A Conversation about the Study of Spirituality and Asian Religions

March 11, 2022

By Renate Kwon

Situating Spirituality and Asian Religions_Duke University

On March 2, 2022, three editors of the recently published volume Situating Spirituality: Context, Practice, and Power (Oxford, 2021) gathered online for a frank discussion of spirituality from global and international perspectives. The origin of this publication was a 2019 conference reexamining modern spirituality as it interacts with religion, culture, politics, and civic life.

Over the ensuing two years, the editors and authors collaborated on this volume, culminating in a critical reexamination not only individual engagements with spirituality, but also how seemingly personal facets of spirituality, as well as definitions of spirituality itself, are deeply shaped by diverse religious, cultural, and political contexts. This talk particularly looked at how the contributors’ cross-national and comparative analyses lead them to reconceptualize spirituality beyond North American experiences.

Prof. Brian Steensland (Sociology, Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis) introduced the project, noting that much of the academic research on religion and spirituality associates collective community with religion and individualism with spirituality. This book project challenges that view, contending that spirituality is as eminently social as religion and can thus be rigorously studied from a sociological perspective. As Steensland phrased it, “to say that spirituality is social suggests that both the lived experience of being a spiritual person is associated sociological influence.”

The next panelist to speak was Prof. Anna Sun (Religious Studies and Sociology, Duke) who delved into the ways in which incorporating Asian religions reframed the issue of spirituality in the context of ancient religions. Doing so, she said, “challenges our fundamental conception of terms such as religion and spirituality. It makes us rethink what we take for granted.” Utilizing some of these additional case studies from Asia, where centuries of polytheistic religious traditions have produced a very different way of engaging with the sacred, enables sociologists to define the concepts of religion and spirituality in relation to one another rather than independent phenomena.

Next, Prof. Jaime Kucinskas (Sociology, Hamilton College) reflected on the section she mainly edited on how power has shaped spirituality. Kucinskas’ own research looks at the ways in which mindfulness has traveled across groups of people and institutions, spiritual and religious movements, inequalities, and the importance of situating studies of spirituality, religion, and morality in specific temporal, group, institutional, and national settings. Within this context, she observed, health professionals and other social elites have adopted “mindfulness” to primarily appeal to other affluent people while also being promoted as highly individual solution for stress and anxiety stemming from institutional and larger social challenges. She concluded, “one of the agendas that we’re trying to set with this book is inspiring future researchers to dig more into these comparisons” of the uses to which religious and spiritual practices are put and how they affect different groups of people, “and unpack all the ways that spirituality is so profoundly shaped by the contacts and the hierarchies that it’s embedded in.”

Following the main presentation, the audience asked the editors a series of questions, including one on the origins of their desire to study spirituality and what they learned from this project. The panelists presented very frank responses to this opening question as well as the ensuing queries about whether a meditative experience is social, spirituality as a social and collective endeavor, where religious and spiritual authority resides, and frameworks of interpretation based on “Western” and “Eastern” cultural contexts.

The event was part of the Wednesdays at the Center Series, organized by Duke University's John Hope Franklin Center and the Duke Center for International and Global Studies (DUCIGS.) The talk was co-sponsored by the Asian Pacific Studies Institute at Duke University (APSI.)

Watch the full talk: