Moving beyond clarity: Towards a thin, vague, and useful understanding of spirituality in nursing care

J Swinton, Stephen Pattison

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

96 Citations (Scopus)


Spirituality is a highly contested concept. Within the nursing literature, there are a huge range and diversity of definitions, some of which appear coherent whereas others seem quite disparate and unconnected. This vagueness within the nursing literature has led some to suggest that spirituality is so diverse as to be meaningless. Are the critics correct in asserting that the vagueness that surrounds spirituality invalidates it as a significant aspect of care? We think not. It is in fact the vagueness of the concept that is its strength and value. In this paper, we offer a critique of the general apologetic that surrounds the use of the language of spirituality in nursing. With the critics, we agree that the term 'spirituality' is used in endlessly different and loose ways. Similarly, we agree that these varied definitions may not refer to constant essences or objects within people or in the world. However, we fundamentally disagree that this makes spirituality irrelevant or of little practical utility. Quite the opposite; properly understood, the vagueness and lack of clarity around the term spirituality is actually a strength that has powerful political, social, and clinical implications. We develop an understanding of spirituality as a way of naming absences and recognizing gaps in healthcare provision as well as a prophetic challenge to some of the ways in which we practise health care within a secular and sometimes secularizing context such as the National Health Service.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)226-237
Number of pages12
JournalNursing Philosophy
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2010


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