Religion and spirituality are such slippery words. Most would think they know what is meant by religion, but are not so sure how much religion has to do with spirituality, if at all.
What is religion?
When many people think of religion they think first about outdated institutions, with strict and inflexible dogma, dry rituals, boring sermons. Then they may think of buildings, of mosques and cathedrals, churches (perhaps cold and musty and expensive to maintain!) and synagogues. And many will believe all this to be irrelevant in today’s world. They could not be further from the truth in very many cases.
Mine is a vibrant church, full of joy and worship, with the sounds and smells of choir and incense, all offered to the glory of God. Our different styles of service cater for many different tastes and needs. And the church is where, along with many others, I find my spiritual nourishment.
But it is certainly true that the local Christian church has ceased to be relevant to very many people, and is no longer the centre of community life. Many worshippers drifted away in the second half of the twentieth century. Some simply felt the whole experience to be irrelevant to their lives, and many of these were our youngsters as they grew up, and left home and church. Others became the “spiritual without being religious” group and another group felt that they could better follow the teachings of Jesus outside the formal church. The biggest tragedy of all was the way the church lost its youngsters and this still challenges us today; how to retain our youth when they grow up.
“The majority of…religions…ultimately rest upon the foundation of…a primary goal of enhancing people’s spiritual growth. Religion consists of the institutionalized structures, norms, leadership roles, rituals and the like that have emerged from that basic function.”(1)
We are all intrinsically spiritual beings, and one only has to look around in the world, in our media, on our book- shelves, in the market place, to see the significant role that spirituality plays in many lives. So it would seem that the church is not satisfying that need. The church clearly needs to change and I will come back to this later.
P. Mehta in defining religion wrote that it need not be confined to the established great religions of the world, “still less of the organized churches claiming authority to lay down what is or is not religious truth…whatever purifies and perfects a man, relates him fully to life and allows the realization of the Transcendent, is Religion.”(2)
But it is true that religion can become “a closed system, a dualistic cult that protects and distracts its adherents from reality” where spirituality is equated with holiness of life instead of religiosity, where spirituality is seen as an overarching phenomenon within which religion has but a small part to play.(3)
And it is also true that not every one who is religious considers themselves to be spiritual.
So What is spirituality?
My favourite definition of spirituality is to be found in J Astley’s Ordinary Theology: Looking, Listening and Learning in Theology, where he defines spirituality as “the way we hold the what of our faith.”(4) I also like John Swinton’s attempt at defining spirituality by what it does, rather than what it is, that it represents something “missing” in our lives.(5) And that we can use that missing element to help us care and educate more, to learn to treat people as human beings; to make a positive difference in the world. This of course is a matter dear to my own heart, explored in great detail elsewhere in relation to healthcare, economics, community, creativity, faith, and nature.(6)
In defining spirituality, words and terms such as “search for meaning and purpose,” the transcendent, soul, consciousness and interconnectedness of all beings, the numinous, divinity, God, inner peace, and perhaps many others will variously spring to mind. So spirituality is also used in a vast range of contexts. It is certainly to be found within the established religions and wisdom traditions, the Muslim Sufi for example, in the great Christian mystics, or the Jewish Kabbalah. These not only provide a rich supply of spiritual experience, they can and do play a part in nurturing and kindling spirituality.
But it is also found divorced from religion, amongst those who say they are spiritual but not religious. Perhaps you are one of these.
And spirituality can be secular, although even in seeking a secular definition of spirituality a transcendent dimension can be acknowledged, that may “include the traditional view of a personal God.”(!)(7)
David J. Hufford, in ‘An analysis of the field of spirituality, religion and health,’ defines Spirituality as the personal relationship to the transcendent and Religion as the community, institutional, aspect of spirituality
Thus spirituality is the more general term, it includes religion, and spirituality is a core aspect of religion. This does not deny that there are “spiritual but not religious”
individuals or that extrinsically religious people may not be especially spiritual.”
We need to try to couple religion and what I would like to call for the moment genuine spirituality back together again. And that is where the church needs to change and become more relevant again. But how can it do this? That will be the subject of another post.
1. Journal for the Study of Spirituality (JSS) volume 1.1, 2011, p.98 Hunt citing McBeis article
2. P. Mehta The Heart of Religion, p. 28.
3. Brian Taylor 1996 Setting the Gospel Free,cited by J Williams p. 99 JSS
4. J Astley, Ordinary Theology: Looking, Listening and Learning in Theology, (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002), p. 39, (Cited by John Williams “From Habitus to Critique”, in JSS p. 99)
5. John Swinton, “What is Missing from our Practice? Spirituality as Presence and Absence,” Journal for the Study of Spirituality, volume 1.1, 2011, p. 13.
6. Healing this Wounded Earth
7. Elkins et al Journal for the Study of Spirituality volume 1.1, 2011, p. 58
My book Why Religions Work explores religious tolerance issues. It could not be more relevant at the moment with the world in its present state.
This blog has concentrated recently on the wonderful pilgrimages I have been on - to the Holy Land and to Turkey and more recently to Holy Georgia , Greece "In the Steps of St Paul" , Ethiopia and most recently my experiences in Iran.
"If I was allowed another life I would go to all the places of God's Earth. What better way to worship God than to look on all his works?" from The Chains of Heaven: an Ethiopian Romance Philip Marsden