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New ASU initiative looks to educate students and faculty on spirituality

The Spirituality and Public Life Initiative offered a new course during the Spring 2022 semester and will add another next fall

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Spirituality is interpreted differently for each individual.

The Center for Religion and Conflict has started a new initiative looking to tackle how spirituality plays a part in everyday, public life.

The Spirituality and Public Life Initiative, which began its first course in Spring 2022, aims to provide courses and seminars addressing spirituality, how it relates to religion and more. The initiative only has one course but will have more in the future, including one offered next fall. 

The initiative was first brought about when the idea of spirituality in public life was brought to the attention of the center by Penny Davis, a member of The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences' Dean's Council. Davis, a long-time supporter of the center, helped fund the launch of the initiative.

John Carlson, associate professor of religious studies and interim director for the center, said Davis has always been involved with the center, and her interest in spirituality aligned with the center's desire to learn more.

"What we tried to do was think about how was it that we could both tap into her interests and also speak to the moment that we are in today with the events around us," Carlson said.

More people are seeing themselves as "spiritual but not religious," and Carlson said it presents an opportunity for people to explore the implications of what spirituality does for themselves and how it plays a part in society.

"What I would say is really distinctive about this project is to ask what spirituality means in the context of thinking about our public life together," Carlson said. "Spirituality is usually a term that people think of as a very inner, private, individualistic pursuit."

Terry Shoemaker, a lecturer in religious studies and professor for the initiative's only course, Spirituality in America, said the goal for students in the course is to dive into the difference, if any, between spirituality and religion and understand how the history of spirituality provides insight into the traction of the idea in modern times, specifically in the U.S.

"It is kind of everywhere at this point," Shoemaker said. "How can we understand what is happening currently and understand all the formations that lead to this moment today."

Shoemaker said spirituality has not been something that has always been talked about in the past. Shoemaker said much of the stigma spirituality previously carried has started to decrease, leading more to look for insight into what spirituality can provide.

"More and more Americans are disaffiliating with religion and many of those people are exploring spirituality as an option as they abandon religiosity," Shoemaker said.

Shoemaker said that for the faculty of the initiative, the idea of spirituality has brought interest into research about how spirituality can play a part in something like sports. Shoemaker is conducting research into how skateboarders found themselves to be more spiritual than religious and use that spirituality in their practice.

The initiative has also begun hosting events where speakers discuss spirituality, such as one held last week by Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary. Although the initiative currently has just one course, students find it to be insightful and helpful in providing an understanding of spirituality.

Grace Hough, a senior studying religious studies who is taking Spirituality in America, said the course and the initiative have helped her learn how different cultures throughout the U.S. experience spirituality in their lives. 

"Especially with what we're learning, we are really trying to hit all the modes that spirituality plays a part in," Hough said.

Hough said the course has brought in people with different backgrounds and majors, providing different perspectives on the idea of spirituality and how it is discussed. Students are able to speak with experts and gain insight into the implications of how religion plays a part in spirituality.

The initiative is working on another course, headed by Tracy Fessenden, director of strategic initiatives at the Center of Religion and Conflict, set to open for students in Fall 2022 and will take a look at how spirituality plays a part in public life across the globe. 

"Throughout history, and across continents, those seeking a fuller sense of what it means to be human, and richer connections with the living world, have turned to spiritual traditions in and alongside those of religions," Fessenden said in an email. "We'll be exploring that wisdom together, with the goal of building capacity for creating just and meaningful lives."


Reach the reporters at ljchatha@asu.edu and follow @LukeJC2 on Twitter.

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Luke ChathamCommunity and Culture Reporter

Luke Chatham is a Community & Culture reporter and previous Business and Tech reporter. He also worked in the studio production crew for Cronkite News and is currently a freelance reporter and writer for Arcadia News.


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