It seems to be all the rage these days to claim to be spiritual but not religious. In this dichotomy, spirituality is characterized as an authentic searching after a connection with God, whereas religion is characterized as a false way, followed only by spiritually dead institutional dunderheads, who unwittingly succumb through either stupidity or spiritual vacuousness to empty regimes of liturgical banality. On the other hand, spirituality is for those who are enlightened, and in their enlightenment need no mediator between themselves and whatever or whoever they define as “God” (be that the Judeo-Christian God, or a more ethereal “source of being,” or even the universe, itself.). To these post-modern spiritual elites, those who are “religious” have placed their very small God in a very small box and seek to mold him (yes, him) in their own image. Religious people are legalists who are only concerned about the rules and not about a relationship with God. Indeed, do religious people even have a relationship with God at all?
I would suggest, though, that this dichotomy is a false one. In fact, I would dare suggest that spirituality is a part of religiosity. The word “religion” can be understood on two levels, collectively and particularly. For example, in its collective sense, we can speak of the “religion of Jesus,” as being Judaism of the Second Temple period. This would be the religion to which Jesus would have belonged, i.e., his religious affiliation. At a more precise level of classification, we can also speak of the “religion of Jesus” in the particular sense, namely, the content of the particular beliefs, way of life, and understanding of God of the individual man Jesus of Nazareth. This would be an examination of how Jesus, in particular, lived out his life and as a Second Temple Jew. In either case, we might ask that given the religion of Jesus what did his spirituality look like? Thus, to me at least, spirituality is a subset of the question of religion. Even in its particular sense, religion is always relational and always involves the community.
In religion, I suggest that we find three components: Faith or belief; the experience of God; and a life ethic lived out. Spirituality is the second component in which we as both individuals and as a community, through and experience of God, appropriate the faith and beliefs learned and bequeathed in community and bring that faith into action for the building up of the community and the world.
Thus, religion is an entire way of life that includes belief in the content of faith, the experience of the divine, and faith lived out. A religious life makes us accountable to ourselves, to our faith community, to fellow humankind, and ultimately, to God. While I do not mean to suggest that we cannot, or will not have individual experiences of the Spirit of God, which may be very personal and individual in our experience of them, rather I suggest that these experiences are for the building up of God’s kingdom.
A friend of mine sometimes teaches a course entitled the “Spirituality of the New Testament.” When he explained the course to me, it was clear that it was really about the “religion of the New Testament,” (spirituality be a part of what was studied). He lamented that it was difficult to get the students to engage academically using any critical skills because all they wanted to talk about was how THEY FELT about the subject. Because the course was a spirituality course, they felt that the subject matter was automatically subjective and that no one could question anything that they said (least of all the professor) because that meant their spirituality was being criticized – it was their spirituality, after all, who had any right to comment on it? The poor professor felt like it was impossible engage the material deeply or for the class to grow in understanding the subject matter. As such, their insistence on their own subjectivity inhibited not only their academic growth but also their spiritual growth. Most importantly, it became impossible for them to grow as a community.
To my mind, this story confirms that most people think of spirituality as a private, individual affair that is beyond the critique of community. Yet, I ask, how does one begin to grow in the spiritual life if they are not in conversation with fellow human beings who themselves are seeking to understand their own spiritual lives? Like love, a spirituality that is selfish can never grow and mature. We must also wonder if a selfish spirituality is even a spirituality at all.
St. Paul reminds us in I Corinthians that yes, there are many spiritual gifts, but there is one Spirit who gives them. However, these gifts amount to nothing if they are not used and offered in concert with the gifts given to other members of the community. The spiritual life is a sacred symphony, not a solo act. It is in sharing the gifts of our spiritual life in community that we learn to test the spirit and indeed learn if the spirit with which we commune is the Holy Spirit of God or some other force, even our own selfishness that seeks to draw us from the love of God. We test the Spirit in community, and in doing so we test our motives for seeking a spiritual life at all.
Any gift from God is given for the building up of the community, and so it is with the gift of faith. Faith teaches us about a God who reaches out to us in Christ, and acts to bring about transformation and hope not only in my life but also in the lives of others. And what is more, God invites us, in faith, to participate in this work of the transformation of the world. The building up of the Kingdom of God is not the work of one individual, but the work of Christ. We are invited as members of his body, working as part of a holy organism, a sacred symphony, to do our part to the edification of the whole. If one stumbles another support, if one mourns, another comforts. And likewise, is there not something wonderful to journey together in joy and excitement in moments of wonder and beauty. We were created for relationship and in relationship with walk through the sorrows and joys of this life. In relationship we seek the meaning of our lives. In relationship we seek to understand and serve God.
The more we learn about a God who seeks a relationship with us, the more we come to understand that it is God’s deep longing that we grow in our relationship with each other. For in experiencing and walking together in those moments of pain and joy, we come to recognize that Christ journeys with the community as a constant companion, yet Christ is not only a companion on the way, but a shepherd of our souls and captain of our lives. In our shared sense of what the Spirit is saying, not simply to us as individuals, but as the Church, we discern who God is calling us to be for a hurting and broken world. When we realize that the way of Christ is not a way that points to self, but rather to self-offering, we come face-to-face with the stark reality that a spirituality that only involves me can never be a Christian spirituality. A Christian spirituality is a spirituality rooted in community and all its challenges. It is a spirituality that is rooted in reconciliation, and thus it can be quite messy and require great courage at the confrontation of our darkest fears and deepest estrangements. It is a spirituality that is rooted in hope – a hope beyond my soul alone, but for every human soul. It is a spirituality that is rooted in dignity; the dignity of every human being, whether I like them or not. Most poignantly, authentic Christian Spirituality is shaped by our faith – faith learned in community, through the community – and shapes a way or rule of life that makes us participants in the divine work of the Kingdom. Authentic Christian spirituality animates the life of the people of God and is the means through which faith becomes action. When faith becomes action through the work of the Spirit of God, this is the religious life. It cannot be done without God or without God’s people.
Thus, I cannot for the life of me see how it can ever be enough to simply advocate a “me and God,” or “me and the universe” spirituality. To do so is to abdicate responsibility as part of the created order as part of a human race and ultimately, to embrace a spirituality of loneliness. We grow physically, emotionally, psychologically because we are part of a community who nurtures and cares for us (and for whom we offer mutual care). Without a community we will not grow into maturity. And so it is in our spiritual life. A spirituality that asserts simply “me and God” will never be a mature spirituality, nor will it make much of a difference to a broken world. To have a religion, to share a faith, to walk as part of a “way of faith,” in the shared experience of the life of the Spirit, is the road not only to individual spiritual maturity but the maturity of our shared life as the people of God.
Copyright 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This post may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, without the express, written consent of the author.