One of the classes I’m taking this session is called “Spirituality and Mental Health.” It’s an on-line class, so everything is done through response to online questions in a community forum. The first question from this class was really interesting, and I thought I’d post the question and my thoughts here. So here we go.
The question was: “What is spirituality? How is spirituality different from religion? Can a religious practice be without spirituality? Can spirituality be practiced without a religious vehicle?”
And I responded:
In the book “The Heart of Christianity,” Marcus Borg (2003) quotes a woman sitting next to him on an airplane saying, “I’m much more interested in Buddhism and Sufism than I am in Christianity.” When asked why, she replies, “Because they’re about a way of life, and Christianity is all about believing. I don’t think beliefs matter nearly as much as having a spiritual path and following a way.”
Right here, this woman has defined a fairly common answer to the difference between “spirituality” and “religion.”
In that great theological film Dogma (1999), the self-proclaimed forgotten disciple Rufus explains that “humanity took a good idea and, like always, built a belief structure on it.” When Rufus is questioned on the value of beliefs, he replies, “I think it’s better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier. Life should be malleable and progressive; working from idea to idea permits that. Beliefs anchor you to certain points and limit growth; new ideas can’t generate. Life becomes stagnant.”
Michael Yaconelli writes in “Messy Spirituality” (2002) that “Spirituality is not a formula; it is not a test. It is a relationship. Spirituality is not about competency; it is about intimacy. Spirituality is not about perfection; it is about connection.”
While I am firmly entrenched in the idea of Christianity, my observation is that most faiths are rooted in spirituality or a desire to be in relationship with something greater (a deity perhaps?) than oneself. We might look at contemporary religion and say that spirituality has been perverted or that there’s a pluralism that isn’t true to the core idea of spirituality. This has certainly been said recently and often about the Christian and Muslim faiths. However this argument is anything but new. It was in the early 1500s that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door and began telling people that the Catholic church had it wrong, was too caught up in corruption, had walked away from real spirituality, and that true faith called Christians to a personal relationship with their Creator.
In my opinion, both spirituality and religion exist and can be exclusive of one another. However, I find it difficult to see how it’s possible to be complete in faith without both.