Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The Futile Comparison of Spirituality and Religion

I have often wondered what people mean when they insist, sometimes rather haughtily, that they are "spiritual but not religious".  I already know what I think, but I wonder if those who insist on their primary, if superior, spirituality can articulate in a meaningful, communal way exactly what they are trying to express beyond, "I don't do church", because this seems to be all I can draw from such conversations.  Maybe I am looking too narrowly, too critically, but in the end the safe distance from "organized religion" seems to be at the forefront of their being.

I readily agree that merely going to church as opposed to attending worship services, more often than not, can be an empty practice in futility.  Such an expression that is typically associated with being strictly religious can come across as more of a habit than an intentional act seeking expression and purpose beyond oneself.  Indeed habits themselves can be and often are executed almost as mindlessly as much dogma associated with religion in general.  We do have our religious worship practices, we have our pre-printed bulletins with the order of worship (a program?), prayers and creeds, and we have a definitive start AND stop time (better stop before noon, preacher!) at which time all religious expression comes to a grinding halt in deafening silence.  Does this carelessness and mindlessness, however, indicate an inherent inferiority to spirituality which seeks nothing more than self-justification and feeling good?

If being religious is, as 20th-century Christian theologian and existentialist Paul Tillich expresses, "asking passionately the question of the meaning of our existence and being willing to receive answers, even if the answers hurt", then what is so futile and dogmatic about being religious as an outward expression of a spirituality from within?  Where is the dividing line between religion and spirituality especially when so many morally superior spiritualists neither ask questions nor willingly care to receive "even hurtful answers" (spirituality seems to avoid these), answers that compel us to move beyond self and into community as Jesus commands His followers? 

If I sound bias, it is because I am.  I am a religionist.  My experience with spiritualists has often been as negative as religion seems to be to so many spiritualists.  From my vantage point, spiritualists seek not to be associated with the hypocrisy with which the religionists seem so easily associated (say one thing, yet do another).  Spiritualists are associated strictly with their own feelings, their own moods, and their own agendas, thereby avoiding hypocrisy by being true only to oneself.  Spiritualists in general are not interested in community except on their own terms, and Christian spiritualists seem concerned only with whether or not they have been assured a place at the Heavenly Banquet.  What happens between then and now seems inconsequential.

I freely admit that my religion can often be a hindrance to genuine and earnest spiritual expression especially when following an order.  My religion and its liturgy, however, lend form and substance and direction to whatever spirituality I may express within a centuries-old tradition and The Word.  My religion compels me to "do" in accordance with commandments which come from the Holy Scriptures themselves (incidentally, there are more than "ten" commandments), but to "do" is not based on any conceived "merit" system.  Rather, to "do" is to honor the One who gives life and offers life to those for whom we "do".  Based on my own experiences, a strict spirituality sans any religious expression becomes strictly about "me" and how I may be feeling at any given time.  My religion helps me to discern my sense of spirituality by challenging me to "test" whatever spirits may be reaching my consciousness (1 John 4:1-3).

What this must necessarily come down to, then, is that spirituality and religion are not at odds with one another except in how we choose to define one as superior to the other based on incomplete observations.  Spirituality without religious expression is as dead as any religion without a substantial spiritual component.  After all, would we religionists deny THE Spirit by denying the value of spirituality?  And would spiritualists deny the value of religion as uniquely defined by St. James: "Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this; to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world" (James 1:27), containing a necessary communal component of religious expression?

The truth is religion AND spirituality can be hindrances to personal spiritual growth within a religious community of faith especially when we draw lines in the sand.  The Church's growth is stunted, and many innocents are misled into empty relationships that simply do not exist and cannot be fulfilled or fulfilling.  It is not fair judge either based strictly on opinions without understanding how each can benefit mutual relationships to the same God.  In fact each can aid the other to enhance these relationships and build a much stronger Church in a world gone mad.  Keeping each other honest in mutual accountability is as much a component of discipleship as bringing someone to Christ for the first time.  Let us find The Way - together. 

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