Have Faith: We all have questions

Is there a difference between being "spiritual" and being "religious"?


Interfaith minister the Rev. Susan Waldrop asked me a while ago if I’d consider having Island clergy weigh in on various topics in this “Have Faith” space. After thinking over how that might look, we thought it might be a good idea if I put a question to them, or asked their opinion on some universal questions, and then see what they come up with. My first question is broader than the side of a barn: Is there a difference between being “spiritual” and being “religious”? Here’s what some Islanders whose names you might recognize said:

Bruce Nevin, Quaker: We usually benefit from discussion after rise of meeting. Your question entered into it this past Sunday. Friends asked me to pass this thought on to you: The word “religion” is related to “ligament.” Religion gives us techniques for getting reconnected to the source of everything. Being “spiritual” is being connected.

The matter is reflected in the query ‘What canst thou say?” familiar to Quakers, which is quoted from this account by Margaret Fell: qfp.quaker.org.uk/passage/19-07.

Our discussion evoked for one of us a passage from an essay by Mary Oliver. She found it, transcribed it, and sent it to me. In it, the nub most apt to your question seems to me, “What I mean by spirituality is not theology, but attitude.” She goes farther, echoing John Muir among countless others that being unseparated from the Source of all reveals our connectedness to each that springs from that Source. Here’s part of Oliver’s essay:

“When I came to a teachable age, I was, as most youngsters are, directed towards the acquisition of knowledge, meaning not so much ideas but demonstrated facts. Education as I knew it was made up of such a pre-established collection of certainties.

“Knowledge has entertained me and it has shaped me and it has failed me. Something in me still starves. In what is probably the most serious inquiry of my life, I have begun to look past reason, past the provable, in other directions. Now I think there is only one subject worth my attention, and that is the precognition of the spiritual side of the world and, within this recognition, the condition of my own spiritual state. I am not talking about having faith necessarily, although one hopes to. What I mean by spirituality is not theology, but attitude. Such interest nourishes me beyond the finest compendium of facts. In my mind now, in any comparison of demonstrated truths and unproven but vivid intuitions, the truths lose.” …

“I would say that there exists a thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else, and that our dignity and our chances are one. The farthest star and the mud at our feet are a family; and there is no decency or sense of honoring one thing, or a few things, and then closing the list. The pine tree, the leopard, the Platte River, and ourselves — we are all at risk together, or we are all on our way to a sustainable world together. We are each other’s destiny.”

(Note from Bruce: This is from “Winter Hours,” which is reprinted in “Upstream,” a collection of Oliver’s essays.)

The Rev. Canon Cynthia Hubbard, who’s currently assisting at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church: I really wanted to weigh in on this, as it overlaps with the work I am doing at St. Andrew’s. I may not be adding anything new here, but to me religion is more of the garment for whatever is on the inside by way of spirituality. I think people’s objection to being religious these days is a function of the organized church and the definite flaws that are being lifted up. Our personal spirituality is our own relationship with God, and it can find expression in many ways. Those people who say I am spiritual but not religious, in my opinion, are rejecting the organized church, which quite frankly has become rather uninspired, uninspiring, boring, and sometimes downright hypocritical, but still feel that need to connect with something bigger than they are, whether one calls it God, higher power, or something else transcendent. Whatever it is that touches the deepest parts of our hearts and souls. Not sure if this is helpful, but it’s my two cents’ worth.

The Rev. Sharon Eckhardt, a retired Lutheran pastor who served as interim pastor at the Federated Church from May 2016 to August 2017, and is still active on the Island: Spiritual or religious … for me, one cannot exist without the other. They both wrap us around ourselves, holding us close. The spiritual side of us clings to what holds us up in life; what gets us through the day; what dances with us in fields of flowers and through those late-night talks in hospital rooms with our loved ones, as they lie injured or dying.

And yet … religion is what I can cling to, as I recite the words of prayers I have said since childhood. Just after 9/11, as I was a pastor in a church where many had died or were missing, I remember a young woman crying out her desperation, that she wished to pray the Lord’s Prayer but could not remember it. These words of “religion,” whether Lord’s Prayer, or Psalm 23, “The Lord Is My Shepherd,” comfort me and lead me forward in my spiritual/religious life.

The Rev. Chip Seadale, rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church: A very popular, young, dynamic pastor in the Lutheran tradition named Nadia Bolz-Weber carries around business cards for her church that say, “We’re religious but not spiritual” — playfully turning the current “we’re spiritual but not religious” phrase on its head! She’s challenging her congregation to “go deeper,” and not get caught up so much in ritual and practice. On the other hand, human beings are, by nature, spiritual beings: that is, we have this part of us many call “spirit.” All traditions provide a framework that allow us humans to “go deeper” to marry our heads with our hearts. We are all hungry and in need of spiritual nourishment. Just how we go about that in our current culture of change and changing perceptions provides and exciting challenge for those of us called to be church together — and a joyous endeavor for those who are willing to confront the “same old same old” and bring about something new, electric, engaging, and community-building!

Father Mike Nagle, pastor of Good Shepherd Roman Catholic Parish: As I understand this, being spiritual or spirituality is very individual — God and me or Jesus and me, or some other idea and me. Religion or being religious is communal, it is God and us as God’s people. The root of the word religion means “to bind” — to help us to connect and grow in relationship with God and with one another. Religion relies on faith in God and the way the Church helps us to understand what the plan of God is and how we can understand and integrate that plan into our lives and response to God’s call to us. The Church, through its theologians and teaching authority, help us to understand our faith — this comes in the form of teachings, dogmas, catechisms, reflections and, by holding up for us to imitate, people who we can say have incarnated in their lives the presence of God, and who reflected that presence and goodness in their interrelationships with others.

Spirituality is more individual and is concerned with personal growth and development in all aspects of life, and appeals to our American sensibility, very individual. Personal growth and development is important but it is very subjective.

Religion is a tried and true path that seeks personal growth and development through a relationship with God and others. Our minds are restless, searching for truth, and keep searching until we know everything about everything — the Truth itself, the source of reality, which I would call God. This is also true of the will — which seeks the good. The good draws us. And so we keep exercising our will — making decisions — for a higher and higher good in an unconditioned way — finding an unconditioned happiness, which I call God.

St. Augustine, I believe, had it right when he said our hearts are restless until they rest in God.

Religion enables us to follow a path to that unconditioned happiness, that truth, which is God.

True religion helps us to encounter and grow in relationship with God and enables us to become the best self we can and the best brother or sister to all others. That which is of highest worth, that which we organize our lives around, is what we worship. The word worship comes from the older English word — worth ship — that which is of highest worth — and that cannot be anything created or limited, but only unlimited — and we offer right praise to this — and order our lives rightly, praising God with our lives.

The Rev. Susan Waldrop: This is an interesting question! The two terms describing people of faith as being “spiritual” or being “religious” used to be more or less synonymous. So the distinctions are a more of a modern convention.

In the past, “religious” people by and large belonged to a recognized major faith. And so you were spiritual by definition of being in a known religious community, whether that was a Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, or a Buddhist group. Indigenous people’s faiths were often referred to by their culture — particularly here in the United States. Not much was known about them — at least in the culture I grew up in — and so there was an air of mystery and the unknown.

That began to change in 1893 with the World Parliament of Religions, and again in 1993 when the Council for a Parliament of World Religions convened in Chicago. Both were forums for the exchange of ideas and discussion about broad areas of agreement and mission.

The larger culture has been inspired by this inter-spiritual interest since about the 1970s. Several books chronicle the influence of Hindu and Buddhist world views on American culture in particular — my favorites being “American Veda” by Philip Goldberg, which chronicles the historical influence of Hinduism “from Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation.” And Brother Wayne Teasdale wrote an amazing history of Western and Eastern religious exploration of people and ideas in his book, “Mystic Heart.” Bede Griffith, Thomas Merton, and Thomas Keating are names you may recognize in this exploration.

This idea of the Mystic Heart and inter-spirituality is really what I think is meant by being spiritual today. It means you are trying to connect to God, Source, the Universe or Non-Dual Consciousness, and that you have a sense of “otherness” (by whatever name) you sense in nature or yoga or singing/chanting, in various worship rituals, scriptures, or simple communion with others. Being religious, I think, has come to mean that you adhere to a certain set of rituals and beliefs quite distinctly belonging to one group. There is nothing wrong with that — you may be spiritual and also be religious, but in today’s world, I often hear the terms used with these separate meanings.

Teasdale stresses that we are all mystics, hence spiritual beings finding that connection and love are the primary goals of the universe. I hope we can all be both spiritual and religious — that is, enjoying the fruits of our in-depth knowledge of our own religious traditions while honoring and growing in understanding of other faiths.

The Rev. Mary Beth Daniels, interfaith minister: As a minister who has attended both a Christian seminary and an interfaith seminary, I concede that this idea of compartmentalizing spirituality and religion is not a simple task. Even His Holiness the Dalai Lama blurs the distinctions between the two when he contends that his true religion is not Tibetan Buddhism, but rather kindness.

Being spiritual can be viewed as an individual’s yearning, expression, and journey to connect with something bigger than oneself in whatever way one might conceive, understand, and acknowledge that personally. Some name this experience Higher Power, God, Spirit, Source, Truth, Goddess, Divine, Love, Higher Self, Nature, Cosmos, Consciousness, or by a myriad of other terms that most aptly reflect a person’s beliefs. Spirituality is concerned with the human spirit or soul, and is often more of an individual praxis.

Being religious transcends the individual, and joins one to a specific set of organized beliefs and practices that are held in common by a community or group. Adherents within a religion share a certain dogma or acknowledge particular doctrines as holding authority over the group. Religion is an institution established by humans to provide structure and organization within a faith community in its collective quest to understand God, however He/She is conceived. Religion shares rituals, rules, sacred texts, history, and often polity.

While spirituality is frequently individualistic and religion is communal, the lines between spirituality and religion are not always clear. Being religious and being spiritual are not interdependent nor are they mutually exclusive. One can serve as a catalyst for the other. Regardless of whether “being spiritual” or “being religious” resonates more closely with an individual’s chosen path, both can help one surpass the present moment and recognize that there is more to life than the Seen Realm and this physical existence. In the end, if you can’t decide whether being spiritual or being religious works best for you, just do what the Dalai Lama does: Be kind.