Religion or Spirituality?
Religion versus spirituality is an age-old debate that has been renewed today because of many misgivings associated with religion and spirituality. The focus of this piece is to identify the problem at hand concerning religion and spirituality, give their meaning, and expose the positions of people as it concern religion and spirituality and give a way forward.
Statement of the problem
A lot of people today disdain religion for instance and seems to value spirituality higher. Some argue that religion has caused more harm than good especially the atheists and freethinkers. And for others who are fatigued of religious commitment and practices, they would want a retirement or complete freedom as they see religion as a burden and yoke that must be annihilated from their lives. You hear people say I am spiritual and not religious or I prefer spirituality to being religious. Again, some say they do not need to be religious in order to be saved or become spiritual. They argue further that God is Spirit (John 4:24) and they are also spirits like God, hence they are spiritual beings in human forms and they can do without religion. So, the contention is about a sharp division between religion and spirituality. Worse still, contenders of spirituality as against religion contend that religious leaders’ mechanistic lifestyle and failures in promoting the gospel values as it concerns Christianity for instance proves the fact that religion has failed and it is therefore meaningless and valueless. A very thick argument that we need to face in order to restore or sustain ourselves in our spiritual life.
What is religion and spirituality?
It is pertinent to note that there are no universally acceptable definitions for both constructs. They are controversially understood. I think it is because they are associated with mysteries and supernatural values. I would like to give concise meanings rather than definitions that we usually know. For instance, religion is about our commitment to a faith and God. This faith in God is exercised through a defined structure or institution, so we have Judaism, African Indigenous Religion, Christianity, and Islam. Again, this faith in God is demonstrated through prayers, worship and rituals. Spirituality on the other hand is not strictly associated with faith and God. It is simply the pursuit or passion for a certain ultimate value. The ultimate value could be anything and/or God. Spirituality is the consciousness of one’s self and its spiritual foundation. Thus, the popular expression “We are not human beings on a spiritual journey. We are spiritual beings … on a human journey (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. & Stephen Covey). From these points one can quickly sense the deeper debate of being religious and not spiritual and being spiritual but not religious.
Religious and not spiritual: To be religious is to be simply affiliated to a certain religious order or organisation that is having a huge or small followership like Christianity, Islam and Judaism. It is attending Holy Mass for Catholic and service for the separated brethren, kneeling and praying in the chapel of perpetual adoration, making a simple bow to the statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the saints, giving tithes and offertory but without any connection to God who supposed to be religions’ ultimate value (at least for Christianity). An immediate example is like a priest saying Mass but not praying the Mass or a Mass attendee participating in Mass but not connected to Jesus Christ the chief end of the Mass. Those who are in these category do things to fulfil all righteousness but they cannot define the meaning of what they do. There is no connection between them, their action and God. Scott Peck cites an example to deepen our reflection: “One of the most secular persons I’ve ever met was a Catholic nun with whom I worked for a year. She had been in a convent for twenty-five years and had no desire to be anything but a nun. Despite the fact that she did everything nuns do – making confession and service to the community, for example – she gave virtually no thought to God in her daily life.” In addition, there are many sacramentally married couples in the Church who rarely see God in their marital challenges and once they have difficulties they run from pillar to post seeking for solutions from anywhere and at all cost. They are usually called solution seeking religious people. In a nutshell, being religious and not spiritual is a sluggish movement from your outside self to your inner self.
Spiritual and not religious: Those who are spiritual and not religious are those who believe absolutely in themselves. They are self-reliant and they believe that there is only one truth – God, a higher power, meditation or some other value that is ultimate to them. There are no restrictions and confinements to God and supernatural realities that must be taught instead of discovered. They are satisfied in discovering their higher values without any affiliation to any religious group and its practices. They usually quote John 3:8 that says: “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So, it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” More so, they believe that their destiny is completely in their hands and confirm their position with the words of the psalmist’s that says: “My life is in my hands” (Ps. 119:109). This seems to be the trending issue today. Little wonder, you hear of people flocking to the Eastern spiritualities of Hinduism, Buddhism and you can add to the list. The proponents of this category believe in their innate powers to do all things and they do not need the support of any religious group. If they are to seek any assistance from religion, then they must not stick their necks to a single religious order but be universally minded by drawing from many religious beliefs and practices. They argue that this school of thought is very rich and open to many learnings. It is a freedom from unnecessary religious affiliation and its burden of rules, dogmas and obligations; morality and commitment; legalism and commandments; financial contributions and volunteerism in charity and other forms of good works.
The way forward
On a serious note, there are problems for those who take sides of any of the positions exposed above. If you were only religious how about your spiritual life dimension? How would you come by the meaning of what you believe in? How would you explain supernatural realities beginning with yourself? If you were only religious, how would you develop your personal relationship with God? How would you develop your values and integrate the gospel values of love, forgiveness, compassion and the beatitudes (Matt. 5:1-12). On the other hand, if you were only spiritual, who would check you when you are driven by errors, mistakes or your bloated ego? If you were only spiritual, how would you enjoy a sense of belonging and calmness in the face of trials and tribulations? If you were only spiritual, how would you get the support of the saints and the stories of past believers of a religious tradition? If you were only spiritual, how would you benefit from the covenantal relationship that has been established by God in the Old Testament from Adam through Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Jeremiah (31:31, 33) and Jesus Christ in the New Testament who ratified it with His Precious Blood (Luke 22:20)? Finally, if you were only spiritual, how would you manage issues of self-centredness?
Dear companion in the spiritual life, please do not follow the trend of making a mistake to separate religion from spirituality. The two complement each other. The truth is this; “If books are enough, why the universities? If the guns are enough, why the military? If self-government is enough, why the national government of states/countries? Hence, the words of a popular French Catholic writer Charles Péguy: ‘Everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.’” Let’s work for a balanced spiritual life. What religion can do spirituality cannot do and vice versa. You are in my prayers!
Fr. John-Mary Atep.