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[Chalice] Religious vs. Spiritual: [Chalice]
What's In, What's in a Label, What's Real

Presented January, 4, 2015, by Carol Nichols

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In thinking about what it means to abandon or leave a source of belonging, an institution, a community of believers, Hermann Hesse once wrote these words, comparing that journey of moving away mentally to a more personal journey of a child leaving the protection of birth, belonging and home. Hesse urged "Let God speak within you, and your thoughts will grow silent. You are anxious because your path leads away from mother and home. But every step and every day lead you back again to the mother. Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all." -- Hermann Hesse, Bäume. Betrachtungen und Gedichte.

Thus, the European scholars of the 19th Century- a time and place where religion began to stand aside from academic studies of modern science and even modern philosophy - began a widening bifurcation between what it means to be religious or belonging to an established belief community, and what it means to be spiritual. Over the next 100 years or so, that division would grow into something much more pronounced. Today, particularly in the West, we are left with a disdain of most religiosity by those who arrogantly claim to be SBNR - Spiritual But Not Religious. Some sport their own website, -- where one goes to find the latest kernels of 21st century spiritual truth. And what's what these days?!?!?

In addition to a host of conflicting definitions and meanings for both religion and Spirituality, there is always the age old problem of what humans tend to do with anything. We tend to complicate things! Here's an old story for you: "God and the devil were walking down a path one day when God spotted something sparkling by the side of the path. He picked it up and held it in the palm of his hand. "Ah, Truth," he said. "Here, give it to me," the devil said. "I'll organize it." Thus went the conversation between Consciousness Divine and Evil Incarnate. And the Devil has found his way into both organized religion and on to

I have been thinking about Spirituality and religion and both in myself for a long time, as no doubt, almost all of us here have done at some time or another. Research shows that those who label themselves as a "none" - that's n-o-n-e and not n-u-n, continue to think, to grapple and to grow over both words throughout their lives.

Dryly, scholarly, historically, the word religion derives from the Old French, religion, or from the Latin noun, religionem "respect for what is sacred," or reverence for the gods carrying with this respect an obligation regarding the bond between humans and the gods. The root verb is obscure. It is religio. This might come from Cicero, who pointed out that lego means "to read" and re means "again." The idea with Cicero, the famous Roman orator, was that we are meant to consider carefully, or contemplate completely in order to practice religion. Joseph Campbell, from 20th Century United States, constructed the word religion from Latin ligare "bind, or connect", and re "again," thus meaning "to reconnect." This idea of religion as linking was common in scholarship as far back as with St. Augustine in the early centuries of the Catholic Church.

These early definitions and roots are a far cry from today's understanding of a unifying community of people, centered around a single, binding concept, which may or may not include the idea of a God. Within this community, there are laws, sacred or revered writings, traditional stories, rituals, moral guidance, and mysticism or Spirituality. The central concepts are clearly defined if we look at some of the great, major religions. These include Surrender to God or Allah for Islam, Forgiveness for Christianity, Covenant for Judaism, Oneness in Diversity from Hinduism and a Unity of Awareness for Buddhism. It is easy to agree that these are very simple starting points to differentiate the major belief systems on this planet. Let's just say that these distinctions are a good starting point. The Single Binding Concept used to define religion is the life work and teaching of Dr. Leonard Biallas from Quincy University. It acknowledges that there are so many variations within every religion. If nothing else, humans have always been relentless elaborators.

With ritual, beliefs, ethics or morality, laws, and sometimes mysticism, community ties and community solidarity are always key. From there, much good comes from support and mutually concern, which often extend out to others through social and charitable deeds. Here, a religion can go beyond its immediate circle. So, as we say in ritual, when we covenant "to help one another" means that this religion also defines itself as it reaches outward.

Let's leave religion for a moment. For now, let's not grapple with the idea of needing a belief in a God, or whether that belief needs to be there without any doubt, concerning what that God will provide or what we ought to believe about the details of a faith in any one God.

Instead, let's take a quick look at Spirituality. At first glance, the word seems more of a verb or at least a process of being in some state, not like having a religion or being a member of a fixed community or organized body. In contrast, Spiritus is an animating process or a vital principle in both man and animals. Old French: spirit: Latin - spiritus or soul, courage, vigor, breath. In Greek, the early Bible translations use pneuma and in the Hebrew, ruah. We inspire, expire, conspire, respire, perspire; we have inspiration -- all of which seems to mean moving a force in, out, through, with or whatever. It is air, vatta or prana; it sounds ethereal!! But, today, its current meaning may be a bit troublesome. Here is Father Martin, the Jesuit priest and author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost Everything). "Being spiritual instead of religious may sound sophisticated, but the choice may ultimately come down to egotism." "Religion is hard," he says. "Sometimes it's just too much work. People don't feel like it. I have better things to do with my time. It's plain old laziness."

Hmmm!?!? Spoken like a someone who might be concerned with of losing a few from the ranks of believers.

As with all things, why we think as we do often happens as we come to conclusions based on information that only goes 21st century deep, if you know that I mean. There are layers upon layers, innuendo derived from centuries of history and cross cultural pollination that we don't even realize --- all of which are in play. Unaware of the origins of our thinking, we take on understandings that are uninformed, prejudiced and/or downright stupid. That goes for all of us: from Father Martin, to those from the purest Ivory tower of academia, to every defender of dogma, to celebrity out and about, to every blog - including

From the early Middle Ages, Spirituality meant animated by God, and later on, in 11th century Europe, it meant intellectual matters as opposed to material or sensual aspects of life. The Church housed the realm of the spiritual. Secular concerns were then left to kings, lords and high ranking city officials. Centuries later, given the exposure by colonialism in the 17th and 18th centuries, there were now two levels of spiritualism: the higher European and American practice via Christianity, and the lower forms of Spirituality evidenced by the imperialists, practiced by others in inferior parts of the world. Given the Gothic sensibilities of Victorianism, Spirituality was often equated with mysticism, and in that context, could be disquieting and an almost negative force.

With the arrival of a favorite, those somewhat on-and-off-again Unitarian, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the idea of Spirituality was defined anew. Here, the definition grew from the German Romanticism of the 19th Century, and moved Emerson to explore a transcendental experience of Spirituality, as one communes with Nature, and is transcended through experience with a great a sense of awe. Flipping to the 21st century, please do not confuse this process with the awesome quality of a new android phone or with the latest, greatest app. Awe, or more specifically awesome, has already succumbed to the triviality of modern usage. Spirituality, unfortunately, may be headed down the same mundane road to hell.

No, Emerson and others, as influenced by a positive and enlightening knowledge of the East, of Hinduism and Buddhism, were thinking unity and universal even within the myriad of diversity that Nature presented to him and his colleagues. Borrowing from the concept of the Brahman, the Supreme Oneness of the Divine, Emerson develops his idea of Spirituality in what he terms "the Over Soul."

The Supreme Critic on the errors of the past and the present, and the only prophet of that which must be, is that great nature in which we rest, as the earth lies in the soft arms of the atmosphere; that Unity, that Over-Soul, within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all other; that common heart . . . We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related, the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but not the whole, of which these are shining parts.

Emerson is equating his Transcendental idea to vivekakhyãtira aviplavã. This is the process of discriminative discernment achieved when the spiritual and experiential practice of yoga is followed. Please: again, popular culture takes hold here. Dispense with your common understandings for now. This is not yoga meaning pretzel-twisting poses done with the latest designer clothing and on the most trendy mat. This is yoga marga - the yog or linking (remember one of the ancient root meanings of religion) of self to other, subject to object, internal to external. One does this with vivekakhyãtira -discriminating discernment. As a single entity, I realize that I am not Barack Obama or a suffering deathly ill person in Africa, or my nineteen year old cat. But, I can bridge the gap, link myself to the other. Emerson attains this spiritual union through Nature. Of course, he is an American, surrounded by the vast and awesome panorama of America's virgin wilderness. He uses this experience to transcend his single self and reach the Over-Soul. To do the same, Hindus have a choice of four paths (at least): devotion, service, learning or meditation. All of these are yoga marga. For both Emerson and the Hindu practitioner, the truth is that this oneness, this awe-filling experience was inside of you all along.

During Emerson's time, Spiritualism is reinvented as it were, or perhaps, rediscovered. Some writers found spiritualism within religion at this point. It was a new soul-searching done by authors such as William James in his seminal work, The Varieties of Religious Experience. James writes: "Were one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto." Religion not as an institution, not even as a community, but as experience:

With the World Parliament of Religions meeting in Chicago in 1893, the influences from all over the world came together. Many religions demonstrated a blending of body, mind and spirit so intimately and completely. And the fusion was through experiential practice (devotion, service, meditation and more).

Religion as spiritual could stand alone from the exacting and need-to-prove world of science. Religion was in truth metaphorical, parabolic -showing by story, by lesson, poetry of a kind - the reality of the sacred. Spirituality, as well, could reach the same sacred spot by individual practice, by the practice of coming to know yourself and by practice in the service of others.

A century of global modern warfare can change all of this very quickly. People withdraw. One turns inward to find a separate peace, or staunchly barricades oneself within the save haven of closed minded, dogmatic fundamentalism. In a TED talk on Doubt and Faith, Lesley Hazelton defines what has happened to religion in the worst extreme. To be safe, try to perfect your situation. Demanding perfection, she says, does not allow for doubt. But, doubt is essential to faith in any religion. Doubt, she says, is the Heart of the Matter. Abolish doubt, and absolutely, heartless conviction results. Certainty becomes dogmatism, a pride of being absolutely right (Fundamentalism). All else are pariah. All else are infidel. But, she asks, "Who is the true Infidel!?!??!" Real faith is a constant struggle. If it is to be spiritual, it must experience doubt to be truly whole.

Nor can we in the 21st century separate religion liberally catalyzed by doubt or any experience of Spirituality from science. We know of Carl Sagan, and we know of his passion for science. He was equally passionate about its Spirituality. In his book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Sagan writes "Science is not only compatible with Spirituality; it is a profound source of Spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light?years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. The notion that science and Spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both."

Religion vs. Spirituality: What's in? Either; both. Keep religion open-minded, fluid, subject to doubt and renewal, not dogmatic, not exclusive. Keep your personal Spirituality aware and engaged in the otherness around you. Like breath, let it make you alive, engaged and active in a world that can use your compassion and unfettered involvement. To act this way with spiritual vigor, use the vehicle of your church community. It is there to augment what you offer by the synergistic strength of its body of members. What's in a label? Nothing: get rid of it if it causes pain or suffering. What in a label? Everything if it helps to extend you outward from a peaceful core. What's real? By every one of your thoughts, feelings and acts of love, you are.

©2015 Carol Nichols

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Nichols, Carol 2015. Religious vs. Spiritual: What's In, What's in a Label, What's Real, /talks/20150104.shtml (accessed July 13, 2020).

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