Thursday, November 10, 2005

'Religious' and 'Spiritual' and Why Anyone Should Care

I ran across this quote on a trip through the blogosphere this evening:

"A religious person is trying to avoid hell; a spiritual person has already been there."

I found this quote interesting. I can't fully articulate why. You always hear people talk about how they're 'spiritual, but not religious,' and others like to say that Christianity 'isn't a religion, it's a relationship.' The above quote must be one of the latest spins on trying to distance yourself from institutional religious life and move more toward this alternative way of being that forsakes the regular, the traditional, the confining, the ritual. Usually, that's what people mean when they say they aren't 'religious.' The best scenario when considering the 'spiritual, not religious' connotation is that one acts out and explores on some form of faith or belief, but does not feel a need to be a part of a formal organization. My inner cynic tends to think that 'spiritual' in this instance also contains shades of lazy trendiness: I believe in something, but I don't go to church. Or mosque. Or synagogue. I've never even cracked a theology book or meditated. There's something out there, but I can't be bothered to go beyond that, so I'll light a stick of incense, say I'm 'spiritual,' and hope people think that's deep enough to leave me alone about it.

Like I said...inner cynic.

The other part that bothers me about this phrase is that it implies that those who ARE 'religious' (read: church/mosque/synagogue/whatever-affiliated) have no true spiritual dimension to their lives. It's all stale ritual and confining tiresome tradition. While there is some truth in that--tradition is certainly capable of taking all the meaning and depth out of the journey--there are plenty within the walls of the institution seeking something more, CRAVING something more...and they're fully comfortable engaging in that search while pushing the boundaries of the 'religious.'

So let's take a look at the quote that started all this. It looks to me like a 'tradition vs. experience' sort of context, which is what the original 'spiritual, not religious' crowd (the genuine ones, anyway) are striving for anyway. If 'religious people try to avoid hell,' this lends itself to the usual charges of legalism, which have plenty of merit. Where's the depth when all you have is a list of dos and don'ts and God in turn has a list of naughty and nice and you're trying to stay on the nice one? The 'religious' can be self-conscious this way. The goal is to avoid a place instead of to draw closer to the Divine.

'Spiritual people have already been there.' This part of the quote seems to say something about a faith that has been put through the fire and yet remains. 'Spiritual' people, by this quote, have been tested in some way and have drawn from their faith to see themselves through it. A 'spiritual' person, therefore, knows firsthand that ritual by itself is tissue paper holding a brick.

This version of the quote is, I think, very helpful in determining what true faith is. It's a better version than the original because it describes the difference between the 'religious' and 'spiritual' much better. The deepest a 'spiritual, not religious' person might go is to study at St. Mattress of the Springs. His or her 'spirituality' could amount to praying the home team wins at football. At least the above quote is more concrete and tries to better differentiate between these two ambiguous sets of people and tells why such a differentiation is considered important at all.