualism (Huber 1971).

Mankind may be on the way to losing more and more contact with the realm of the mystery which transcends all knowledge possible via natural science. There is an increasing number of people who will no longer recognize that any limits are definitely set to all man's endeavors to understand the universe, macrocosm as well as microcosm. The sensitivity to spiritual values, which for centuries and millenia were associated with the concepts of God and religion, is fading rapidly (Obermayer 1975: 110).

Kelsey (1974) has pointed out that life without myth is likely to be dead and sterile, and religion without myth is but a flat, rational substitute for the real thing. Calling for the remythologizing of Christianity, he indicated that in addition to having too small a God, many modern people also have too small and narrow a concept of man.

Spiritual hunger is evident, allegedly, in a wide range of contemporary problems. Alcoholism, mental illness, psychosomatic ailments, industrial and occupational accidents, drug abuse, divorce, maladjusted family life, and numerous other problems of society are attributed at least in part to spiritual problems by those who attempt to introduce or restore spiritual values. The popularity of mystical cults, spiritual missions, occult groups, and eastern religions in the West are probable reflections of a hunger that is not being satisfied through conventional channels.

This problem also pervades Soviet society. Early in 1974 the Communist Party newspaper Pravda, called for a crackdown on individualism because it was hampering development of the "new man." The basic duty of the Communist Party was reported as the shaping of a new man combining "spiritual richness and moral purity" ("Individualism Worries Soviets," 1974),

Also in 1974 the Reverend Josif Ton, a Baptist pastor in Romania, sent a paper to the Romanian Head of State. In an excellent scholarly discussion, he pointed out the attributes of "the new man" which was to result from the Socialist revolution and then indicated how Marxist Socialism operated in such manner as to prohibit the very development of that new man because of its atheistic, materialist ideology working against the interests of the society at large. He cited research that had been done to determine the extent of such forms of delinquency and crime as drunkenness, scandals, fights, violence, vandalism, thefts, and killings by the youth of the "neo-Protestant" denominations. To the surprise of the researchers, they found almost no evidence of such problems among these youth, whereas terrible statistics of the rising incidence of these were evident from the rest of the nation. This was part of the evidence Reverend Ton used to indicate that the problems of the Socialist society could be resolved only by a Christ Revolution, and that therefore the Socialist state should allow the evangelical believer to enjoy full religious freedom and to grant the possibility of showing that as a Christian he has something definite to contribute to society.

Thus in both capitalist and socialist societies (and in every other type, I hypothesize!) there is a spiritual hunger and need which deserves the attention of scientists and scholars.

Meanwhile, a recent research development in trying to identify and measure the level of wellbeing in society pertains to the quality of life. Various subjective and objective measures are used in this part of the Social Indicators Movement to determine the level of well-being of a population. Nearly all of these sets of indicators completely omit any reference to religion and spiritual life. The obvious implication of those who observe the findings of such studies is that the spiritual circumstances of people have nothing whatever to do with their mental health, social participation, family life, leisure and recreation, education, employment, environmental quality, and other areas of concern.

The longer this subject is ignored, the less its relevance will be noted, contributing to even greater ignoring of the total subject.

In summary, research on spiritual well-being is essential because of the needs of people who have spiritual hunger and because of the need to make scholars and researchers aware of the relevance of this subject to human welfare.

The Research Task

I acknowledge the fact that doing research on the subject of the spiritual domain of human nature carries
with it the danger of imprisoning the spirit of human beings in a three-dimensional universe of space, time, and matter. Through strictly scientific approaches, it is impossible to analyze the totality of the spiritual components of human life. Scientific reductionism must be avoided by giving careful attention to the limitations and boundaries of the scientific research process and appropriate qualifications of findings. The spiritual component of life is so profoundly central to human experience, yet so difficult to observe and to verbalize, that the research process must remain open to allow for diversity of expression and experience much longer than might be the case on other topics of investigation.

In spite of these and related problems, there is a great deal of research that can he done in the context of the social and behavioral sciences on the subject of spiritual well-being. I suggest four categories of such work under the headings of conceptual, methodological, substantive, and applied research.

Conceptual Research

A first and basic task is to delimit the scope of the concepts "spiritual" and "spiritual wellbeing." My own studies in preparing the background paper on Spiritual Well-Being for the 1971 White House Conference on Aging (Moberg 1971) has shown that there are a wide variety of definitions of the concept. There has been no systematic effort to gather and classify these definitions, although some work under the National Interfaith Coalition on Aging (NICA) has contributed in part to that goal. Under its Education and Research Committee a special subcommittee was established in July 1974 to clarify and interpret the term "Spiritual WellBeing" which had been inherited from the WHCA. After various discussions and a meeting in November 1974, the sub-committee called a Consultation on February 6-7, 1975, with representatives from Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish, and Protestant religious bodies, together with special consultants with backgrounds in theology and in the sociology of religion. As a result of plenary sessions and meetings of sub-sections under the chairmanship of Reverend Jack Ahlers and Project Director Thomas C. Cook, Jr., a working definition emerged from the consultation which it was hoped would be appropriate in every religious group and in other contexts. It simply makes the following statement, "Spiritual well-being is the affirmation of life in a relationship with God, self, community and environment that nurtures and celebrates wholeness."

These concepts were elaborated in a commentary as follows:

Spiritual Well-Being Is the Affirmation of Life
The Spiritual is not one dimension among many in life; rather it permeates and gives meaning to all life. The term Spiritual Well-Being therefore indicates wholeness in contrast to fragmentation and isolation. "Spiritual" connotes our dependence on the source of life, God the Creator.
What, then is Spiritual Well-Being? We cannot regard well-being as equated solely with physical, psychological, or social good health. Rather, it is an affirmation of life. It is to say "Yes" to life in spite of negative circumstances. This is not mere optimism which denies some of life's realities; rather, it is the acknowledgement of the destiny of life. In the light of that destiny it is the love of one's own life and of the lives of others, together with concern for one's community, society, and the whole of creation, which is the dynamic of Spiritual Well-Being.
A person's affirmation of life is rooted in participating in a community of faith. In such a community one grows to accept the past, to be aware and alive in the present, and to live in hope of fulfillment.
A Relationship with God, Self, Community, and Environment
Affirmation of life occurs within the context of one's relationship with God, self, community, and environment. God is seen as "Supreme Being," "Creator" of life, the Source and Power that wills well-being. All people are called upon to respond to God in love and obedience. Realizing we are God's children, we grow toward wholeness as individuals, and we are led to affirm our kinship with others in the community of faith as well as the entire human family. Under God and as members of the community of faith, we are responsible for relating the resources of the environment to the well-being of all humanity.
That Nurtures and Celebrates Wholeness
Human wholeness is never fully attained. Throughout life it is a possibility in process of becoming. In the Judeo-Christian tradition(s) life derives its significance through its relationship with God. This relationship awakens and nourishes the process of growth toward wholeness in self, crowns moments of life with meaning, and extols the spiritual fulfillment and unity of the person. (National Interfaith Coalition on Aging, 1975)

The statement was subsequently adopted as the "working definition" for use by the National Interfaith Coalition on Aging. The intent is that each religious body can adapt the statement to fit its own traditions, theology, language, and special situation, but that this would serve as an overarching frame of reference for future activities dealing with the subject.

The above definition needs considerable adaptation and development if it is to become the basis for a relatively objective instrument for the evaluation of spiritual well-being. The response of the member bodies of NICA has not yet been reported, and the results of the questionnaire collecting data on their programs for the aging, which included a question on how each specific program or project contributes to spiritual well-being, have not yet been analyzed. (The project report was subsequently published by Cook in 1977.) Such materials, however, can be valuable input in the process of conceptual development.

Another source of conceptual perspectives on spiritual well-being is the literature that has been written with direct or implicit reference to it. Some of this is in the context of religion. For example, acedia or spiritual torpor, which is one of the seven deadly sins that gives rise to others in the manner of a final cause or motivation, is one of the basic concepts in traditional

Spiritual hunger is evident in a wide range of contemporary problems.

Catholic theology. Study of the use of words like "Spirit" and "spiritual" in the Bible could contribute to this goal, as could the various commentaries and interpretations of those concepts.

The psychosynthesis movement uses the word "spiritual" in its broader connotation to include much more than a specifically religious experience, 

...but all the states of awareness, all the functions and activities which have as common denominator the possessing of values higher than the average, values such as the ethical, the esthetic, the heroic, the humanitarian and the altruistic. We include under the general beading of "spiritual development" then, all experiences connected with awareness of the contents of the super-conscious which may or may not include the experience of the Self (Assagioli 1965:38).

The analogous French word spisituel has the meaning of both spiritual and witty, suggesting that these traits have something in common. "The spiritual person and the witty or humorous person both have a perspective that enables them to see beyond appearance and rise above transitory sufferings." (Faraj 1974)

In his syllabus for a course in the Institute of Applied Gerontology of St. Louis University on the subject of "Spiritual Values in Old Age" the Reverend A. H. Seheller, S. J., defined the basic concept as follows:

By spiritual values we mean non-material good such as dignity, respect, love, affection, purpose or philosophy of life, a sense of belonging, friendships, conversation and communication. Spiritual values also include religions beliefs in a future life, belief in God, in His goodness and mercy, or reward for good life (Scheller 1973).

Cooney (1972), in critiquing the WHCA paper (Moberg 1971), adds a distinction between the spiritual well-being facet of the churches' task and the central, specifying facet of their task, religious wellbeing, noting that the distinction is very subtle:

It is the essence of "Church" to nurture man in his relationship with the Transcendent. Though not the sole function of the Churches, nurturing man in his relationship with the Transcendent is their specifying function, that which sets the Churches apart from all other social institutions (Cooney 1972:19).

The distinction between religion and the spiritual is fairly common. Tamney (1975:43-44) points out that in order to understand people, sociologists must clearly recognize a distinction between spiritual involvement and institutional or church involvement. This is reflected in a "Mirthful Moment" cartoon which appeared in The Lutheran Layman in December 1974. A high school boy is pictured saying to a girl, "I'm not as spiritual as I could be? I bowl in three church leagues, don't I?"

Another approach to the conceptual question is to determine the ways in which the concept actually is used in religious bodies through study of literature and theological statements and in the actual language of people. Developing pertinent in-depth interviews with people on the subject is one step in that direction. Similarly, case studies of persons who are alleged to have or to lack spiritual wellbeing to a marked degree can help to identify their characteristics in contrast to those of other people. One project already has been conducted using this method in part. While its findings are diverse and diffuse, each of the four principal investigators coming up with different conclusions as to the definition of "spiritual maturity," it is instructive and helpful in indicating the riches and complexity of the subject (Edwards, et al. 1974).

Methodological Research

A next task is to analyze the large number of definitions that are found in appropriate literature, interview reports, and similar resources to determine which elements or categories of the human condition are common to all definitions of spiritual well-being and spiritual illness. Implicit and explicit norms and standards by which the relative levels of spiritual quality of life may be measured will emerge during the identification of such indicators.
It is possible that different philosophical, ideological, and theological frames of reference will produce different definitions of spiritual health. If so, it may be necessary to develop each of these as a separate entity. Consultation with experts from a wide range of religious, therapeutic, philosophical, and behavioral perspectives can contribute much to this analysis.

The criteria for spiritual health and illness that are identified through such research can give rise to the identification of specific indicators-behavioral acts, attitudinal perspectives, etc.which can be relatively objectively identified as being present, absent, or even present in varying degrees. These can he combined to form an index of spiritual well-being that yields a specific score for each individual analyzed and thus for each group of persons. The development, refinement, and standardization of the instrument could occur during the next stage of research activity. Care must be taken to remain sufficiently flexible to allow for the variations in value orientations of ethnic, racial, religious, and ideological groups. The premature establishment of rigid criteria could constitute an injustice to minorities and a violation of human dignity. Ample time, numerous opportunities for dialogue with a variety of persons, and deliberate procedures to collect constructive criticism must be built into the research

Substantive Research

Once an instrument or a set of instruments by which to measure spiritual well-being is available, its relationship to other variables can be studied. There are contradictory findings about the relationship between religion and mental health (Sanua 1969), and there is some evidence that religious factors are related to physical health (Comstock and Partridge 1972). Several studies have found religion related to personal adjustment in old age (Moberg 1965), and the relationship of it to satisfaction in later life, fear of death, and other indicators has similarly received some attention (Moberg 1974). It may he related even to the QWL-Quality of Work Life- which is increasingly recognized as an important factor in employee satisfaction and production (Kleinschrod 1973).

During this research it will be necessary to differentiate between spiritual well-being and other forms of well-being. It may be impossible to find clear dividing lines between these because they are all so interrelated. Greeley and McCready (1975:18) found, for example, the highest correlation ever discovered with scores on Bradburn's Psychological Well-Being Scale in their studies of ecstatic experiences or mysticism, a subject that very likely is related to spiritual well-being.

I hypothesize that spiritual well-being is correlated with physical health, psycho-emotional health, social health (good social relationships, ethical-moral behavior, concern for others, etc.), and other forms of wellbeing. This correlation is not a result of a coincidental interrelationship but rather is a consequence of what I believe will be revealed, namely, that spiritual well-being transcends all of the other forms of well-being and constitutes the most important single variable affecting the others. In other words, I hypothesize that spiritual wellbeing is not merely parallel to other forms of well-being, but cuts across all of them by virtue of being on a different and higher level. It is an independent variable.

Research of this kind will make it possible to test such theoretical problems as those related to the competing disengagement, activity, and continuity theories in the field of Social Gerontology. The consequences for the level of spiritual well-being of various kinds of geriatric programs can be identified. For example, in a total institution, such as a retirement home or a nursing home, it can be determined whether the spiritual health of the patient rises or falls following the introduction of certain kinds of activity programs, religious services, counseling, chaplaincy activities, or small group Bible discussions. Although it is likely that there will he no easily observable short-term results, yet repetitive observation over a period of time should make it possible to chart the valleys and peaks of spiritual health and thus to determine how it has been influenced by alternative types of controllable activities. It is probable that developmental stages in religious faith commitments and practices will be discernible through the study of spiritual well-being.

The identification of levels of spiritual well-being under various sets of circumstances will deserve attention. For example, family arrangements and place of residence may have a discernible relationship to spiritual well-being. Persons who are in husband-wife family units may differ from those who are separated or divorced. Grandparents who reside in a three-generation family may have a quite different level of spiritual health from those who live in isolated "efficiency" apartments. Whether the church-sponsored retirement home has a more wholesome impact on the person than the secular retirement community could be analyzed. Circumstances of prosperity and good health could be compared with those of poverty and ill health. Spiritual well-being in relationship to dying, bereavement, grief, and widowhood could be studied.

Applied Research

As a corollary to some of the research projects mentioned above, evaluation research activities would be possible if we had adequate measures of spiritual health. Tests could be made of the effectiveness of various kinds of religious education programs. The relationships between spiritual well-being and Christian social concern could be analyzed. Its impact upon evangelistic effectiveness of Christian persons and groups could make a contribution to evangelistic efforts.

In recent years many clergy and church leaders have assumed that the greatest contribution to man's spiritual need is made when church programs focus upon the social needs of the world. In contrast, fundamentalist groups have emphasized their belief that taking care of individuals' spiritual problems through conversion to Jesus Christ or Spirit baptism is the way to solve social needs as well as personal problems. Once a good research instrument has been designed, the complications and problems of these relationships could be analyzed relatively objectively. The belief of many people that combining evangelism with social concern is the ideal Christian solution (Moberg 1972) could then receive an objective test.

Research Consequences

Systematic behavioral and social science research on spiritual well-being has a number of consequences that can improve policy decisions. It is probable that not a single aspect of the work of the church would remain untouched if there were a major research drive to deal with this complex subject.

Such research also would reveal the extremely complex interdisciplinary dimensions of this subject. Academic disciplines that could reasonably be involved include several of the humanities, such as Theology and Biblical Studies, Philosophy, History, and Literature, in addition to the social and behavioral sciences of Anthropology, Sociology, and Psychology.

Similarly, numerous applied disciplines and professional fields of study also are concerned with this complex subject. The various disciplines that deal with mental health, including marriage and family counseling, clinical psychology, counseling psychology, psychiatry, and social work will all be influenced by research on this subject if its results are appropriately disseminated. The pastoral care dimensions of the clergy, including chaplaincies, are very directly affected. Public and private education at all levels are related to spiritual well-being, from the perspective of both teachers and pupils. Workers' satisfaction, the level of economic and other types of production, and various types of "human engineering" might be very much affected by the findings of systematic research on spiritual well-being.

What this means, in effect, is that the approach of any one person or of persons from but one discipline or professional orientation is likely to be too limited to do full justice to the subject. Just as an educational model of religious studies which isolates the study of religion from the methods and content of other disciplines or which identifies it as belonging exclusively to the humanities is likely to reinforce the belief that religious thinkers are continuing an undignified retreat

Absolutists of any particular religious perspective who are certain that they know the precise formula or approach for the development of spiritual wellbeing are likely to be unhappy with such research.

from the modern world (Power 1973:671), so also a constricted perspective toward this complex subject of spiritual well-being is likely to alienate many people from its implications and contribute to a narrowness of perspective which may do more harm than good to both the scientific study of religion and its practice and application.

The complications of interdisciplinary research are great because of the financial elements involved as well as the diverse approaches to reality which prevail within them. Possibly a good first step toward dealing with these realities would be to have several persons conduct projects from their own frame of reference and then meet together in conference to discuss the similarities and differences that emerge from their findings. Out of such a workshop could come published papers and critiques, which in turn would filter into the academic and scientific communities, giving rise to additional research by students working on dissertation projects, by faculty members preparing papers for professional meetings and publications, and by action-oriented groups in the fields of mental health, social work, the counseling professions, and religion.

Not the least of the consequences of such research will be criticism. Many devout but traditionally-oriented Christians will argue that this demotes the church to an unscriptural level of human institutionality and manipulation which is inconsistent with its ultimate purpose. It is likely that such persons within their own religious bodies have criteria as to who are "members in good standing," "in fellowship," "communicants," "spiritual rather than carnal persons," "backsliders," etc. Each of these criteria typically involves identifiable behavior or verbalized beliefs and attitudes of the very kind that can be incorporated into an index of good spiritual health.

Absolutists of any particular religions perspective who are certain that they know the precise formula or approach for the development of spiritual well-being (under whatever conceptual label they may use) are likely to be unhappy with such research. Some have a simple creed to which a person must make an affirmation of belief and which they believe takes care of all spiritual needs. Some follow certain rituals (baptism being the most common). Some have an experiential-emotional criterion for spiritual health. Many accentuate an intellectual approach of memorizing information, studying various facts, doctrines, and ideological perspectives, and passing appropriate tests. Others see good deeds as the behavioral criterion. Some accentuate a communal orientation of joining or belonging to a particular group. Still others accentuate the dispositions, saying that those who have a joyful spirit are the most spiritual persons. Whatever the particular criterion that is used as the most important one, any questioning or intonation implying that there may he other criteria as well and any threat that may come from an attempt to determine objectively whether the alleged consequences actually do flow out of that particular absolutist formula will he resisted.


Systematic research to specify more sharply the content of spiritual health and illness can lead to the development of appropriate research instruments for the measurement of spiritual wellbeing. Such instruments, in turn, can contribute to a series of important research projects and programs on the characteristics and correlates of spiritual well-being, viewing it as an independent variable which has a profound impact on the totality of human life. Out of the research can come many applications for the work of churches, health care institutions, counseling centers, schools, and even businesses and industry.

Such research can be interpreted from a Christian perspective as efforts to enable us to "test all things; hold fast that which is good" (I Thess. 5:21). It can also help us to understand better the quality of the "eternal life" which Jesus Christ came to give, the "abundant life" (John 10:10) which he promises to his "sheep."


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