By Gerald L. Finch


"…if religion is to survive, it will have to be profoundly personalized."3

The Relationship between Spiritual Intelligence, Meaning, and the Sacred

Danah Zohor and Ian Marshall define spiritual intelligence as the capacity to place our lives in a meaningful context.6 Obviously, this pursuit of meaning can be via sacred and/or secular means. When we speak about applying spiritual intelligence in our religion, however, one can see how our religion should—to a large extent-- be an expression of those values, beliefs and practices that add rich meaning to our lives.

Thus spiritual intelligence can be strengthened by both secular and religious means; if we decide, however, to address spiritual intelligence via the sacred, we often are talking about religion. And when we do this, we are often placing meaning at the center of our religion. We understand that one of the purposes of religion is to increase our spiritual intelligence through sacred meanings. We may chose to do this via many means and in this paper I would like to mention how achieving/creating, meaningful experiences, attitude adjustments in unavoidable suffering situations, purposes and missions, and spiritual practices can increase our spiritual intelligence in the sacred dimension.

Defining Religion

There are a variety of ways to define religion. In this paper, however, I define religion as the junction of meaning and the sacred. Expressed in a different way, religion is a search for meaning in ways related to the sacred. It has to do with discovering, building, changing, and holding on to the things people care about in ways that are tied to the sacred. This religious journey involves both pursued purposes and destinations and the activities and practices used in the journey.

Allow me to justify my choice of both "meaning" and "sacred" in my definition of religion. In one study in the United States, more than 2000 people were asked why they were religious. The most common answer was that religion gives meaning to life.2 Many people believe that meaning giving is the most essential function of religion. With this view, we are not only concerned with issues of survival and longevity, but perhaps more importantly why should we survive? Albert Camus wrote in The Myth of Sisyphus, "There is but one truly serious problem, and that is …judging whether life is or is not worth living…." Religion can help us answer this critical question.

There is another important reason for selecting meaning as part of the definition. One can argue -- as did Viktor Frankl -- that all of the needs, whether the need for satisfying hunger or for gratifying the sex drive, or for achieving status, or for attaining power are secondary to the need for meaning. If we can accept the central importance of meaning in our personal lives, why shouldn’t we make it central to our religious perspective as well?

I briefly described why I selected meaning and now I would like to explain why "sacred" is important. What is the sacred? One way to view the sacred is to think of it as that which is related to deity, a supernatural being, transcendent forces, energy, and that which is associated with these higher powers. For some of us, our lives are replete with meaning and we might not need the sacred to live meaningful lives. For others, however, the sacred is a principal source of meaning. For example, there is an interesting argument that sacred meanings are more helpful to the elderly, poor, and less educated. The logic behind this argument is that these people have less access to secular resources and power and therefore, religion and the sacred represent an alternative, a resource that can be accessed more easily. In addition to those of us who do not need sacred meanings and those who rely mainly on the sacred for meaning, there is another category of people: Those who view meaning as I do and find rich meaning in both the secular and sacred realms.

Some people who include the sacred in their concept of meaning believe that there are a variety of ways to approach and experience the sacred. With this perspective, we can understand why so many religions and other spiritual approaches have something worthwhile to offer. Pathways to sacred meaning are truly different and they do not always travel in the same or in parallel directions.

With meaning and the sacred at the center of religion, we tend to be less concerned about the objective, historical, factual truths of specific religions and more interested in how we define, discover, and create sacred meanings. This approach has an essential element of tolerance and acceptance because sacred meanings vary from person to person depending on a host of factors such as personality and culture.

Sacred Meanings Related to Activities such as Achieving, Accomplishing, and Creating

According to logotherapy (meaning-centered psychotherapy founded by Viktor Frankl), achieving, accomplishing and creating are principal sources of meaning. If we add the phrase "related to the sacred", we can see how sacred meanings can be affected. Within a religious context, we can identify different categories of activities such as intrinsic and derivative. Intrinsic activities are those that are meaningful in themselves, whereas derivative activities are those that are meaningful because they play a useful role toward worthwhile objectives which are meaningful. If a worthwhile objective is God and we place great value doing things for God, our achievements, accomplishments and creations can take on additional meaning, a sacred meaning. Furthermore, there is another meaning producing benefit for doing things for God instead of mainly for ourselves: self-transcendence. Sometimes by looking beyond ourselves we can best reach out to find intimacy, purpose, and a sense of meaning for living.

Sacred Meanings Related to Experiences

For many people, experiencing love, listening to music, enjoying art, nature, and so on are significant sources of meaning. Again, if we add the phrase "related to the sacred", we can see another connection between experiences and the sacred. To illustrate this point, let’s take the experience of love and see how it could relate to the sacred. The meaning power of love is rather obvious particularly if we take a moment to realize how uncommon it is for someone who is deeply in love to say that his or her life has no meaning. Now if we relate love to God and if we love God with all our heart, I am certain that many of us would feel that our lives are more meaningful. In addition there is another meaning benefit from this sacred love. If we love God with all our heart, does this love stay confined to God? In most cases, I think not. The love usually extends to other people, animals, etc. And when this happens, often the love is returned to us increasing the meaning power of the original love we had for God.

Sacred Meanings Related to Attitude Adjustment in Unavoidable Suffering Situations

Another important source of meaning is through unavoidable suffering accompanied by an attitude adjustment that itself provides meaning. Again when we connect this to the sacred, we realize an important sacred meaning. One of the most profound meanings available is derived from the freedom of choosing our response to our suffering. In other words, how we face our own suffering could provide enormous meaning to our lives.

Accepting God as a partner during our suffering can provide sacred meaning. With this view, each of us and God are active partners in coping with our situation and both share the responsibility for coping. In those suffering situations where we are powerless, surrendering to God’s power or accepting God as a partner is a viable and meaningful option. This is the point Brenner makes in this illustration:

Ceasing to resist and self-surrender may be red flags to many people, including mental health professionals. Giving up seems to contradict everything we have been told about problem solving. Yet there are times when surrender may be the most appropriate form of coping. Winning by Letting Go: Barry had been skin-diving near a sewage plant at the local beach. Venturing too close to the intake pipe, he’d been sucked in a flood of seawater into the pipe. He struggled against the violent pull of the water until he died, not from being mangled, but from exhaustion. "There’s a flotation tank in all those plants," sighed Steven. "If he hadn’t struggled, he would have floated unharmed to the top."1


Sacred Meanings Related to Purposes or Missions

Purposes and missions to live for can provide sacred meanings. One thing that can make them sacred is the belief that the purpose or mission is transcendental in nature-- the purpose or mission is more important than we are as individuals. Living for a purpose or missions is a choice to dedicate and commit ourselves to something or someone beyond ourselves. This means we turn away from a primary concern for ourselves and toward a concern for others. Steve Sapp and Mary Richards, in a workshop at the American Society on Aging Annual meeting in 1996 told the story about a group of Jews were fleeing Germany during the holocaust:

Having to cross a mountain pass to reach safety, some of the older members began to tire and give out, asking that they be left behind rather than slow down the group. A number of younger people, fearing their own safety, were willing to agree. A wise young person responded by saying, "We realize that you are tired and infirm and that you just want to sit down and rest. But we have these young women with their babies and they are so tired from carrying them this far. Will each of you take a baby and just carry it as far as you can before you give out? Then we’ll leave you there." Everyone in the group made it across the mountains.5


Those who choose to believe in purposes or missions as sacred meanings have a reason for being, a special mission or calling in life. However because these purposes are sacred, we do not construct them by ourselves; they are constructed for us by God. In this sense, we do not need to create a sacred purpose, but rather to discover the one or ones already created for us by God. The question is not what we expect from life, but what God expects from us. The question we may ask is what ways can I fulfill the sacred tasks that are waiting for me to undertake?

Because sacred purposes are assigned by God, we may assume that there is a right and true meaning for each of us. If our sacred purpose involves our work, we can even say that we have found our spiritual vocation.

Sacred Meanings Related to Spiritual Practices

Which spiritual practices best strengthen our spiritual intelligence, our ability to add meaning to our lives? Meaningful spiritual practices – which can include activities such as prayer, reading scripture, meditation, fellowship at church -- vary from person to person and are partly determined by personality, culture, psychological issues, and other factors. Because of this, there are no preordained sets of practices that work for everyone. For example extroverted personality types tend to prefer practices involving the companionship of others, whereas introverts may prefer more time alone perhaps in meditation, prayer, etc. There are several cultural issues that could affect spiritual practices. One is Geert Hofstede’s cultural dimension of "masculine versus feminine".4 Masculine cultures—also called quantity of life cultures--tend to view the roles of men and women as being quite different and there is more focus on doing and achieving things. On the other hand, feminine cultures—also called quality of life cultures--view the roles of men and women as being quite similar and there is more value placed on quality of life. This cultural difference could affect spiritual practices in the sense that masculine cultures and religions could define spiritual practices differently for men and women. An example of a psychological issue is "internal versus external locus of control". Some people have an internal locus of control (the belief that their future is in their hands) and others have an external locus of control (the belief that God, fate, or luck determines their destiny). Each of these types of people will approach God and their lives differently and need different spiritual approaches and practices.

Most of us have experienced spiritual practices assigned to us by an institutionalized religion. Some of these practices were probably established by the founders of the religions who were heavily influenced by their personalities and perhaps culture in defining the spiritual practices that they thought would be best. This is normal and natural and it helps to explain why some spiritual practices give deep meaning to some and not to others. Furthermore, it explains why some people must change or augment the spiritual practices of their traditional religion. And of course we find other people who must totally depart from institutional religion and create their own religion with spiritual practices that are suitable for them. Finally, there appears to be a growing number of people who decide to establish a set of spiritual practices independent of any religion, personal or institutional.

We really need a unique, personal approach to spiritual practices. How do we find the spiritual practices that are right for us? I recommend that everyone who is interested in enriching their lives with new or different spiritual practices understand their personality type and experiment with variety of practices. There are several excellent books that offer suggestions. A few of them are:

Alexander, Scott. (1990). Everyday Spiritual Practice: Simple Pathways for Enriching Your Life. Boston: Skinner House Books.

Brussat, Frederic and Mary Ann. (2000). Spiritual RX: Prescriptions for Living a Meaningful Life. New York: Hyperion.

Richardson, P. (1996). Four Spiritualities: Expressions of Self, Expressions of Spirit. Pala Alto: Davies-Black Publishing.



Spiritual intelligence plays an essential role in religion. Clearly understanding this role and applying meaning in sacred dimensions can significantly increase the meaning-yielding power of your religion. This understanding can enrich your life in sacred ways you never thought possible.



GERALD L. FINCH, Ph.D. [] is a professor of Existential Psychology, Spiritual Psychology, and Psychology of Religion at Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador. He is the Director of the Center for Personal Religion (, Director for The Lunar Society of Quito (an organization that meets at full moon to discuss philosophical, psychological, and/or religious topics), and a Managing-Director of MasLatam, a cultural advisory organization.


Brenner, E. (1985), Winning by Letting Go: Control without Compulsion, Surrender without Defeat. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Clark, W. H. (1958). How do Social Scientists Define Religion? Journal of Social Psychology, 47, 143-147.

Frankl, V. (1985). The Unconscious God. New York: Washington Square Press.

Hofstede, G. (1991). Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. Berkshire: McGraw-Hill Book Company.

Kimble, M. A. (Ed.). (2000). Viktor Frankl’s Contribution to Spirituality and Aging. New York: Haworth Pastoral Press.

Zohar, D. and Marshall I. (2000). SQ: Connecting with our Spiritual Intelligence. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing.






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