Will spirituality replace religion?

Every Tuesday, Jean Duchesne, co-founder of the international review “Communio”, deciphers the fundamental movements that cross society. There is a tendency today to prefer the spiritual to the fullness of the religious, he observes. But faith needs this openness to the depths of itself so as not to lock itself into a system.

These days, religions have a lot of bad press, but (except in China) spiritualities are rather honorable. Obtuse materialism certainly still exists, but no longer has the wind in its sails. The tone was set by François Mitterrand, socialist president who, at the end of his final address on December 31, 1994, knowing that he only had a few months left to live, declared: “I believe in the forces of the spirit “, immediately adding:” And I will not leave you. Beautiful confession of faith in the immortality of the soul!

French “spiritualism”

Spirituality therefore does not interfere, while all religious allegiance is asked to remain discreet. It’s a little weird, because spirituality is after all just internalized religiosity. But it is personal, intimate and free, whereas religions appear to be social phenomena, observable and conditioning their followers. Beyond the diversity of beliefs and behaviors, spirituality proves to be a universal reality, while denominational affiliations separate and divide. It should be noted that it was only in the 20th century that we began to speak of “spirituality” outside of Christianity. We can see here an aspect of the individualism allowed to all the beneficiaries of notorious progress in security and even in comfort, which offer the means of autonomy and introspection.

In fact, since the beginning of the 19th century, mainly in France, there has been a philosophical current known as “spiritualist”, independent of religions. Jean-Louis Vieillard-Baron, professor emeritus at the University of Poitiers, retraces its history in French Spiritualism (Cerf, 2021): from Maine de Biran (1766-1824) to Henri Gouhier (1898-1994), via Victor Cousin (1792-1867), Ravaisson (1813-1900), Lachelier (1832-1918), Boutroux (1845-1921), Bergson (1859-1941), Brunschvicg (1869-1944) and Lavelle (1883-1951). These authors, who had their hour of glory between the Sorbonne and the Institut, were eclipsed by the “(German-speaking) masters of suspicion”: Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, who imposed themselves more (without being read) to the general public and in culture.

The charms of the “spiritual”

For these figures of French philosophy, “spirit” (without a capital E) is superior and prior to matter, the reality of which they do not, however, underestimate. Their approach reappears, without us thinking of them, in 2017 with candidate Emmanuel Macron. “My relationship to spirituality continues to nourish my thinking,” he confides to Life. “I have always assumed the dimension of verticality”, he assures the JDD. To the question of whether there is in him “a dimension of spirituality”, he answers (in a passage then not broadcast from an interview for FR3): “Yes, there is one. And in any case, the conviction that there is a transcendence, yes. Something beyond. which exceeds you. Who preceded you, and who will remain. »

Everything happens as if spirituality had become an advantageous substitute for religion. It has no predetermined form or content: everyone shapes his own as he pleases.

Our current president is obviously not an isolated case. Everything happens as if spirituality had become an advantageous substitute for religion. It has no predetermined form or content: everyone shapes his own as he pleases. It even allows you to personalize your religion if you have one, but also to draw freely from any, or even all, and to enter into dialogue with their followers without proselytizing or complex. It confers the “plus” of a double opening: on the one hand to a beyond of the sensible world and its mechanisms without heart or soul; on the other hand to others, since this inner and adogmatic quest does not impose anything on them, goes so far as to be attentive to theirs and has, as a bonus, poetic, aesthetic, humanist resonances, etc.

The Spirit and the Flesh

Some are no doubt not far from estimating that this subjective religiosity is the main obstacle on which the Christian faith now stumbles. Indeed, at the strict level of its meaning, “mind” designates the reality of mental activity (conscious and unconscious), but without guaranteeing the autonomy or the non-contingency of what is thus perceived and/or influences the psyche, whether concrete objects or immaterial forces also called “spirit(s)” or “spiritual”, since they are of the same order as the human mind which foresees its existence. We must take a further step, without fear of passing from philosophy to a theology, to envisage a freedom, a will, a plan and even one (or more) identity(ies) or personality(ies) beyond one’s own aspirations — in other words, a revelation.


Whether we like it or not, the discovery of the “forces of the spirit” is not a purely individual illumination. Apparently spontaneous intuitions are nourished by traditions, that is to say transmissions, chains of testimonies, because man is a social creature and is part of a story. He is not pure spirit, and that is why he must (or should) admit that the “spiritual” he discerns can manifest itself within the carnal and the conceptualizations it underlies – this is that is, to use language, to inspire that it be rationalized in doctrine in order to be communicated and collectively welcomed in liturgies, and even (if one pushes the logic a little) to actually intervene through tangible signs – which the Catholic tradition calls sacraments.

No religion without spirituality

One could therefore be irritated to see that the spirituality that does without religion is a kind of indecisive availability, linked to an unfinished thought. One could be indignant by noting, with the Caen university Max Poulain (in Spirituality and Consumption, ISTE, 2021), that the “spiritual” is now a selling point. One could still worry that ecology preaches morality by preaching a conversion of mentalities and strongly resembles an invading religiosity, which certainly has dogmas, but no institutions or rites. We would be wrong, however, because spirituality is not necessarily cheap religion or superfluous luxury. It is necessary to open up instead of locking itself into a system.

It is ruinous to separate the inside and the outside, the subjective and the objective, or the inexpressible feeling and the observable.

A spirituality without religion is no worse than a religion without spirituality: in the first case, one dulls oneself by playing the angel at a lower cost; and in the second, we are left with a superficiality that is both mutilating and vain. It is ruinous to separate the inside and the outside, the subjective and the objective, or the inexpressible feeling and the observable. However, it is advisable here not to reduce lived experience to what can be formulated and thus shared. The mystics are not only those to whom it is moreover given to recount their experience. If a number of gurus are (among other things) skilful jugglers, no doubt there are many more authentic unknown saints who do not have a mission to testify but nevertheless pray for us.

Free without nonsense

One reason why we should not despise the spirituality that is displayed is that, where without it differences remain barriers, it offers a kind of fraternity, insofar as it recognizes something common, even if it is a undoubtedly of Judeo-Christian origin. This is true, of course, in ecumenical relations (including with Israel still alive) and also interreligious, and even with humanisms of all feathers and ramages – all these exchanges being today more vital than ever. What, ultimately, characterizes spirituality is adherence to a certain gratuity, with the irresistible feeling that, even if one does not master it, it is far from being absurd.


Will spirituality replace religion?