Monday, June 23, 2008

Spirituality vs. Religion

The other day, on one of the lists I subscribe to, one of the posters said something to the effect that he was bothered by the term "spirituality". It seemed be a word without much meaning, particular for those who go about claiming that they are "spiritual, but not religious". This isn't the first time I've heard this. A friend of mine who is an evangelical Christian once said the same thing to me, when I used the term "spirituality"; he said "I don't know what that means". At the time, I was kind of taken aback and didn't quite know what to say -- only confirming, I suppose, his belief that "spirituality" is a term without meaning. I know what he *thinks* it means: A way for folks to have the comfort of believing in God without the nuisance of dealing with all the "Thou shalt nots" and inconvenient issues like sin. Cherry-picking beliefs so you take what you like and leave what you don't. A shallow belief-system that's just a little too easy. And, so on.

Then, on the other hand, there's religion. Archaic rules that don't make sense in today's world. Bigotry and intolerance cloaked as the Will of God. Narrow-minded people who follow their leaders like sheep; leaders who are control-freaks intent on preserving their own power. Obsessive conern with obscure theological issues that divide the pure from the heretical, etc, etc. Certainly, these battle lines are familiar to everybody who has any interest at all in religion and/or spirituality; it most certainly is not limited to the online "Baha'i Wars". What you've got basically is two world-views talking past each other. What is meaningless to one is absolutely essential to the other.

I'm always very reluctant to label anything in the realm of religion "meaningless", especially if we're talking about spiritual experience. Quite obviously, the practice, or belief, or whatever must have meaning to somebody or it wouldn't continue to exist. There are some religious perspectives that absolutely leave me flat -- I can't fathom why anybody would get into it, however tolerant and understanding I might try to be. Generally, all I'm left with is a polite incomprehension. (The polite part meaning that I'm not going to name any of these perspectives here.) Fundamentalism, on the other hand, I understand; I just think it's spiritually harmful. Fundamentalism focuses a person on his/her own rightness, and causes an obsession about what others are doing wrong. It's all about controlling others, rather than developing one's own relationship with God. Despite appearances, fundamentalism is not strong faith -- it's got cracks all over it, which requires the believer to anxiously try to "seal" them up i.e. defend their faith from "wrong" views.

The critics of "spirituality" actually do have a point. Very often, people who are "spiritual, but not religious" do miss the richness and depth of centuries-old traditions. There's plenty of spirituality in religion, if a person cares to dig; it's just that sometimes folks don't know that there's treasure underneath all the seemingly irrelevant and restrictive aspects that turn people off at first glance.

I define spirituality as the interior journey one engages in through spiritual practice. Anybody who's followed me around must be aware that I'm fascinated by spiritual practices: prayer, meditation, and discipline in all its various forms. That's not "fluff"; that's hard work. Work that does not center around who controls and who needs to be controlled or what belief is correct or not.

Take a look at Baha'u'llah's Tablet of the True Seeker (Kitab-i-Iqan p.192-196). When Baha'u'llah speaks of the spiritual journey, he emphasizes two things: The seeker must become detached from the world, and he must develop spiritual qualities. The things one does to achieve those two things is pretty much what "spirituality" is.