Friday, November 09, 2007

on spirituality and religion

I recently stumbled across a blog that raised the question of what people mean when they say they are "spiritual but not religious." And the various folk who commented on the topic suggested that such an orientation is generally a negative thing -- e.g., that such individuals want some connection with God (or however they would name their higher power), but are trying trying to avoid having their faith place any demands upon them.

As someone who is increasingly starting to think of myself along those lines, I feel a need to state why it is that I do so. And how I believe that such criticisms are misguided.

At the outset, let me make it clear that I have nothing but the deepest respect for those who take religion seriously, for those who find deep meaning within their religious traditions, and strive to incorporate values from their faith into their lives. My ramblings here are meant solely as a description of my own journey, not as a comment or criticism upon anyone else's journey.

I would begin by noting that faith has its roots in experience. History, theology, and tradition would all be largely meaningless if people did not continue to have some sort of experience of God in their lives. By this I suppose I mean the experiences of awe, wonder, grandeur, love, and gratitude -- or, perhaps better, glimpses of the transcendent reality that such experiences point to. This experience, I believe, is what people speak of when they describe themselves as "spiritual." At least, it is my meaning for that term.

Religion (or, perhaps better, religious philosophy, tradition, and certain forms of theology) attempt to comprehend and systematize such experience. And there is some value, I think, in doing so. We should engage our intellect around such experiences, contemplate the meaning of them, and allow them to challenge us.

Yet I would argue that the fundamental danger of dogma (which seems to be the inevitable outcome of religious tradition) is in the easy assumption that such attempts to systematize and understand such experiences are in some way equal to the experience (or to the reality beyond experience). By so doing, we commit the egregious error of assuming that we can "know" the will of God. And surely all would acknowledge the tremendous evils that have come into the world based upon such assumptions.

For me, choosing to be "spiritual but not religious" is mostly an effort to focus myself primarily on the kind of experiences described above. I strive to grow in compassion, love, understanding, and justice. I hope to be pushed outside of my comfort zone by these experiences, to grow and develop as a human being.

Yet I strive to avoid a sense of certainty that I am "right" in any absolute sense, that my conclusions and understandings of my experience are complete or allow me to judge others. Indeed, I believe that I should never hold onto any belief so strongly that I lose the capacity for compassion towards others. Because in doing so, I would allow my belief to interfere with the more fundamental goals of spirituality -- to grow in love, compassion, peace, justice, and understanding.

My own experience is that there has been much evil from people believing what their religious tradition tells them to believe -- that homosexuality is evil, that women should be subservient to men, etc. I believe that this process can lead people to believe things that they don't want to believe, to insist that they only believe something because they must obey "God's will." In so doing, they trust that God's will is more readily known in the pages of a book than from the experience of their soul.

I also believe that Christian religious traditions grow more true to Christ when they reject or ignore such teachings in the name of adherence to core Christian principles of love, compassion, and justice.

So at least for now, I think I shall remain "spiritual but not religious." I shall choose to keep my focus on the experience itself rather than on efforts to make sense of such experiences. I trust fully neither my own judgments in this regard nor the judgments of others. I trust only that God continues to communicate with the world, that God's call of love for us challenges us to grow in love ourselves.


more cows than people said...

wow. new blog look! how'd you do that? is it a template?

thanks for your thoughts. there's certainly nothing about the way that you're sharing that shows a lack of respect for religious people. thank you for that.

one the students in the theology program at the school i just visited characterized all the current students in that cohort as post-evangelicals. i asked one of the faculty today if that was normative or flukish and she pondered that for awhile. she thought that coming from traditions that form you so deeply yet that leave you wanting, you are inclined to deeply question and thus might very naturally be drawn to formal studies of theology. i know that my own experience of diving deeper and deeper into religious thought and inquiry has not increased my certainty, nor narrowed my vision. i know that this is not the only way to be religious, however. i'm not exactly sure what prompted me to share this here. i think i'm trying to suggest that even religious manifestations that would seem to foster the very tendencies that you wish to avoid, can produce deep thinkers who do powerful, constructive work. but that's probably obvious...

i am wondering, steve, what practices help you to be spiritual (if not religious)? What is fostering spiritual growth in you?

Gannet Girl said...

First, thanks so much for stopping by with good wishes! Since I got my laptop, it has taken me a long time to transfer my favorites, and it seems that yours got lost en route.

And what a great topic to come back to!

I would not want in any way to belittle the experience of "spiritual but not religious," so let me offer a little of my take on the concept, with that understanding as foundational.

I do think that it is virtully impossible to be spiritual outside of a religious tradition, because definitionally, spirituality refereces our encounter with God. In Christianity (and I am certainly not implying that Christianity has the market on spirituality), we understand that encounter to be with our Creator, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. Surely atributes like justice and compassion are necessary outgrowths of an authentic encounter (meaning that we, ourselves, are truly in relationship), but they do not substitute for the encounter itself. That is not to say that one cannot be compassinate and good and kind and work for justice in the absence of religious faith. It is just to say that those things, essential as they are for a deeply lived human experience, are not the equivalent of faith and, in the absence of faith, do not fill in for spirituality.

Paradoxically, many people moving through life with an actively compassionate and good life are experiencing and evidencing a spirituality without identifying it as such. I would argue that they are enaged in an encounter with God whether or not they know or want to acknowledge it. And this is not just semantics -- it is that encounter with God that brings the dimension of spirituaity to their lives and work.

Which brings me full circle. The encounter with God may be experienced through compassionate goodness, but it is articulated in the context of religious tradition and faith; otherwise, it is in the end nothing more than compassionate goodness, which pales in contrast to ecounter with God.

I am afraid this is terribly sloppy, as blog comments tend to be, but perhaps still food for thought?uiiuqb

Wyldth1ng said...

I have lots of opinions, but I don't the time to reflect. I am sorry.
I really enjoyed your post.

steve said...

more cows,

I found the "finalsense" website on Mags' blog. They provide free templates for blogger. This was one of the options. I love Wallace and Grommit.

Your point that involvement in a religious tradition need not increase certainty nor narrow one's vision is well taken. I think part of where I'm coming from is seeing the destructive impact of certain religious dogmas on my clients (e.g., how claims that homosexuality is immoral negatively affect their self-esteem, etc.). This has led me to question the value of dogma -- to ask whether religion should even try to provide "answers" or whether it should focus instead on enhancing love, compassion, justice, etc. Perhaps my experiences have taken me too far in that direction. Still, my experience has been that my own religious tradition has sanctified dogma -- which I view to be dangerous and destructive.

Gannet Girl,

Thank you for your thoughts. What intrigues me I think is the notion of what constitutes an "encounter with God." It is my belief that God is the source of all that is good, and that we encounter God (in some sense) whenever we encounter goodness (e.g., love, compassion, justice, etc.).

While religion attempts to name such experiences and provides a history of other's experiences with these realities, I would disagree with the notion that God is only encountered within the context of a religious tradition. An experience of God need not be named as such in order to be meaningful or transformational.

Put another way, I believe that the kinds of experiences I'm describing are the experiential wellsprings of religious tradition. Religious philosophy and dogma attempt to name and understand such experiences, but they are not the wellspring itself.

Natalie d'Arbeloff said...

Steve, I can echo almost every word you wrote in this post as well as the thought behind them. But I'd like to find another word to replace "spiritual" because it has become so trivialised by the whole "spiritual industry", replete as it is with self-proclaimed gurus selling their recipes for mind/body/spirit fulfillment.
I consider myself a religious questioner: I believe in asking God questions. Of course this means I believe there is a God who can hear and, perhaps, answer my questions, such as: God, are you religious?

Katherine E. said...

What a great post. Thank you. You've really made me think here.

I agree with you--religious dogma or doctrine can suck the life (in the broadest and best sense of the word) right out of us. It so frequently becomes *adherence* strictly for the sake of adherence. And then it often leads to an existence that is lifeless, dull gray, judgmental.

My own experience is similar to more cows'--the more I immersed myself in theology, the church, and experiencing ministry in various forms, the broader my worldview became. It sickens me that the Religious Right has given organized Christianity such a horrible reputation for narrowmindedness. There are churches (some, anyway) where a serious commitment to the Good News of Jesus Christ really IS good news!--increasing compassion, justice and peace, and love.

I wrote a paper once on the epistemology of mysticism. My memory isn't good (I blame it on menopause, but that's mostly a joke), but what I DO remember is the scholarly debate on whether or not mystical 'encounters with God' were culturally determined.
And I remember concluding that, no, there actually ARE experiences that go beyond culture, beyond particular religious systems of thought, beyond words. It's just that once we begin to speak of our experience, then, of course, language necessarily limits and categorizes. All that to say, I'm with you on the "glimpses of the transcendent reality" that are the spiritual foundation of religions.

Not all 'encounters with God' are healthy, of course. We can deceive ourselves in all kinds of ways. One valid purpose for the Church, I think, is as a community where our encounters with God are tested. There's no guarantee that a community's evaluation will be right. But if it's both open to the mystery of the Spirit and basically healthy, then it can be a helpful counter to an individual's tendency toward self-deception.

I'm not usually so long-winded!

Diane said...

very thoughtful post. I find myself grieving all the ways the Church has injured people. I think people have all kinds of reasons why they might be "spiritual but not religious" and it's just as wrong to categorize as it might be to put all church-goers in the same basket.

Lori said...

Great new look! Great post as well. I would tend to agree with you in that I am spiritual but not religious. I agree also that it is sad how those with the narrowest views tend to have the loudest voices.

Earthbound Spirit said...

Well, stop checking on some favorite blogs for a couple of weeks and look what happens. Great new look!

I understand the "spiritual not religious" notion, I was there once. My own understanding changed when I found (a) a faith tradition that challenged me to figure out what I believed instead of feeding me dogma; and, (b) that practice with the support of a group really was more meaningful than solitary practice. I blogged about this last month if you're interested...
Blessings to you!

Magdalene6127 said...

Steve, I'm late to the party, as usual. First, beautiful template... LOVE Wallace and Gromit!

Second, what a lot of good and powerful reflection has gone on here and in the subsequent post.

I'm going to make a confession: often when I hear people say "spiritual but not religious," I leap to a judgment about laziness! Your posts have caused me to recognize the invalidity of that sweeping statement. Thank you for opening my heart as you opened yours.