Spiritual rather than religious

Conversations online can be as real as the ones we have with the people around us.  A brief little remark I made to a Facebook post from my friend Romy Shiller concerning Roland Joffé’s The Mission has spurred additional conversation.  Please note, before reading any further, I am just a guy who has opinions, and not to be mistaken for any sort of expert (ha…. that will become obvious if you keep reading, AND the fact that while i sometimes make references to other religions i can’t claim to have knowledge of anything far beyond my own experience).  What’s more, I am still far from having figured any of this out, and so would welcome comments & feedback from others.

I think Romy plans to comment on the film at some point.  I made the remark that this film reminds me of the news factoid I’d recently heard.  I understand that “spiritual rather than religious” is now the biggest denomination in the USA, although it may be apocryphal.

It’s based on something i recall reading somewhere.  But perhaps it will make more sense if I explain myself.

I understand “religion” as a system, the combination of beliefs, rules, regulations, and also, the associated institutional processes.  A church encompasses buildings, laws and ideas.  It’s also people, whether they’re on membership lists, sitting in front of the pastor on Sunday, or the ones who only come a few times per year.  A religion is an abstraction that comes to fruition in the practices of churches, synagogues, mosques, or whatever buildings celebrate that particular religion( and one can even imagine religions requiring no buildings).  The practices of the religion began with a series of beliefs, that we sometimes speak of as a “belief system”.  While that belief system is maybe the pre-requisite for a religion, I understand the religion in the institutional and cultural processes that follow, the practices and habits that create communities of faith.

Spirituality, on the other hand, is a much vaguer idea, I would say.  While there are many religions, each of them has rules and books, such that one knows the difference between say, a Presbyterian and a Roman Catholic, between Sunni and Shia, between Orthodox and Reform Judaism.  Spirituality is not systematic in this way.  By my understanding, spirituality is a necessary component of any religion.  If I may be permitted to make a crude analogy, spirit is like the whispering voice in the ears of the prophets.  It is only afterwards—when the whispers have been recorded, and likely turned into the basis for argument, doctrine, and even dogma—that we end up with religions.

Spirituality can exist outside the boundaries of organized religion.  People feel things and have intuition and inspiration, without necessarily anything coalescing into a text or even an explicit word that can be passed on.  I would say that spirituality is as individual as the beauty that is in the eye of a single beholder.  When someone tries to take individual insight and make it intelligible to many people, that is where religion becomes possible;  you have to experience some sort of paraphrasing, a translation of something individual into something that is meant to be read by all people.  Many people hunger for direction, for a sense of meaning to their lives, and so the impulse to share inspiration and to pass along messages that are informed by the spirit is an old one.  If films are any guide, it’s not such a good idea–this business of systematizing beliefs into religions– considering how many horrible things are done in the name of religion.  Hollywood, naturally, distorts the real world.  But long before Hollywood, we had witch-burning, Christians thrown to lions, wars of conquest in the New World.

To loosely paraphase Love Story, Erich Segal’s novel from the 1960s spirituality is belief without having to say you’re sorry.  Does that seem unfair?  Spirituality is a wonderful way to opt out of the systems for morality that normally posit consequences for misbehaviour in the afterlife.

Speaking of belief, I believe religion is man-made.  Am I wrong? I believe that Jesus, Allah, God, or any other deity, must never be blamed for the misconduct of humans, acting in the name of their deity.  Humans commit all sorts of follies in the name of their gods.  I think this observation –that the greatest evils in the world are often those done in the name of a god—is one of the reasons people sometimes fear religion and prefer a safe and undefined spirituality in place of religion.

After all:

  • Spirituality doesn’t have the issues with gender, doesn’t impose second class status upon women or demand that they behave differently.
  • Spirituality doesn’t have the same issues with law, punishment & guilt.  That’s all the result of human systems, based on what’s in religion

I would argue that spirit is what speaks to prophets.  Except in rare cases, the spirit whispers to select people fortunate to be chosen in this way as prophets or channels of something divine.  But when we paraphrase what was said and try to systematize it, we end up with “thou shalt”… do this or that.

The challenging part within religions are never the warm and fuzzy parts. Nobody objects to eternal life or forgiveness.  People object to being told they have to give up something, such as adultery or lying or stealing.  We may know we’re supposed to be good, but the authoritarian side of religion is much harder to reconcile than the warm fuzzy security blanket that is spirituality.

But some of the rules seem ridiculously out of date:

  • Are kosher rules anything more than a prudent defense in the ancient world against trichinosis; in other words, given proper refrigeration, what’s wrong with pork?
  • Are the rules against homosexuality just another objection from a particular time, when men were supposed to reproduce?  the same probably applies to premarital sex, and shouldn’t be confused with concerns about adultery

It’s particularly ironic when—for example – the Bible contains so many obsolete passages concerning the proper rules for polygamy, sacrificial animals & slavery, rules that are comfortably ignored by practicing members of that faith.  How is it that people can cherry pick, singling out some rules to ignore, while using others as weapons against people?

No wonder that so many people identify themselves as “spiritual rather than religious”.

Did God create religions? or are they rather human artifacts, possibly inspired, but still, an interpretive rather than divine creation.  I tend to believe that religions come from people rather than God.  What’s more, I believe we’re doing better in the 21st Century, now that we don’t read holy books such as the Bible as literally as we once did.

What’s the connection to The Mission? The plot of the film, taking place several centuries ago, concerns Jesuits who believe in Christianity’s most radical ideas, such as Jesus Christ himself would espouse; these idealistic Christians are victimized & martyred by a cynical and worldly church. The space between the two (that is, those ideal martyrs, and the cynical Christians) reminds me of that impulse to find a kind of spirituality without the negatives, a series of beliefs (if not an actual system of belief) that avoids the mistakes of the past.

I understand spirituality as an idealistic series of intuitions & feelings, not systematic or coherent, but a vague sense of something that informs our lives.  Religions, on the other hand, are systems that have been very helpful for running our own human world.  Our moral and legal apparatus are inconceivable without the inheritance from the Old & New Testaments.  Religion has furnished a pathway, but like any other way-finding system, the logistics of road construction & signage need to be reconciled to our ability to read signs and not crash into one another on those roads.  The revelations whispered in the ears of many prophets are the mysterious voice of spirit; when the words of those prophets are collected, organized & systematized into rules & regulations, you get a religion, which is meant for all of us who are unable to hear God and want a pathway, not just to salvation, but away from chaos.  We needed religion to avoid anarchy.  Surely religion serves different purposes now.  Can we live without those systems? I wonder what we’re left with if we blithely throw it away.  And maybe that’s why churches are changing so rapidly in the last century.

I am very happy with my religion (i am a Christian by the way), but can’t pretend that this is the way everyone sees things.  Is the opposite of my particular species of Christianity another system, such as Judaism? Islam? Buddhism?  or are all of those variations on the same love of a god; and is the opposite agnosticism or atheism?  I don’t trouble myself with that question–about opposites– because there are so many questions to undertake merely in coming to terms with my faith & spirituality.

I am happiest, i think, when the music is playing.  I sing in the choir, sometimes privileged to sing solos, and sometimes a replacement organist.  In those moments I feel safely spiritual without so many difficult questions to answer, lost in the richness of the musical experience.  It’s funny, but there’s a curious parallel between religion and music.  Excellence can’t happen when we offer unconditional criteria for acceptance.  While one part of my brain is conflicted about judgment (whether we’re talking about the kind of judgment whereby we recognize good and bad behaviour, OR good and bad musical performance), another part of me recognizes that we have to sometimes judge.

I wonder if part of the impulse behind spiritual-rather-than-religious is the quest for unconditional acceptance.  The thing is only God can really be unconditional.  I’ve tried, and i am simply not up to it.  I can hear when people sing out of tune; sometimes I can tell when people are lying.  I think I would be happier if i were tonedeaf (unable to hear wrong notes), if I were more naive (unable to recognize people who lie and cheat).

…but then if I were tonedeaf, how much enjoyment would i get from something like this?

This entry was posted in Essays, Spirituality & Religion. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Spiritual rather than religious

  1. Romy says:

    So very honoured that you are my friend.

  2. barczablog says:

    DITTO, Romy. Thanks for the kind words.

  3. meryl steinberg says:

    Insightful and thought provoking commentary. Thank you. Yes, spirituality exists out of the bounds of religion. Religion is a name we give the various systems devised by humans for the exploration of our divine Self– the fullness of existence, bliss, Love etc. Dogma and fanaticism are the two prominent impediments for people seeking religion as a guide. Too bad. Moral and mental discipline is helpful for us & society. Mt. Everest’s peak can be easier to scale with the guidance of one who has been there and with some tools to make it easier. Regardless of the sincerity and enthusiasm, taking guidance from one who hasn’t scaled the peak usually leads to unhappy consequences

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