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:
- I would have had to attend regular services at an inconvenient location off campus.
- I would have had to bind myself to a schedule imposed from outside.
- I would have had to follow someone or something outside myself.
- I would have had to contend with laws or rules imposed on me from without.
- I would have had to do something my peers were not doing.
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.