Are you spiritual? What is spirituality? (Part 1 of 2)

Spirituality1

A science that does not incorporate spirituality is dehumanizing;                     a spirituality that does not include science is delusional.

I indicated in my last few posts that I would clarify what I mean by spiritual. When I was a therapist, many of my clients struggled with finding a sense of meaning or purpose in life; for some, it is a profound dilemma. In seeking resolution, I would often ask these clients if they were religious, or if they were spiritual. Most of the time the answer I would receive would be “I’m spiritual; I’m not religious.” If I then asked “What do you mean by spiritual,” the answer I received was somewhat vague. I want here to clarify what I personally mean, as I believe the distinctions are vital to understanding and contributing to a maturing world.

Before you read on, I invite you to consider a number of questions:

  • What do you believe regarding the nature of the universe and its relationship, if any, to a creative principle called God, Creator, or some other name?
  • What are the important principles that guide how you live your life? How do you decide if something is right or wrong?
  • When, if ever, have you had experiences of profound indescribable awe?

First, what is religion? My best understanding is that a religion is a faith tradition, i.e., a set of beliefs (often including values) that attempt to explain how we should function during our lives. At some time in the past, a compassionate and/or wise individual so impressed his or her group that an extended community developed around this individual, a community that endured long after the death of the original individual (this certainly happened with Jesus, Mohamed, and Buddha). Usually the originating individual had had some kind of mystical experience that was deeply transformative for this individual. The set of beliefs and traditions about the individual and/or his/her actions became part of the community, and over centuries as the community expanded, the process came to be known as a religion.

In religion, the beliefs generally range from God, at one end of a spectrum, to no God, at the other end. On the God end, there are many traditions (Catholic, Protestant, Islamic, etc.), whereas at the other end, the traditions are limited — there is agnostic (not knowing, still seeking) and atheist (no God). (Contrary to what most people think, I consider atheism to be a religion, albeit one in which the principle belief is that of no God.) Depending on tradition (and literal interpretation of tradition), the God character ranges from a being of central authority to that of a less well-defined searching by the individual. In Buddhism for the most part, there is no God, and the Buddhist path is principally a seeking of what does it mean to be human in a spiritual dimension.

Generally religions also present some kind of ethics, a set of beliefs about how one should act in the difficulties of living. Often the ethics are very appropriate, but they are usually tied to (perhaps lost within) the proscribed beliefs of the religion.

Religions have propagated over hundreds or thousands of years, and seem to be a fundamental need for human beings. I suggest that the mechanism by which they have propagated is that we humans:

  • search for meaning, and
  • do not like “not knowing;” we want certainty so as to be safe within our communities — if we know the rules, and follow them, our lives will be peaceful.

Religions, thus, are faith traditions, the beliefs and values that have arisen over time in association with significant past experience. Essentially, religions allow us to follow the rules and keep safe. One of the Indian saints, Vivekananda is noted as saying: “It is wonderful to have been born in a church; it is terrible to die there.” I believe he was referring to the distinction between religion and spirituality.

I do not wish to disparage religions, but I do note a number of problems. In particular, there have been two problems of the 20th and 21st centuries, likely as a response to the meaningless projected by scientific materialism and its associated consumerism:

  • many people have given up on religious systems, shifting either to some form of atheism or some form of non-religious spirituality (sometimes remaining within a church system, attempting to transform the system from within).
  • other people have become more rigid in defense of their belief systems, and thus we have seen a major rise in religious fundamentalism, both within Christianity and within Islam. Both groups have contributed in major ways to the turmoil of modern life.

Most important to me is that the emotional maturity — the spirituality— of people who claim to be religious can vary tremendously, from those who are convinced that they have the absolute truth about life (and often insist that others do not) to those who have deep compassion for the whole of humanity. Unfortunately most religious individuals become branded with the tar of the least mature. Such individuals sometimes use the title of religion as an excuse for reprehensible acts. In North America, most Muslims have been inappropriately labeled with this tar; in so doing, those who do the tarring demonstrate their own immaturity.

To be continued.

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