Spirituality and Religious Faith
“Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.” ~G.K. Chesterton
If defining spirituality is like capturing the ocean in a thimble, then describing the relationship between spirituality and religious faith is like inviting cannibals to a barbeque: not everyone will be pleased with the fare and some won’t be happy until you’ve been roasted as the main course!
So let’s forego the appetizers and dig right into the entrée: Although religions serve several social purposes, what distinguishes them most from all other institutions is their overt connection with spirituality. This connection is so close that many people regard religion and spirituality as inseparable or even indistinguishable . . . thus it may be helpful to start by examining the distinction.
One particularly pithy explanation is often heard in meetings of AA and other 12 Step Groups: “Religion is man-made. Spirituality is God-given.” A similar expression that’s heard nearly as often is: “Religion is for people afraid of going to Hell. Spirituality is for people who have already been there!”
Roger Walsh, in Essential Spirituality: The 7 Central Practices to Awaken Heart and Mind, puts this basic idea in less colorful but more academically precise terms:
“The word religion has many meanings; in particular it implies a concern with the sacred and supreme values of life. The term spirituality, on the other hand, refers to direct experience of the sacred. Spiritual practices are those that help us experience the sacred – that which is most central and essential to our lives – for ourselves.” ¹
The point these definitions are all getting at is that religions are artifacts – social institutions that serve as vessels intended to hold, preserve, and transmit spiritual knowledge. And if religions – the traditions, the scriptures, the practices, and so on – are vessels, then spirituality is their most precious or sacred content. What spirituality refers to in this context is the direct, intuitive experience of our own true nature as spiritual beings that these vessels are meant to convey.
Not everyone who ascribes to a religion has had this experience . . . or even seeks it. For most it is enough that their religion assures them there is a point to life other than a long and sometimes painful period of waiting to be turned into worm food. For centuries, the great religions of the world have guided people in finding meaning and purpose in life, in resolving difficult moral and ethical issues, and in discovering what it is to be human. Religions teach us how to live with one another, how to love one another, how to become fully functioning human beings, and how to face our own mortality.
All of these are spiritual matters. And though different religions – and even different sects within the same religion – exhibit plenty of differences in their approach to such issues, most of these differences are relatively superficial. Despite the tendency of religious critics to focus on and exaggerate the differences, all of the world’s great religions not only agree that such issues are what matter most in life, but they also agree far more than they differ when addressing these issues, as well as on the general principles that best govern our behavior.
1- All teach that there is more to life than satisfaction of our material desires – that human beings are more than just “things” and that a life spent in pursuit of material gratification is a wasted opportunity, a tragic error due to confusing the means of life for its ends.
2- All teach that how we behave toward others is of critical importance in shaping our world and determining our experience of life, and that treating others as means to our own selfish ends necessarily cripples our own capacity for spiritual growth and discovery.
3- All teach that there is an inward dimension to our being that is knowable and which in some way is linked to the sacred and divine – a “true self” that’s distinct from the ego-driven self identified with our ordinary waking consciousness.
4- All teach practices that enable us to shed the confining straitjacket of self-centered egoism, to heal and harmonize our relationships with others, and to directly experience our own true nature as spiritual beings.
5- All teach that such experiences radically transform our understanding of life and that this expresses itself in our changed behavior towards ourselves, others, and the world.
Insofar as religion focuses on such matters – and not on doctrinal disputes over comparative trivialities – it is spiritual. Insofar as religion concerns itself with developing compassion and seeking the common good for all human beings – and not just for a select few at the expense of everyone else – it is spiritual. Insofar as religion promotes people’s understanding of our true nature as essentially spiritual beings – and not just astonishingly well-organized blobs of self-aware protoplasm – it is spiritual.
But we live in a time when religious faith – especially among the more affluent nations of the world – is in steep decline. The success of science in expanding human control over the material conditions of life have led all too many uncritical and superficial thinkers to dismiss religion as irrelevant and spirituality as meaningless. This is due to what philosophers call a “category error,” in this case mistaking means for ends and confusing the tool with its purpose . . . or as the old zen saying describes it, mistaking the finger for the moon. A blueprint is not a home nor does a blueprint design the home, and a home itself is more than the walls and roof that comprise its physical presence. What makes an architect is spiritual; the genius that devises a never-before-seen solution cannot be found by sifting through bits of protoplasm under a microscope.
Self-styled atheists and “free-thinkers” in denial of their own spiritual nature are not the only people who look at religion and find it wanting. Many whose minds are more open to spiritual concepts are also unsatisfied by what they see in religion these days. Instead of finding enlightened souls working in harmony to expand spiritual awareness and improve the human condition, all too often they see only sectarian warfare over doctrine and power, petrified dogma taking precedence over living faith, and religious hypocrites acting contrary to spiritual principles. It’s no wonder so many earnest seekers are repelled by religion and look elsewhere for spiritual guidance.
Disillusioned seekers must make a conscientious effort to look beyond the superficial aspects of religion and the misguided behavior of many who claim religious authorization for their unholy actions. We must look beyond the rituals and trappings, the Sunday services and sermons, the glib assurances of an afterlife that rewards believers with the things they crave in life. To discover what religion really has to offer us, we must seek the vital heart that still beats beneath centuries of calcified tradition.
Most of us approach religion in one of three ways: (1) Many dismiss it entirely, either because of its institutional shortcomings (real and imagined) or because of a dogmatic belief in stark materialism that closes their minds to spiritual matters. (2) Many are open to the social and moral benefits of religion and appreciate its influence, but mistake intellectual understanding of religious teachings for the spiritual knowledge at religion’s core. (3) Many simply accept the religious dogma that’s most convenient to their beliefs without critically examining it or striving to apply it to their lives, as if believing religious “truths” were the same thing as living spiritually-focused lives.
There is, however, a fourth approach, and it’s the same approach we usually take in learning how to do anything, from throwing a split-finger fastball to gene splicing: we seek instruction from successful practitioners and then we practice what they train us to do until we are able to do it, too. Just as there’s a difference between knowing the theory behind throwing a splitter and actually knowing how to throw one (which can be learned only through practice), there is the same difference between knowing about religion and spirituality and actually throwing ourselves whole-heartedly into the time-tested practices that will bring about our own spiritual awakening.
In the book Essential Spirituality (referenced above), Roger Walsh presents a set of seven spiritual practices distilled from the world’s major religions. These practices are common to all of the great traditions and have stood the test of time. As Walsh describes them, they are:
1- Transform Your Motivation: Reduce Craving and Find Your Soul’s Desire
2- Cultivate Emotional Wisdom: Heal Your Heart and Learn to Love
3- Live Ethically: Feel Good by Doing Good
4- Concentrate and Calm Your Mind
5- Awaken Your Spiritual Vision: See Clearly and Recognize the Sacred in All Things
6- Cultivate Spiritual Intelligence: Develop Wisdom and Understand Life
7- Express Spirit in Action: Embrace Generosity and the Joy of Service²
Every one of the major religions offers examples and techniques for these practices. You can make a start by seeking guidance from practitioners in whatever religious tradition (or traditions!) you’re most familiar or comfortable with. Seek your own spiritual rebirth by putting these practices to work in your own life. Reading and thinking about them isn’t enough. You must apply them.
To understand the spiritual life, it’s not enough just to theorize about it, we must experience it. We have to live it! Study the words of the great prophets and spiritual teachers, but don’t stop with mere study and intellectual “understanding.” Embrace their teaching by applying it your own life. Be courageous and open-minded enough to make full use of everything religion offers to help you along the path, but especially the practices proven over many centuries to lead practitioners to their own spiritual awakening.
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¹Roger Walsh, Essential Spirituality: The 7 Central Practices to Awaken Heart and Mind (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1999), 4.
² ibid, contents.
“We need to find God, and He cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. She how nature – trees, flowers, grass – grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence . . . . We need silence to be able to touch souls.” ~Mother Teresa
“All day I think about it, then at night I say it. Where did I come from, and what am I supposed to be doing? I have no idea. My soul is from elsewhere, I’m sure of that, and I intend to end up there.” ~Jalal ad-Din Rumi
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” ~Marcel Proust
“The spiritual journey is individual, highly personal. It can’t be organized or regulated. It isn’t true that everyone should follow one path. Listen to your own truth.” ~Ram Dass
“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” ~Albert Einstein
“Have you ever sat very quietly with closed eyes and watched the movement of your own thinking? Have you watched your mind working?or rather, has your mind watched itself in operation, just to see what your thoughts are, what your feelings are, how you look at the trees, at the flowers, at the birds, at people, how you respond to a suggestion or react to a new idea? Have you ever done this?” ~Krishnamurti
“When you demand nothing of the world, nor of God, when you want nothing, seek nothing, expect nothing, then the supreme state will come to you uninvited and unexpected.” ~Sri Nisarqadatta Maharaj
Patheos.com A website that seeks to offer “Balanced Views of Religion and Spirituality” across the spectrum of belief, from traditional religions to atheism
Beliefnet.com is devoted to topics addressing “Inspiration, Spirituality, Faith, Religion”
Sprituality & Practice is another site devoted to a broad range of spiritual resources
Wikipedia’s article on Spiritual Practice
Spiritual Disciplines: Pathway to Christian Maturity A brief web article discussing several traditional practices and their role in Christian spirituality
LivingForGod.net offers a series of articles on Christian Spiritual Disciplines
Neuroscience & Spiritual Practice A series of papers exploring studies of the effect of spiritual practices like prayer and meditation on the brain
Christians Practicing Yoga A site by and for Christians about integrating yoga into prayer and meditation practice
Roger Walsh, Essential Spirituality: The 7 Central Practices to Awaken Heart and Mind Psychiatrist Walsh examines the benefits of seven time-tested spiritual practices common to all of the world’s major religions and discusses ways to incorporate them into our daily lives.
Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth Foster writes about how practicing traditional Christian spiritual disciplines informs our spiritual growth and development.
Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us A thorough discussion about the practice of 62 traditional Christian spiritual disciplines from a non-sectarian perspective.
Dalla Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives Willard writes about the power of prayer, meditation, solitude, silence, and service traditional to transform our good intentions into spiritually effective actions.
The following are primary texts of some of the world’s oldest and most influential religions.
The Bhagavad Gita – Hinduism
The Dhammapada – Buddhism
The Tao Te Ching – Taoism
The Bible – Judaism (especially the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament) and Christianity (especially the New Testament)
The Qur’an – Islam