painting of colorful head

I ran across an article written in 2000 by psychologist Robert Emmons that is well worth considering (I wish I had seen it earlier).  Emmons raises the possibility that spirituality might be considered a form of intelligence consisting of five components (I am quoting Emmons):

a)    The capacity for transcendence.

b)   The ability to enter into heightened states of consciousness.

c)    The ability to invest everyday activities, events, and relationships with a sense of the sacred.

d)   The ability to utilize spiritual resources to solve problems in living.

e)    The capacity to engage in virtuous behavior (to show forgiveness, to express gratitude, to be humble, to display compassion).

Emmons makes it clear that he is not implying that spirituality is only for problem solving or for negotiating daily life, or that it can be reduced to nothing more than a “set of cognitive abilities and capacities.”  Nor is he saying that there is not a supernatural or transcendent reality beyond our spiritual intelligence.

Emmons article provoked a debate regarding whether or not spirituality can indeed be considered a form of intelligence (Emmons himself noted that he was proposing the idea for consideration only).  Most of the discussion was technical in nature, revolving around the technical definitions of intelligence and whether Emmons’ spiritual intelligence qualifies.  We can leave that debate for others.

The Value of Spiritual Intelligence

The value of Emmons’ framework, in my view, is that it provides an additional and  very useful lens through which to view spirituality and especially spiritual formation.  There are other useful lenses we can use, of course, but this one might give us a clearer view of the internal changes we would like to bring about as we engage in deliberate spiritual formation activities.  I think the lens can also help us avoid focusing on one aspect spiritual formation to the exclusion of others (virtue as one example, prayer life as another).

Instead of focusing on a program of spiritual formation with very a generalized or abstract goal, Emmons’ list gives us some very specific things to consider.  How might we develop our capacity for transcendence — maybe prayer, worship, contemplative practices? How might we develop our ability to sanctify aspects of our daily life — perhaps scripture combined with small group reflection?   How might we develop our capacity for virtuous behavior?

There is much value in this.  To quote Emmons again:

Spiritual intelligence suggests new domains of intelligent action in the world.  Abilities in the spiritual realm are a significant aspect of what it means to be an intelligent, rational, and purposeful human being, striving to align one’s life with the Ultimate.

I would add that spirituality involves who we are as humans and how we hope to relate to the sacred and to each other.  Emmons’ spiritual intelligence lens has the potential to help us develop our capabilities in both respects.