Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Are You Spiritual or Religious?

Spirituality is in, religion is out. According to one poll, 24 percent of Americans define themselves as being “spiritual but not religious.” Here in the greater Boston area, I bet the proportion is higher.

Who really knows what someone means when they say, “I am spiritual but not religious”? Today, I heard a person say, “Religion is for people who believe in hell; spirituality is for people who have already been there.” Others in the room nodded agreement, as if they had thought through the logic. I suspect the same group would have nodded over any specious argument as long as it justified spirituality while denying religion.

The Wiki definition of spirituality has a little something for everybody, which is the beauty of “spirituality”: it can be whatever you feel like making it mean on any particular day.

Spirituality can refer to an ultimate or an alleged immaterial reality; an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of his/her being; or the “deepest values and meanings by which people live.” Spiritual practices, including meditation, prayer and contemplation, are intended to develop an individual's inner life; spiritual experience includes that of connectedness with a larger reality, yielding a more comprehensive self; with other individuals or the human community; with nature or the cosmos; or with the divine realm. Spirituality is often experienced as a source of inspiration or orientation in life. It can encompass belief in immaterial realities or experiences of the immanent or transcendent nature of the world.

The number of vague and abstract terms requiring their own definitions (links) is not surprising. “Spirituality can refer to” all this and more.

I know when spirituality came into my life and religion temporarily left it. I was an adolescent, newly arrived at boarding school, when I stopped attending religious services regularly—this after finishing my day school years as an Episcopal altar boy who thought he might like to be a cleric.

My boarding school had daily “chapel,” which was as close to religion as a football is to a live pig. We had a school minister, formally known as “The Rev,” which will tell you how formally religious his role was, at least to us self-satisfied schoolboys.

It was quite simple really: being religious from this point on would have required several moral choices from me:
  1. I would have had to attend regular services at an inconvenient location off campus.
  2. I would have had to bind myself to a schedule imposed from outside. 
  3. I would have had to follow someone or something outside myself.
  4. I would have had to contend with laws or rules imposed on me from without. 
  5. I would have had to do something my peers were not doing.
Instead, I began to investigate alternative forms of spirituality: zen, yoga, Sufism, and the like. Mostly I read about them, although when Baba Ram Dass was in town, for example, I went to hear him speak and strum and chant. I heard of a friend who had donated her trust fund to the Maharaji. Another friend chased the Maharishi. There were what seemed to me a few truly screwball spiritual teachers like Bubba Free John, and there were others who weren’t so obviously screwball.

Through it all, I felt free, untethered. Religion would have meant just the opposite. Religion originally referred to a life bound by monastic vows. Re-legere or re-ligare refers either to reading again or being bound fast.

I did not want to be bound fast to anything. I wanted to be free, and so I chose a spiritual path. Thirty-five years later, that path came to a dead end, and I bound myself to the Catholic Church. Today, I am free in ways I never imagined possible.

So from my limited sample of one person’s experience, I draw my own limited conclusion. Spirituality is something for adolescents who want freedom; religion is for adults who are willing to be bound fast.

That leaves out children, but Jesus already told us what is in store for them: the Kingdom of Heaven.


  1. Webster: there is a tremendous freedom in discipline, isn't there? Culture confuses chaos with liberty or freedom.

  2. I don't necessarily think that religion and spirituality are mutually exclusive. I, for one, would define myself as both deeply spiritual and deeply religious. My religious faith is rooted in my Catholicism, in the ritual of attending mass, in Christ's teachings, in the tradition of the Church, in the beauty of the saints and compassion and mercy. And I think my spirituality got me to Catholicism. I think it's easy to look down upon "spirituality" because it is not as concrete as Religion, and therefore more difficult to define. But perhaps it's difficult to define because it's so deeply personal, so individualized. Spirituality is what connects us to our beliefs, the spark that may one day draw us toward religion. It's the belief that there is something more than our material world, but for each person it is different. Spirituality isn't just for lost boys and girls. It's for all of us.

  3. Marian,

    As usual, you have found the chink in my armor: a tendency to oversimplify. Your blog is proof that humanity does improve from one generation to the next.

    I have no objection to spirituality as such. What I object to is its being used as a substitute for religion, and often as a weapon (or shield) against religion, when the formerly religious "spiritual" person is rejecting authority, and obedience to authority. Very often in my experience this person is angry at or disappointed with a particular religion and is not willing to look past their relatively little gripe to the big truths they are missing out on. To do so, to reject a religion for gripes or for "freedom" from authority, is an adolescent move. It becomes more adolescent when the person justifies the move by saying "I can do and believe whatever I want, absolute truth be hanged. All that matters is what I believe." That attitude leads to war, not peace.

    If, on the other hand, "spirituality" is a genuine expression of man's search for ultimate meaning, for God, a search that is open to the path it logically leads to, whatever it may involve (even a church!), then I say, Bravo, spirituality! L,D

  4. A few years ago, a reporter asked the Dalai Lama about mixing religions; in response, he made some comments about people who change their religion as if they were changing their shirts; or those who engage in syncretism and take a little of this and a little of that. He said it's not healthy. He urged people to pick something and stick to it.

    I was glad to read such logical thoughts from him, considering how many new-age devotees claim to be following Buddhism. The person who tries to choose this and that from the spiritual smorgasbord is keeping himself as the permanent authority to judge -- which is far from humility, and contrary to the Buddhist message that the self is unimportant.

    It was good to find a point of agreement.

  5. My experience was very different from your experience. Thankfully, both of our journeys ended well, even though they ended differently.

    In my adolescence, I believed that Catholicism was the "right" religion, that the pope was infallible, that homosexuals were disordered, etc.

    In my adulthood, I embarked on a spiritual journey that took me far beyond my traditional thoughts about religion and spirituality.

    My journey was not casual or syncretic or untethered, and I learned more about Catholic history and theology than I learned in 12 years of Catholic education or 50 years of Catholic living. I learned about other traditions, too.

    As a result, I made an enriching and life-changing commitment to follow Jesus, by placing God and others at the center of my life.

    For me, this required giving away half of my belongings, quitting my six-figure job, and selling my 4,000 square foot house, to spend my time volunteering at a childrens hospital, a veterans clinic, and other worthy venues.

    I am certainly a better person, a better Christian, a better husband, and a better father. I am probably a "worse" Catholic, if one's Catholicism is measured by how tightly one is bound to the clergy or the Magisterium (which seems to be the Vatican litmus test.)

    I believe that religion is a means to an end, which enables us to become more spiritual. It is not an end it itself, as there is no value in becoming religious, but not spiritual.

    God gave us the Ten Commandments and the Great Commandment. He did not give us 600 pages of catechism or 2,000 pages of canon law.

    When we invent a catechism or a code of canon law, we can confuse knowledge and belief, and we can introduce opportunities for division among men or (worse) between God and men.

    As Henri Nouwen says, “Slowly, I came to realize that the differences between Catholic and Protestant, Christian and Buddhist, religious and secular, were not the kind of differences I thought they were; that there was a deeper unity below the surface… To move from exclusive notions of Christian community to a more universal and inclusive vision of the human family of God is a difficult journey and requires a mature and confident faith.”

    Basil Pennington found God among the Athonites in Greece and Bede Griffiths found God in an ashram in India and Thomas Merton found God among the Buddhists in Thailand.

    In my experience, most people who really follow Jesus also follow Buddha, Krishna, Lao Tzu, and Mohammed for much of the way, whether they realize it or not.

    There is nothing superficial or undisciplined about authentic spirituality, and there is nothing inherently disciplined or substantial about religion, when it does not produce radical transformation in our lives.

    That's my two cents. Thanks for listening.

  6. I share your experience, Webster, but also some aspects of the experiences described in the comments. Buddhism did very little for my spiritual growth, probably because I needed emotional involvement, which I found when I fell in love with Jesus. In Him, I also found freedom. My brother, 17 years older than me, maintains that he is both a Hindu and a Christian, but he hates the catholic church. He's an angry person with a big ego (he teaches yoga and enjoys to be called master).I don't agree with all the teachings of the Church, but I chose to stay. After all I'm Italian!

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