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Spirituality and World Religions
by Sr. Judith Martin, SSJ, PhD

See the end of this article for a more comprehensive Study Guide.

Spirituality is a word that originates in a Christian context where it refers to a Spirit-guided reflecting on and living out of the gospel. Over the centuries, the term came to be used in the plural to designate different ways of living out the gospel mandate, as writers would allude to Benedictine, Franciscan, Dominican, Ignatian and other spiritualities.

It wasn’t until the decades following the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) that Christians in general and Catholics in particular began to recognize that other world religions had developed significant schools of spirituality. As a result, the term needed to be more broadly conceived in order to include expressions of Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist spiritualities, such as Hasidism, Sufism, Vedanta, and Zen, respectively. 

Today, the internet and immigration have combined to make these and other forms of spirituality ever more accessible to individuals across the United States. Forty years ago, Protestant and Catholic churches, together with the occasional synagogue, defined the religious landscape of America.

Now, in the vicinity of a medium-sized city like Dayton, Ohio, one can attend a Dharma center to practice Zen meditation, a Tibetan center to receive guidance from a rinpoche (respected teacher), a Hindu temple to perform puja (worship) and practice yoga, and a gurdwara (Sikh house of worship) for chanting, as well as several Islamic centers for weekly worship and lectures on Sufi mystic poetry. Wherever we look we find confirmation of the fact pointed out a decade ago by Diana Eck, Director of the Pluralism Project: We live in the most religiously diverse nation in the world.1

The comments that follow are designed to help religious educators respond to this new reality in several ways. First, it provides background information on how spirituality is understood and practiced in different faith traditions. Second, it explores the role that spirituality plays in contemporary interfaith encounters. Finally, it considers why we, as Christians, should encourage a critical openness to spirituality’s many manifestations. 

Many Faiths, Many Paths

A 25-volume series titled “World Spirituality: An Encyclopedic History of the Religious Quest”2 attests to the fact that, although the word spirituality initially derived from Christian sources, it now has been adapted by the world religions. At the same time, a term well-rooted in many of these traditions can also be used to develop a working definition that accommodates the wide range of phenomena we will be considering.

Chinese religions call it tao, “the Way.” Jews speak of religious norms as halakah, “the way to go.” In Islam, guiding principles are known as shari’ah, “the path,” and the classification of methods for its mystics, called tariqa, also means “the way.” Hinduism, the oldest living religion, delineates three margas or “paths” to moksha (liberation), while Buddhists underscore an eightfold marga leading to Nirvana (enlightenment). Even early Christians were described as belonging to “the Way” (see Acts 9:2).

The brief survey that follows focuses on some of these paths but, in a way, only hints at the rich heritage of spiritual resources that have been preserved by the world’s religions.


We begin by looking at the oldest living religion: Hinduism. In this religious tradition, whose roots can be traced back at least 5,000 years, Ultimate Reality is known as Brahman, “that which pervades all.” Because Brahman is viewed as being beyond name and form, transpersonal rather than personal language is used. Thus, Brahman is commonly invoked as Tat Ekam, “That One.” The goal is to be set free by becoming one with the One.

There are three classical ways to accomplish this. The more philosophically inclined are attracted to the “path or discipline of knowledge” (jnana marga).3 This path involves meditating on the One who is beyond name and form yet dwells within as our truest Self (Atman). It includes a practice of negating particulars in order to seek the greater whole.  What Hindus refer to as neti, neti, “not this, not this,” Christian mystics would call via negativa (the negative path). 

For those more drawn to devotion, Hinduism developed the love-based spirituality of bhakti marga. Here the One reveals itself in personal forms as Krishna or Shiva or Kali to win over the devotee. As Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita 9.29: “I am the same to all beings, and my love is ever the same; but those who worship me with devotion, they are in me and I am in them.”

A third path is available for the “doers” like Mahatma Gandhi, whose tireless dedication to nonviolent action led to India’s independence. This is karma marga, “the path of (selfless) action,” where one serves without seeking a reward. From the viewpoint of a Hindu, Jesus qualifies as a karma yogin when he asks for the chalice to pass, but then selflessly surrenders his will (and his life) to God.


Buddhists, by contrast, speak of Nirvana rather than God, yet they, too, have developed a number of spiritual practices. The goal is to free all beings from suffering, and the Eightfold Path provides practical steps for achieving this. Briefly stated, one is asked to live a moral life guided by compassion and aided by meditations that reveal the impermanent character of material things which, in turn, motivates one to live morally. 

A practice developed in Mahayana Buddhism, now adopted by practitioners in different schools of Buddhism, involves taking the Vow of Compassion: a choice to forego one’s own final liberation so that he or she can return to free others from suffering. Since the 1960s, this vow has been interpreted by the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hahn as a call to bring mindfulness to bear on world issues. For Thich Nhat Hahn, this meant using the spiritual skills he learned in monastic training to develop peaceful ways of ending war.  He called this “engaged” Buddhism. 


Islam has a number of practices designed to foster God-consciousness. One is to pray five times daily, fast during the month of Ramadan, and focus on God as the center of one’s life as one circumambulates the ka’ba during the pilgrimage to Mecca (an experience which, it should be noted, led Malcolm X to rethink his anti-white rhetoric).

There is also the spiritual vision and practice of Islamic mystics, known as “Sufis.” While most Muslims were content with the formulation “there is no God but God,” Sufis went further. For them, nothing existed but Allah (God). Nor was it enough to submit to God; they wanted to experience God.

One way of doing this was by participating in a whirling dance in which they felt they were not only praying but also becoming prayer. In poetic language reminiscent of Christian mystics, they not only sought to see God and to see the world as God does; they also engaged in a jihad or (inner) struggle to remove all duality so that they could  become the very eyes of God. Historically, it was their love-filled spirituality—and not any military jihad—that led inhabitants of Indonesia and Malaysia to adopt Islam.

Brief as they are, these thumbnail sketches reveal a spiritual trove, a legacy of wisdom for living that should not be ignored by other faith traditions.

Spirituality in Interfaith Encounters

Interfaith dialogue offers one avenue of access to the religious insights and practices of the world’s religions. At first, the ecumenical movement nurtured by the Second Vatican Council led Catholics to associate dialogue with theological exchanges between members of different faiths. But a 1984 document titled “The Attitude of the Church toward Followers of Other Religions” can be credited with broadening the Church’s understanding of the term.

In addition to the dialogue of theological sharing mentioned above, the document (prepared by the Pontifical Council on Interreligious Dialogue) identifies three other types of dialogue. It speaks of a “dialogue of life,” involving respectful interactions between people of different faiths in the course of daily life; a “dialogue of action,” involving multi-faith collaboration on humanitarian projects; and a “dialogue of religious experience.” The latter is the focus of attention here because it invites a mutual sharing of one’s spiritual life and opens up the possibility of entering into religious practices identified with other faith traditions. 

In some circles, participating in non-Christian practices is greeted with hesitancy and caution, mindful of Pope Benedict XVI’s warning against relativism. There is a concern that this could lead to an attitude of indifferentism and a general weakening of one’s faith.

However, a growing number of Catholics and other Christians find that interfaith sharing provides opportunities for deepening one’s faith. They look to the example of Pope John Paul II and his willingness to cross religious boundaries to engage other faiths both theologically and in terms of social action and spiritually. They point to John Paul’s decision, made just two years after the pontifical document had been released, to invite representatives of the world’s religions to Assisi to pray for world peace. They watched also as this pope became the first pontiff in history to visit a synagogue and a mosque.  

Dialogue of Spirituality

Why lay women and men across the Christian spectrum are attracted to the dialogue of spirituality is thoughtfully discussed in a concise book titled Spirituality in Interfaith Dialogue4. In this work, Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox contributors reflect on the spiritual disciplines they have integrated from their lengthy encounters with Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Taoists, and others.

Here we learn from individuals who are neither neophytes nor dilettantes but committed Christians. We learn how their faith has been enriched by different forms of in-depth contact with other faith traditions: sometimes by reading the Bhagavad Gita side by side with the Gospels; sometimes by joining in Buddhist meditation and centering prayer; sometimes by participating in Sufi dancing or by attentively observing the painstaking creation and dissolution of a sand mandala. This, in turn, leads to interfaith sharing of beliefs and experiences, bringing forth new realizations and new commitments to working with others to build more just, peaceful, and loving communities.

For some, interreligious experiences lead to a sense of multiple belonging, or what   theologian Peter Phan refers to as “being religious interreligiously.”5 Perhaps the most prominent exemplar of this kind of openness is the recently deceased “dia-logian”6 Raimon Panikkar. Born to a Spanish Catholic mother and an Indian Hindu father, Father Panikkar reflected on his own spiritual pilgrimage in this way: “I ‘left’ as a Christian, I ‘found’ myself a Hindu, and I ‘return’ a Buddhist without having ceased to be a Christian.”7

To outsiders, such talk may suggest identity confusion. Yet, the writings of mystics, East and West, attest to the fact that there comes a point in one’s spiritual journey when an awareness of the Divine so expands one’s consciousness that labels are transcended. Attaining a stage of what James Fowler calls “universalizing faith,” certain individuals achieve a degree of spiritual liberation that is signified by either shedding all designations or by multiplying them.

For example, we hear the Sufi mystic Shamsi Tabriz announce “I am neither Christian nor Jew nor Muslim,” while Gandhi describes his religious affiliation by declaring “I am a Hindu, I am a Jew, I am a Christian, I am a Muslim.” Perhaps this is the same kind of spiritual outlook that led Giuseppi Roncalli (Pope John XXIII), the architect of the Second Vatican Council, to warmly welcome a delegation of Jews with the simple words “I am Joseph, your brother”—a gesture that in no small way marked a turning point in the history of Jewish-Christian relations.


In the twenty-first century, can we afford to ignore how the Spirit is present “not only in individuals, but also in…peoples, cultures, and religions”?8 Does not a healthy spirituality foster an openness to the truth wherever it is discerned?

Ignorance, hatred, and greed are embedded in our world and are the common enemies of all people of goodwill. Overcoming them requires cooperation, and this cannot occur unless schools, seminaries, and churches encourage understanding of other faith traditions in all their diversity and richness. As one eighth-century Hindu mystic said, “that religion is best that loses nothing of what is good in other religious traditions.”


1. A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation. New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.
2. Ewert Cousins, General Editor. New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1985-2003.
3. The three paths are also referred to as jnana yoga, bhakti yoga, and karma yoga. Here the yoga means “spiritual discipline.”
4. Edited by Tosh Arai and Wesley Ariarajah. New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1989.
5. Being Religious Interreligiously: Asian Perspectives on Interfaith Dialogue. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004.
6. A term coined to describe a theologian of interfaith dialogue.
7. The Intra-Religious Dialogue. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1999.
8. Pope John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, n. 28.

Judith G. Martin is Professor Emerita in the Religious Studies Department and former Director of the Women and Gender Studies Program at the University of Dayton. Martin teaches courses on world religions and feminist theology, has participated in interfaith activities in the East and Middle East as well as in the U.S., and has published a number of articles on women’s spirituality.

Study Guide

This is the fifth article in our series on “Spirituality: Grounding in the Mystery of God.” There are many expressions of spirituality found in various world religions. The globalization of our world, particularly through media, is heightening our consciousness to how spirituality is experienced and expressed in diverse world religions. Sister Judith Martin articulates the importance for catechists to be acquainted with these diverse spiritual expressions for religious understanding and for cultivating a culture of peace and non-violence.

Discussion/Reflection Questions

1. What has been my introduction to or experience of schools of spirituality other than Catholic?
2. How does Sr. Judith Martin define the meaning of spirituality? How does this definition relate to descriptions in previous articles in this series?
3. What is the via negativa of Christian mystics to which Sr. Judith Martin refers?
4. How many traditions exist within my community? How familiar am I with these diverse religious traditions? How do these traditions mingle with the Catholic community?
5. What new ideas have been introduced to me regarding Hinduism? What further questions do I have about Hinduism?
6. What does Thich Nhat Hahn mean by “a call to bring mindfulness to bear on world issues”? How do I strive to realize something similar within our Catholic tradition?
7. How does the Islam faith encourage the practice and fostering God-consciousness in their members?
8. What is the true “inner Jihad” to which Muslims are called? How does this relate with how some Muslim fundamentalists and the media project Jihad?
9. What are the three types of dialogue encouraged by the Pontifical Council on Interreligious Dialogue? How can Catholics practice these in our ordinary life? How can I prepare my students to be well-prepared interfaith/ecumenical dialogue partners?


1. Create a “dialogue of spirituality” class experience. Invite various religious community leaders to speak to your class concerning the meaning of spirituality and spiritual formation within their religious traditions. The objective is to gain a deeper interfaith or ecumenical understanding.
2. Conduct an Interfaith Community Research Project. Have students identify the various religious traditions that exist within the local community. Students are to prepare a presentation (oral or PowerPoint) reflecting the history, beliefs, and spiritual practices of each tradition.
3. Explore YouTube for clips that explain diverse religious traditions and their spiritual component. Have students produce a Catholic spirituality video that may be placed on YouTube or the parish website.
4. Read a book about another religious tradition. Share your insights with a friend.
5. Read “The Attitude of the Church toward Followers of Other Religions.” Identify methodologies for introducing the key concepts to your students. Or invite a few catechists or parish members to read the document and come together for a reflective evening to explore the meaning and impact of its insights for being Church today.

Related Reading

Redemptoris missio (Missionary Activity of the Church). Blessed John Paul II. Search for recent Church statements concerning interfaith dialogue.
Review “interfaith” references in the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (Washington, DC: USCCB Publication, 2006).

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