Spirituality isn’t just a social, emotional, or cultural aspect of life. It’s also biological, passed from generation to generation at a cellular level. Adrian Gellel reflects on the many elements of spirituality and how they interact to create specific kinds of spiritual experiences and ways of being. He draws from evolutionary theories and the study of epigenetics (the working of genes) to explain how.
Welcome. I’m Karen-Marie Yust with Real Kids, Real Faith, here with my colleague Erin Reibel, and also with Professor Adrian Gellel, who is Professor of Early Childhood and Primary Education at the University of Malta, and also a longtime member of the International Association for Children’s Spirituality. We’re really glad that he’s able to be here today to talk with us about what is spirituality.
Yes, thank you so much for joining us. And when we think about spirituality, people often define it in terms of wellbeing or relational consciousness or special kind of consciousness. How well do you think this captures the nature of spirituality?
When speaking about spirituality, it’s difficult to find a specific definition. I like to speak about elements of spirituality. So yes, those are elements that contribute to spirituality. I would also add another important factor, which would be the existential, the ability to make sense and meaning of the surrounding.
The reason being that spirituality is about being, it’s not a task that you perform, or specific, that it is found in specific elements or environments. More than anything, it’s about being anywhere and everywhere. So, spirituality is not limited to the church, it’s not limited to prayer time, but it’s anything that we do, including eating together or listening to pop music, or driving, and observing what is around you.
Why? Because we are both physical and spiritual. I don’t think that there’s a moment when we say, “Oh, I’m not physical here. I’m just spiritual,” or, “Okay, I’ll attend to my physicality.”
Well, obviously you can, but you’re physical all 24 hours, seven days a week. I don’t know how many years of life we have here, but it’s always, and the same happens with spirituality. So, it’s there. And because it’s there, there are a number of elements.
I think one thing that … And I’m going back in time to a classical study done by Robert Coles from Harvard University. One thing that we know is we are all pilgrims and children are pilgrims as well. And they show us this from the very infant stage. We are pilgrims who continuously trying to make sense of our surroundings and our lives. In the process, there are obviously a number of elements that contribute to that. I think at least for the time being, that should suffice.
That’s really very helpful, this expansion of the definition of spirituality to reflect many different elements, but also to reflect how we are in our very being 24/7, in some way. Could spirituality be a part of our evolution as human beings then?
Yes. Yes, I do believe so. Just as humans evolved, well, all creatures actually, evolved physically, in humanity there’s also a spiritual dimension that evolved. I would say spirituality, at least from what we know up till now, that pertains only to the homo sapien sapiens. Why? Because it needs a number of elements that bring together the wholeness of being. Namely, rationality, emotions, the ability to link the social-emotional and the cognitive and metacognitive.
And I think from what we know, this is an ability that is only found in humanity. We do not observe these elements in other elements. Mind you, there are elements in, say for instance, wolves, which we share. That is, wolves work in packs. They have a community and probably in our evolutionary journey, and I’m not saying as homo sapiens, but much, much, much before, there’s this element and need to be together, to form a community.
Now, there are also other elements which I would like to point to, which is this fascinating element that in all living creatures, there is a connection. We’re all connected together through the genome. We have the same biological language that connects us.
Over time, thousands, if not billions of years, in humanity that has evolved in such a way as humans can interact not only with their biological data, but also with their environment. So spirituality, on the one hand is rooted in biology, but then it is also developed and expressed through the actual physical context we’re in and the social context we’re in.
So, here in Malta, I’m totally far from where you are, the climate, the sea, the fact that we are an island, does contribute to a specific type of spirituality, which is very different for instance, from the spirituality of the mountains. I’m thinking for example in Italy, just a few miles away from us, living on the … I’m thinking it in Italian, the Apennine [mountains], but I’m not translating it in English. So, why? Because it calls to a distinct way how to interact with the environment.
Then there’s the social aspect. In our case, for at least the past thousand years, we have a Catholic language which built on a feminine spirituality, which has always been part of the traditions, at least going back for 5,000 years. So, we find it in Neolithic, the Neolithic goddess which we have at quite a few temples here, then Ishtar, Juno, so you had a devotion centering on motherhood, nurturing, fertility … and in the end now, through the millennial devotion and huge spiritual element toward Our Lady in Catholic tradition, the same need for a spirituality centered on nurture, motherhood and protection.
So, you have a spirituality that is expressed through the physical environment, but then you have a social element, a historical element, which continues to mold. Even if you’re not part of a religion, even if you’re not part of a defined group, there’s a web of symbols that has been passed on from generation to generation, that in some way conditions the way how we access and express. I think it’s there, but you need to access it and express it.
Well, that is very helpful and I really appreciate how you’re thinking about this in terms of the entire holistic background of an individual. So, from historical, to social, to one’s physical context. And I wanted to go back to that biological piece. So biologically speaking, how is one’s spirituality passed on from generation to generation?
There’s one thing which I’m still reflecting upon, but I already did mention that every living creature since the very, very first cell that appeared 3.7 billion years ago, has passed on genetic information from one cell to another, until eventually it passed on to all, be it plants or…. In that moving transition, there’s the adaptation, there’s the information of specific species or even, and we know now through epigenetics, of particular stress that the parent plant passes on to its offspring. And the same, we know that this happens, or at least there are indications more than anything, that this also happens in humanity.
So for instance, there are studies linking with the traumas of parents being passed on to their offspring biologically, not culturally. So, it’s not a question of listening to the stories of the trauma of my mother and father, but biologically the cells have the information of that trauma. There’s an interesting study on the Holocaust, for instance, on Holocaust survivors and more than anything, on their offspring. So, we pass on how we interacted with the environment. We pass on our experiences culturally, definitely, and that maybe is the most efficient way how we work, but also, and we tend to underestimate this, even though there is a growing corpus of information on this, biologically.
Now, in passing on memory, memory is … I would say memory is linked to spirituality. If we go through our great religious traditions. What are the great religious traditions, but the passing of memory from generation to generation? It’s the memory of the first most important spiritual experience, the experience of the Israelites coming from the Exodus, the experience of Christians in Easter, the experience of Siddhartha, who finds enlightenment, and there’s a culture that passes on that memory.
Now, we also know that human existential experiences, or human important experiences, might also be being passed on at least for a limited numbers of generations, also biologically. So, memory is also the way how spirituality is … let’s not use the word “transformed”, but the way how it continues to evolve with humanity.
It’s truly fascinating to think about how not only is our spirituality something that we encounter through culture, but spirituality is something that’s sort of written in our bodies as well, and that we are passing along biologically, culturally through these many different elements that are there.
Thank you, Professor Gellel for expanding our thinking about spirituality, offering us some things to ponder, and I think suggesting some directions that your own research is going in that we’ll want to keep checking back to see what else you’ve learned. Thanks so much.
- Prof. Adrian-Mario Gellel - L-Università ta' Malta
- Robert Coles — The Inner Lives of Children | The On Being Project
- Intergenerational consequences of the Holocaust on offspring mental health: a systematic review of associated factors and mechanisms
- How Kids Learn to Remember | RKRF
- Children’s Invisible Companions | RKRF