Spirituality and Development: Concepts and Categories

A discussion paper prepared for the Dialogue on Spirituality in Sustainable Development Canadian International Development Agency
Ottawa June 19 & 20, 1996


In Bjorn Hettne's 1982 paper, Development Theory and the Third World, international development was described as an activity that lacked a coherent and comprehensive paradigm1. The intervening years don't seem to have done much to improve matters at this fundamental level. A recent Ottawa conference on UNESCO's Decade of Culture and Development2 indicated that things are still rather confused, and that international development continues to be an effort that is searching for a better set of navigation principles.

The development field is not alone: many other areas of human endeavor are in the same position. Systems of public education, for example, seem to need re-examination every decade or so to see whether they are doing their job properly and, on occasion, to go so far as to determine what that job should actually be‹to revisit the question, "Education for what?" The fundamentals of Environmental Studies, Adult Education, Community Development, Social Work, and most of the other applied social sciences seem to be in a constant state of redefinition. In virtually all areas old patterns are falling away as new and better frameworks emerge. Although this deep-level turbulence might cause some distress, it is also a sign of growth, an essential feature of a vibrant and rapidly-changing society.

Several of these re-examinations of the foundations of various fields of endeavor seem to be converging on a common theme. In management and organizational development, for example, there is increasing interest in the link between belief and action, and how recognition of a spiritual dimension can contribute to greater coherence and better results. Concepts that were once discussed mainly in seminaries or temples are now being heard in boardrooms and found in professional publications. Ten years ago a title such as The Search for Spirit in the Workplace3 would not have appeared on the cover of Training magazine, a journal dedicated to "the human side of business". Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Successful People would not have been a best-seller4‹his list is almost an exact replica of principles found at the core of most established Faiths.

Similarly, until recently Margaret Wheatley's Leadership and the New Science5, a widely-acclaimed management book in which the line between quantum physics and religion is blurry indeed, would not have attracted even passing mention. The strengthening relationship between post-Newtonian science and a redefined concept of spirituality is explored in a review of the views of David Bohm, Karl Pribram, Renée Weber, Fritjof Capra, Marilyn Ferguson and others in Wilber's The Holographic Paradigm6, a wide-ranging discussion of quantum physics, neurophysiology, mysticism and other elements of an emerging holistic paradigm.

These new insights are reshaping the underpinnings of daily activity and transforming entire professions. The impact on large organizations is but one example‹as Margaret Wheatley states:

To live in a quantum world, to weave here and there with ease and grace, we will need to change what we do. We will need to stop describing tasks and instead facilitate process. We will need to become savvy about how to build relationships, how to nurture growing, evolving things. All of us will need better skills in listening, communicating, and facilitating groups, because these are the talents that build strong relationships. It is well known that the era of the rugged individual has been replaced by the era of the team player. But this is only the beginning. The quantum world has demolished the concept of the unconnected individual. More and more relationships are in store for us, out there in the vast web of universal connections.7

The recognition that "the concept of the unconnected individual" is obsolete and that we exist in a "vast web of universal connections" has massive implications for human relations at all levels. Concepts such as interdependence, positive use of conflict, and partnership are replacing older themes based on exploitation, manipulation and disunity. This calls for a change of heart, a profound system-wide transformation in identity as well as in action.

As these implications work themselves out there are changes in methods of information flow, consultation, ownership and the distribution of power and initiative‹a fundamental restructuring of patterns of attitude, thought and behavior throughout the system. In debriefings after mock exercises conducted by the US Army, for example, enlisted men are being encouraged to ask field commanders to explain their reasons for making particular tactical decisions, and when shortcomings are found the commanders are encouraged to acknowledge their errors and learn from insights provided by junior personnel who are intimately familiar with conditions on the ground. Together they define better ways of achieving desired results, with a significant improvement in the organization's effectiveness. This previously forbidden authentic dialogue across hierarchy lines is but one example of the results of the realization that the spiritual dimension‹as manifested in concepts such as oneness and the inherent nobility of each person‹is an active element in human relationships.

The international development field is no exception: new bridges are linking the secular and the sacred and it, too is likely to undergo a similar transformation. IDRC's recent sponsorship of an exploration of the relationship of spirituality and development, and publication of Fr. Ryan's book on culture, spirituality and economic development8 are part of a constant search for better ways to define and respond to humanity's needs. As with other fields, the recognition of these new dimensions is likely to bring about a profound reorientation in all aspects of the development business.

There is, however, much work to do to bring about this change. While there seems to be considerable interest in this emergent trend, there is no consensus on the form in which it should be expressed: there is little common language to help us converse on these themes and build new ways of working together to further our common lot. This is the source of considerable confusion and frustration‹we sense there is a new dimension, but have few tools to share our understanding of this fundamentally different view of our activities. Perhaps it is because we have not yet learned the words to describe and chart our transformation that this change has not yet manifested itself.

This paper is a limited attempt to describe some of the key concepts and categories in the complex area of spirituality and development. Its purpose is to support the emergence of a vocabulary that helps lend order to this as yet ill-defined sector of human experience and accelerates the shift toward a new and better way of doing this important work.

The information in the rest of this paper is presented in the following categories:
Definitions: spirituality and development, with a commentary Concepts and categories Application of concepts Conclusions and future directions