I’ve seen several studies proclaiming that religion in America is declining while spirituality is on an upswing. This raises a few questions. What exactly is the difference between being religious and being spiritual? Can a person be both? I hope to offer a few insights that may be helpful.
Religion, in a narrow sense, is a relatively static system of dogmas or beliefs concerning God, the creation, and the nature of human beings. Religion segregates, that is, it distinguishes one group of people from another by laying claim to a “rightness” for its particular belief system.
Spirituality, in its truest sense, tends to begin with a more dynamic universal premise about the unity of all things recognizing that many paths are possible to become aware of that unity.
The purported goal of both religion and spirituality is to enlighten, which is to say raising consciousness, so let’s use consciousness as a tool to determine how religion and spirituality may differ or be alike.
Most of us can agree that life is a journey and we are all walking a hopeful path toward a higher, more knowledgeable, or more enlightened state of being. And as we travel the road on this journey we encounter way stations—people, ideas, and situations—that impact our course. Think of the waystations as buildings containing knowledge and insights. Now in some of these buildings, you are told that the truth lies within and you don’t have to look any farther. All rightness and knowledge lie within their Holy Scriptures and practices. Essentially, their buildings become a close-ended box that can halt your journey and create stagnation. This situation tends to be a religious approach
Now if you decline to stay and continue onward, you may enter other buildings. Here they impart what knowledge they have and send you on your way. They understand that one day you may supersede your current state of awareness with a higher understanding gained elsewhere along your voyage. This approach is open-ended and allows for growth.
But, it doesn’t necessarily have to be this black and white. I remember a conversation many years ago with some very dear fundamentalist friends. I posed the question that if you are not a Christian, can you go to heaven? They didn’t seem all that sure at first, but they concluded you cannot. They relied on a passage in John 14:6– “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
My response was twofold. First, though the Bible may have been divinely inspired, it was transcribed and redacted by fallible humans with agendas. “But, they said, “if that is the case how can one tell truth from adulteration in scripture?” My response was that if God created everything, then everything is a unity. Anything in anyone’s scripture that divides by proclaiming a monopoly on the truth is not godlike.
My second response was that even if the quoted biblical passage is to be taken at face value, the interpretation is erroneous given the entire character of Jesus’s ministry. Jesus in that passage would be speaking as a universal consciousness, the Christ spirit spoken of in early Christianity. Jesus was not speaking as a personal vehicle who must be worshiped for one to be saved. Christ consciousness is the potential for a cosmic consciousness not limited to Christians.
The notion of a universal consciousness-raising spirit helps answer the question of whether we can be religious and spiritual too, and I say YES. Everything is a state of consciousness. As a Catholic, Rome will tell you that only by adopting Catholic dogma can you be saved. Ah, but many modern Catholics aren’t that restrictive in their hearts and minds, They can hold their personal beliefs as their preferred orientation toward God while recognizing the validity of other traditions. And, if they are really interested and dig deep, they will realize that all major religions had common core spiritual beliefs before the corruption of power seekers divided people.
Many people who cherish their Catholic or Christian traditions don’t buy Church doctrine wholesale, otherwise, so many people wouldn’t be practicing birth control. I know many Christians, myself included, who believe in reincarnation. I know many Christians who practice Yoga, a Hindu tradition and love the peaceful message of Buddhism. Even considering such notions or practices at one time was held to be very dangerous to the Church.
A Church or a religion, in the end, is always the product of what people believe, and the dictation of belief by central authorities has greatly weakened, particularly in the West. This is not to say that beneficial knowledge and practices do not lie within religions. They most certainly do. But I think that many people are now seeing religion as a stepping stone to higher awareness. They will slowly spiritualize their religions with a growing belief and respect in the unity of all things. Such people are understanding that just because you’re comfortable with your path to God doesn’t mean you have to negate someone else’s.
Life and consciousness, unfortunately, grow on this plane of existence through challenge and conflict. The greatest challenge to what I have said here today is the ideological virus of Islamic Fundamentalism. A spiritual, as well as a geopolitical dimension, exists to this challenge. Force of arms can temporarily remove a cancer, but only a change in the patient’s attitudes and behaviors is likely to eliminate the problem.
People of the world need to unite against the evil inherent in such a violent and intolerant belief system. If successful, I have no doubt that the world will emerge a few valuable steps higher toward the universal consciousness we are destined to achieve as spiritual beings having a human experience.