Intersections of Spirituality and Social Justice by Marc A. Lo

            Powerful as an intersection for me both as a social justice educator and as a living/breathing human is spirituality.  For the purpose of clarity, I am only tangentially discussing religion, the “shared system of beliefs, principles, or doctrines related to a belief in and worship of a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator(s) and governor(s) of the universe” (Love, 2001, p.8).  Religion is and can be a powerful tool for accessing spirituality and connecting with the world around us – a theme consistent across many traditions.  Simultaneously, Mayhew (2004) observes spiritual experiences among college students identifying as agnostic or atheist.  Because these orientations are highly individualized – often neither a belief system nor a religion – such observations underscore the ability for spirituality to exist both within and outside of the structure of religion.  Subsequently, I prefer to talk about worldview, which can be any frame of reference (religion, philosophy, ideology, etc.) one uses to understand and interact with the world.

This pivot is essential, as when we discuss religion in a spiritual vacuum, or fixate on it as the sole font of spirituality, a false dichotomy is created between religion and the access it seeks to foster to making meaning of the world in which we live.  Furthermore, the politics of belief, principle, doctrine, and how they are leveraged to liberate or oppress social groups has a long, complex, and ongoing history that can distract from the ethos of interconnectedness, compassion, and love that is at the spiritual core of many (if not all) faith traditions.  There is certainly necessary social justice dialogue within and across religious traditions (Hodge, 2012), as is seen in the national and global scope of the White House Initiative on Interfaith Dialogue, as well as the campus-based work of the Interfaith Youth Core.  However, to compartmentalize the complications of identity politics and potentially ethnocentric arguments, I am writing about the arguably more accessible spiritual imperative for fostering individual and societal equity and equality.

            To ground the conversation, it helps to further frame spirituality, which has been operationalized in multiple ways by scholars across multiple traditions.  I borrow from the work of Astin & Astin (2010), whose study on spirituality in higher education was able to narrow the concept to experiences that involve “an active quest for answers to life’s ‘big questions’ (Spiritual Quest), a global worldview that transcends egocentrism and ethnocentrism (Ecumenical Worldview), a sense of caring and compassion for others (Ethic of Caring), coupled with a lifestyle that includes service to others (Charitable Involvement), and a capacity to maintain one’s sense of calm and centeredness, especially in times of stress (Equanimity)” (p. 4).  While much of this definition is intra-personal, it also involves how we engage with others on individual and communal levels.  And, because social justice education involves both intra- and interpersonal development, this overlap has implications for framing our work as inherently spiritual.

            Addressing the intrapersonal development component, “Spiritual Quest” questions such as “why am I here?” and “who am I?” are inseparable from the understanding of one’s identity.  In those spaces where we are privileged or oppressed as individuals, how often do we struggle with finding these answers?  Concurrently, when we think about the burden of teaching, micro-aggressions, micro-invalidations, and other triggers, how are we navigating these spaces?  The duress such experiences cause, and our capacity to be resilient, seek to understand intent, make our knowledge or experience accessible, and effectively navigate dialogue on the issues can easily be tied to “Equanimity.”  However potent spirituality may be as a tool in this intrapersonal space, helping us to understand ourselves and cope with inequality, it can be an equally powerful motivator to pursue social justice work.

            Opening up one’s spirit to social justice work begins with an orientation toward pluralism and interconnectedness of all human beings – central principles of “Ecumenical Worldview” (Bryant, 2011a, 2011b).  Developing beyond our own locus of existence allows us to move from understanding the differences that constitute human society to relating to and sharing in unique personal truths.  Giving of one’s self through some form of service, “Charitable Involvement,” is as obvious of a connection as “Ethic of Caring.”  The commitment of time, emotional/physical/spiritual energy, and/or material resources in the service of others is essentially the leveraging of excess (privilege) to improve the wellbeing of the marginalized and disenfranchised.  Lastly, and most obviously, the internal motivation to alleviate suffering or oppression through social and political engagement is the very essence of what we are trying to accomplish with our work as social justice educators.

            When we acknowledge that spirituality and social justice are intrinsically linked, the imperative to continue our work as educators becomes clear.  Whether it be for deeper intra-personal understanding, or out of altruistic motivations to redress the experiences of oppression of those to whom we are connected – and we are, on some level, all connected – social justice education becomes the work of everyone.  More than that, it can serve as a mechanism for accessing, sharing, and growing portions of ourselves and others that we often excessively confine to private spaces.  If social justice is truly about the “full and equal participation of all groups in a society that is mutually shaped to meet their needs,” then spirituality needs to be recognized as a component of the full participation of ourselves in that process – both as a motivator toward and a byproduct thereof (Adams, Bell, and Griffin, 2007, p. 1).

At times, I find myself reflecting: How authentic am I in social justice work when I ignore the spiritual aspect?  How fulfilled am I spiritually if I do nothing to interrogate forms of privilege or oppression that inhibit others’ sense of interconnectedness?  Regardless of their content, the answers to these questions form part of my motivation to continue social justice work, and may for you as well.  How do you see your worldview and/or spirituality motivating and challenging you as a social justice educator?

About the Author:

Marc A. Lo is a PhD candidate in the Higher and Postsecondary Education program at New York University.  His research interests include spirituality, social justice education, cognitive development, and socioeconomic status & social class in the college/university environment.  Marc also serves as CSJE’s Vice Chair for Programming and may occasionally be found tweeting @marcanthonylo.


Adams, M., Bell, L.A., & Griffin, P. (2007). Teaching for diversity and social justice (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Astin, A.W., & Astin, H.S. (2010). Exploring and nurturing the spiritual life of college students. Journal of College and Character, 11(3), 1–9.

Bryant, A.N. (2011a). The impact of campus context, college encounters, and religious/spiritual struggle on ecumenical worldview development. Research in Higher Education, 52(5), 441–459.

Bryant, A. N. (2011b). Ecumenical worldview development by gender, race, and worldview: A multiple-group analysis of model invariance. Research in Higher Education, 52(5), 460–479.

Hodge, D.R. (2012). The conceptual and empirical relationship between spirituality and social justice: Exemplars from diverse faith traditions. Journal of Religion & Spirituality in Social Work: Social Thought, 31(1-2), 32–50.

Love, P.G. (2001). Spirituality and student development: Theoretical connections. New Directions for Student Services, (95), 7–16.

Mayhew, M.J. (2004). Exploring the essence of spirituality: A phenomenological study of eight students with eight different worldviews. NASPA Journal, 41(3), 647–675.

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