The term “spiritualism” is unsuitably vague and ambiguous, and tends to be used, without careful definition or qualification, to a wide range of philosophical, metaphysical, and religious subjects. It is derived, of course, from the words “spirit” (Lat. spiritus) and “spirituality” (Lat. spiritualitas), the latter properly referring to the immateriality of a substance, as a characteristic of spirits or spiritual beings. Both the Latin spiritus and the corresponding English “spirit” relate conceptually to the Greek word pneu=ma (pneuma), and are used to translate the Greek; the derived adjective pneumatiko/$ and adverb pneumatikw=$ together correspond to spiritualitas/”spirituality”.
However, the Greek word pneu=ma (root pneÍ-) emphasizes, not so much immateriality, but an active vital force that stimulates life and motion (vb pne/w, “breathe, blow”). And, indeed, the Latin verb spirare, from which spiritus derives, has a nearly identical meaning as pne/w. Thus, we must be cognizant of the fundamental meaning of these underlying words when discussing “spiritualism” in the context of the New Testament and Christianity.
The basic definition in the Encyclopaedia Britannica is as good a place as any to start, defining “spiritualism” as:
“…a characteristic of any system of thought that affirms the existence of immaterial reality imperceptible to the senses”
In terms of its actual historical usage, however, the word has been applied in the context of a wide range of meaning; these may be reduced to three main applications:
- Philosophical—along the lines of the general definition above, but as developed within the history of western philosophy, from the earliest Greek philosophers (the Pre-socratics and Plato) to the French Spiritualist philosophers of the early 20th-century. The “spirit”, understood in terms of the rational (i.e., the mind, consciousness), is identified as the supreme principle, and (even) the ultimate reality. This is often described as “spiritual idealism” or “idealistic spiritualism”.
- Parapsychological—that is, a study of the spiritual/immaterial dimension of reality, in terms of extrasensory events and cognitive phenomena that are beyond ordinary/physical sense-perception. A distinct metaphysical and quasi-religious form of spiritualism is commonly referred to as “spiritism” —covering a wide range of beliefs and practices involving contact with spirit-beings, i.e., the spirits of the deceased, as well as other inhabitants of the ‘spirit world’.
- Religious-Theological—from the standpoint of the phenomenology of religion, “spiritualism” refers to the tendency to treat the spirit as the supreme “principle of all religious life and thought” (J. Dierken, in the Evangelisches Kirchenlexicon, Dritte Auflage, English translation [Eerdmans / Brill: 2008]). The (human) spirit is the locus for the believer’s encounter with the Spirit of God. Emphasis is thus given to the inward and invisible (spiritual) aspect of religion, over the outward and visible (material) aspects. The latter include: sacred places and objects, visible ritual acts, gatherings of people at specific times and places (for worship, etc), organizational structures, sacred texts, creedal formulas, and so forth.
In relation to the New Testament and Christianity, it is the third meaning of “spiritualism” listed above—that is, spiritualism as a general religious phenomenon, with theological implications—which is to be our focus. While spiritualism may, indeed, be viewed as a general phenomenon, applicable to any religion, its application within Christianity is distinctive and special, due to the central role of the Holy Spirit ([to\] pneu=ma [to\] a%gion) in Christian thought and experience. This may be broadened to include Israelite/Jewish religious tradition, covering both Old and New Testaments (as well as much of the intertestamental Jewish literature), focusing on the idea of the Spirit of God [El-YHWH]. While the Christian understanding of the Spirit is unique, it is rooted in the older Israelite-Jewish theology.
Thus, from a Christian perspective, we may further define “spiritualism,” concisely, as follows:
A set of beliefs or tendencies which emphasize the role and place of the Spirit (of God) as the supreme principle governing all aspects of religious life and experience. According to this principle, the inward and invisible spiritual aspect takes priority over all outward/visible/material elements of religion.
The adjective “spiritualist” refers to something (or someone) characterized by spiritualism, while “spiritualists” is a general collective label for persons exhibiting spiritualist beliefs or tendencies.
As a religious phenomenon, spiritualism is similar in certain respects to the phenomena of mysticism and gnosticism—both terms which also tend to be used carelessly, with a similarly wide range of meaning. All three terms are very much context-dependent, and need to be used with great care, to avoid misunderstanding. In particular, “spiritualism,” in popular literature and media, is virtually indistinct from “spiritism,” used as an occult and parapsychology term (cf. above). This could not be further removed from the religious-theological meaning of the term, especially as applied within Christianity, to the place and role of the Holy Spirit.